DOHA // Qatar is in a quandary. Its march towards wealth and modernity has left it missing the simplicity of its pearl-diving past.
That sense of loss is the driving force behind an architectural revival in the capital city that aims to recapture some of its construction heritage and is rapidly drawing in the big guns of global building design.
Architectural practices worldwide are slashing jobs while increased competition for work is forcing many firms to look for new markets in the Gulf.
About a third of the exhibitors at this week's Cityscape property exhibition in Doha are either architects or consulting engineers.
Many are in the process of establishing offices in the country, hoping to win lucrative commissions from the estimated US$125 billion (Dh459.15bn) worth of infrastructure projects ahead of the 2022 Fifa World Cup. But they are not all big glitzy towers and stadiums.
Instead, Qatar is increasingly seeking to revive elements of its architectural past based around low-rise developments designed with the harsh climate of the Gulf in mind.
"There's a more conservative approach here," says Jim Miller, a partner at Design Alliance 250 Qatar, one of a growing number of architectural practices targeting the city amid a rapid slowdown in many other markets around the world. "With Europe stumbling, a lot of practices are looking at the Middle East and Asia," he said.
There are fewer than 300,000 Qataris among the country's population of 1.8 million, which means that Qatar's sense of cultural dilution is as acute as anywhere else in the Gulf. It is plain to see in projects such as the planned $5.5bn Msheireb Downtown development that is starting to take shape in the capital.
On a huge floating barge moored alongside Doha's landmark Sheraton Hotel, models of the development are on display while television screens juxtapose images of the city's past in black and white with others displaying present day Doha in colour. Visitors can listen to monologues from Qataris young and old mourning the lost past.
"No history, no future," says one of many signs on the walls decrying modern building design that comes at the expense of the environment.
"Technology has allowed us to create continuously cooled environments - disconnecting inside from out," declares another notice. "Buildings no longer respond to the seasons or to the movements of sun and wind."
Roads and alleyways in the Msheireb project have been designed to form "breeze streams" to make the most of the cooling potential of the prevailing winds. A network of subterranean roads and car parks will keep it free of congestion.
Msheireb Properties is a unit of the Qatar Foundation and was established to help to deliver some of the development goals of Qatar's 2030 Vision.
Msheireb means a place to drink water and is the historical name for this downtown area of Doha.
As the pet project of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the wife of the emir, it is getting top billing.
The new wave of developments emerging in Doha represents an architectural penance for the urban sprawl and high-rise construction that has defined property development in Qatar's capital city until now.
The pursuit of profit by developers operating in a largely unregulated environment has scarred the urban landscapes of several cities across the region, perhaps most notably in Dubai, where the collapse of off-plan property sales four years ago left scores of skyscrapers half-finished across the city. Doha followed a similar path of rapid speculative development as its neighbour.
After Dubai built its Palm island, Qatar built its Pearl. Dubai invested billions of dollars in its Business Bay high-rise development of office blocks. Qatar did the same with West Bay.
But Qatar has suffered less than its neighbour from the bust that followed the boom because it started its development cycle much later. Secondly, the Qatari government has absorbed much of the surplus stock by leasing recently completed office bocks in the city's new commercial district.
If Dubai became an architectural playground of high-rise futuristic excess during the last decade, Doha is increasingly looking to the past as its next phase of development begins to take shape.
But it may not be an easy task to pull off, said Predeep Menon, the regional chief executive of RSP, a Singapore-based practice that is among the new arrivals targeting the country.
"Balancing commercial factors with space utilisation, internal efficiencies, aesthetics and heritage can be quite a challenge to make work," he said. "It can be like trying to reconcile the irreconcilable".
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