The first icons form Doha

 “Most of what passes for urban and city planning in the broadest sense has been infected (some would prefer “inspired”) by utopian modes of thought.” — David Harvey

Until the 80s, the countries and independent sheikdoms in the Persian gulf region had no architecture of reknown. This was certainly the case for Qatar, as even the Lonely Planet called the capital, Doha, the “dullest place on earth.” Qatar started from its independence on (in 1971) - like its neighboring countries- to reshape the landscape. Fast changes in architecture as well in urban development and the decision to invite international architects (for the ruling family and educational, cultural and urban reasons) led after a long period of tradition to Qatar’s unique modern architecture. Keep in mind that until not so long ago, the peninsula on which Qatar rests was populated almost exclusively by Bedouin nomads. It has grown this modern culture, education, politics and society only recently. What makes its modernization unique is that it has also incorporated many elements of its nomadic and anti-colonial past into the modern. As such, they have tried to find a balance between new necessities, modernity and their traditional architecture.


Right after their independence, ministries were built, but the only significant project realized was the conversion of the Emir's palace (1918), into the national museum, by the architect Michael Rice & Co (completed1977). The project got the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in1980. The jury stated: "in a period of rapid social and economic change, when the widespread and indiscriminate destruction of the architectural heritage has broken all continuity with the past, the preservation, enhancement and adaptation to a new public use of this important group is a noteworthy achievement." 

But it is still not until 1980 when some major projects were completed. , Until the mid 70s, architecture in Doha remained mostly an architecture of tradition, which was generally the case in the whole gulf region. But from then on it’s been a time of modernization, or, as Khaled Adham writes, from '72 to '84 it became an “urbanity of modernization.” This was the time before the skyscrapers, the time of many possibilities, and also a time when the population of expats and locals was roughly aligned . Today, more then a quarter-century later, we can review the proceeds and see which projects survived in a place that has been constantly changing, building, and rebuilding. In a city that is still in a (almost schizophrenic) struggle between hunger for the new and a search for its roots. Which are the projects that helped shape the country and give it an identity? Which are the ones that survived the rate of change?


photos by Jan De Cock


Many planning teams (teams consisting of a range of disciplines including architects, landscape designers, economists and anthropologists) were invited from the UK after the independence. This was a period when city planning was seen as a more practical process. In the beginning master planners such as Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks, Forestier-Walker and Bor to Peat Marwick Mitchell and Company that carried out the Traffic and Transportation Master Plan were invited. Many other consultant planners followed and were brought to advise the government for planning development. Due the involvement of different government agencies it became rather difficult to carry out the specifics of the plans as they were proposed. Most of them wound up as adaptations of initial proposals and were developed from a Western perspective. In this place where everything could be built from scratch, where they seemingly had the space, knowledge and money to realize any plan, still nobody got the actual opportunity to plan a city like Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer got in Brasilia (1956-1960), or Athenian Constantinos Doxiadis, planner of Islamabad (1959-63) nor like Le Corbusier had in Chandigarh (1951-1965). At one point there was a possibility to carry out a major urban development project when the Los Angeles-based William Pereira (1909-1985) was brought to Qatar and hired in 1973 to shape Doha Bay. The architect was known for his futuristic, science fictional and often brutalist style buildings such as the Transamerica Tower Pyramid in San Francisco (1973), the UFO-like LAX theme building (with Charles Luckman, part of his Los Angeles International Airport master plan 1967-1984) and the University of California Central library, San Diego (1965). Besides such buildings he also designed movie theaters and the studios for Paramount, where he later became art director.
Pereira got the task to plan the development of the new district of Doha . He studied the existing radial pattern structure of urban development and changed it to a linear pattern to make it more open to expansion. The government also decided to locate some of his remarkable projects along the access road, including a five star Sheraton hotel and other commercial and leisure developments.
But mainly Pereira's projects remained undeveloped, in large part because of the drop in the oil prices in the early eighties. The Sheraton and additional conference centre was the only project that was realized and finished in 1982 from Pereira’s original plan at the edge of the Corniche and the New District of Doha. He said of his interests as an architect: …“It is this appetite to accommodate the future that puts my ear to the ground to shut out today’s racket in order to hear the footsteps of the future.” His fascination with science fiction was dominant in structure of the Sheraton. At that time it looked formally almost like a pyramidal spaceship that had landed in the desert.


William Pereira, Rear facade of the Sheraton hotel, 1984-1985 and Conference hall

- photos by Jan De Cock


Pereira effectively combined his ideas from science fiction together with local elements. For example, with the recurrence of the triangle, he refers to the use of geometry in Islamitic architecture. This was the first major construction project using innovative and high standard building methods in Doha. The Sheraton became the new icon of the city and was seen as a combination of elements of their own culture combined with Western concepts. Inside the building the architect followed an Islamitic tradition of internal schemas that are open on themselves but closed on the outside world: a13 story atrium is a large, open meeting place, although it is totally closed and there is almost no view on the busy street outside. The hotel has 439 luxury guest rooms and suites, each of which has a private balcony. Because of the sloping side of the pyramid and concrete balustrades, there is no sightline in from the outside. The attached conference center includes a 750-seat auditorium and telecommunication services that make simultaneous translation in 7 languages possible. In spite of the ambitious contemporary architectural projects later built, the Sheraton remains until today the city's treasure and icon.
Soon after, other governmental buildings began to appear along the Corniche including the post office and other ministerial buildings. The post office was built by Comconsult from Cambridge (1980), and completed in 1985. It is somewhat a more baroque version of the pyramid-like structured Sheraton. The post office grabs one's attention through its uncanny outer design: a façade that is covered with tube end-like structures and a large structure that included multi-story car parking.

Comconsult, detail post office, 1980 -1985


A building that spanned in time over these projects and takes more then a decade to complete is the new University of Qatar (1973-85). This building took to another level the demand to find a balance between the traditional architecture and contemporary ideas. Commissioned to the Egyptian architect Kamal El Kafrawi by UNESCO in 1973, the building was then called Gulf University. Planted on a hillside in the middle of the desert it needed to be a landmark. The low-rise buildings are concrete and modular, and are formed by the repetition of pre-cast elements (including concrete bearing walls, sloping pre-cast units for the roof structure arranged to interchange the octagonal plan into a square). The plan is based on two grids: one an octagon with a width of 8,4 m, and the other a square with sides of 3,5m. The university was needed so that the government could offer the possibility of Western education to local students without their leaving the country. In 1985, the first phase was completed: a civil engineering college and college for science. The colleges and several campus facilities are separated for men and women. Additional buildings include a mosque, main auditorium, library, cultural center, recreational facilities and staff housing.
This building is a feat in combining old techniques of the traditional Arab architecture together with new building techniques from the West in an honest way. Arabic traditional architecture and more specific traditional architecture from Doha were taken as model through such elements as windtower chimneys to create a natural ventilation system for cool air and reduced humidity. There are also light towers with mashrabiyyas, some in stained glass with colorful geometrical motifs, to temper the strong sunlight. The natural light, octagonal ground plan and partly covered courtyards protect the campus from the hot climate. That these exemplary modifications come from the Arab cultural tradition made the building another icon of Qatar. This low-rise site spans over an area of 2.500.000 square meters with a total floor space of 73.000 square meters. It is a masterwork of abstract geometrics in architecture.

Kamal El Kafrawi, aerial view University of Qatar, 1983 -1985


It’s worth mentioning that the plan of the Qatar Zoo (completed a bit earlier in 1983), also uses the idea of the grid. Here it is hexagonal rather than octagonal. For the zoo the architect John S. Bonington juxtaposed local desert stone for the building itself with a high tech metal roof covered with geometrical abstract figures, colored in green. The whole complex is covered by this roofwhich provides a shelter from the sun.
These buildings are representative of a period in time right before the real building fever struck. With a common angular, geometrical appearance and the use of repetition of geometrical forms, these buildings are reminiscent of strands of brutalist architecture. Thus although this movement flourished earlier around the world, perhaps this is more a refined version; perhaps a brutalism from the Gulf? Then, perhaps, this was the moment that modernity and tradition were in perfect balance. Even in a region where anything could be done, still there was no desire to return to the utopic models of the 60s.




University of Qatar, 1983 -1985 - photo by Jan de Cock