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Gulf architecture 05
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Plasterwork – first steps in Qatar

Decoration in the external wall of a building in old al-Wakra, April 1975

The first attempts at decorative pattern work in the Gulf are likely to have been associated with the decoration of mud buildings. These structures were relatively easy to decorate, the bare walls having usually been worked by hand. In fact the finishing of stone-built walls with juss was also usually carried out by hand, the finger marks readily showing on the finished walls. It is easy to imagine that an effort would have been made to relieve large, bare, expanses of wall, particularly within buildings and perhaps, later, with the majlis being the first formal recipient of this treatment.

In Qatar the tradition up to fifty or so years ago was that patterns were drawn directly into the drying juss. This required the designer to work relatively quickly in order to complete the work easily. It also meant that there was a degree of natural eccentricity in the finished product, as can be witnessed in the above example. Here, the entrance to a simple majlis has been enlivened by what appears to have been a rapidly executed treatment. More details can be seen below which illustrate the manner in which the designs were set out and executed.

Decoration in the external wall of a building in old al-Wakra, April 1975

In this particular example there are a number of features to note. Firstly, the doorway has been surrounded by a smoothly finished area of juss, framing the door and establishing the room beyond as being important. The smoothed surface has then been used for decorative treatment, this being of two types – the formal recessed decoration at a high level above the doorway, and the more informal decoration immediately around the doorway, perhaps suggesting that the latter were carried out more rapidly. Note how the two roundels appear to be based on six-point geometry on the left and five-point geometry on the right, even though the central patterns are both based on eight-point geometry.

All this suggests that the decoration is likely to have been carried out by those living in the buildings, men who were pearlers or fishermen. It is unlikely that craftsmen would have been brought in for small domestic buildings, though they were used for the larger panel work on buildings belonging to important merchants and members of the local communities.

In executing these decorations the craftsmen worked within the traditions under which they had been brought up. As they may not have moved far during their lives, some regional variation in their work developed, and is recognisable if they moved. For instance, the design and construction of Sheikh Abdullah’s complex at al-Salata, Doha, was carried out by Bahraini craftsmen brought over to Doha for that purpose. Despite mobility along the Gulf littoral, it is noticeable that there are significant variations in design work along the west side of the Gulf, if not the east.

This next pair of photographs were taken in a room in al-Wakra in 1975 that was still being lived in, though the occupants moved out soon after into more modern accommodation. The importance of these carvings is that they form a link between the first illustration above and those that follow. The carvings are composed of both in situ carving as well as panels offered into position.

Plaster decoration in a room in al-Wakra 1975

The first photograph illustrates how spaces have been created within the wall thickness to accommodate personal items for storage or display, and how the surface of the wall has been divided by running carved plasterwork carried out in situ. This work is different from that at the top of the page in that it required consideration and planning to establish the planes and areas for carving. There are degrees of formality and symmetry in the laying out of the design of the wall which has been considered in its entirety. The elaborate shape of the recessed panel is an interesting addition to the wall decoration. Note the watad peg set into the wall from which cloaks and the like were hung.

Plaster decoration in a room in al-Wakra 1975

Here a similar character and amount of carving has been continued around the wall. In both this and the above photograph there is at least one panel that is likely to have been executed on the ground and then offered into place. It is probable that all the other work will have been carried out in situ. Note in the two photographs that the running patterns are of two designs, there being no apparent concern to combine them into a single scheme with integrated junctions and corners. Note also the vertical devices used as decorative elements.

Plaster decoration in a room in al-Wakra 1975

This photograph, again taken in 1975, shows plasterwork on the external wall of a room. It illustrates something of the move from work carried out directly into a wall to the incorporation of panels, both closed and open – respectively both naqsh and naqoush mefat’ha. It is possible that the work was carried out in stages, but looking at the photograph closely I suspect that it was made at one time, some of the juss having fallen away in the intervening period. The naqoush mefat’ha panel is located at a high level in order to ventilate hot air from the top of the room but there is a possibility that there was a similar intention with the lower both naqsh panel.

Plaster decoration on an external room in al-Wakra 1975

Looking at a different photograph of the lower panel it looks as if there may be space behind a part of the second circle from the left, suggesting either a later attempt to create additional ventilation or, conversely, an attempt to close it. Unfortunately I didn’t look at the inside of the room to determine which it might have been. Like many panels, there is a vitality in its design being more or less symmetrical about a vertical axis, but not about a horizontal one due to the tilting of the six-point geometries on which the design is based.

Plaster decorations

There is considerable vitality in these early geometric panels due, in the main, to their eccentric setting out. This over-door panel has, for instance, three circular features, the central and right ones being based on six-point geometry, the left on eight-point. The square lower feature on the right is highly distorted along its ‘x’ axis and the main panel – similar to a well-known optical illusion – has an obvious mistake in it, apart from the evident inaccuracies within its execution.

Plaster decorations

Here the whirling roundels rotate clockwise on the left, and clockwise and counter-clockwise on the right. But the centre, rectangular, panel seems difficult to make asymmetrical, though I doubt there was deliberate intent to do so. A small amount of colour, unusually pink rather than the more common blue, has been added to the circumferences of the main circles, though apparently not elsewhere.

Semi-circular plaster decoration

Here, also, colour has been added, the blue and green being very strong. But the curious effect of painting these elements of the pattern has been to bring out the irregularity of the pattern. This must have been evident to those using the room which suggests that they either had no concern for this or that they considered it unimportant. There is one other reason that might have applied, and that was a concern to ensure there was no perfection that might conflict with religious principles, this being a principle embodied in the design of Persian carpets and rugs.

A pair of plaster decoration devices

Located in the palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim at Salata were these two decorative devices. Again colour has been used to delineate the shape of the panels, and the design geometries are both irregularly set out. It is difficult to say which is the more eccentric, but their variations from pure geometry bring charm to the designs. Note the dark red of the shandal leaning against the wall at the edge of the photograph.

A rectangular plaster panel

This rectangular panel has a pleasing simplicity to it. It seems no measuring device was used to set out the horizontal divisions, the circular arcs being constructed simply but, to the right, obviously inaccurately. It appears not to have been a problem for the person who made it. Again colour appears to have been used on the edge of the panel, this time a pink ochre which brings a greater subtlety to the panel.

Two plaster panels in al-Wakra, 1971 – with the permission of Ian Drummond

Here are another two decorative panels carved, one above the other, into the juss finished wall of an old building whose ruins were still standing in al-Wakra in the early 1970s. Despite the distortion of the pattern due to the wall being cracked across the top trefoil panel, it is possible to see something of the liveliness of the carving in its eccentric layout.

Both panels are set within two steps of recessed plaster, and the artisan has produced a design in the top panel that is not symmetrical about its central vertical axis – though it should have been possible to make it so with a straight edge and any form of measuring device. But that is what gives the designs their energetic character. Even though they are crude when compared with the more modern reconstructions of the 1970s and later, they are a more honest demonstration of the character of the artisans and the simplicity of their traditional buildings.

The lower pattern would have been carved by the same artisan as the first pattern and, again, shows a similar lack of concern for strict geometric accuracy, even though it should have been well within his competency. Two squares have been established framed first by running triangles and then by running chevrons. The left square contains a rectangular grid; the right square a pattern of horizontal, vertical and an angled chevron. It is a curious panel both in its selection of elements of design as well as the placing of its design elements, but at least there is a strong relationship between the designs of the two panels.

The photographs shown above illustrate the different character of craftsmanship from work carried out directly into drying or dried juss walls to naqsh panels set out on the ground, carved and then offered into place. While it is unlikely that they were carried out by the same hand, they also illustrate the development of skills in setting out these decorative works and, perhaps, the difference between the work for ordinary inhabitants of the peninsula and those for people of importance, in this case, the Ruler of the country, such as the example illustrated below.

A decorated entrance in Doha

Before moving on to look at carved panels, I have included this photograph to illustrate how the old principle of carving directly into walls appears to have continued, this example having been photographed in the early 1970s. This entrance doorway would have been decorated by ex-patriate workers from the Indian sub-continent and incorporates both naturalistic forms as well as geometric patterning. It is both carved and painted, green being a favourite colour used in decorative works. There is a dramatic contrast between the geometries of Qatari naqsh and this floriate naturalism.

An example of seven-point geometry, al-Wakra, 1976

Perhaps finally, here is an extremely unusual decorative naqsh panel. Photographed in al-Wakra, 1976, it is the only example of a deliberately set out seven-pointed geometrical carving I can recall seeing in the peninsula. There appears to be an attempt to establish the design symmetrically about the central vertical axis, but the variation from this potential objective only serves to increase the vitality of the design.

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Introduction of carved plaster panels

The entrance to an old building in al-Wakra The entrance to one of the old palace buildings at al-Salata, March 1972

The people who inhabited the Qatar peninsula, and who built the housing that existed a generation or so ago, had only limited funds to employ in their construction. They were also influenced by the wahhabi traditions introduced into the peninsula from the Saudi hinterland. Because of these two factors the decoration of buildings was minimal. In these two photographs – of majaalis in, respectively al-Wakra and Doha – the two important rooms can be seen to have had minimal decorative treatment to their façades. That in al-Wakra is interesting in that it had no windows but only a badgheer arrangement with, inside the room, a relatively sophisticated design for the head of the badgheer opening. The naqsh panel over the door give permanent ventilation and is the only external decoration apart from the articulation of the structure and recessed panels. The lower example, of one of the buildings in the palace complex of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim in al-Salata, to two panels over the entrance door, and a decorative string below roof level.

Plaster decoration in an al-Wakra majlis, April 1975

While the examples of in-situ carving represent early and simple decoration to wall surfaces, those immediately above show an increasing interest in providing decoration to buildings, albeit on their façades. Internally, more sophisticated designs were being constructed within the important rooms of buildings particularly, though not exclusively, in majaalis where there would have been a need to reinforce the importance to that particular space. This photograph was taken in al-Wakra some time after the town was abandoned and left to decay. It illustrates a typical arrangement for a majlis wall, the roof having fallen in and also something of the quality of the work that went into many of the formal rooms in al-Wakra.

Plaster decoration in the palace of Sheikh Abdullah Plaster decoration in the palace of Sheikh Abdullah

These two photographs, taken in one of the sadly vandalised rooms of the old palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim in Salata in 1972, illustrate something of the manner in which naqsh panels were incorporated into buildings. There are drawings here which illustrate notionally how these traditional trabeated constructions automatically create bays which permit the introduction of panels or allow space for the storage of items or, less likely, their display. In heavy masonry constructions – of which there are a number on the ground floor of buildings in al-Wakra, Umm Salal Muhammad and other developments, including Doha, – there is less opportunity for panels, though there are a number which appeared to have been created for storage purposes. There are two points of note in the lower photograph; the first is the back of the decorative shape which was used on the external face of the building and, secondly, that the ends of this room are divided into four horizontal elements, whereas three is more normal due to the optimum span of the shandal poles supporting the floor or roof above.

Plaster decoration in the Qatar National Development Exhibition building, January 1976 Plaster decoration in the Qatar National Development Exhibition building, January 1976

These two photographs were taken in January 1976 during the process of redeveloping the Qatar National Development Exhibition building adjacent to the Grand Mosque and Diwan al-Amiri. They have been added here in order to give an indication of how the naqsh decoration creates an extremely rich texture, bringing benefit to the spaces in which it is used, and giving a suggestion of how the quality and character of the work carried out previously on the old palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim would have appeared to those using and visiting it. There is a second point to make, and this is subjective. It appears to me that when there are two bands of naqsh plasterwork running round a room, the more sophisticated treatment is that which has a rectangular lower band and a semicircular or trefoil upper band.

The first two photographs below are from the same majlis, a different one from that shown above, and were taken in April, 1975. While they are different rooms, this small selection of panels demonstrates obvious similarities, perhaps the work of the same man or group of men. From examination I believe these panels were carved in situ and not on the ground and offered up. Notice that the panels have not been introduced into gaps created by the construction but are located on ground floor walls of solid construction. The panels are examples of a high standard of finish for the time of their construction which is likely to be in the nineteen forties or fifties or, perhaps, slightly earlier.

Notice also that none of the patterns in these two photographs is repeated. Within a room, particularly a majlis, there would normally be no repetition of patterns. Having said that, in some rooms patterns might be repeated, but only when mirroring the panels on the opposite side of the room.

Plaster decoration in an al-Wakra majlis, April 1975 Plaster decoration in an al-Wakra majlis, April 1975

This pair of photographs illustrate a similar approach in the setting out of the panels with regard to their containing shapes – rectangles with trifoliate headed arches sitting on top of them. In the centre rectangular panel, to the right, a pair of circles has been set with surrounding geometrical elements making up the ground. In the similar, rectangular panel just above, the circles are divided by eight point geometrical motifs, and in the lower by a counter-clockwise spinning motif. It takes very little to produce different effects, even with simple geometrical changes.

This latter, counter-clockwise spinning motif is also seen in the trifoliate arch in the photograph above where a circular device is a sensible element in such a shape. But all the geometrical patterns within the other rectangular and trifoliate panels are patterns that are in a sense infinite, and of which it might be considered that a part has been captured within the panel frame.

Plaster decoration with a whirling motif, April 1975

Returning to the spinning circle motif, here is another example, again spinning counter-clockwise, but where the containing shape has a strong rectangular component at its base. While there is a running device to contain both the overall panel as well as the spinning circle, the geometry is very clearly divided into the trifoliate element at the top of the panel and the rectangular element below it. The geometry from one area does not link to that of the other.

Plaster decoration with side panels

Both these photographs are of walls in the same building. The decoration indicates they are not as important rooms as the majlis illustrated above, but an obvious attempt has been made to create formal arrangements of pattern to decorate their walls. It is difficult to understand how, in the upper photograph, the two vertical decorative elements on the left are of different heights when they are drawn so closely together, and why neither is the same height as the naqsh panel, as might have been anticipated. In design terms this produces a more lively decoration than would be had by having the elements the same height. In the lower photograph notice that the two circular devices above the trifoliate panel have exactly the same geometry and pattern, though one is turned 30° with respect to the other, and the pattern has been picked out in colour differently on the two circles to produce the effect of there being two different patterns.

Plaster decorative panels Plaster decorative panels Plaster decorative panels

These illustrations of nine bays of naqsh panels were photographed in al-Wakra in or around 1974. The black and white photographs have just been discovered with some other images that had been misplaced. Regrettably I have no idea where the negatives are. They are added here as a record, even though some of them can be seen in colour images above and below. The original photographs from which these images have been made are small black and white glossy prints. They are slightly damaged and curled. These illustrations have been made by simply photographing them as best I could.

No attempt has been made to group them in any way reflecting their individual designs, but the top two illustrations can be seen to reflect the two photographs seen a little way above, though with the omission of one of the bays where the top element of naqsh was damaged. I assume that the other four panels were from the same majlis in which the first images were taken, though I have no recollection of taking them. It appears that the colour and the black and white photographs may have been taken at around the same time – that is in April 1975.

The individual panels have not been corrected for accurate sizing, though it should be evident that the original panels are all approximately the same height.

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Limitations in the range of designs

An impressive entrance to a large compound at Rayyan

No record has been passed down to us instructing in the theory of the design and application of traditional naqsh plaster patterns in Qatar. In conversation with craftsmen from Iran and Qatar, it appears that designs are set out from a limited range of patterns they carry in their heads and which are based on their experience, rather than from any form of received instruction. It is noticeable that those carrying out the work used to be old or middle-aged and it might follow that there was no younger group to whom habits and practices might be passed as this was not recognised as an issue in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In Qatar, the Ministry of Public Works employed a group of craftsmen who were responsible for most of the works of reconstruction, so it is reasonable to expect that the designs of that period – from around the nineteen-sixties to nineteen-eighties – did not vary much. But there is now a much larger body of carved work being carried out, both natural and in pre-cast matrices, though expatriate are being introduced to carry out some of this work rather than there being a cadre of young national craftsmen being brought along. This group of craftsmen workedon a wide range of rehabilitation projects, probably restricting the palette of patterns and affecting the rules and scale at which the patterns are used.

While much of the work of traditional craftsmen might be thought to be intuitive, observation and discussions with them show that there are rules they apply in all aspects of their work. The difficulty with being an observer is that it is difficult to ask questions that might elicit a useful or comprehensible answer. The only rule that I am aware of is that having to do with symmetry of patterns. I have been told, though it does not accord with all my observations, that naqsh panels in a majlis should be mirrored across the long axis of the room, and that there should be no repetition other than that.

Interestingly, in the doorway above there is evident symmetry about the vertical centre, though this relates only to the position and character of each of the panels within which a pattern has been made. The patterns within those panels are not handed symmetrically but are carved in exactly the same manner as their opposite partner.

A thirteen point spiral design A thirteen point spiral design

However, there is an even more unusual element of the overall pattern in the deployment of a favourite device, the whirling spiral design, an element that is discussed elsewhere on this site, perhaps in more than one place. The unusual feature of this element of the naqsh carving is that all three of the spirals – that right at the top of the doorway and the two on each side panel at around shoulder height – are divided into thirteen rather than, as you might normally expect, twelve or even fifteen. Geometrically it is not easy to divide a circle into thirteen equal parts and it must be surmised that this was carried out by eye. But how this happened three times suggests a deliberate design effect or, perhaps, a stencil or other copying device being created that was used three times.

It is difficult to categorise subjects easily, so there is bound to be some duplication on these pages. There is more written about this subject on the previous page looking at aspects of Gulf architecture.

A detail of naqsh above an old doorway

What is evident is that the different types of pattern exhibit a variety of textures that can be used to create different effects. In this example there appears to have been made some attempt to produce textured frames within which a variety of patterns have been incorporated. This can be compared with the more traditional way of using decoration. At the sides of the photograph can be seen examples of the traditional manner in which naqsh panels are used, that is with decoration surrounded by plain frames. As with the example above at al-Wakra, the decorative works occur as panels on plain walls, though the panel immediately above the door illustrates the manner in which decorative naqsh panels are more usually seen, within a recessed frame. In the better examples, the naqsh panel will be let into the open areas associated with the traditional frames created by the trabeated form of construction that were a feature of traditional constructions.

Detail of a bird in plasterwork

I had hoped to see some of the little eccentricities which enlivened naqsh in some of the older buildings, but that has not been the case. For instance I recall seeing in a corner of a majlis a small bird hidden away among the geometrical designs. It was a beautiful example of humour and lightness of design technique. Whether the idea for it came from the client or the craftsman, I don’t know, but nobody has been able to tell me which it was likely to have been. This naqsh detail is the only example I have ever seen of a representational carving in a traditional Qatari building. Set out in pencil, and executed in situ, a craftsman has added this small feature in the far corner of a Rayyan majlis, a humorous sketch in the form of a stylised crested bird. I understand that the design is typical of Pakistan and is likely to have been added by a carver from that part of the world, illustrating that it is not just Arab and Iranian craftsmen who work within Qatar.

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Carved plasterwork

Naqsh plasterwork being carved in a frame Naqsh plasterwork being carved in a simple frame

As mentioned above the development of plasterwork was the incorporation of carved naqsh into panels which were offered up to openings within buildings after completion. This permitted more formal, complex and accurate patterns to be produced. It also moved the more immediate design and execution of earlier work to a more studied process, the carving being carried out on dried plaster panels created on the ground by setting out a simple wooden frame into which the plaster was pressed, the top surface being simply scraped level with another piece of wood prior to drying. These wooden frames were invariably rectangular, the right angles being checked with a string across the diagonals or by a simple fixed, right-angled set square. Having said that, accuracy was not an absolute necessity as, even today, there is considerable tolerance possible in setting the panels into position. These two photographs show carving being carried out within frames of simple construction, nailed together and located on the floor.

Sections through naqsh panels

Generally, naqsh plasterwork is understood to refer to three-dimensionally carved plaster panels, the carving made to a depth of roughly half the panel, though this depends on the character of the carving. A refinement of this was to make panels which were fretted in order to permit light and air to move through them, though they were always conceived and constructed as two-dimensional geometric patterns. In some cases – particularly those carvings where panels were fretted – the two-dimensional geometry is cut straight through the panel, the face of which generally has no other decoration other than the holes to relieve it: but, on normal panel work, the cuts are made at an angle to give a similar, three-dimensional effect to that produced in Roman lettering carved into stone: a direct effect of the interaction between the material and the tools. More has been written on naqoush mefat’ha on a preceding page.

A pair of ventilating naqsh panels A pair of ventilating naqsh panels based on ten- and six-point geometry

These two photographs each show a pair of naqsh panels that have been cut through in order to provide ventilation and light while, at the same time, affording a degree of privacy to those using the rooms behind them. The left panel in the top photograph and both in the lower are designed on the basis of a central geometric feature, while the right panel in the top photograph has a ground character, a small scale repeating pattern designed to fill a space without a relieving or contrasting design feature. Interestingly, the central designs in the three panels mentioned are based respectively on four-, ten- and six-point geometries. Note also the standard way of laying out the panels: there is a patterned frame that accommodates any variations between the overall opening size and the selected geometric patterns that feature in the centre of the design.

A ventilating naqsh panel over an internal door Setting out of the design for a ventilating naqsh panel over an internal door

The use of naqsh panels for ventilating on the face of buildings was not the only feature of traditional buildings. Where it was important to encourage ventilation, particularly at ground floor level in dense urban environments, there would be naqsh over-panels above doors, as in this example from the wind-tower building in the centre of Doha. Compared with the carving in the external examples above, this panel is relatively coarsely executed though, from the evidence of the bottom right hand corner, it may be that this design has yet to be completed and more of the material is to be carved away. But it is also coarse in its laying out. While the central feature is based on eight-point geometry, the setting out of the surrounding bands has created a problem. The centre of the semicircle within which the central pattern has been established is set above that of the overall frame. This requires filling elements that are difficult to relate to other elements of the design, and the outer band of decoration also stops above the lowest horizontal band. Luckily the crude execution of the work tends to obscure these geometrical problems.

It is possible to enliven decorative carving by using simple, scratched markings which give more detail and interest to the face. This would reinforce the decorative character of these panels by contrasting with the purely functional requirement of the fretted panels. However, this is rare. More often these detailed marks are created when the face of the panel is marked with compasses, the metal point of the compass scribing a line which is not hidden by subsequent carving.

A detail of plasterwork in Qatar

Here is a small detail from a naqsh panel carved in Qatar. There are three things to notice. First of all the surface of the plasterwork has not been finished but left as it came out of its mould, though this is not always the case. Secondly, the basic pattern has been set out with pencil and straight edge. The final setting out has been made with a pair of steel dividers – witness the inscribed arcs and holes created at the centres of those arcs by the dividers which can be compared with the photograph above. Finally, the carving has been carried out with a sharp knife, and not very accurately. It seems to be a combination of these methods that gives Qatari naqsh its particular character. There are more examples of Qatari naqsh work on this site which deals with pattern in Islamic art.

Simple tools are used to set out the panels. String, a straight edge, a pair of dividers, a pointed tool such as a nail and a knife or chisel of some sort are all that are needed. Sometimes rulers are used to measure distances but craftsmen often design and execute the panels without recourse to anything else but their experience and, as such, can do what they want – though, as I have mentioned elsewhere, it is the practice to have panels made in pairs and reflect each other across a room.

A working area for the production of plasterwork panels

I have added this photograph in order to show something of the character of a working area for the production of naqsh panels. None of the panels on display are finished, those on edge having been worked on but not yet completed. The panel standing on the right is likely to weigh something in the region of 80 kilograms, or 175 pounds. The panel on the floor is being worked on, the practice being to finish the carving work, then measure and trim any panels that might require their sizes or shapes amended, with the final cleaning of the panels left until after they have been offered up and fixed in place.

Pre-cast concrete arches

Contrasting with this I have included this photograph in order to show how traditional naqsh work has progressed. These are a row of pre-cast concrete panels awaiting transportation to site where they were to be fixed in place framing windows in one of the State’s important developments. The original patterns were drawn up and transferred to plaster and carved. Rubber moulds were taken and the pre-cast panels cast from the moulds. You can see that the work is repetitious, there being an argument that each panel outline should be different in order to reflect the manner in which naqsh panels were traditionally different.

Gulf patterns are invariably relatively uncomplicated and it is only in the more sophisticated buildings elsewhere in the Islamic world that the more complex patterns were developed often with mixed geometries. Despite their simplicity there is still a sense of variety within the patterns still extant. One particular characteristic of patterns in the Gulf is the strong reliance on the circle and its derived six point geometries.

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Carving out plasterwork designs

Beginning the carving out of a decorative panel A partially carved panel showing setting out lines

Traditionally, the setting out and carving of naqsh panels would have been carried out on site and is likely to have been a relatively informal activity directed by the master craftsman in charge of the building under construction. Where buildings were small and there was little decoration, the builder would have carried out all the work, including any decoration, himself. It is even possible that members of the family might have taken a hand. Certainly, in some of the decorative panels above, such as that which illustrates the head of the page, there is a distinct lack of sophistication which can’t be ascribed solely to the need to complete the work quickly in the drying juss. Nowadays the panels are larger, more thought is taken in deciding upon the patterns, and more care goes into the carving of the panel designs. But what is significant is that the panels are always decorated with geometrically derived patterns. The two photographs here illustrate the beginnings of the process of marking out and carving the panels. Note, in the first photograph, that the setting out lines have been established on the wooden frame.

A craftsman setting out a design Plasterwork being carved A plasterwork panel half completed in the pre-cast factory

This group of photographs illustrate something of the setting out and carving of naqsh panels in the Gulf. In setting out designs in general, non-destructive methods such as charcoal or, nowadays, pencilwork would be used to mark out panels, and this was sometimes so in Qatar as can be seen in the second photograph. The designs seem to come from the inventiveness of the craftsman and I have never seen them drawn out first when ordinary projects are being worked on. The patterns themselves appear to be based on patterns found in the Saudi hinterland or in Iran, as might be expected, so it is difficult to ascribe any designs to a Qatari type, though it would be arguable that the simpler, more direct designs could be thought of as being typically Qatari. The second photograph illustrates craftsmen working on a panel for a prestigious new development where the design was discussed and developed before carving. The third photograph is also for a prestigious project and shows a craftsman working in the corner of a pre-cast factory where the panels for the project were produced. I don’t know if it is significant, but I have noticed the craftsmen in the two lower photographs are both working left-handed.

A plasterwork panel being carved at the pre-cast factory

Work in the pre-cast factory was carried out in a variety of ways to suit the manner in which the craftsmen wished to relate to the panels being carved. The photograph above, and this, show large panels which were cast on a sand and gravel base lying on the factory floor and carved in situ, the containing frame having been removed. This photograph shows one of the large panels half way through the process of carving.

A plasterwork panel being carved at an angle

Nowadays not all naqsh panels are carved at an angle as illustrated in the photographs immediately above. At the pre-cast factory a number of panels were cast horizontal and then elevated into a position which allowed the craftsmen to sit more comfortably as they worked on the large panels. Notice that in many of the photographs the craftsmen are using penknives but, in this photograph, a screwdriver appears to be the tool of choice.

A plasterwork panel being carved at Rayyan, October 1975 Detail of a plasterwork panel

The photographs above were taken in the pre-cast factory around 1984, but this photograph shows the detail of a naqsh panel nearing completion in a project being worked on at Rayyan in October 1975. Notice from the colour that the material used is the more traditional juss compared with the cement used for the later modern, carved naqsh work in order to provide a stronger panel. The disadvantage of the juss panels is that they are softer and so more easily carved but, by the same token, they can be more easily damaged or broken. The panel was set out in pencil and then dividers used to scratch the pattern to be carved. This method can be seen in the detail of a finished panel shown in the lower of these two photographs, this panel having been constructed of a cement based mix in the early 1980s. It is also apparent that the cement mix has created a panel that is more difficult to carve accurately, compared with the earlier plaster panels.

Plasterwork being carved

This photograph was taken elsewhere in the Gulf. It can just be seen that the pattern is marked out by scratching as was mainly the case in Qatar and in Iran where I have seen similar work carried out, and is shown in practice in the first photograph of the paragraph above. It is particularly notable that the panel being carved was cast in two levels in order to obtain a more interesting three-dimensional effect.

Plasterwork panels in a corner of the majlis at Shahaniya, February 1979 A plasterwork panel being carved at Shahaniya, February 1979

As explained above, most of the naqsh panels were cast on the ground, had their patterns marked out there and were then carved in that position. Under some conditions, such as at the pre-cast factory, some panels were moved to an angled position to allow the craftsmen to sit more comfortably nearer to the panels than is possible when the panel is horizontal. However, on occasion the panels were cast on the ground, marked up there and then lifted into position onto the walls and then carved there. These photographs show the corner of the majlis at the zoo at Shahaniya where panels have been let into the alcoves created in the wall construction. The second photograph, a detail of the first, shows how the pattern has been scratched out and the process of carving begun. It also illustrates how the panel has been crudely placed within the structural frame prior to the junctions being finished neatly.

A pattern carved directly into a finished wall Detail of a pattern carved directly into a finished wall

Not all naqsh work is carried out with formal precision; it used to be possible to find examples that were unusual in their setting out such as this example from al-Wakra, the first illustration taken from an old publication of the Ministry of Information. Originally, relatively simple designs were made in the juss plasterwork while it was going off, or drying, though this was restricted to areas where the panels were relatively small and their designs simple. It seems that some of the owners or their craftsmen believed it necessary to relieve the flat finish of their walls in this way. This example is eccentrically rotated at about 45° from the horizontal and is located in an important position adjacent to a doorway, seen in the first photograph. My guess is that the patterns on each side of the doorway were considered to be symmetrical, and that both squares were intended to be set at 45°. A more orthogonal design, also cut into the finishing juss can be glimpsed above the door. The freshness of this simple design is characterised by the small feature carving outside that main pattern at its corners. Its other characteristic is that the setting out of the pattern was made with a knife. Because of this both the basic geometry and the inscribed patterns can be seen.

A pattern carved directly into a finished wall

This incised design was also one of two elements set on each side of the above door, drawn directly into the juss finish to the wall, but at a lower position than that above. Again, the setting out is not quite accurate but better than the inclined square designs. Interestingly this detail has eight point geometry for the internal divisions but six point geometry for the containing semicircles.

An oddly set out panel

Compared with the example above, this is a regularly set out panel, probably cast on the ground and the fret pattern carved there. It is a relatively fine panel and would have been fragile, requiring skill in carving and care in putting in place. The panel has an unusual feature in that the setting out of the geometry is extremely unusual for Qatar, the twelve point pattern used for the circles not having their vertices established at the top. This is strange as it is far easier to establish a pattern like this with the setting out points for the circles on the horizontal lines. But the benefit has been to create a lively wavy line along the four circles.

Setting out of a pattern on a panel Detail of a pattern being carved into a panel

Contrast the fresh, spontaneous work in the two photographs above with the more studied layouts shown in these two photographs. In the first the work has been started but not yet achieved any depth. The pencilled setting out is clear and, in the lower left corner, the scribing of a pair of dividers can be seen. In the second photograph the lines of carving have again been drawn with both a pair of dividers as well as a coloured pencil. Note also the difference in colour and texture between the weathered juss above, and the pre-cast gypsum panels of these two examples. Nowadays the panels are usually cast on the ground and allowed to dry before being worked on, giving a slightly different character to the finished piece as well as a different, white, colour. The equipment I have seen used to carve the panels was, nearly always, simple pen-knives.

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The installation of carved panels

An internal view of the Qatar National Development Exhibition, January 1976

Elsewhere I have mentioned the process by which panels are cast, patterns drawn and the panel carved. This brief note will look at the preparation for their installation into the walls of rooms usually, but not always, of majaalis. Towards the end of 1975 the old building beside and to the east of the Grand, or Sheikh’s mosque, was renovated and given over to demonstrating plans for the State in what was known as Qatar National Development Exhibition. The building had a large space created in order to house a significant model of Doha, exhibition panels and a film screen, but there were a number of rooms returned to their original condition, though with a little more decoration than had originally been the case. This view of it is taken from the internal courtyard, looking north with the entrance just left of centre.

Preparation for the introduction of naqsh panels, January 1976

Considerable work went into the preparation of the walls prior to the setting into them of the naqsh panels. In this case there were individual panels to set into the walls as well as running patterns along the horizontal and vertical elements of structure separating the panels. First the vertical elements of the structure were defined and cross pieces inserted, formed on horizonal shandal timbers spanning between the columns. Along these horizontal elements a pair of extended beads were created to define the location for the horizontal running naqsh carving. At the same time the framework for the recessed naqsh panels were created, allowing for stepping back from the face of the running designs. This first photograph shows the basic setting prior to the installation of the naqsh panels and running patterns.

A worker preparing for for the introduction of naqsh panels, January 1976

The next stage in the rooms’ construction was to lift up and insert the carved naqsh panels into the open framework, the panels being held in place by plaster dabs both at the back and along the sides, particularly at their bottom edges where a degree of levelling is necessary. Following the placing of the large panels, the smaller vertical panels on the face of the columns were fixed, again on plaster dabs. In this photograph the area where the horizontal naqsh carving will be located, has yet to be started.

A craftsman working on the running naqshwork, January 1976

Although this is a different location, in this photograph a craftsman is engaged on carving the running naqsh pattern in exactly the same manner as was used in the room above. The plaster was cast in situ using the two horizontal beads to set the edges and the patterns marked on its face with pencil. In this case the pattern had no curved elements to it so all the setting out was made with straight edge and pencil. The craftsman then completed the work by carving out the pattern by what appears to be a penknife.

The naqsh panels placed in position, January 1976

Here is the almost finished naqsh work. The panels have been set in place, both the main ones as well as the vertical panels on the columns, and the running naqsh pattern has been completed. The work still appears to be a little untidy but the next stage is the cleaning up by filling and sanding prior to the whole of the work being given a white painted finish.

A finished corner of the building, January 1976 A finished corner of the building, January 1976

It seems that I don’t have a photograph of the finished room, but this photograph is of the end of the adjacent corridor and gives a good indication of what the interiors of the building look like after the naqsh is given its last sanding and white paint finish. It is evident that there are areas which are not straight and where there are gaps between panels, but this tends to give a little more vigour to the finished design and does not really detract from its overall effect on the viewer or user of the building. Although I have concentrated on the use of naqsh decoration on the internal walls of these traditional buildings, naqsh was also used to relieve or enliven external walls and other elements of the buildings. This lower photograph illustrates a corner of the courtyard of the same building and exhibits a considerable amount of naqsh, some of it areas that would not traditionally have been covered. As a minor detail, note that the wiring, bottom centre, has been painted white. The decision of whether or not to paint wiring has been a bone of contention on many reconstructed buildings.

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The design of panels

Illustration of a simple squared pattern on a naqsh panel Illustration of a simple circular pattern on a naqsh panel

These sketches illustrate a sequence of carved naqsh designs that demonstrate increasing complexity and show something of the manner in which the panels have developed over time. The first has a very simple geometrical basis that is illustrated on one of the geometry pages. This particular panel was seen in one of the old buildings in al-Wakra and is typical of those that have a ground pattern, one that is similar across the whole of the panel forming, in effect, a regular texture. It is notable in not having a framing pattern around its edge as does the example shown on the right above. The second example here is also an example of a regular ground pattern, this one having been laid out with a simple set of intersecting circles set at right angles to each other, the length of a radius apart.

Illustration of a simple pattern on a naqsh panel with decorated border Illustration of a simple pattern on a naqsh panel with decorated border

The natural development of carved naqsh panel designs was to produce them in the form of a design surrounded by a decorated edge treatment. These next two sketches illustrate two common systems for laying out this type of panel. The first has a heavy frame created by a running pattern of intersecting semicircles, an easy design to fit into any size of panel. Within this frame there is a spinning motif and four corner features that reduce the area of undecorated panel.

The second type is shown with a central feature produced through the intersection of circles, two and a half across the width and one in its height, with smaller semicircles forming a running band around the edge. Devices such as these enable panels to be produced for any dimensions of opening, but there are more difficulties in forcing the designs into a specific size of frame.

Illustration of a simple pattern on a naqsh panel

Here is a development of the above sketch where the central feature now has a more individual treatment, one that is very typical of Qatari naqsh work. The eccentric design has created corners which, in the early work, might have been left blank as is illustrated here, albeit in a newly designed panel, and which has the advantage of making the central feature stand out more clearly. In this example, a variety of small devices have been used to fill the irregular spaces surrounding the central feature.

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The design of arches in decorative panelwork

A decorative recessed panel and shelf

While much of these notes relates to the material, fabrication and the decorative patterns of naqsh carved plasterwork, it might be useful to look at the overall shapes within which the traditional carved panels were located in the old housing developments in Qatar. Such patterns can be found all over the world, but there seems to be a preference for certain shapes within the peninsula. Unfortunately I have not been able to carry out a proper review of these shapes as many of the buildings in which they were found have gone. Nor, for the same reason, have I been able to determine geographic patterns of their use. These patterns were, and are, to be found both on the external and internal walls due to the trabeated construction which created frames naturally.

A decorative arch in al-Wakra, April 1975 A decorative arch with watad in al-Wakra, April 1975

It will be seen in many of the illustrations on these pages that the patterns used to decorate buildings were not properly set out or carved. For this reason I have not made accurate geometric studies of them, but have decided to use only illustrative sketches of their heads, which are set out below. The different shapes have been grouped in some semblance of order, but I have not made a serious attempt to categorise them other than suggest similarities. While some of the arches are relative coarse and inaccurate, some have a certain delicacy. Notice that, in the second of these two arches photographed in al-Wakra, the lower has a line scribed around the outside edge of the arch, creating a lighter effect. Note also that sharp points are difficult to carve or maintain over time so that it is sometimes difficult to understand how a shape might have been designed or executed. Bear in mind, too, that the sketches of the heads of arches shown below are not drawn to scale and may be found at different sizes and with a variety of heights to the overall shape as indicated by the sketch on the right, immediately below.

A rectangular shape for simple panelwork

This first shape is an obvious one. It is the basic frame created by the trabeated form of construction where vertical columns are joined by horizontal poles. Obviously the shape of the rectangle differs not just between buildings, but also within them. I have taken a number of measurements of these panels and have found no common size or proportion, however many of them seem to have the proportion of around 13:8, an approximation of the Golden Section.

The basic semicircular shape and two variations

The next most common shape is the semicircle. It is most usually seen as the frame for the panels of the upper of the two horizontal bands of naqsh carved panels which commonly surround important rooms such as majaalis. As a semicircle it is an extremely strong form, but it is often to be found with a break at its head as is illustrated in these sketches. The central and right sketches show two curious breaks which seem to have no rational design basis. That on the right may or may not be fan shaped, it being difficult to tell in the worked juss, but my guess is that it is usually curved at the top as shown here.

Three variations on the semicircular shape

The first shape shown here has more design purpose as it can be seen in many recessed panels, particularly where a quadrant of a circle is set in the corner of a rectangle. The second shape has more in common with those above as it can’t be used as the one on the left. The shape on the right is usually found on frames for carved naqsh designs, which tends to complicate the geometry used in the carving.

Two very common semicircular shapes

This pair are very common and can be found in many of the traditional buildings in Qatar. The shape on the left represents a semicircle sitting over a rectangle, a shape often used in deeply recessed panelwork, doorways or openings. Whereas that on the right, with small shoulders at the junction where the semicircle meets the rectangle, tends to be more commonly seen on shallow recessed panels.

A semicircular shape and two common patterns

The first shape here is very common, it being formed with all three arcs being of the same diameter. There are many naqsh panels created within this shape. The second two shapes are characterised by having small quadrant circles for the shoulders and then two very common shapes, typical to Qatar, sat on top of them. These latter two shapes are seen both on slightly recessed panelwork as well as on the external façades of buildings.

Two related panel shapes

These first two shapes may seem the same but are significantly different in their use. The first shape is created from a single reflex curve, the second has a straight vertical element between the two curves, the straight element being used at a variety of lengths. The third shape is far more unusual as the only time I have seen it used it had its base set at the point the curve strikes the vertical in this diagram, creating an unusual base.

More complex panel shapes

These two shapes were used together, the originals having less regularity than these two sketches show, the sketches being an idealised form of both as the originals were not too accurately carved. The left hand shape has similarities with Islamic work in the Indian sub-continent with its scalloped arch, while that on the right has the fan device at its centre, similar to that on the semicircle above.

A basic semicircular shape for simple panelwork

The original of the arch on the left can be seen at the top of this section and was located in al-Wakra. Unfortunately that appears to have been constructed differently on each side, so this sketch is only a representation of the intent, and the shape is drawn a little narrower. The second arch was used in Doha and bears similarities to that on the left though was stretched over a much wider horizontal distance.

A simple shape arch

This pair of shapes again have similarities with Islamic work in the Indian sub-continent and were used in a number of buildings in al-Wakra. Though they have an apparent relationship and were used in the same building, the arch on the right has strong similarities with those above while that on the left is a more sinuous version of the simpler broken semicircle.

A simple shape arch

This final shape is commonly found on the outside of buildings and is one of the two shapes used where a large span is required, the other being a flat, horizontal span. It is possible that it had a structural use, but this appears not to have been its purpose, rather that it was used for its decorative shape. The most common location for it is over the columns of the iwaan of a building where a more interesting form than a flat span was required.

A simple shape arch

This shape can be found all over the Islamic world, and elsewhere, particularly where it was needed for its structural capability. But this photograph, taken in March 19172, is of an iwaan and, as can be seen from the left end of this arcade, illustrates its non-structural use in the old residential complex of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim at feriq al-Salata. Similar arches can be seen in nearby Iran.

A door frame in the Bastakia, Dubai, April 1975

The above are probably not an exhaustive list of decorative frame forms, but are certainly representative of the majority of forms used to enliven surfaces, create frames for carved iwaan panels, or for use as openings. Elsewhere in the Gulf there are other forms which have an obvious relationship with those here, but are significantly different. For instance, this arch was photographed in the Bastakia of Dubai. It obviously has no structural integrity, but must have been conceived and executed solely for its decorative effect, an attractive entrance to a property.

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Cornice decoration

Part of a cornice on an old building in al-Wakra, April 1975

Apart from the simplest of rooms, there is usually a cornice running around the top of a wall within a room space. Its probable rationale is to reduce the spans of the shandal which span the ceiling and support the floor or roof above, and it is invariably a decorative feature. Such a device would permit a wider room to be spanned, allowing the creation of more important rooms. This photograph is of the corner of a majlis in al-Wakra and illustrates the more complex form of cornice seen in traditional buildings, here missing the fallen ceiling.

Corner detail of an old building in al-Wakra, April 1975 Corner detail of a reconstituted building in Doha, December 1976

This coved form is not always employed in the decoration of rooms, particularly if they are simple rooms and not as important in the internal hierarchy of spaces as, for instance, are majaalis. As illustrated in this first photograph, also taken in April 1975, sometimes a simpler detail is used, though here still utilising decorative steps together with naqsh work to the walls giving the room a degree of importance. The lower photograph shows a detail from the Qatar National Development Exhibition where the frieze has been developed more strongly by the addition of a deep band of naqsh below the standard, simple cornice. In other rooms a stepped rectangular form without decorative articulation, other than stepping out from the main wall plane, is sometimes used to emphasise the junction of wall and ceiling visually.

What is striking about the design of cornices in traditional rooms is that their architectural vocabulary is relatively simple, particularly in the dominance given to the running motifs which sit below the cornice or are, in effect, the cornice itself. Their importance is in completing the wall and creating a visual line on which the ceiling construction is displayed. What can not be known is how the rules governing its appearance came about.

Part of a cornice on an old building Part of the cornice in the palace of Sheikh Abdulla bin Jassim at al-Salata Decorative treatment to a cornice at al-Wakra

This illustration is an example of decoration which sits below a coved cornice and is the most complex of its sort I have seen in the old buildings in Qatar. It allows five steps of plasterwork to project into the room, the first, second and fourth steps having a decorative edge to them. More usually, this decorative frieze has only two layers, examples of which can be seen in the photographs both below and above this one and, in the simpler cases, there may be no decorative edge to the stepped layers of plasterwork.

While it is difficult to discover specific guidelines which might have been employed in the design of cornices, looking over the various pieces of decorative work to them there appear to be four rules governing the patterns used in Qatar. Firstly, the lower pattern always has a cursive character to it. Secondly, this pattern generally consists of semicircles alternating vertically along a horizontal axis on which sit their diameters, linked by small straight elements. Thirdly, there will nearly always be a sawtooth pattern above it which is stepped out. In virtually all the cases looked at, the sawtooth pattern was formed with acute angles rather than with right angles. The fourth rule would allow straight steps to be interposed between and above the cursive and sawtooth patterns.

The third of the examples above shows a variation to the lower, cursive, band of decoration creating a more delicate pattern, somehow out of balance and overwhelmed by the more dominant sawtooth pattern above it.

A sketch of a notional cornice detail

This notional illustration is based on the more complex form shown above and is intended to demonstrate how the wall finish thickens with consecutive layers of pattern. The stepped layers are usually around 20mm thick, though this is not always the case, 20mm perhaps being the greatest thickness. There was variation, too, in the detailing of the patterns. Although the two patterns mentioned above were the norm, their proportions differed, apparently at will. This applies both to the proportions of the sawtooth pattern, the relative length of the shoulders of the lower, rounded pattern, as well as to the relationship between the two patterns. In the latter case there appears to be no logical or geometric relationship.

Detail of a cornice in the corner of a room in al-Wakra, April 1975 A sketch of a notional cornice detail

This may seem unusual when it is not a difficult relationship to calculate or to carry out on site with even the limited range of tools available. This photograph shows the corner of an old room in a building in al-Wakra. While it might be argued that it is not that easy to work out and construct the junctions of the semicircular patterns across the length of a wall, it is notable that the sawtooth pattern is also illogically completed in the corner, though it should be easier to carry out. In support of this I have seen this junction properly completed elsewhere. In this particular example it appears that the workman set out the sawtooth pattern on top of the semicircular layer, but didn’t allow for the projection of the setting out to the finished planes. The lower sketch here illustrates how it might have looked had it been set out correctly, or if small amendments were made along its length in order to create an apparently correct corner.

Detail of an architrave on a door at al-Wakra, 1971 - with permission from Ian Drummond

It is not only architrave details at ceiling levels that take this form. Here is a detail of the surround of the door to a majlis photographed at al-Wakra in 1971. It appears that this may have been a standard detail used at least in this building in al-Wakra and, perhaps, on more buildings. It is completed by a double step down to the timber frame of the door, as well as a single step up to the finished plaster face of the wall.

The illustration above relating to cornices shows how a number of important rooms were decorated in their corners with a horizontal diagonal panel. This feature reflects a structural development whereby right angled wall junctions, which were unable to benefit from the bonding of irregular stones, were strengthened. It also became an attractive feature of rooms, forming a decorative frame to the ceiling which was sometimes left undecorated as illustrated two photographs above. The following two photographs illustrate two differing approaches to treating the panels.

The corner detail of a room in the palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim at al-Salata, March 1972

In the first, the panel in a room at the palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim at al-Salata, the soffit of the panel has had naqsh decoration carved into it in a similar manner to that used on vertical wall surfaces. This will have been carved out in situ. Unusually, it is possible to see that patterns were also applied to the curved coving above it, but only at the change of angle. Colour was also applied to elements which created frames to patterns.

The corner detail of a room in al-Wakra, April 1975

This second panel, photographed in al-Wakra in April 1975, has had a hemispherical boss applied to it with a starburst pattern carved around it. A considerable amount of paint has been used to pick out the simple patterns of the decorative naqsh, creating a considerably richer design than might have been produced by using uncoloured naqsh, as would previously have been the practice. Paint would have initially been an expensive material and may have been a way of demonstrating wealth. Although it’s a guess, it appears that the hemisphere has been divided into twelve parts and the starburst into twenty-four.

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Balustrading

Balustrading on an old building in Doha, 1980 Balustrading on an old building in Doha, 1980

Much of the carved plasterwork in Qatar has a strict geometry dictating its two dimensional ornament, but there have been areas where a slightly different character has been created. These next four photographs, which I believe are of balusters manufactured by a combination of casting and carving plaster, show details of balustrading to first floor balconies where a low balustrade has been created rather than the older, traditional badgheer that was a requirement for privacy. As such the designs represent a more relaxed attitude to privacy, the first two buildings probably dating to around the early nineteen-fifties, the latter two perhaps from an earlier decade. The lower of these two photographs illustrates balustrading similar in design to some associated with the house of Faraj Hassan al Ansari at Musheirib. The open character of both designs is likely to have something to do with the new building users, expatriates brought into the country at the beginning of development created by the burgeoning oil industry, though the third photograph is from the old Duhail barracks, established some way outside Doha.

Balustrading on an old building at Duhail, 1982

In the first two examples, shown above, a degree of imagination has been used to create the openings’ patterns, the first two being relatively simple and having a sturdy construction, though neither can be really considered as developing from the local architecture. Both of the first two examples show that the balustrading was formed of relatively heavy, separate units held in place by the frames in which they sit. This system will have aided both their construction as well as the structural integrity of the finished balustrading. The third example is also a heavy design but, this time, simpler in concept and execution.

Balustrading in the courtyard of the wind tower building in Doha, July 1975

Slightly more refined than that above, this balustrading was located in the open area of the wind tower building in the centre of Doha. Photographed in 1975 it exhibits similarities to the balustrading above but the design has something of a western character to it with the thickening of the central areas of each baluster bearing a passing resemblance to turned stone balusters. However, the design elements at the top and bottom may be based on the star and crescent designs which are prominent features of many traditional buildings.

Decorative balustrading – with the permission of Cariboudesneiges on Instagram

The designs above are examples of some of the more commonly found cast plaster or cement balustrading in Qatar. But the influence of Islam on architectural design saw the motif of the star and moon move from their commonly found positions on the tops of the manaaraat of the local masaajid into areas such as this balustrading on a building in Musheirib near the old centre of Doha. These panels would have been cast or carved on the ground and then offered into position. In this particular case, the missing element suggests that they were manufactured – cast or carved – in units approximately half a metre wide. Incidentally, the moon and five-sided star motif was not initially Islamic, though it has come to be largely associated as such; and the star is unlikely to be a star but the planet Venus.

A 1960s building with extensive balustrading – with the permission of intlxpatr

It is possible that the pattern of balustrading illustrated immediately above was a standard pattern used in a particular area of Doha. Alternatively, perhaps it was common to a period when buildings were being constructed with elements provided from a commercial yard specialising in this type of work, as here it is again, used at roof level. The two examples shown in these three photographs were used on the roof and first floor levels of a building constructed in the 1960s. Regrettably I can’t recall exactly where it was located. Note the attractive projecting curved features at first and roof level where the balustrading is moved out over the entrance at ground floor level.

Decorative balustrading at roof level – with the permission of intlxpatr

At roof level it can be seen that additional height was required, most probably for privacy. In order to achieve the higher screening, a level of open naqsh has been incorporated below the standard balustrading, interestingly, less opaque than the panels above. It is impossible to tell how this was effected, but it was probably carried out on site with pre-fabricated elements as there is a regularity between the individual balustrading panels and the lowest supporting elements in the proportion of 1:2, suggesting an off-site construction and on-site assembly.

Decorative balustrading at first floor level – with the permission of intlxpatr

The first floor balustrading is different from the roof balustrading, perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or maybe to demonstrate something of the status of the owner as there is also a significant amount of covered but open space at first floor level. At this level the balustrading is similar to, if not the same as, the example shown above in the second photograph in this section of the notes on balustrading.

Balustrading in a new building

Although taken in a new development, this photograph has been included for the obvious reason that it has resonance with traditional details, particularly that shown in the photograph above. The drooping feature near the head of the baluster is similar to details commonly found on traditional timber doors, perhaps from which this detail was taken. In this case both the handrail and balustrading have been constructed of a white cementitious material creating, especially in the case of the handrail, a strongly massed architectural element. While the new detail is not a copy of that above, it certainly has a similar feel to it, albeit of considerable visual weight. It is an internal design and might have been anticipated to incorporate sharper features than if it had been constructed in the open and exposed to the elements. But this is not the case. An attempt has been made to enliven the design by the addition of small circular and semi-circular decorative features based on twelve-point geometry. Nevertheless, this is a heavy feature compared with the example above and even more so with that which follows. It would seem more fitting were it to be located in the Arabian hinterland than in the Qatar peninsula.

Balustrading on an old building in Umm Salal Muhammad, 1977

This next example, however, is a much finer example of balustrading. The first three examples were located in the inner ring of Doha while this was found on an old building in Umm Salal Muhammad. Again, this example is formed of relatively small, finely detailed units that have been fitted into a larger frame. It appears that individual panels were established as being twice as long as they are wide, a proportion that does not take account of the intervening frame width which has had the effect of weakening the overall effect. While the design is based on six-point geometry, it is not symmetrical, and the design has strongly cursive elements to it.

This next group of three photographs is taken from black and white prints I found when opening boxes packed for moving house. Regrettably I am not able to tell where they were all taken but they are relevant to this area of the site and worth placing here for that reason.

Balustrading detail

The pattern incorporated into this balustrading bears considerable resemblance to the pattern of the balustrading in the example seen in Umm Salal Muhammad above. It may well be the same basic pattern but appears to be slightly more coarse in its execution compared with the more finely carved example above. It is probable that this pattern was another standard design used within the peninsula. The finished detailing of the balustrading shows care has been taken to produce a significantly more private screen with groups of four panels contained within a heavy frame incorporating a more solid lower element. There are two other aspects to note. Firstly, that the maraazim do not line through with the columns enclosing the panels, every other one of which lines through with the columns supporting the roof, as is the normal practice; and, secondly, that the finished floor level of the roof is likely to have dead air space adjacent to the parapet and its balustrading.

Balustrading detail

I have no idea at all where this balustrading is or was to be found, other than that it was in Qatar, but it is an interesting and complex design. The central band has a natural motif and can be thought to represent a flower contained within a heart shape. The vertical slits immediately above follow the waving line of the natural motif above which a row of circles is separated by a curved line above the slits. At the base is a row of circles, set horizontally. Each cast panel has the equivalent of six circles in its width.

Balustrading detail

Again, I am not able to say where this detail was photographed, though it is one of a number of black and white images taken in the nineteen-seventies or eighties showing, in the main, traditional architecture in Qatar. But the detail appears to be relatively modern and is significantly different from the traditional detailing of balustrading in Qatar, having a more sensuous line and allowing more void to solid in its proportions, apparently around fifty per cent. It certainly does not have the feel to me of traditional Qatari architectural detailing. Due to its clean condition I assume it may have been a relatively new construction.

Fretwork plasterwork in Dubai

By contrast with the panels shown above, here is a photograph of some naqshbadgheer panels in the process of being carved for a roof parapet in Dubai. These are certainly panels you would not expect to see in the Qatar peninsula. Another example of this character of parapet panel can be seen on the preceding page. There are five comments I’d like to make – apart from the damage to the bottom of the right panel which look as if they’ve been caused by slips with the chisel.

  • First, the panels are not particularly high and are relatively open. As a consequence the holes enable the air to pass through readily, but do not provide as much privacy as would be expected in Qatar.
  • Second, the patterning is naturalistic with a fairly large scale design. This form of pattern is very rare in Qatar, though I have seen it on a smaller scale.
  • Third, I’ve not seen this kind of open carved naqsh used on roof badgheer systems in Qatar. They’re relatively common within enclosed spaces, particularly above ground floor level, but it seems that the flat, staggered, vertical panel system illustrated above is preferred.
  • Fourth, you can see that the patterns of the three panels are very similar, though not quite the same. In Qatar there would be far greater differences between adjacent panels.
  • Fifth, it would be unusual in Qatar to have the design scribed so heavily. You can clearly see the differences between the two photographs above.

I’m a little surprised to see these panels being carved in situ as I would have thought it would be easier to carry out the work at ground level and then lift them into position. Perhaps the answer has something to do with the weight and the relative fragility of the carved panel.

With regard to the passage of air through the holes in the badgheer, I also suspect that the Qatari badgheer is far more effective in channeling air across the roof than the Dubai form of fretted panel. My experience of humidity in the Gulf is that it’s far worse in Dubai than Doha, which is why I’m surprised that these devices are so different. Having said that I think the higher badgheer systems in Qatar might reflect the more strict wahhabi influence of the latter, placing more importance on privacy than comfort.

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Pre-cast concrete naqshpanels

Pre-cast panels at the factory, June 1983

Although these notes generally relate to the traditional architecture of Qatar, it might be useful to make a note on a development relating to naqsh. Mention has been made previously about naqsh panels fabricated in the pre-cast concrete yard which had been set up to produce high quality work for a number of prestigious government projects. Considerable efforts went into developing standards of excellence which enabled a number of projects to benefit from high quality concrete panels as good, if not better, than those customarily produced in countries with long experience in their production. The opportunity provided by the factory was taken to fabricate concrete panels with traditional naqsh patterning cast into them. This photograph shows a number of pre-cast units, destined for the Diwan al-Amiri project, lined up at the factory.

Pre-cast panels at the factory, June 1983 A mould for a pre-cast panel at the factory, June 1983

The first stage in fabricating the pre-cast naqsh patterned panels was to carve the patterns into plaster moulds. The process has been documented above and was no different from the traditional carving of naqsh except that the designs were established beforehand then transferred to the raw panels where they were drawn out in pencil and carved by hand. From the finished carving, flexible moulds were made in order to be able to cast a number of finished panels. The upper photograph here shows a steel frame with the flexible mould set in it waiting for the side and reinforcing steel to be added and then the concrete poured for what will be one of the cladding panels. The lower photograph is of a mould made for smaller panels of a different purpose, the project having a variety of pre-cast panels, mostly of considerable size and weight, particularly those which were designed to clad the building.

A finished pre-cast panel A number of finished pre-cast panels waiting in the yard to be transported to site

This photograph, taken in the factory’s storage yard, is of one of the pre-cast naqsh patterned panels that has been fabricated using the mould shown in the photograph above. The characteristics common to these panels is the degree of geometric accuracy achieved by the procedures required to design and make them. One of the consequences of this is that the panels are regular in their geometry and have none of the eccentricities which give character and a degree of liveliness to the traditional panels worked in situ. While individual panels such as that in the first photograph can be viewed and appreciated readily, there is a slightly different experience when they are viewed en masse as in the second photograph of different units waiting in the yard for transportation to site for erection.

A finished pre-cast panel

When the panels are stripped from the moulds they are inspected to ensure there are no irregularities which would cause them to be rejected for incorporation into the project. Here a workman carries out limited remedial work on a finished unit. While material may be taken off in order to tidy up the finished panel, material can not be added as it would be likely to come away with the effects of weathering.

Detail of a sand-blasted pre-cast panel

After the pre-cast panels have had a chance to cure and harden, they are sand-blasted in order to take off the latence lying on the surface and to give a slight texturing to the panels. Considerable skill is required in this process in order that an even finish is kept over the whole of the panel, and that no detail is lost. This photograph illustrates the degree of roughening required in the finished panels from the sand-blasting process.

more to be written…

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