Doha // Tim Makower recalls the moment he and the Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, came up with the central theme for a government-backed, US$5.9billion (Dh21.6bn) plan to remake Doha's city centre into a pedestrian-friendly urban idyll. "We were discussing this whole issue of how can we bring Qatari families back into the city centre," said Mr Makower, a partner with the UK-based Allies & Morrison and among the project's lead architects. "We told her Highness we think we should be creating town houses, we should be clustering them around communal, private gardens and she said, 'Oh, that's a fereej'."
By mingling modern architectural ideas with Qatari traditions, such as crossing the contemporary town house with the Gulf fereej, or courtyard village "the Heart of Doha" aims to create a rooted yet original sensibility. "That's a fundamental part of this" said Mr Makower. "Learning from the past, reflecting the past, but doing it in a new way." Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and his wife Sheikha Mozah first conceived the idea to rebuild central Doha around 2004. Within months they selected a 35-hectare downtown site and hired international architecture and design firms including Arup, Aecom (formerly Edaw) and Allies & Morrison to devise a master plan.
For more than three years, professors from Harvard, Yale, MIT, and the Aga Khan Professoriate of Islamic Architecture reviewed, challenged and finally approved the plan. After months of razing buildings to prepare the site, Heart of Doha's official groundbreaking arrives later this month. Construction is to take place in five phases and should be completed in 2016. In a quarter set between the Emiri Diwan, or ruler's palace, and the recently rebuilt Souq Waqif, Heart of Doha will coalesce around two main thoroughfares: Kahraba, or "electricity" Street, which was Doha's first high street, and the old wadi.
Computer renderings of the completed project offer a glimpse into an ultra-modern Gulf future: solid, stone-clad façades give way to secluded courtyard gardens; pretty shopping arcades lead to pleasant green plazas; and sleek streetcars glide past smart-looking residents strolling though compact neighbourhoods. The development, an endowment for Qatar Foundation, is being managed by Dohaland, a Qatar Foundation subsidiary. To many involved, the Heart of Doha is not a simple construction project but a blueprint for contemporary urban living in Doha and beyond.
"The Heart of Doha aspires to regenerate the historic core of the city and to act as a stimulus for future wider city renaissance," said Issa Mohannadi, executive director of Dohaland. "The ultimate objective, however, is to propose a new paradigm of architecture and planning for the cities of the Arabian Gulf." In creating that paradigm, Mr Makower and his fellow architects laid out seven key steps to create a Qatari architectural language. The first is timelessness, or linking Qataris past to its present and its future. The second step is coherence. Rather than dominate and divide, the buildings, streets and spaces should link and build communities, as well as integrate with a vast underground infrastructure of roads, parking areas, and utilities.
A team of engineers, planners and architects, including Allies and Morrison, Porphyrios Associates, the Jordanian firm Dar Al Omran and Adjaye Associates, has had to set personal goals aside. "There are some disharmonies," said Mr Makower. "It's like a choir. We all want to sing different parts and hopefully it will work well together at the end." Another step focuses on building a home. "The home is very important because we are building the Qatari family back into the city centre," said Mr Makower. The completed project includes housing for up to 10,000, including fereej-style town houses allocated to Qataris. These include a majlis and courtyard, but also a gym and underground parking.
The fifth step is the street. Unlike many urban settings in the Gulf, the Heart of Doha will welcome pedestrians "with retail and store fronts, streetcars, open plazas and shade. Much of the vehicular traffic will be kept underground. "You will be able to cross the street without being run over," said Mr Makower. Most homes will be within walking distance of schools, shops, mosques and public spaces. But since Doha is too hot for street activity for much of the year, step six focuses on adapting to climate.
Most major streets run north-south to take advantage of Qatar's northerly breezes. Buildings, some of which are certified by the environmental building standard LEED, are designed to keep sunlight out and to catch and scoop wind down into spaces. Many roofs have solar-panelled canopies that provide shade, create terraces and provide energy. Even the grand civic space at the heart of the Heart of Doha incorporates concerns for climate, with a shading structure than can be raised and lowered to allow more or less sun in.
Barahat Al-Naseem Square, designed by Michel Mossessian, is an urban version of the majlis, with a carpeted floor and sides faced inward. Though far from fruition, the project has drawn raves. "The plan and the architecture appear intelligent, restrained and distinctive," the architecture critic of the Financial Times wrote in November. He compared Heart of Doha favourably to regional efforts like the Burj Dubai and Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island and Masdar City. "If there is one scheme in the region to keep an eye on," he wrote, "this is it."