Despite the polemic, the Qatari Musheireb development, masterplanned by AECOM, looks more to the past than the future.
‘We are blessed with technology,’ says Eng Issa M Al Mohannadi, chief executive of developer Dohaland, whose Musheireb project will transform a 31-hectare site in Doha, and I am reminded of the exhilarating pace of development in the Qatari capital, the relentless growth of skyscrapers clad in reflective glass on barren sites where few venture on foot.
It’s as though the critiques of Modernist town planning never happened. But Musheireb, Dohaland’s first project, will be different.
‘Musheireb is a small development,’ says Dohaland director John Rose. ‘It’s about the size of London’s King’s Cross.’ Its masterplan, developed by AECOM and Arup, with Allies and Morrison as architectural consultant, comprises over 100 buildings, with a mix of commercial, retail, cultural and entertainment uses, and accommodation for 25,000 people, plus a luxury hotel. Enabling works began in 2009 and the project is due to be completed in 2016.
Musheireb’s name hints at what will be different. It means ‘water channel’ in Arabic, an emblem which carries associations with Qatar’s traditional townscape where water provides natural cooling. Whereas its former name, Heart of Doha, conveyed only a social agenda, ‘Musheireb’ has environmental connotations as well.
‘If we did a LEED rating of the old village, it would be platinum’
At its core is a critique of what AECOM head of communications Fay Sweet refers to as ‘the banal, homogenising globalism’ of recent development, coupled with the objectives of the General Secretariat for Development Planning’s Vision 2030, which aim to enable Qatar to sustain its own development and provide a high standard of living for future generations by 2030. The oil and gas that brought Qatar the world’s second-highest per capita income will not last forever (AJ 05.02.09).
Following a three-year research project by international architects, masterplanners and engineers, Dohaland, a subsidiary of Qatar’s Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, commissioned Musheireb’s masterplan, which is now being implemented with buildings designed by Allies and Morrison, mossessian & partners, Adjaye Associates and John McAslan + Partners.
Later stages of the project will include buildings by Squire and Partners and Gensler. Dohaland targeted less commercial architects and British firms fared well in the selection process ‘because of their expertise in overseas projects,’ says John Rose.
Dohaland chairperson Moza Bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the Emir of Qatar, was a major influence on the brief. Her ideal, ‘a rising homeland that confidently embraces modernisation and proudly observes tradition’ is the project team’s mantra but, because its specific proposals are much more focused on tradition than on modernisation, this is little more than a platitude.
The team’s most specific proposals for modernisation respond to a sustainability agenda that tends to look to the past for inspiration.
‘If we did an LEED rating of the old village of Doha, I’ll bet you it would be platinum,’ says Dohaland’s chief executive. So, in many ways, Musheireb’s designers look to traditional wisdoms.
Following AECOM’s and Allies and Morrison’s guidelines, they use colonnades and narrow spaces between buildings to reduce solar gain and ambient temperature, ramping up building heights towards the south end of the development, orientating streets to exploit the north-westerly sea breeze and using reflective colours, massive construction and openable windows, backed up by air conditioning, to regulate internal environments.
What’s new is the use of modern technology to calculate and monitor building performance. AECOM principal Chris Choa emphasises the sheer scale of the infrastructure works, which put services and parking underground in one co-ordinated operation.
‘Not everything is possible at all times’
‘It’s not just about the number of photovoltaic panels,’ says Choa, emphasising the importance of social sustainability at Musheireb. The strategy was to design a mixed-use area, with limited zoning to encourage Qatari families who have moved to the suburbs, albeit those on higher incomes, to return to the city centre where they can walk to nearby amenities or use the proposed tram network.
This is intended to reverse urban sprawl and limit car use, although one wonders whether extensive car parking will send the right message. As part of what Fay Sweet refers to as an ‘experiment in urban life’, Musheireb’s designers used traditional forms, such as majlis and malqafs, intended to reinstate local patterns of living.
Although Musheireb’s traditional urban forms respond to its guidelines and the approaches outlined in Allies and Morrison’s ‘Seven Steps’, its architects interpreted them in different ways, for example in Mossessian and Partners’ vertical majlis.
‘Islamic vernacular architecture is not a historic, outdated style, but a sophisticated, sustainable approach to urban design which Western architects have much to learn from,’ says principal Michel Mossessian. He emphasises the need to use architecture to create internal and external spaces, referring to the Austrian architect Camillo Sitte’s urban room analogy, and he considers Western object buildings inappropriate to Musheireb.
So what will Musheireb look like?
Although Dohaland’s chief executive says it will avoid pastiches of historic styles, Allies and Morrison advocates selective ornamentation, with areas of pattern to emphasise entrances and courtyards, and Michel Mossessian envisions ‘a three-dimensional continuum of whiteness variegated by accents of colour and detail.’
There is general agreement within the project team that the simple, solid forms of the regional vernacular, an inspiration to minimalist designers, are to be emulated. But there’s something smug and superficial about the over-reliance on certain panaceas - facades that look like punched cardboard or stretched and offset chequerboards.
Despite Dohaland’s aspiration to establish an architectural language that is unique to Doha, these touches evoke contemporary London and not the future, but last year’s zeitgeist. Perhaps, as the art critic Heinrich Wölfflin said, ‘Not everything is possible at all times’.
Allies and Morrison director Tim Makower says, ‘the developments at Musheireb will share the same design DNA and principles’. Although there are likely to have been tensions within the design team, there’s nothing wrong with a degree of architectural homogeneity in a 31-hectare development, as long as it doesn’t become too sanitised.
There’s something artificial about a highly co-ordinated comprehensive redevelopment that aims to reinstate heritage, but Musheireb seems unlikely to lapse into torpor because, with commendable humility, it looks back, not to a golden age of prosperity, but to what preceded it. If only it would try a bit harder to look forwards.
Start on site Mid 2009
Total area 31 hectares
Total project GFA 760,000m2
Total cost £3.42 billion
Concept and detailed masterplan urban design, masterplan and landscape
Concept and detailed masterplan project management and engineering
Concept and detailed masterplan QS
Detailed masterplan architecture
Allies and Morrison
Phase 1A design architect
Allies and Morrison
Phase 1A executive architect & engineer
Burns & McDonnell
Phase 1B architects
Allies and Morrison
John McAslan + Partners
Mossessian and Partners
Phase 1C architect Adjaye Associates
Phase 1B/1C executive architects
Burns & McDonnell
Phase 2 architects Gensler with Allies and Morrison & Squire and Partners
Phase 2 engineers Buro Happold
Project manager and construction manager
TimeQatar - joint venture between Turner International Middle East and Dohaland
Executive Quantity Surveyor
Rider Levett Bucknall
Design regulation and site-planning approval
Arup, AECOM, Allies and Morrison
Infrastructure consultant Arup
Phase 1A building contractor Hyundai & HBK JV