Islamic design
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Islamic urban design 01
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An approach to understanding Islamic urban design

An aerial view of the centre of Doha, 1952, showing the urban grain

Traditional Gulf urban layouts have all gone. Swept aside by the perceived need to produce ‘modern’ developments, their replacements reflect and represent in many ways the new States with their growing importance and self-confidence, together with their perceived need to reflect foreign standards and institutions. This oblique photograph illustrates the centre of Doha in 1952. In some respects the change from Islamic planning layouts parallels those which were seen in the Ottoman empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that, in Salonica for instance, European socio-political values developed rapidly with increasing prosperity, the town witnessing the concomitant introduction of a burgeoning expatriate community and European urban vocabulary.

An aerial view of old development in Rumaillah, Doha, showing the traditional urban grain Aerial view of Rumaillah, Doha

These two aerial photographs were taken in the area of Rumaillah, west of Al Bida and, at that time, 1972, on the outskirts of modern Doha. Both show the relatively tight development with sikkak separating the residential units. The second photograph, though, illustrates the first phase of the new planning development where roads following a regular grid, were driven through the housing in order to accommodate the growing needs for vehicular access both for servicing as well as emergency. It also illustrates the next stage of planning development, the larger commercial units that sprang up in commercially central positions – in this case on the junction of three roads. Smaller shops were located in the buildings across the road, creating a typical neighbourhood centre.

Perhaps more significant than this was the change in the make-up or balance of their society. Increasing prosperity and the efforts to draw together the different religious groups saw a widening gap between rich and poor. There, natural economics saw the withdrawal and relocation of the rich to their own developments, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. The parallel exists today in many countries. In Qatar, however, the poor are assisted by the State but there is still a parallel in that a person’s educational status governs the size of the plot of land given for housing and the funding given for its development.

Where a qabila has been able to develop as a whole – such as was the case for the Sulaiti family – then rich and poor continue to live together as they always have done. There is considerable strength to be maintained in the comingling of different income groups, particularly when this reflects a social structure based not just on family, but on Islamic values. I have written elsewhere about the rapid development of the State, the introduction of Western planning to produce the framework for the construction needed, and the organisation and modelling of architectural stereotypes to aid the speed of development thought to be required, so won’t deal with that again here.

The housing structure seen above responded over time to the growth of families and their related interests and, as such, grew in a progressive but unstructured manner as the relationships grew and changed. Because of this, what is seen on the ground is a physical representation of the socio-cultural structure of the area. It is in this way that cities reflect the social interlinkages of the people who live in, and move around them. As many have suggested, breaking or interfering with this physical organisation will have repercussions on the social links and the people who comprise them.

One essential characteristic of the traditional street pattern is the ability for people, particularly men, to meet in a series of unstructured encounters. It is important for Western designers to understand that these open areas are effectively a series of majaalis arranged in a hierarchical manner flowing from the privacy of the interior of the house to the larger public spaces, usually those associated with the juma’a mosque or the suq. This system continues, particularly in areas where there are a preponderance of nationals and related to prayer and the local masjid. It also relates increasingly to women of the family in these areas as the boundaries of their houses are less constraining to socio-cultural traditions.

However, while some Western commentators emphasise the importance of the street, the pattern of movement has changed for the most part with increasing emphasis on the need for transport to move people around the larger urban conurbations. The importance of this is that there seems now to be a dichotomy within which spatial interactions can be enjoyed, within and associated with the car, and pedestrian areas. In the latter case this mainly relates to the Corniche, malls, sports clubs and the university campuses. In the former it relates not only to the Corniche but to other areas where, particularly the young, meet either en passant or in specified areas, again a type of majlis in operation.

It is also worth making a note here that there is some concern in Arab thinking at the rationale for large public spaces, an issue that came into focus with the demonstrations in a number of Arab countries, including the neighbouring Bahrein, where focal spaces were taken over by protestors.

In many ways, modern urban developments in the Gulf demonstrate a rather depressing characteristic: virtually all of them are designed as individual projects or groups of projects, and have little or no urban design relationship with each other. They are seen as icons. There may well be a master plan but there usually is no coherent urban theme in their relationships, even if there is a massing, use and density plan on which they are constructed, usually produced by Western professional consultants. The irony is that the consultants believe that their developments will create a street life which will vitalise their part of the development. It is not buildings which create the street life or its equivalent, it is people who do so through their informal interactions.

An aerial view over old Rumaillah An aerial view over Doha

In these next three aerial photographs of Doha you can see something of the manner in which its new character has changed in less than forty years. The first photograph shows single and two-storey housing in the Rumaillah area of Doha, now demolished, complete with the sikkak which facilitate access from and to them. The new development shown below is very different in layout and density from the character of the old Doha which was essentially pedestrian and unstructured in terms of of its street pattern; and it is very different from New Doha where a new set of planning requirements were established prior to any development taking place there. Of course, in an existing city land ownership and its size and shape, are some of the chief factors determining the type of development on a plot and its density, together with the existing or amended road structure.

The reason I have included the second of the above two photographs is to demonstrate that it could have been taken almost anywhere. It is certainly true that it is not possible to see architectural detail at this scale, but the massing of buildings, their articulation and orientation tell us little about the character of the city and its people. Oddly enough, I could only spot a single mosque in the original photograph.

An aerial view over a part of central Doha

This detail of a part of the central area of Doha illustrates graphically the older housing stock in the foreground against, in the background, the first development of multi-storey buildings, for the most part with retail or commercial operations on the ground floor, and residential accommodation above. The older buildings were of one or two storeys, some of them traditionally detailed and constructed around courtyards as can be seen in the building in the right foreground, some developed eccentrically as can be seen in the building in the left foreground. The building on the right would have been constructed by a Qatari family but is now let to expatriates. The ad hoc additions on the roof mix with the white water tanks – which took the place of the old galvanised steel tanks in the nineteen eighties – and the roof was used as a place to sleep during the hotter parts of the year, the ground floor accommodation not attracting sufficient natural cooling, and many preferring the open air to air-conditioning at night. The building on the right also has a retail frontage and it is likely that the building behind it also had a storage function, this enabling the owner to have a shop, storage, residential accommodation and a built-in guarding facility provided by his workers living there. This was a common pattern in many parts of the central area, and beyond.

An aerial view over the centre of Doha, Septamber 2010

While much of Doha has been designed and constructed in the amorphous manner illustrated in the photographs above, the central area of Doha – that is, the old centre of Doha – has changed far more dramatically with the opening up of the areas to the north of the old suq, now redeveloped as suq Waqf, and the Diwan al-Amiri. The aerial photograph to the right was taken looking approximately south-west and shows the developed old dhow harbour and I.M. Pei’s Islamic Centre in the lower right corner. The helical form of the Islamic Centre is seen at left centre, with the low development of suq Waqf behind it, and the Diwan al-Amiri sitting on the relatively high ground with a cleared and landscaped area to its north, just right of top centre in the photograph.

It can be seen that there are a small number of new buildings that bring character to the area, reinforcing the collection of government buildings still standing between Abdullah bin Jassim Street and the Corniche respectively to their south and north, and Jabr bin Muhammad Street and the Diwan al-Amiri to the east and west, though the logic of their location is not so easy to see on the ground. The Diwan al-Amiri now dominates the west bay of Doha with its ceremonial Corniche linking the old centre of Doha to the New District of Doha with its collection of tall buildings terminating at the iconic Hotel and Conference Centre. Considerable work is still being carried out within the area of this photograph, notably behind suq Waqf where a major project, the Heart of Doha has taken down the old development and a new footprint has been established. But the greatest urban design decision has been to keep the area adjacent to the Corniche relatively low and heavily landscaped, a contrast with the development of the New District of Doha.

An aerial view looking from the east over the centre of Doha, 2013 – with the permission of harrypwt on Flickr

Taken three years later in early 2013, the first of these three aerial photographs looks over the centre of Doha from the east and illustrates the character of the more standard buildings within its inner ring. The Diwan al-Amiri can be seen on the right edge of the photograph, itself to the north-west, or right of the significant building project in Musheirib. The road moving out of picture at the centre of the bottom of the photograph is Ras Abu Aboud Street. The ‘C’ Ring Road can be seen curving from it to meet the airport road, or al-Matar Street left centre. The land which has been cleared to the right of centre bottom of the photograph is the area being developed for the new National Museum. The green of the old National Stadium situated at the junction of the Jabr bin Muhammad and al-Dustour streets can be spotted right of centre of the photograph.

An aerial view looking north-west over the West Bay – with permission requested from ‘Just Qatar’ online 11th November 2013

This second photograph was apparently taken towards the end of 2013 and demonstrates clearly the urban density pattern of Doha with its emphasis on high rise in the New District of Doha and of high rise – though not as dense – development to the east of suq Waqf at the old centre of Doha, the west edge of feriq al-Salata. The Museum of Islamic Art is in the centre of the photograph and the old port area can be seen developed on the right of the photograph. Top right it is possible to see something of the development further north up the coast illustrating how Doha has been developed to the north in the last decade or two. The small triangular building is the Sheraton hotel, once the most significant building in the New District of Doha, but still an important urban element when viewed across West Bay.

An aerial view looking south-west over the port area – with permission from Malcolm Reading Consultants

Photographed around a year and a half later this aerial view, seen together with that above, gives a better understanding of this area of Doha between the east and west bays. Originally developed as the port and its related operations, the character of the area has changed significantly to one having a strong cultural identity. The main buildings in the foreground are the Qatar Flour Mill structures built around 1995 and which, in 2015, are to be the subject of a competition to transform them into an Art Gallery known as the Art Mill. Situated between I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art – its distinctive shape seen centre right to the west – and Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar – under construction on the centre left edge of the photograph to the south. The Art Mill will house a collection of works to rival Western galleries, and will complement its neighbouring Islamic and cultural museums, together forming a valuable international and national resource and a strong attraction to residents and visitors.

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Modern urban development

The main design routes for architecture in Qatar – with permission from Lissa Barrows

Many of the notes on these pages are devoted to commentary on modern urban development in Qatar. This first photograph illustrates two of the conflicting directions being taken by designers in their apparent struggle to satisfy their own and clients’ requirements in a search for novelty and the articulation of a national or regional architectural vocabulary. These are the elements which now go to make up urban development. On the one hand there are the modern forms which reflect international architectural initiatives and, on the other hand, there is pastiche with the copying of functional traditional local architectural devices – in this case wind towers – and using them as references to the past.

The West has seen much written on the development of urban layouts, and this may have relevance in the Gulf. For instance, Gehl has described four types of city, the first of which perfectly describes Doha prior to the nineteen seventies:

  • The traditional city – where meeting place, marketplace and traffic continue to coexist in balance, more or less,
  • The invaded city – where a single use, usually car traffic, has usurped territory at the expense of the other uses of city space,
  • The abandoned city – where public space and public life have disappeared, and
  • The reconquered city – where strong efforts are being made to find a new, workable balance between the uses of the city as meeting place, marketplace and traffic space.

In a sense the four types describe a sequence commonly found in the West, the difference with the Gulf generally is that the capital cities have been completely lost and redesigned, and these types are no longer applicable.

One of the best known Western urban critics, Christopher Alexander has been influential in describing forms of urban morphology. This, with similar writings, has helped to mould analysis of urban forms. One of his theses is that ‘natural’ cities – those which have evolved naturally over a period of time – have a degree of social interaction missing in ‘artificial’ cities – those which have been deliberately planned and created. He likens the latter to a tree, not in the natural, arboreal sense, but in the structural formality of its arrangement. The ‘natural’ city, he points out, has a variety of relationships encompassed within it that are more lattice-like than tree-like and, in this, he sees the reflection of our social systems and arrangements more closely defined. It follows that, when a city is re-structured or reconstructed, then the social relationships are broken and re-assembled. But in their re-assembling it doesn’t follow that previous relationships will continue, nor that relationships will use the same mechanisms to establish or continue themselves.

Perhaps as bad as the relationship problem is the likelihood that there will be no chance in the design of the larger developments to incorporate environmental engineering in clients’ buildings. This is a direct reflection of the presence of oil and gas as the basis for the State’s wealth, and the artificially low cost of fuel to power heating and ventilation systems. Certainly there is an attempt being made in some buildings to reduce the effect of the harsh environment on the occupants of those buildings. This tends to deal with many of the problems of solar gain and ventilation, but so far has not resolved the difficulties which wind-blown sand brings to the occupants. I hope to develop this with a section on utilities. However, first there is another issue which has to be considered.

Virtually all building history has been lost with the total and indiscriminate redevelopment of the old urban conurbations. The tabula rasa, or clean slate approach, might be thought to have benefits, but I believe this is only likely when there is a record and understanding of the past and a willingness to embark upon a cohesive socio-cultural programme incorporating the built environment.

Having said that, I have to admit that many of the Gulf States are attempting to do what I suggest but, looking at what is happening, I’m concerned that this is not coming about.

A number of differences illustrate the manner in which Islamic urban design has evolved, compared with the West. There are also similarities, of course, but in order to understand the forces which established Islamic urban developments it is imperative to have some comprehension of Islam and the social forces it generated. A general explanation of the importance of tradition is given in the approach page of these notes.

Essentially it should be borne in mind that Islamic traditions are incorporated in shari’a, and that security in Islam is intrinsically bound up with not only the relationship a Muslim enjoys with divine revelation, but to also with his neighbours and wider society. These are, in effect, a series of responsibilities.

There is considerable discussion in the Gulf on what should or shouldn’t happen, but change has been so rapid, and the perceived need to modernise so quickly, that development has only been possible using new materials and different building techniques – essentially those employed in the West, and utilising that expertise and management.

Criticism of this approach has, in effect, accepted the need to obliterate the old urban structures with its concomitant benefit to nationals with grants of land and funds for development, but has only been able to ask that urban structures should be ‘Islamic’ in character. To this end some extraordinary buildings have been designed and constructed responding, it is argued, to traditional Islamic values. Much of this has been pastiche, little has been truly innovative, and I’m sure the debate will continue. Regrettably, new development has been based on new planning models, many of them ported in from the West with little understanding of tradition and its position as a backbone to society.

A secondary criticism, but one which has much to do with the essence of Islamic values, is that no advances have been made in improving environmental control, and that clients have missed the opportunity to advance the arts and sciences as, it is argued, did the Renaissance in Italy.

Much of the above two paragraphs can be seen to be political or socio-political in essence, and it is not my intention to argue the case here for or against, other than to suggest opportunities for ameliorating the present situation.

I should also have said that there is a body of thought which argues that it is not possible to make change without introducing influences from outside or, perhaps better stated, that external influences might not necessarily be bad for a society that finds itself in a changing world and requires models upon which to progress rapidly.

The difficulty I have with the latter position is that it does not allow the society to participate fully in its own future. Certainly, in Qatar, there was debate in the majaalis about how development might or should proceed. Professional advice was given based on some understanding of traditions, but the pace of development was so immediate, and the desire to leave their old houses so pressing, that there was no desire to delay any new development – quite the contrary; there was an insistence on knocking down their old houses as soon as practicable. My own experience is that people, seeing me looking at old houses, came to ask me to ensure that a road was taken through their property so that they could benefit in various ways.

The result of the pressures was that rapid development took place based on orthogonal plans and Western concepts and principles. From the nationals’ point of view there was discontinuity with tradition and an alienation reinforced not only by the breaking and scattering of established socio-physical relationships, but by the massive change in the numbers of population and the percentage of nationals to expatriates referred to in the addenda on old Qatar and population.

In many parts of Europe where there was wholescale uprooting following the damage caused by the Second World War, the cohesion and social stability of whole neighbourhoods was destroyed as the individual families moved away from their established but damaged homes. Not only did this destroy the neighbourhood societies, it transplanted them into new areas where they now had improved homes, but different urban forms and scattered relationships. Worse, they were swept along by the promises that the government and consumer advertising made them. Without the ability to see friends and relations readily as had been their custom, they resorted to speaking to their parents and children by telephone, buying and washing the car on Sundays, spending their increased income on televisions and ‘going out’, and generally aspiring to the better things promised them. Does any of this sound familiar?

People did not move to new developments of their own volition, of course. Politicians took the opportunity, supported by European architects and planners, to create ‘model’ estates as well as city centres focused on business and finance, but omitting housing. Commentators such as Roger Scruton, the philosopher and architectural critic, argue that it was a political decision based in large measure on the pre-eminence of the modern architectural movement, a movement that is now in large part discredited as being responsible for the lack of humanity in many of our civic centres and residential developments.

In the Gulf there are different factors obtaining in the direction of development, though some of them point to similar difficulties now being experienced in the West. One of these is the traditional way of living, a style very different from Western stereotypes and explained in more detail on the Gulf architecture page. Another is due to the character of the populations in some of the Gulf states. Nationals are a minority in their own country, social development affected in large part by an expanding, mobile, ever-changing ex-patriate population together with commercial pressures. As a result of this much of the commercial development has a lot in common with transient architecture – hotels and hostels and, as Rem Koolhaas argues, airports. This implies flux and change in the character of those using the facilities, giving them a sense of theatre which I think is not out of place in the Arab world. But, more than that, it produces structures which cater specifically for consumerism. There is also an argument that residential development is being carried out in a similar style to some of this commercial architecture and that the display which characterises many new houses is antithetical to the tenets of Islam.

In particular there is a feeling that commercial developments have no identity and no quality other than those imposed by advertising and branding. There may be oases of traditional character preserved around the city or, as is so in many cases, re-invented out of context, but the majority of people are occupying and using a series of anonymous spaces temporarily. They work hard, but they are consumers of a system based on advertisement and consumerism to an extent that is considerably greater than in most of the countries they come from. This gives an edge to the experience of living; something that is very much in contrast to the stability of the Qataris and their family and social life – despite the changes they’ve been through, and continue to go through, in the development of their country.

Although advertising and branding are a part of the modern architecture in the Gulf, and elsewhere, of course, the styles selected for each building tend to be eclectic and unrelated to the traditions of the country. The lack of a common architectural vocabulary imposes difficulties on those moving around buildings in that they are unable to read or understand the building as they might have done a traditional architecture. This may well be why many of the new buildings in Qatar have adopted elements of architectural vocabulary taken, not just from its traditional heritage, but from classical Western styles. In addition, the lack of comprehension tends to create buildings that are unrelated to their surrounding and, as a consequence, inimical to observers.

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Affordability of new buildings

The west side of Grand Hamad road, looking north

The intrinsic values of Islamic urban design have been lost in this race to develop, and the issue of affordability is now a real factor in shaping the face of the new States. Across the region new buildings have been erected on a variety of planned layouts reflecting, in the main, the education of Western planners. Whatever may have been intended, the result appears to be that most States have witnessed a number of iconic buildings designed and constructed on these plans, often in uncomfortable juxtaposition not just with each other, but also with their relationships with the ground and the activities adjacent to, and relating to both the surrounding areas and the buildings themselves.

Many of the States have encouraged famous architects to provide these buildings, there being an apparent attempt to attract visitors to the country in a similar manner as was attempted with the Guggenheim gallery in Bilbao, Spain designed by Frank Gehry. The competition to provide buildings like this is seeing many important works designed and constructed around the world and, particularly in the Gulf where there is sufficient disposable wealth available to fund what are often expensive buildings. But there is a difference. Qatar, for instance, has been able to assemble an important gallery devoted to Islamic artefacts and will be following this with other, similar, buildings which have behind them administrative and educational structures which will help to gather and safeguard elements of the Islamic and local past, making them available to the public and scholars.

In the case of Bilbao, there has not been the foreign capital flooding in as was anticipated, but the Gulf does not necessarily need this – although some States are likely to need it more than Qatar. Abu Dhabi is replicating the Guggenheim with the intent of creating a high-end cultural destination and is buttressing this with a museum, a performing arts centre and a maritime museum, all by famous Western architects.

These niche buildings are generally intended to appeal to an audience with cultural interests. But office buildings form the greatest proportion of visible iconic buildings and here there is a problem. Many of them have sizeable percentages of their floor space unoccupied. There appear to be at least three reasons for this.

Firstly, the rapid development of the different States has not produced the quantities of commercial organisations needing to be housed by the market. The mismatch between supply and demand is difficult to manage in established cities, but in developing cities it is even harder to plan for a future which is poorly understood.

Secondly, the cost of producing iconic buildings can be very high and the return required on that investment difficult to achieve. The Burj in Dubai, for instance still has, in 2012, a significant problem letting out its office space. Although 80% of its residential accommodation has been let, two-thirds of its office space has not.

However, the third reason suggests that there is now a change in attitude by, particularly, multi-national companies who no longer wish to be associated with iconic structures, preferring to house their offices in more modest buildings, but ones which are well serviced. Buildings such as the Burj may give instantaneous identification of its being in Dubai, but that is a national or urban notion rather than corporate advertisement. It is argued that there may be a long term benefit to retaining office space in these iconic buildings, but there is also an understanding that owners may well have difficulty recouping their outlays.

Companies looking for commercial space must also take a look at the costs they bear in renting suitable accommodation for their operations. In many countries experience is that when central area space is perceived to be too expensive, companies will seek accommodation.

Just as important to those requiring office space is the quality of the commercial spaces. It is evident that good quality, well serviced buildings are likely to be occupied first and by preference. If or when the need for office space picks up then it may well be that all available space will be rented. This relates not just to the expensive buildings but even the poor quality buildings of necessity – as those who experienced the early years of Gulf development will have seen, often to their discomfort.

Another factor is that many companies operating in the Gulf have associations with local individuals or companies who are often able to dictate a variety of terms to their expatriate companies requiring, among other things, that they live and work in accommodation provided to them. This is an area which is difficult to explore but should be borne in mind when looking at the fit between expatriate companies and the accommodation in which they live and operate.

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Commerce and citizenship

The view across a supermarket in the New District of Doha

More than this, two of the essential qualities which urban Qataris enjoy, both through their long rural traditions and through religion, have been their close inter-relationships and consideration for each other. This might be thought of as similar to Greek democracy where individuals had rights but – in contradistinction to the manner in which it is perceived today – also responsibilities, both characteristics of citizenship. In the West, urban developments have been established where, over time, there has been a significant degree of integration of land uses which have strengthened communities through continuing change, but with adaptation within the same location and with the same family groups. It might be expected that this will develop in the Gulf with time, but the setting and the development interests are now very different.

Urban relocation has imposed a different set of imperatives on society with a need for families to restructure themselves geographically while maintaining traditional relationships. This, in many ways, parallels the manner in which post-war Europe had to deal with reconstruction after the destruction of the physical environment during the war and its resultant effect on social linkages. A significant problem was the dislocation caused, not so much by physical relocation, but by a desire for upward mobility, though admittedly Western social relationships were not as strong as those of traditional Arabic linkages. What has made a considerable difference both in the West and in the Gulf is the emphasis there now is on commercialism, again driven by the impetus of upward mobility. As the architectural historian Rykwert has suggested, we are now seen to be consumers rather than citizens and this is reflected in the architecture which is being developed for us to live in and around.

Consumerism has a significant influence on the way society both works and views itself. The citizens of democratic Greece saw themselves as a representing their society by having a part in determining its progress. Their involvement directed and focussed the affairs of the state. But the increasing influence of, and participation in, a consumer society with its commercial and non-critical values, appears to contradict those ideals that are central to Islam. The architectural determinism now seen in the Gulf, demonstrates this move away from traditional social values. To what extent this determinism is deliberate, is debatable. but there is little doubt that the arrangement of buildings and their uses is intended to alter or direct behaviour, and this view is supported by a variety of controls that have been established to manage behaviour. This will be looked at on one of the socio-cultural pages. It is not suggested that this is sinister or wrong, but the view is introduced in order to give focus to the manner in which architecture is having an affect on the population.

Traditional cities which have grown slowly over time have qualities that can not be reproduced with new development. People identify with the smaller details of the physical areas in which they live and move around: with their homes, corner shops and so on. These linkages are reinforced by social and cultural linkages that develop over time. In particular, cultural elements and linkages must develop naturally if they are to be genuine and effective. New development rarely permits this as the financing of commercial development is expensive. Developers attempt to obtain returns on their investment as soon as practicable, and the inclusion of building elements which do not contribute to profit are unpopular and, when included, are usually the result of being imposed on developers by planning authorities under the concept of ‘planning gain’. This is a requirement that non-profitable elements are incorporated into a development, and includes such land uses as public housing, recreational, educational and cultural activities – elements which are not seen as likely to be profitable by the developer.

While the government funds infrastructure development together with many of the uses which complement commerce and nationals’ housing, the cultural elements which bind societies together can not be provided as these tend to develop only with time. What the government has done, however, is to invest in artefacts and institutions, some of which replicate those of longer established cities and may form the basis for cultural development, though only time will tell. What is significant is that the opportunity exists for such institutions to be internationally important for the collections they hold, the work that may be funded within and outside them, and the resource they represent. It is worth repeating that this is not culture in the sense of the social relationships and practices that take time to evolve, but in the sense of culture as a record of artefacts which act as signals or signposts to aspects of past culture. The difficulty in this is in not attempting to reinvent the past, but providing a resource for the future. It should be borne in mind that there are few artefacts to assemble within the country and, with the wealth available, it is higher value artefacts that are collected, buildings constructed for their display, and associated research and other facilities provided.

In Qatar, the state has considerable funds to make available in this respect, and much is done to benefit Qataris and, to some extent, expatriates as the state controls development, particularly on its own land in the New District of Doha. But in a more general sense, development is difficult to control when the population is disbalanced by a significant expatriate workforce. The presence of so many expatriates has brought with it the same kinds of nervousness which now exists in many cities in the West, a concern for personal security which, as Rykwert suggests, is in many respects due to the increasing inequalities which exist in our societies.

New cities develop with a need for satellite developments where the service personnel live. In Qatar this is taken up by nationals and their residential developments catering for service and construction personnel. But with this physical presence there has come fear, as can be read in any of the Gulf newspapers, in one case a serious suggestion that all nationals of a certain country be repatriated, and no more visas issued. It is not easy living with a large transient population and there are bound to be difficulties and distinctions, perceived and actual, which define and regulate disbalanced populations.

So, critics argue that modern development is raw commerce, and that citizenship has become a secondary function of our societies. The face of development is international and not regional, one of the reasons for this being that some clients may wish it to be so, and another that many professionals are unable to produce architecture customised to fit with the traditions of the country both by inclination, lack of understanding and, in some cases, lack of skill. Development is theatre and citizens actors on the stage, the majority having only walk-on parts. We are now witnessing the triumph of leisure over creativity, where leisure is more passive than active.

The interior of a new shopping mall in Doha

This photograph might illustrate the setting for our leisure or commercial pursuits. There is really no way in which the observer could guess in which country this mall might be located. It is theatrical set design. A vaguely Italianate design under an unnaturally designed sky combine with international branding to produce a shopping experience that has absolutely nothing to do with Qatar, but where visitors are thought to feel at home, and commercial outlets hope to do business as visitors are encouraged to participate in the retail experience as customers or consumers.

It is noticeable that many ex-patriates spend part of their day enjoying the air-conditioned malls with their families in a similar manner to that enjoyed by Italians in their traditional passeggiata. This seems always to have been the case. I can recall the airport being packed with people in the nineteen seventies waiting to see passengers arrive and to watch the movements of the aircraft. In those days there were no malls, the main shopping being in the centre of Doha and along and off the Rayyan Road, the street with the first street lighting in Doha. Here people would walk, but it was evident that it was mainly the male element of the population. My point here is that the malls are recreational as well as commercial, perhaps more so as I have argued elsewhere that the square meterage of commercial operations is larger than the population can sustain.

One of the points that interests me is the similarity visitors found in Qatar compared with Western visitors to Arabic/Islamic cities in the past: there was, in both circumstances, a lack of understanding of the structure of the city. As you read through this site – and if you have visited the area or have anything better than a superficial knowledge of the area – you will be aware that little is left of the past urban developments. My purpose here is to let people know that the present is very much coloured by the past, and that this past was relatively recent. My experience is that few designers, despite what they claim, really understand the context within which they are designing.

This is one of the chief reasons that new developments in the Gulf tend to be simplistic, iconic and based on Western designs. Other reasons would include, but might not be limited to, client pressure and the lack of a traditional building record and the understanding of designers who are often expatriates.

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Creation of our urban experiences

The urban grain of Rumaillah in the 1970s

The urban grain of the past, illustrated here with an aerial view of Rumaillah of the 1970s, has been supplanted by requirements for improved standards of road design and utility infrastructure. This urban grain, of course, reflected a socio-cultural pattern, one which had grown relatively slowly and contained, in Doha, a high percentage of nationals together with expatriates introduced to carry out a variety of supporting functions for the State and private sector. These communities lived together comfortably within this physical framework, going about their daily activities in a natural manner based, in large part, on the Islamic character of the inhabitants of the peninsula. Much of this had to do with personal contact through a variety of face-to-face relationships, electronic communication systems not yet having been developed or, in some cases, invented.

One of the premises of Western urban development has been that the construction of physical infrastructures – both buildings and their support systems – would create the framework within which communities can develop in a healthy and rational manner. While this may have been an ideal for politicians and commercial institutions, the reality has been that communities develop not just within a physical setting, but also in their interrelated socio-cultural frameworks. One of the greatest factors in this has been the development of electronic communications, particularly mobile telephones and, most recently, electronic-based social networking systems which have moved the reliance on face-to-face relationships to ones which can be accessed anywhere and at any time. This has coincided with a less rigorous adherence to Islamic principles relating to relationships between sexes.

The traditional fora for social interactions, such as the majlis, the masjid and formal events relating to celebrations of marriages and National events, meetings at funerals together with informal activities relating to shopping and education, have been supplanted by these new fora where physical presence is not required, in fact is driven by physical disconnection.

Reinforcing this is the increasing concern for creating security barriers relating to access as well as assuring health and safety considerations are addressed for the benefit of all. In very general terms, these mean a significant degree of overt and covert surveillance together with restrictions on movement and access to buildings, as well as within them.

The difficulty with these new urban developments is that those who inhabit them now do so mostly in a passive manner. Clients and their designers feel it necessary to create experiences for those moving in and around these projects and, in so doing, deprive individuals of a variety of experiences which were, at one time, the normal way used to obtain the personal and social experiences noted above. Now these interactions are being decided and defined for us, much of it having to do with consumerism, as mentioned above. This, together with security mechanisms and the new electronic methods of interacting, reduce our connection with reality, depriving us of the considerable benefits associated with face-to-face personal interactions, while giving the impression of increasing our social connections.

more to be written…

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Architectural thinking changes over time

The Doha Sheraton on the New District of Doha

Not every architect thinks in terms of finished buildings in this way. There are some, for instance, who are more concerned with process and who characterise buildings such as those being constructed on the New District of Doha as cake decoration. In many ways this type of architecture is being left behind by a number of developments that are based on both environmental improvements as well as a more intellectual understanding of the benefits to urban experience that can be brought about by well-considered buildings.

Thom Mayne, for instance, develops the random accretion of experiences to produce architecture, linking the urban design experience more directly to the buildings which comprise it. In his case there is the use of transparency with light used as a medium, where the skin of a building is a transition between the land and the intrinsic uses of buildings, and where the body of the building is seen to be distinct from the skin whereas, in most modern buildings, the skin of the building is the building. The structure of a building is seen to be a visible and interesting part of the building as he argues that architecture is more interesting when separated from function.

The importance of this approach, it is claimed, is that it leads to improved performance criteria both for the buildings in environmental terms as well in their use. More importantly, it enervates and activates the city in a manner that ordinary modern buildings do not. Mayne believes that this redifines how buildings work both within themselves and within their environment. Just as important, it creates architecture which is intrinsically linked to the city.

The reason I mention this type of architecture here is to introduce the argument that architecture moves continually, but that the type of architecture which is being constructed in the Gulf – which is based to a large extent on commercial values – has itself been left behind by modern architectural thinking which hopes to benefit the citizen more. I also want to raise the issues which relate to the intrinsic values of traditional Arab and Islamic design and their relevance to modern architecture.

The argument that more attention should be paid to those using our cities has been made by many people. It has been written about and taught for decades, particularly in urban design and planning schools. Regrettably commercial interest, the need to make a living and the designers’ urge to create ‘architecture’ seem to have combined to exclude citizens or at least their enjoyment of cities. There is even a complicating factor nowadays with the urge for security prompting both private and public bodies to install security systems – usually CCTV systems – and prohibit the taking of photographs of some buildings, which inhibits some people. But that’s another issue which should be discussed elsewhere.

The Danish architect, Jan Gehl, is another architect who has written about the need to make the spaces between buildings attractive, in its proper sense, to people. He has proposed twelve simple points which, if mostly fulfilled, will produce vibrant and enjoyable spaces for people moving around buildings:

Protection against

  • traffic and accidents,
  • crime and violence – a feeling of safety, and
  • unpleasant sense experience;

Comfort – possibilities for

  • walking,
  • standing around,
  • sitting,
  • seeing and looking,
  • hearing and talking, and
  • play and unfolding activities;


  • scale,
  • possibilities for enjoying positive aspects of the climate, and
  • aesthetic quality and positive sense experience.

The important thing to notice here is that architecture, or the treatment of the adjacent buildings, are the last items on the list. It may be thought that they are unnecessary if an external space is to be enjoyed. There is some evidence that this might be so when considering old but dilapidated areas of cities, but it is fair to say that he believes buildings should be well designed, detailed and finished and that the better they are the more likely they will add positively to the enjoyment of an external space.

There are many people who have written about the manner in which urban spaces can be thought to be successful. Generally the writings focus on the benefits to be gained from a rich mix of land uses, pedestrian enjoyment and twenty-four hour activity. Malls in Qatar attempt to reproduce the experience but have only a limited range of activities, nearly all of them retail. Commercial, recreation and residential activities need to be added to the mix in order to produce the fully-rounded urban experience, and this is what many new developments attempt to replicate. But those which seem to work best are those having a long history of development, changing with time and in response to a variety of events and issues. It is very difficult to reproduce this in a new development, particularly with the need to recoup development expenses, and also with an artificially balanced society or community.

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Different points of view

An aerial view of the Bastakia, Dubai

Looking through literature relating to the visits of Western travellers to Islamic countries in the past, it is notable that there was a real culture shock experienced by those visitors eager for cultural, if not economic improvement. Bear in mind that, in the eighteenth century, the Ottoman empire was considered the prime example of civilisation. But its urban developments were impenetrable to the visitors. Perhaps indecipherable would be a better description because none of the urban vocabularies those visitors understood were in evidence. There were none of the elements they might recognise; no public squares, boulevards, street names or numbers. There was no apparent structure other than amorphous housing, aswaaq, fortresses and the palaces and offices of the ruling elite.

In the past this was due to a number of factors dealt with elsewhere on this page; essentially relating to the manner in which housing developed outward, from the private to the public domain, and the character of the public elements of the city – suq, masjid, madrassa, etc. But modern development moves from the public, commercial sector to the private sector where there isn’t the perceived requirement for privacy in a shifting population. Instead market forces, governing the location of developable land – loosely within the planning framework – have seen a variety of structures built out of sync with related development. In fact there is no related development, at least not in the socio-cultural sense. This has encouraged the use of transport, particularly taxis there being, only now, the beginnings of a bus system in the country, and with many workers being unable to afford a car.

There is one other point to make and that relates to the character of buildings in the Arab world. Where there are anonymous walls masking private residences, there seems to be a characteristic which produced larger buildings behind the surrounding wall than is guessed from the outside. Whereas this is the result of a psychological effect relating to the scarce knowledge received by the brain relating to the clues the walls give, modern buildings, particularly public ones appear to be larger on the outside than they are on the inside in terms of usable spaces. The reason for this is the larger than average use of circulation spaces, for which there appear to be three main reasons:

  • with more disposable wealth to spend on buildings, ordinary circulation spaces tend to be automatically larger than they would be in the West. There may be an element of ostentation in it, but mostly there is just a desire to produce more comfortable spaces;
  • there is a psychological requirement of Gulf Arabs, in particular Bedu, to have space around them, and for this to be greatest above them, in order for them to feel unrestricted. With this comes a requirement for good lighting to support the feeling of space; and
  • perhaps most important, is the commercialism that requires iconic buildings, nearly all of which have major spatial volumes within them as a focus for the building and a setting for the activities which take place within it.

Curiously, to my mind, there seems not to be a great need to see outside the building. I would have anticipated a requirement to see the sky at least. I have never noticed a problem for Arabs within buildings, nor has this been stated as a problem in conversation with them. Most importantly, I have never seen them unable to relate immediately to the direction of Mecca, one of the most important issues for a Muslim.

The point of this little discursion seems to be that modern buildings appear to be larger outside than they appear to be inside.

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Socio-cultural traditions

masjid interior

The societies that gave themselves to Islam had, in the main, developed over thousands of years within Greek and Judaeo-Christian traditions. As such, they shared and were separated by a wide variety of socio-religious characteristics which, in many of their aspects, were readily subsumed within Islam in the seventh century and beyond. There are notes about this issue elsewhere, but it should be understood that characteristics of these cultures are often thought to be coincident with Islam or, indeed, represent it.

Greek democracy had established a society based not only on shared community and standards, but particularly on responsibilities. Citizens knew their rights and understood that they were required to participate and contribute to the direction of their own lives as well as those of the community. Certainly there was a hierarchy, but there was a sense of responsibility and engagement in the development and operation of that society, even though there was also a strong commercial ethic. Democracy wasn’t the right that many in the West now think of it as being; it was a duty.

Rome developed this society, though moved away from it in several significant ways, particularly in the development of its hierarchical society which catered for its citizens without giving them concomitant opportunities. Essentially this was through appeasement and was one of the contributing factors to its decline and eventual fall.

Classical western conurbations reflected the life of the people within them. These traditional, spatially defined communities carried out their activities not only within buildings but also in the spaces associated with and around them. These spaces and buildings were the setting for commerce and socialising, eating and drinking, as well as political, cultural or religious assembly. The buildings and spaces provided not only assembly points but came to be visible representations of the institutions reflecting the society. In the West these communal or public elements tended to be in the centre of the town not just because of ease of access, but also for representative focus.

The Western societies’ socio-political requirements were for warehouses, markets, temples, amphitheatres, cemeteries, agorae, theatres, stadia and thermae and these were reflected in the development of buildings in the round – buildings which, while serving a useful purpose within the society, also demonstrated their importance to the society through the skills used on their design. This architecture, originally founded in the structural rationalism of trabeated construction, was developed into a powerful series of building types representing the presence, power and extent of the State and its operations at home and abroad. Islam did not have this fascination with itself and generally avoided ostentatious demonstration epitomised in the external decoration of buildings as objects. There is a general belief that this reflects the importance of nomad Arab thought and the relationship between desert and tranquil oasis – the desert being austere and forbidding: the oasis attractive and reflective.

There is a more important reason for this introversion of development, though, and that is intrinsic to the nature of Islam. Islam is a very private religion conjoining the Muslim with God and requiring of the Muslim standards of behaviour and attitude set out in the Quran and amplified in the hadith. The house is defined quite clearly as a sanctuary from which the Muslim sets out to fulfil his public obligations. This notion demonstrates the key to an understanding of the planning of Islamic towns.

In contradistinction to Western planning hierarchy, the hierarchy of spaces begins with the privacy of the interior of the house and moves out through the districts as the need for access to other areas requires it. Within the house and, more particularly, behind the wall, the Muslim enjoys a privacy dependent upon his own predispositions and requirements, and it is impossible in an Islamic town to tell from cursory inspection who lives behind any particular wall.

In a sense this is similar to the way spatial domain can be characterised though, of course, in earlier Islamic conurbations the ordering of space was much simpler than is characterised by modern Western planners. Chermayeff and Alexander in their ‘Community and Privacy: Towards a new architecture of humanism’ suggest the following ranking:

  • Urban public. Those places and facilities that are in public ownership, such as highways, roads and paths, squares and parks,
  • Urban-semi-public. Places of public use under government and institutional controls, such as city halls, courts of justice, public schools, post offices, hospitals, transportation exchanges, parking areas, garages, service stations, stadia and theatres,
  • Group-public. The interface between public services and utilities and private property requiring joint access and responsibility, such as places requiring mail delivery, garbage collection, utilities control, access to fire-fighting equipment or other emergency rescue services,
  • Group-private. A variety of secondary areas under control of management acting on behalf of private or public interest for the benefit of tenants or other legal occupants such as reception, circulation, and services spaces, community gardens, playgrounds, laundries, storage, etc.
  • Family private. Those spaces within the private domain controlled by a single family that are devoted to communal family activities such as eating, entertainment, hygiene, and maintenance, and
  • Individual-private. The space of one’s own.

From an Islamic perspective the list makes more sense reversed, the emphasis being on the individual with his direct relationship to God, and flowing out from that through his family, neighbours and the wider society.

Conversely, in the Islamic city – without the public oriented façades of the West – the viewer has only the perspectives of the street scenes or the occasional view of the mosques and minarets which mark the place from which the faithful are called to prayer five times a day. In a city with little apparent design variation in the street, the impact of the mosque and minaret on a viewer is heightened by the fact that they are exceptional in a city of one or two storey buildings; and this would be thought quite proper both from a Western and, particularly, from an Islamic perspective. More than this, however, in a city such as Isphahan the viewer is distanced from his role as a street-using member of society when he uses the roof of his property and this perspective both reinforces his privacy and personal relationship with God, isolates and dramatically emphasises the elements of architecture of the town and, thus, the meaning of the mosque to the Muslim.

The above example of Western planning related to the hierarchy of spaces, and theories such as those developed to demonstrate the user’s attitude to his environment, point to more general principles which must be recognised as suspect. There are basically two points to make:

  • firstly, the West has long held a fascination for Orientalism, and this has created a viewpoint of Arabs and Islam where the Orient has been considered as a romantic periphery to the cultural focus and civilising progress of events in Europe, and
  • secondly, and more important, the definitions of culture and the structure of world historiography as we now understand and practise them are both of Western definition. Many societies and civilisations have seen themselves as the centre of their world. An Islamic view places the Western world on the periphery of its own physical and cultural development at least up to about the end of the eighteenth century. For many Arabs, this is still the case, particularly in the assessment of the West as being predatory.

Complicating this is the fact that, to my knowledge, there has been no Arabic writing on the aesthetics of design as we see it in the West. There have certainly been treatises on geometry and decoration but not on the way Arabs perceive their environment. All the information on this subject has been taken from Western writings.

In establishing themselves and developing their civilisations Islamic towns developed a more informal response to the lives of their citizens, balancing their public and private lives in an unplanned morphology which continually changed with time in response to the needs of its citizens, whilst maintaining its original vocabulary.

To understand this better you should bear in mind that urban morphology is a reflection of the socio-cultural requirements of the society, particularly its institutions. Islamic societies, to a far greater extent than Western societies, internalised their administrative functions. The effect of this is that a number of the urban elements we are familiar with in the West did not occur in Islamic societies.

Ibn Khaldun’s diagrammatic view of the cycle of civilisation

In this sense they were, perhaps, less at risk from fulfilling Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the cycle of civilisations than in the West illustrated here. The Western concept of the street as a traffic artery, a zone for public and private architectural display and a place for social intercourse does not obtain in the Islamic town, and it is interesting to note that some Western planners are moving a little way towards the Islamic viewpoint in their writings. in Islamic planning there are certainly thoroughfares, and there are areas where business is carried out, but the primary unit of the town is the introverted, undistinguished residential area where it is wrong to distinguish your house from your neighbour. the more modern approaches to planning have created the setting in which individuals display themselves and their wealth to their neighbours. This can not be a healthy trend and detracts from the ownership that was enjoyed in traditional towns. Our experience of space is established and moulded by our culture – those ‘deep, common, unstated experiences which members of a given culture share, communicate without knowing, and which form the backdrop against which all other events re-judged’.

In well-developed Islamic towns not only did the hierarchy of spaces develop with time, but a legal attitude to them was established. This gave individuals rights to their enjoyment of the spaces and established an inspectorate who were responsible, among other things, for ensuring that consideration was given by the inhabitants of the town to others in the development and use of the town. For example codes were drawn up which established the manner in which individuals were permitted to install windows and doorways onto the street; the privacy of rooftops, which people were accustomed to use, was protected, and so on. These codes were extremely complex and were subject to adjudication in the courts. This enabled the populace to vary the built conditions within the town in response to the requirements or attitudes of each neighbourhood, there being no law of precedent in Islamic jurisprudence.

It follows from this that planning, in the modern Western understanding of the word, was quite foreign to the Islamic town. With a lack of formal institutions there was a consequent lack of public buildings other than the mosque which catered for a number of activities – more than it does nowadays. This tendency for a society’s activities to be separated and placed into discrete buildings is a characteristic of the West which is now being emulated in the Middle East and elsewhere.

An old pedestrian route

With regard to public spaces there were no concepts of two-dimensional geometries incorporating grand avenues, public foci and areas for society’s displays. An exception to this was a requirement of shi’ites for spaces associated with their rituals. However, although a desire for privacy is not restricted to Islam, the character of the Islamic town was close confined, pedestrian, private, and personal. In this it was a reflection of the Muslim’s personal relationship with Islam.

Nevertheless, it can be seen that there are a number of elements governing the manner in which Islamic urban developments were monitored and developed:

  • the physical building form,
  • actual and potential social conflict,
  • a regulatory system – the court – which relied on precedent, and the
  • idealised system, based on Islam, against which the foregoing elements were adjudged.

Hence the shari’a can be seen to be the driving force behind the use and appearance of the Islamic house. Essentially it created the framework of

  • land use and issues relating to nuisance,
  • road hierarchy and widths,
  • building height,
  • roof treatment,
  • window openings,
  • door positioning, and the
  • use of the space immediately outside the house,

within which urban architecture developed.

Although the Islamic town can be described visually as a cohesive texture of housing with the occasional mosque giving vertical emphasis to the overall layout, it should be seen that towns developed in response to the specific requirements for Islamic life. Essentially, the suq, mosque and residential areas are the quintessential elements of the Gulf Muslim town. In other areas of the Muslim world this would have been compounded by the hammam or public bath where the citizens’ activities would revolve around ritual and cleanliness. In the Gulf this role was carried out by the mosque.

The different districts of the town were usually associated with families, tribes or type of trade with the developments of the Rulers, cemeteries, special buildings for religious gatherings and those associated with noxious industries such as pottery or and tanning located outside the town. In small towns such as most of those in the Gulf, this distinction was not as clear as in the larger cities with many of these uses being located in the town as the scale of trading was not as great.

Trade developed along trading routes with other towns and in the suq or bazaar where the trading routes entered the town, the suq representing the commercial heart of the town. Where the trading routes met the town there would be the uses necessary for those supplying or assisting the trading caravans. Blacksmiths, ironmongers and the vendors with goods for the caravan trade would all be located in the region of the entrance to the town.

The suq was commonly a network of streets covered by temporary awnings of barasti and, more rarely, cloth or canvas. In more settled developments this would have been replaced by more permanent constructions such as vaults, but this form of construction was not common to the Gulf.

Development over a sikka in the old area of Hofuf, Saudi Arabia A bridge link in Doha

In Qatar there were a small number of covered bridges at first floor level linking buildings in common ownership, but this was relatively unusual and didn’t create the character that can be seen in larger settled developments. This first photograph was taken in the old part of Hofuf in Saudi Arabia, now abandoned and under demolition. Although it illustrates how this form of development looked in Hofuf, it is a more sophisticated example than was seen in Qatar where, from memory, I believe there were only crossings rather than rooms constructed over sikkak as is demonstrated here. The external security bars and internal wooden shutters are, however, typical of the architecture of Qatar. The second photograph is of the only bridge link I am aware of in the central area of Doha, crossing a sikka leading from the residential areas immediately south of the suq through it to the sea and the fishing jetty. The unusual aspect of both these photographs is that the bridge link appears to be a half level higher than one of the rooms they join.

The narrow streets permitted light to penetrate and air to circulate affording some degree of coolness to those using them. In some parts of the Gulf badgheer s were used to bring air down by channelling air from above the buildings down to ground level in the hot, humid environment of the littoral. In Doha there was only a single example of this though there were a number in Wakra – though all of them associated with private residences.

Housing in the main towns of Qatar was of the courtyard type. Elsewhere in the Arab world two other types developed, the

types of house. The former comprised a small, covered internal courtyard – the qa’a, surrounded by covered spaces, essentially a developed courtyard design, and the latter tended to be seen in row developments having mushrabiya on the public or street side of the house and openings on the other side to give light and ventilation while preserving privacy. Neither of these were to be found in Qatar but are more common in larger Arab towns.

It has to be borne in mind that the towns in Qatar were not heavily urbanised and did not have the degree of physical development to be found in other parts of the Arab world. When I say that the streets were narrow, I mean it in a relative sense as in cities such as Fez, Morocco, Cairo, Egypt and Baghdad, Iraq, the proportions of the narrow streets are far greater. Nevertheless there were, in Doha and Wakrah at least, relatively deep and shallow distinctions where there is a noticeable difference in temperatures.

Research in other areas has demonstrated that there is a significant difference between the deep and shallow ‘canyons’ of this old street configuration. As you might expect, this work in Fez demonstrated that the

  • deep ‘canyons’ have relatively stable temperatures compared with shallow ‘canyons’,
  • the absolute temperatures of shallow ‘canyons’ are higher in both summer and winter;
  • deep ‘canyons’ are warmer at night;
  • deep ‘canyons’ are comfortable in summer but a little cold in winter; and
  • shallow ‘canyons’ are too hot in summer but comfortable in winter.

While this relates to a hot, dry climate – compared with Doha’s hot, maritime climate – the basic principles are still valid:

  • the temperatures of deep ‘canyons’ are more stable than shallow ‘canyons’, and
  • they are cooler during the summer months.

New developments in Qatar are based on principles which do not take this into consideration.

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Social spaces

Unfortunately notes relating to social spaces are scattered through these notes and there is no cohesive structure relating them together. Where possible, links will be made but it is likely they will remain on different pages. In particular, remember that the harsh climate has much to do with traditional patterns of space use.

Before continuing with notes on planning influences, firstly there are three issues that should be noted relating to the work of Hillier and his approach to social space. Professor Hillier has developed this work under the general description of space syntax at London University where the discipline is academically pursued. A professional consultancy has also been established and which has made significant improvements to urban developments based on the academic theoretical work.

  • The first issue relates to the theoretical and actual importance of the boundary of a property to the characterisation and arrangement of spaces within and outside it,
  • the second relates to the manner in which properties coalesce to create a settlement, and
  • the third is an attempt to describe the problem of traditional architectural and planning design approaches and their conflict with social arrangements.

Secondly, there is another issue relating to social spaces which will be written about in a number of other notes such as here, and has to do with the manner in which social spaces differ in Gulf culture compared with, generally,the West. It is essential to bear in mind that, for Qataris, external spaces around buildings are not used in a similar manner to corresponding spaces in the West. This has much to do with both cultural and climatic considerations.

A third factor to consider is that the built environment in Qatar is planned and designed for a population of whom the significant minority are Qataris. The majority of the population are comprised of people from cultures often quite different from Qatari life. While this has meant that Qataris are moving into and around built spaces differing dramatically from their cultural heritage, there appears to be little recognition of the different ways in which this is affecting them culturally, educationally and politically.

Finally, bear in mind that, despite the best considerations of planners, architects and landscape architects, people tend to use spaces in ways that the professionals seem not to consider. The most common mistakes are to ignore the obvious desire lines, particularly of pedestrians, and to give little thought for the different uses of spaces throughout not just the day and night, but by the season.

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The boundary and its importance in social terms

Housing plots in a desert village

We are familiar with the concept of a property having a legal boundary, a theoretical line within which a person or entity has certain rights of entitlement or enjoyment. For the purpose of these notes this will relate to constructions inside and outside of which people carry out a variety of activities within the property boundary, illustrated here with a literal interpretation, house plots in a traditional desert community in the north of the peninsula.

Outside a property, people go about their daily business, moving around as they want or have need to, meeting each other by accident or design, and coming together in formal arrangements such as at shops, schools, mosques or hospitals. In these essentially public spaces, creating architecture and urban design, it is understood that these disciplines both reflect our perceptions of our social requirements as well as influence our social behaviour; the structures are designed as the formal backdrops to our social lives.

Architects and planners generally understand that they can – and should – influence the behaviour of individuals and social groups through their designs. This takes many different forms, and I have written elsewhere about efforts to design out crime. To some extent, this has seen some success, but it is being promoted by the police and planners to the extent that it must be considered in design work. This kind of approach has resonance in the professions in that architectural determinism is a popular approach where it is believed that spatial organisation will affect social relations. Regrettably there are issues with this approach as, in many cases, it alienates when the results of designed developments are compartmentation and a perceived or actual inability for people to cross boundaries.

Bearing this in mind it is interesting to see that there is a large proportion of housing in the United Kingdom that is lifeless and, in many cases, unpleasant to use. Paradoxically, traditional external spaces in Qatar have been described as lifeless by foreign observers, yet this accords with Arab preferences. I’ll return to this later.

Overlooking from housing layouts at Medinat Khalifa

One important issue to bear in mind is that the containing of property by the raising of walls does not necessarily create the cultural and social privacy required by Qatari society. A case in point is the development of public housing where, because the houses are placed centrally within the plot, it is easily possible to see into neighbours’ properties from adjacent roofs. Unfortunately, the traditional solution of building against party walls has been resisted – potential house owners believing that this is not as secure as having their houses located in a ‘villa’ style…

Ad hoc privacy screening

But constructing villas is also not necessarily the solution to creating and maintaining privacy. In many areas of the country villas are now being overlooked from the roofs or windows of adjacent villas, or even by taller structures that are being constructed nearby. The results of this has caused owners to become angry at what they see as planning or architectural mistakes. Due to the extent of this problem, there have been no attempts to my knowledge of using the courts to create solutions. What has transpired is that owners are constructing forms of screening to mitigate the problem as is shown in this example, photographed in 1989. The issue of privacy has been mentioned on a number of pages of these notes, such as on the page relating to privacy and, with respect to boundary walls, on the particular note on that page. There are notes on other pages.

Legally, the boundary wall is a line. In real terms it is the line along which somebody erects a structure, either a wall for privacy or one that forms a part of a building.

space outside the wall.

space inside the wall.

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The development of settlements

Looking along the inlet at al-Khor in 1972 Looking north towards the inlet at al-Khor in the early 1970s

The urban and rural developments in Qatar each had different characters, ones that had developed over the relatively short period of time of the settlement of the peninsula.

These first two photographs were taken at al-Khor in 1972 and, I believe, 1973 but there is a period of almost forty years between them and the third photograph below which illustrates something of the character of the village at these two points in time – approximately a single generation.

The villages of al-Ruwais and al-Khor, both in the north of the peninsula, were fishing settlements, the first located on relatively flat ground, the latter elevated over the khor that provided protection to its fleets. When, in 1972, it was decided to raze the village, it was the housing clustered on the littoral that was taken down with the new town developed on the higher ground, mainly south and west of the original village. The first view shows the village houses on the slope down to the khor, while the second view was taken with some of the older buildings having been taken down but with some new constructions being started, associated in this photograph with garages and courtyard walls.

The new development was designed and laid out on the basis of the standards being developed by the Ministries of Public Works and Municipalities. Their approach at that time was essentially an engineering one, establishing wide road reservations with adjacent villa housing, each within a thirty metre square compound. Commercial areas were identified but took some time to develop, the Municipality first establishing markets, the Ministry of Education, schools and the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affair, mosques, though these all took some time to develop.

A view taken at al-Khor in 2011 – with the permission of mistymorning23 on Flickr

This photograph, taken at al-Khor in 2011, illustrates how different modern development is from the traditional character of Qatar settlements. But, more than this, it shows how the character of this scale of development has, just like the much larger developments lining the New District of Doha, introduced architecture from abroad and an urban design dramatically different from the traditional urban settlements. While there is an obvious need to make provision for certain elements of modern life, such as cars, lighting, retail and commercial outlets and the like, many of the sensible elements of traditional urban life have been lost. The two masaajid, one each side of the road, illustrate something of the different architectural vocabularies now being developed for this type of building, but the rest of the street might be almost anywhere. The street scene lacks character, and the exposed white water tanks visible on the mixed use blocks, the damage to the side wall, the general lack of public planting and the carelessly painted rental sign on the wall on the right, point to a lack of concern with the public realm, something at odds with the way in which the old urban environment was maintained by nationals.

more to be written…

the mathematical way in which properties can join.

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Society and design briefs

essential differences between the inside and outside of a boundary in social terms.


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Definition problems

Before moving on it might be useful to remind those with an interest in the manner in which planners work, to mention a particular concern caused by the defining or delineating of spaces.

Planning studies necessarily have to deal with a wide variety of issues. Land uses, transportation, population characteristics, densities and so on must all be considered in order to establish a preferred plan for development, both when starting from scratch or when developing an existing area. In order to make assumptions relatively easily, as well as to enable different conditions to be compared, it is useful to define areas where development is, or will be, located. One of the many difficulties that arise is that defining areas can be hazardous as the more simplistic definitions can conflict with each other.

The manner in which building blocks and urban design studies are delineated

Take a simple problem. In this first diagram I have shown how a block of buildings – defined and separated by a notional road system and entitled ‘block’ – are usually defined, and how this delineation overlaps or conflicts with a definition that relates to traffic movement, land uses or the urban design of the street itself, entitled ‘ frontages’.

The delineation of urban blocks

This next diagram illustrates the block at its simplest. Nearly every geographic definition is in this form whether it is at the scale of a local development or if it relates to a district. Roads tend to be the easiest element with which to make this distinction though open areas might sometimes be used and, on a larger scale, the open space between conurbations will enable a district or region to be defined. But roads are areas with which we are all familiar, and of which we are aware of both sides. If we treat blocks as urban definers it follows that at their boundaries there may be problems. For instance, a common one in Britain is for adjoining districts having different policies to see opposite sides of the same street being treated differently. Rates may differ, rubbish policies in regards to storage and its removal will differ, yet the people are likely to be strongly bonded socially and culturally and will regard their differing treatment negatively.

The manner in which urban design studies are delineated

Here is an illustration of a more socially acceptable way of defining a street. The frontages facing the street are considered together, the street itself is a single operation with its associated elements theoretically under one control. People who live or work on both sides of the street will have an obvious relationship, with the street itself having an identity. Yet an obvious problem happens on the inside of the block. What are the relationships between people who live there? In some cases these may be quite strong and the ‘block’ approach may well be best suited to definition and policies leading from that. There is no easy solution to this problem but it is mentioned here as it leads to one of the divisive problems associated with architecture – context versus concept.

A final point to think about is a cultural issue. Generally in the West we find our way around urban environments with reference to roads. On them buildings have consecutive numbering, usually odd numbers on one side of the street and even on the other. This gives Westerners a rational way in finding the building they wish to visit. In Japan, by contrast, it is not roads that are used to wayfind, but blocks. More difficult for Westerners to grasp is the fact that building numbering is based on the date of a building’s construction. Along a street, therefore, there is a strong probability that the numbers will not be consecutive as in the West, requiring a different manner of way-finding.

In Qatar, a street naming committee was established in the 1980s, their remit being to produce a rational, politically neutral system that would be capable of use by everybody, particularly the service and private departments needing to have accurate references. Interestingly, global positioning systems have taken away the need for street naming as they are far more accurate. Qataris generally refer to areas with their traditional names where those places still exist, and informally there is still a tendency to refer to areas associated with individuals who live there or who owned the land.

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Concept and context

One of the criticisms levelled at architects is that they are designing buildings to be seen – meaning that the buildings are to be designed as advertisement, inevitably to the benefit of the clients and, it is argued increasingly, for the benefit of the designer. In this sense it is a critique of architects and their supposed arrogance or conceit. However, it is also a commercial reality that designers will promote themselves through their work, and that clients may select designers who have a recognised exposure or political acceptability. This also applies to clients who may have a commercial reason to promote the activities represented or contained by the building. Elsewhere I have argued that designing buildings of any type to flaunt themselves, is a contradiction of Islamic principles. While this is true of residential buildings, it may be thought not to apply to buildings which have a commercial purpose.

Conceptual and contextual buildings may be differentiated in a number of ways. At its simplest, those who design buildings that stand alone and are often to be experienced as objects not dissimilar from sculpture, are producing conceptual work: those who design buildings that meld into the physical fabric of the city and which are best enjoyed by those moving in and around them are producing contextual work.

Nowadays planners, for the most part, wish to produce urban environments for us that are lively, vital and rewarding places. Considerable effort goes into organising the elements that might bring this about but, in the event, few developments manage to produce natural, healthy spaces for those who have to inhabit them. The nearest we come are retail developments that contain a range of activities and resources that draw people to them in a similar manner as do theme parks. But the purpose of these places is focussed on commercial return and growth. This has a number of issues associated with it. Such developments inhibit the development of smaller commercial areas; they will require vehicular access due to their scale and consequent location; they are usually unable to operate the whole of the day due to high running costs; they are designed effectively as entertainment, mostly of a passive character; all of which make them unnatural or inorganic operations.

The difficulty is that successful environments tend to be those which have grown up over a period of time, often at least over a generation, and are usually characterised by mixed land uses, relaxed regulation and, often, quite complex inter-relationships. The centres of cities such as Paris and Rome might be compared favourably with the centre of London in this regard, the key to this being mixed land use, British policies tending to separate uses rather than aggregate them. The reason for this historically has much to do with the separation of unsympathetic uses such as industry and residential. This type of planning tended to produce buildings of a single use such as commercial or retail whereas successful and vital areas tend to mix residential, commercial, retail and even light industrial uses. What is important is that areas should not be left closed and shuttered during part of their day, week or year long cycle. It is wasteful of resources and inhibits opportunities for a number of activities to take place naturally.

Having said that, Islamic planning certainly segregated uses, again for the public good. Noxious uses such as tanneries and abbatoirs, and noisy uses such as metalwork were located some way from the general public in order to reduce nuisance; general aswaaq were located near to the entrance to the settlement where goods might be brought in, or near the sea with regard to landed goods or fish. But the mass of houses were amorphous and had no retail activities in them. Although this was to some extent a reflection of the scale of the settlements in the Gulf, it was also a reflection of Islamic values and the physical organisation of its society. More about this has been written above.

With the new urban forms there is a need to have them work in a manner suited to modern living, particularly to have them in harmony with Islamic principles and personal precepts. This is where there is a need to have developments designed and organised in a contextual manner; for them to work naturally, optimising contact, safeguarding family life, and providing access to a range of resources suited to modern living but without compromising safety and security. What has transpired in the first range of modern buildings is that conceptual buildings have been designed, not just in the commercial and other fields, but also in residential areas where Islam enjoins that there should be no attempt to embarrass neighbours.

The disappointment is that these buildings tend to vie with each other for attention, producing disharmony through their forms and surface treatment. More importantly there usually is, at their junctions with the ground, a fracturing in the relationship of the building with its surrounding both visually and functionally, to the disadvantage of those moving around them.

A significant argument for this is the need most building owners or managers feel to monitor and regulate those who enter their buildings. There are a number of reasons for this, the prime consideration being security which is characterised by guarding the entrance to buildings by a combination of minimal entrances, signs, barriers and personnel. Because of this perceived or actual need, many buildings are designed as defensive structures which can be inimical to contextual design, and can alienate those coming into contact with them and not permitted to enter.

While clients may require buildings to be advertisements, this attitude appears to reinforce in designers a tendency to treat the buildings as isolated structures, ignoring the need to meld the designs into its surrounding infrastructures which range from hard and soft landscaping, movement structures as well as the social relationships which derive from these and other elements of the urban environment.

More to be written…

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Advertising and its relationship with design

Illustration for an exhibition of the work of Takashi Murakami – with the permission of rotzloeffel13 on Flickr Illustration for an exhibition of the work of Damien Hirst – with the permission of p_dude – Copyright – on Flickr

We understand advertisements generally as communicating a service or product; in a wider sense they might represent a concept or idea but there are other ways in which this might be understood. It can be argued that all buildings are, in a real sense, advertisements which can be created and their form and setting interpreted in a number of different ways. The typology of a building will advertise its use; its style, location and positioning may reflect on its owner and designer, and can also indicate a variety of other aspects such as wealth, commercial, personal, civic or national pride – many of these in conflict with stricter views within Islam. Commonly, buildings which are required to attract, for a host of reasons, will have signs attached to them marking ownership or use. But, in certain cases, the whole of the façade may be used as the advertisement.

While the photographs above – of the al-ruwaaq structure at the Museum of Islamic Arts – might not be considered to be an example of advertising as is generally understood, they do have the function of identifying the the contents of the building by their graphic treatment. How this relates to the traditional culture of the region and peninsula is something that might be discussed elsewhere. It has, obviously, much to do with the way in which the State wishes to see itself internationally with respect to the arts, particularly with respect to international artists of considerable reputation.

There are not many buildings which give over the whole of their façade to this type of work, particularly as it is a two-dimensional design on a three-dimensional form and many will believe that architecture is best expressed in the round, yet this façadal treatment giving its plane to a single image, is unusual in successfully advertising the work of an artist. The al-ruwaaq exhibition building in the Museum of Islamic Art park has had its façade painted to illustrate the work of the Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami.

The prosaic character of the al-ruwaaq exhibition building lends itself to decoration, though my own preference would have been for the decorative treatment to have wrapped itself around the adjacent sides of the building as I believe it would have better reflected the character of Murukami’s art. Using its façade to advertise in this way, the building establishes a very different and contrasting character from the iconic buildings which now line many of the roads in Doha and, particularly, the Corniche.

It is no coincidence that the trend to iconic buildings is being reinforced by changing attitudes to professional advertisement. For many years architects in a number of countries were not allowed to advertise their services and had to rely on magazines to illustrate their projects, and personal contact and word-of-mouth to advertise.

Nowadays buildings are illustrated in a variety of media – television, books, magazines and on the Internet – and professional companies are beginning to take advantage of this to publicise their work. It is now the norm for companies to ensure their work is broadcast by lectures, presentations, guest appearances and, particularly, by their illustrated writings, some now employing full-time staff or companies to ensure their buildings are seen by as many opinion formers as possible. It helps in this to have iconic buildings to illustrate, and it is no coincidence that clients look for those designers whose buildings are easily recognisable.

As a crude distinction, there appear to be two types of client when it comes to designer selection. The first are the clients who seek designers whose work suggests they will be able to produce buildings which create the environments needed for their specific purposes. The second group of clients look for designers who produce buildings they believe will be important landmarks, hoping that their operational needs can be accommodated.

Of course, there are other ways in which designers are selected, but in order to be considered for selection it is necessary for them to have carried out similar work previously to that in prospect, to be capable of carrying out the work, and to have their work known to whoever is making the selection. This requires advertisement in some form or other, to the widest audience, and not just to fellow professionals.

Many companies now use their web sites to spread images and information relating to their work. However, few use their sites proactively, rather than using them as a repository of their historical work and, in many cases, not keeping them up to date. However, a small number make positive use of their web sites to disseminate their ideas as well as drawing visitors into their site by providing information which is of use, in some way or other, to those visitors. Some also use social media to catch interest, the purpose of all this being not only to pass on ideas but create an image which will be of use in providing continuing professional work.

This is not new; many architects have used this model. Palladio in the sixteenth century and Le Corbusier in the twentieth century were just two of the many who produced books which set out their ideas and established standards of design while promoting their authors. Palladio’s ‘The Four Books of Architecture’ was extraordinarily important both in its time and even today and was supplemented with other writings, while Le Corbusier wrote over fifty books and pamphlets in his lifetime, becoming one of the most important architects of the twentieth century.

So, the promotion of ideas and buildings is increasing rapidly with many designers responsible for a considerable output of images in a variety of media. While designers may be interested in the design of their books and other media works, it is often graphic designers who will be responsible for the selection of images, placing of text and production of these works.

Those who produce magazines and books seek images that will be dramatic on the page. Graphic designers, particularly, will select images based on the drama of those images in relation to a page layout, usually opting for photographs of the external views of a building, exhibiting strong graphic lines. Interior photographs are usually far more difficult to use in that they do not have the drama an external photograph has and are likely to be more confusing graphically. You will also note that many architectural photographs do not have people in them or, if there are, then they will not interfere with look of the building within the image.

Incidentally, this is not always the case with architectural presentations where architects wish to persuade a client that the building will be usable and so populating drawings with standardised figures encouraging a client to believe the building will function as required. Nor is it a factor in aerial perspectives or models looking at a building from an aerial position, a very common form of presentation.

These productions are now absolutely necessary if designers are to be successful in pursuing their careers. Not only this, but designs which are expressive, if not iconic, are likely to be preferred by clients as well as by designers who will see this as necessary either consciously or unconsciously in order to be successful within their profession.

More to be written…

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Western planning influences

In the early nineteen seventies the first of a number of Western planning consultancies was invited to Qatar in order to plan for the development which had started a decade or so earlier. That company was sensible enough to bring with them a mixed professional team including socio-anthropologists in order to obtain a better understanding of the people for whom they would be planning. Other companies didn’t do this and I believe planning suffered in that it replicated Western patterns of development without real consideration for the different ways of life enjoyed by nationals. Certainly I saw a number of plans for projects which were unsuitable in a variety of ways. Luckily, many of them weren’t built.

The key difference – apart from orthogonal road patterns on clean sites – was in the establishing of regulations governing the house and its relationship with the street and neighbours. Essentially the regulations were prescriptive. They established

  • the house as a central unit on its plot, with
  • stated set-backs for the house from its boundary walls,
  • restricted floor heights, and
  • a limit to the floor areas on each plot.

The house designs were developed within a framework of statistics with suggestions on how this might be accomplished. In many ways this follows the codes of a number of Western countries where a significant amount of development has materials, design and construction specified in order to be classified as ‘permitted development’.

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Prescriptive regulations

Prescriptive regulations have developed over the past four hundred years in the West driven, particularly, by fears relating to fire and poor drainage and the threats they represented. Military and police interventions increased these regulations and often did not drop regulations which were no longer valid. Hence, in one European country, until recently it was illegal – as a building regulation – to drive more than one vehicle at the same time…

Essentially, it is argued that poor building standards produce poor buildings. They

  • reduce protection and opportunity to their users,
  • represent poor value for clients’ money,
  • are a waste of scarce resources, and require
  • more intensive maintenance than is warranted.

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European Union and its regulations

Because of this, the European Union and United Nations looked separately at the problem of development and its regulation, taking a holistic view. The 1985 Treaty of Rome, which established the European Union premised the free movement of

  • persons,
  • services, and
  • capital within it.

Essentially, the EU’s concerns were for:

  • general well-being,
  • safety,
  • health,
  • durability,
  • energy conservation, and the
  • removal of barriers to trade.

Bear in mind that, within the European Union, the construction industry is second only in size to agriculture and, of particular relevance to the construction industry were the goals that,

  • not only would this produce a single market for the free traffic of goods and services,
  • but that it would also create minimum standards for the protection of health and safety,

Remember – industry, commerce and building regulations are inextricably bound together.

I don’t want to go into details in this paper on the meanings and importance of the Technical Harmonisation, Essential Requirements, Construction Products Directive, and the Health and Safety Directive of the European Union, nor the difficulties caused by different national approaches which bring Detailed Building Regulations, Mandatory Product Specifications, National Specifications, Public Client Body Specifications and the like, into potential conflict. But it is worth considering that the drive for development in the Arab world is likely to create similar difficulties with time. It will be interesting to see how the problem is approached.

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United Nations’ regulations

In addition to the work of the European Community, the United Nations have, since the early 1970s, been working on the harmonisation of the technical content of national building standards. To this end they produced a document containing significant provisions: The Economic Commission for Europe, or ECE Compendium of Model Provisions for Building Regulations, 1991. The concerns are similar to the Essential Requirements of the European Community although the structure differs slightly:

  • safety,
  • hygiene,
  • comfort,
  • energy conservation, and the
  • dimensions and equipment of buildings.

Like the European Community’s Essential Requirements, the ECE Compendium set out a framework which defined the requirements a building has to satisfy, thereby facilitating the production of prescriptive regulations. The essential concept is one that defines which physical properties a building and its components should have regardless of the type of materials out of which it is made. They considered that emphasis of this approach is paramount to a better understanding by designers of their role in the creation of the spaces within and around which people carry out the functions of their daily lives.

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Islamic approach

Overlooking within the public housing development at Medinat Khalifa

But in some parts of the Arab world, planning went ahead with significant differences. Those more in tune with Islamic thought specify actions or behaviours which are permitted or are disallowed, giving designers significant scope for invention and creativity, a process which might also benefit the West. Interestingly, in Riyadh where there are prescriptive building regulations, and where first floor development is permitted and might overlook neighbours, owners have either gone to court to ask for openings to be blocked, or have raised their fences with a variety of materials in order to block the nuisance they feel. I believe this has not yet happened in Qatar, but will not be surprised if or when it does as a number of housing layouts have encouraged overlooking from their roofs, as illustrated in this photograph, taken in Medinat Khalifa in 1973.

Also in Riyadh in the mid-eighties, the Municipality held a competition to produce novel solutions to their housing requirements in a part of the old town. Perhaps because of this the designers were able to produce work established on three principles:

  • efficient and full use of all spaces,
  • protection of the inhabitants’ privacy, and
  • a more responsive micro-climate within each housing unit.

This is an excellent start for the development of a truly modern Islamic house, based on tradition and traditional values.

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Modern layouts and traditional life

A new up-market villa

I have written elsewhere about the way in which the progress of planning should be from the interior of the house to the public areas of the urban development; and I have also mentioned the manner in which development has brought larger house plots serviced by an orthogonal, hierarchical road system for the increasing number of vehicles. But, additionally, I believe in the need for pedestrian systems linking houses and public facilities. With the increase in reliance on vehicles for movement, you would anticipate that there must be a reduction in the use of pedestrian systems. This would certainly be true in the West but it is not necessarily so in Qatar where there continue to be a number of functions which are inescapable, particularly related to religion, where pedestrian systems are needed. Specifically, this is the link between the house and mosque.

Increasingly in the West there are efforts being made to increase the use of pedestrian systems. There are two strands to the argument:

  • first, it is progressively more expensive to the environment to use vehicles both to gather and distribute a growing selection of goods to centralised markets in response to increasing consumer demand and for the consumers to go to the markets to purchase the items. The expense arises in
    • satisfying demand for products out of season,
    • providing for more sophisticated and greater consumer requirements,
    • packaging and waste,
    • the commercial development of centralising and distributing goods; essentially their double-handling, and
    • providing the vehicles, fuel, personnel, systems and infrastructure to transport these goods to the consumer – together with the increased use by consumers of vehicles to travel to markets to purchase the goods.
  • secondly, the lack of pedestrian contact – both formally and informally – leads to the destruction of social intercourse. Conversely, the more chances people have to meet as pedestrians, the more opportunities they have to continue and develop relationships.

I don’t want to discuss the first issue here as I can’t quantify and compare the costs of the distribution system in Qatar, but the second might be usefully developed.

It can be argued that people, using vehicles to travel from home to large markets in order to buy their daily and longer term consumables, might be brought together as pedestrians while, at the same time, improving the privacy of the housing from which they travelled by removing any need for strangers to visit. But in the West there is a backlash against out of town centres necessitating vehicular travel. It is argued that increasing pedestrian movements in the area of housing reduces crime, eases social isolation, shapes community identity and promotes local businesses.

Planning theory suggests that shopping centres should preferably be established as a hierarchy of scales of centre, each dealing with a range of goods suited to, for instance, daily, weekly and long term purchases. The corner shop, local centre, district centre and city centre might characterise this hierarchy.

A view of the sea over the old suq in Doha A view of the old suq in Doha

The old suq in the centre of Doha used to be a really interesting place to walk around or sit in. The main part of it was covered, though little of it was properly paved and, in winter, it leaked and pooled in places. These first two views of it were taken at its north end. In the first photograph you can see the close relationship with the sea and the fishing jetty. The central police station was the building on the left with the national flag flying. near the sea and looks down on one of its entrances. It was two storeys high, the upper storey being used for storage rather than living quarters, though I can’t be absolutely sure of this and suspect that owners may have had some people live there for security even though there were private guards employed to prevent theft as some valuable materials were sold there.

The old covered suq in Doha

The suq’s expansion to the east, generally known as the vegetable suq by expatriates, was covered in corrugated iron, canvas and plastic and sold far more than vegetables. This photograph was taken from within it, sitting with a stall-holder and looking out at shoppers passing by. It was a fascinating place in which both to shop and to sit and watch others.

Some of goods found in the suq

Up to fifty years ago, the main suq provided for most of the needs of those living in Doha. This would, of course, have been supplemented both by smaller centres around town as well as by the itinerant merchants, men and women, who moved around the neighbourhoods on foot or with their goods on donkeys. Here is a partial selection of the kind of things found there but there are also tools, cloths, household goods and a gold suq to be found in the old suq.

The old suq

This photograph shows the outside of the old suq very near the sea, but with other shops covered in an arcade parallel to and behind the main street. To the left of the photograph there was a large graveyard constraining expansion of the suq; to the right of the photograph was the main mosque for the suq with, outside it, the traditional sellers of mosque-related goods, scribes with their typewriters, shoe menders and the like, together with a taxi stand.

A teashop adjacent to the old suq

The suq provided not only the goods required for the house but it also was a place to stop and talk with friends while tea was drunk. Many of these places were within the shops themselves where the owner would entertain friends and customers. But there were also formal cafés. This photograph – taken adjacent to the old suq round the corner from the photo above – shows a scene replicated all over the town both then and now. One thing to note is the mix of local and ex-patriates.

An old shop

Not only were the centre of Doha and the smaller towns in the peninsula a resource for shopping and meeting, so were the areas where local shops provided a service for those living nearby. All over the country, in the older parts of the towns, there remain retail units added to or converted from residential accommodation, that not only supply local residents with a range of the products most frequently used but, in their lack of development, contribute to the visual urban environment. This may not be to everybody’s taste but, if you look carefully at this photograph, you will see many elements that trace the history of the built environment in Qatar. Curtain shading, security screen, air-conditioning, water tanks, satellite television dishes, telephone wires, bed on the roof, cabling and protective bollards to the public telephone – all indicate how this small slice of street has developed over time in response to the requirements made of it. Often the urban environment is diminished when developments such as this are tided up, knocked down or redeveloped.

In this regard there is another point to make. Elsewhere i have noted that Arabs, historically, tend not to be too concerned with their immediate environment, yet paradoxically there is now considerable concern for novel and new development. The type of retail unit shown above tends to continue due to its being located in an area taken over by expatriates and from which nationals have mostly left. As long as such units can provide a cost effective service, they are likely to remain ⏻ not just to their customers, but to the continuing benefit of those who enjoy the depth of detail in such urban scenes.

Entrance to one of the district centres

At the other end of the spectrum there are a number of centres being opened all over the city usually, of course, on the outskirts where there are sites big enough to accommodate these larger developments. The photograph to the right is of the entrance to one of these district centres to the south of the city. As you can see, it is spacious and of high quality selling a range of up-market goods, but the impression I have from such centres is that not much is actually changing hands.

The shopping centre in the NDOD Shoppers in the NDOD centre General views of the NDOD centre More general views of the NDOD centre

The largest of the shopping complexes used to be that situated in the New District of Doha. The government reclaimed land there from the sea, provided all the servicing, and establishing modern development with the intent of developing new standards transferable to the rest of the country. To the right there are a number of photos showing the scale and character of the development compared with the old suq. In the first photograph, the scale of the centre can be seen from the size of the cars alongside it. As you should be able to see, the multi-level development is large and contains some major European names including a French supermarket and English chain store. There are a large proportion of up-market retail units, an ice rink, fast food outlets on all three levels together with a large car park at ground level with overflow designated on the surrounding land. It is by any account, a major development.

However, time progresses and it faces competition; in Qatar the market structure is unusual. Entrepreneurs open centres where they have land; their development costs appear to be impossible to amortise within a sensible period of time; the centres attempt to cater for all scales of purchase in order to optimise if not maximise financial return; and there is considerable redundancy of choice in the numbers of centres competing with similar ranges of products. Moreover, the road hierarchy enables access to any part of the city, encouraged by high vehicle ownership, the low cost of vehicle usage and the enjoyment people obtain from driving around the system.

The Centre

To give a little more perspective, this is an old photograph of the first major retail centre in Doha. Known as ‘The Centre’, it was situated on the north east quadrant at the junction of the ‘C’ Ring Road and the Salwa Road and was, in the 1980s, a very large development compared with what existed at that time. Selling a wide variety of goods it immediately attracted not only an expatriate clientele, but also nationals, beginning the loosening of the social habits that tended to keep families at home.

Beside the canal in the Villagio centre

The largest retail development seems now to be the Villagio complex, established in the south-west of Doha, west of and adjacent to Sports City with access from Al Waab Street. It is about seven kilometres from the centre of Doha and is a significant attraction. This first photograph is of one side of a part of the mall with the Venetian canal glimpsed on the left with a bridge passing over it.

The design of the exterior is mediocre and embodies a handful of features thought to be typical of Italian architecture. Low, sloping tiled roofs, blind arcading, ambulatories, towers, semi-classical arches, banding and Tuscan colours are poorly grouped and articulated, and are true pastiche in their interpretation. But the project is designed to be surrounded by parking with its design focussed on the internal spaces. The most remarked upon feature of this interior appears to be the mock Venetian canal in its centre along with its motorised gondolas which take visitors too and fro. But its success in terms of public appreciation seems to be the manner in which it brings something of the West to this part of the Middle East. It is extremely popular.

A view of the ice rink area within the Villagio centre A square and street in the Villagio centre

The next two photographs show, first, a little of the ice rink area on the right, which is covered with a large, clear span dome and, in the photograph below it, the lead to one of the internal streets. As you can see, the chief feature of the first three photographs is that artificial sky which gives visitors the effect of being in a natural environment. In this it is remarkably effective though the paint is beginning to peel in places and will need better maintenance.

The streets are well sized, there is a significant variety of retail opportunities for visitors. Certainly at night it is well patronised. There are even government kiosks catering for people unable to get to government offices easily. This mix of retail and other opportunities makes the centre an enhanced shopping environment, one which has significant similarities with entertainment experiences.

The latest extension to the Villagio centre

It appears that the centre has been a success in terms of attraction though it would be too early to know of this has been reflected commercially. Because of this success the centre is being enlarged with a significantly scaled addition to its west as can be seen in this photograph taken in late 2008. Here there is a collection of up-market shops in a more sophisticated Italianate setting, one that has been used to form the walls of the mall which, as you can see, is both wide and high and will require considerable cooling resources.

A selection of district markets

Main roads have seen the opening of shops along them, in effect taking on the role of the more traditional local centres. This has been a reflection of land ownership and was, until recently, relatively unplanned. It has also been an expression of the manner in which merchants have operated in Qatar, taking on agencies for products known or thought to be necessary or saleable and, in a sense, permitted by the State as a method of distributing the increasing wealth.

Typical old strip development

The character of these local centres is, then, essentially linear. This photo illustrates one of the earlier developments, the paucity of design, lack of controls and a general air of neglect which does little to reflect the pace of development in the country. The shopping units contain the goods for which the merchant is the agent – often a peculiar mix – and vehicles park outside. Sometimes there are small units such as juice bars mixed with the units and, often, there is living accommodation directly above the units, though this housing is used by employees of the owner and never has nationals living there. The character of these local centres is unusual in that they reflect the goods of the agencies rather than a cross-section of goods required by the local population. The outcome of this is that many people have to move between centres to obtain what they want.

Typical new strip development

By contrast, here is a photograph of one of the more recent linear shopping centres, illustrating something of an improvement on earlier schemes, but still having intrinsic planning issues. Architecturally the development is not tightly controlled, allowing the individual units to demonstrate a range of average design skills. However, this type of development illustrates a number of planning issues that would benefit from future consideration.

The first has to do with angled parking, a notorious cause of accidents when parked cars are forced to back into circulating traffic. While the parking and its access are segregated from the main road by what I hope is a steel safety barrier, the problems of conflict still remain.

The second issue has to do with the nature of local centres. These centres obviously cater for a vehicular-borne population and tend to be lineal in layout. With no breaks in the two storey development there is only access to them from their hinterland at the ends, thus reducing the attraction of these centres to pedestrian access from local housing. This is not necessarily a bad decision as it reinforces the viability of local corner shopping facilities, something that may go some way toward consolidating neighbourhood relationships.

A third issue has to do with the design nature of these strips. The only element that separates them from the main road is, in this case, a steel fence. From a conceptional point of view the shopping units still front onto the road and are read as an element of the road, reinforcing their hard, urban character. It would be preferable to let them develop their own character by widening the median strip and planting it with suitable material. There would be no problem with identity, the only concern would be to ensure adequate sight lines for those entering and, particularly, leaving the slip road serving the shopping units.

Local centres are, however, well organised. Most, if not all, housing areas have small shops within them. Garages are commonly converted to sell the locally required goods or, even, the shop will have just begun as a hole in a property’s wall – though I should say that those days have mostly gone. Often the shop will have a person living on site, perhaps doubling as a watchman or gatekeeper, employed by the house owner. There will be a number of such shops, some competing, but with the units serving most domestic requirements as well as puncture repair and vehicle maintenance.

A selection of local markets

These local centres are all within walking distance of housing and are commonly used by the young, women and servants of the area. The shops reflect the needs of the local community in their opening hours and thus are very useful. Traditionally men did the shopping as women used not to leave the house. Nowadays this is not always the case though social codes of behaviour prefer to see women mixing together and not being seen publically. This is perhaps more so nowadays with the large proportion of foreign workers in the State, though I have heard the argument made more from the personal safety point of view than from those relating to family honour or the function of the haramlik.

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The mosque and urban design

In early Islam, the masjid was a simple building, based on the earliest place of prayer, the house of the Prophet in Madina in what is now Saudi Arabia. The adhaan, or call to prayer, was made from the roof of the house or masjid, there being an inhibition against seeing into the private parts of adjacent houses. In this sense, the masjid was another building within a predominately residential urban environment with little to distinguish itself architecturally. This accords with the consideration implicit in the stricter interpretation of Islam which saw later masaajid in Qatar developing as simple buildings with small manara, in line with wahhabi tradition. There are more notes here on the functional areas associated with masaajid and here for examples of traditional masaajid in Qatar.

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The mosque of the Prophet

A notional illustration of the first mosque

The house of the Prophet in Madina was the model of future masaajid though, regrettably, the basic model was lost in the continuous development that attended the need to enclose increasingly larger congregations. There are a number of sources describing the masjid, but they differ, perhaps resulting from conflation of the different phases of development, or from ambiguity. For instance a number of sources state that it was open, but that there was some shade against rain and sun provided by a structure of palm trunks and fronds. Others state that the construction was the height of a man, which might appear to be in conflict with the statement about there being covered areas. This note is chiefly based on the one which appears to me to be the most authoritative, or at least the most complete that I have found, though itself contains details that appear odd: for instance, that the foundations of the original structure were three yards deep. This notional sketch has been developed from a number of sources. Bear in mind that it may not be accurate.

It is difficult to be certain about the precise form of this first masjid, but it appears that the original was constructed as a courtyard adjacent to, and west of, the Prophet’s living quarters in 622 AD. The above illustration must be understood to be notional and may not be the most sensible layout. For instance while the masjid was adjacent to the the living quarters, it is not possible to say whether they formed part of the wall of the masjid and, if they were, whether access to the rooms was from the internal area of the masjid or not, or whether the rooms were completely discrete with some distance between them and the masjid. Although, influenced by other sources, the sketch above has the living quarters associated with the masjid, my feeling is that they are more likely to have been separate. Originally there were said to be only two rooms in the living quarters, but these were expanded by, perhaps, another seven rooms. If that is so it is also not possible to say how the rooms were organised, whether in a straight line or in some form of enclosure such as its own courtyard.

Perhaps the most sensible interpretation is that the original living quarters, two rooms with their openings facing east to guard against the prevailing north-west and south-west winds, had the masjid built to the west and adjacent to them and that, as the number of rooms expanded, they did so within a courtyard arrangement having access both from the outside as well as into the masjid through the bab al-nisa’, hence giving a degree of privacy to the living quarters.

It seems to be generally accepted that the original masjid was around 30 metres by 35 metres in size, the wall constructed of mud bricks with a covered area supported by palm trunks on the south wall, known as al-suffah. There were three doors to the courtyard, bab al-jibreelon the west wall, bab al-nisa’, the family entrance on the east wall and bab al-rahmahon the south wall, apparently associated with the al-suffah. In this area a number of people lived on an ad hoc basis. The qibla wall was on the north side of the courtyard where there was a raised platform, probably of mud and three steps high, for the reading of the holy quran, the qibla wall being oriented north towards Jerusalem. Some sources say that the wall had a covered roof supported on a colonnade of palm trunks, but it seems unclear if this was so, although the al-suffahwas certainly covered. I have also seen a report that the roof over the qibla wall was supported on a double colonnade of palm trunks supporting a covering of palm leaves sealed with clay. Whether this relates to the initial masjid or a later, enlarged, one, is unclear.

A short time later, and following the revelation of suratal-baqara, the qibla direction was set to the south in order to face the masjidal-haram, the Ka’ba, in the city of Mecca, and the masjid enlarged. I have assumed that the plan of the masjid was mirrored, the al-suffahmoving to the north.

Again, there is some uncertainty as to the actual size of the masjid, though it is said to have been doubled in size in 629 AD, which would have made it – assuming its original size was 1,050 sq.m. – around forty-five metres square – if it was, indeed, square. This would accord roughly with reports that it was 100 cubits square. A cubit was not as accurate a measure as might be hoped as it depended upon the average size of the men in the geographical area where it would be applied. Assuming it to be somewhere between 18 and 20 inches, or 46 and 50 cms, that would suggest a masjid of between 46 and 50 metres square. In 638 AD an additional 1,100 sq.m. was added and, in 650 AD, a further 496 sq.m. In 706 AD it was extended by 2,380 sq.m and its structure amended to a construction with proper foundations and stone columns. In 779 AD, another 2,450 sq.m. was added, the last extension for seven hundred years.

Prayer continued to be called from this type of building though, with the spread of Islam, masaajid were constructed for the specific purpose of prayer. In 673, four towers were erected on the corners of a masjid that had been constructed at Fustat in Egypt, thirty years previously. Known as sawaami’, it is probable that the purpose of these was for improving the circulation of air within the courtyard and building.

There seems to be considerable debate about the order in which other masaajid acquired a manara or more, as well as the reason for this development. Consensus suggests that they were emulations of Christian buildings but I have not been able to discover when they began to be used to call the adhaan or, in fact, if this was the initial intent. There is a possibility that a burj would be constructed to mark the position of a masjid for those who were strangers to the area.

Some sources suggest that the introduction of the first burj was essentially a political decision by ’Abbaasid religious authorities, holding that the inclusion of a burj was intended to demonstrate their power. This contrasted with Fatimid religious authorities who refused to recognise the demonstration of ’Abbaasid authority embodied in the burj, resulting in their masaajid continuing to be constructed without a burj – an ideological decision.

It is also notable that it was not until the ninth century that a burj generally became attached to a masjid.

At one stage the burj was banned by wahhabi authorities, a policy that is very much in accord with their requirements for simplicity and their abhorrence of decoration and ostentation. In fact there is a tradition accorded to the Fatimid theologian, Qadi al-Nu’man who died in 974, that the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, required a manara to be taken down, stating that it should not be higher than the roof of its masjid in order not to violate the privacy of adjacent houses.

Nevertheless, there appears to have been other reasons that saw the increasing incorporation of the burj with masjid designs. It would seem that somewhere between the ninth and eleventh centuries – perhaps coinciding with the end of ’Abbaasid authority – the burj was increasingly incorporated into the construction of masaajid, and became a manara, its generally accepted use today.

While the function of calling the faithful to prayer would have benefitted from the vantage point at the top of a manara, there is an obvious psychological importance in being called from this dominating position that signified the authority of the religious authorities. Not only that, but the incorporation of this vertical urban marker created a significant way-finding element in the amorphous character of urban developments.

The simplicity of the letter alif

There are also other arguments that were found for incorporating the narrow proportioned characteristics of the burj within the physical heart of the society. If you remember that Islam is a social code governing the lives of Muslims, you may not be surprised that the burj has been likened to both the numeral ‘one’ – a clear, single vertical stroke in Arabic – but also the similarly shaped first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alif. Both of these characters are argued to embody the concept of the unity of Islam, even though this may be considered to have an element of post-rationalisation to it, the architectural element of the manara being bid’a, although this may not have the negative connotations it originally had.

It may be fanciful, but you might also note that the hook created at the top of the letter by the initial positioning of the calligraphic pen has resonance with the generally understood version of the manara which is described as having a balcony at high level around it, from which the mu’adhin summons the faithful to prayer – or used to until the advent of electronic amplification made this technically redundant. Nevertheless, this form of manara – a slim tower with an open frame at its top associated with a form of balcony – is now the predominant pattern, as can be seen in the following image, and many others.

The minaret of a mosque in Doha

This photograph is of the manara of the al Mansuwra masjid in Doha. As you can see, it is not designed in the traditional architecture of the peninsula but owes its provenance to the architectural styles of the northern Arab world.

The design of manaaraat of this sort seems to have much to do with advertising a presence while, at the same time, forming an extremely useful way-finding marker in the urban street scene. As mentioned above, the incorporation of a manara into the overall design of a mosque is now a universally accepted element of the grouping. But it is the element of the masjid that is most apparent to us – for the obvious reason that it is there to signal as well as to create what may have once been its primary purpose, to act as a place for calling the faithful to pray. In this sense it is both a manara and a mi’dhana.

As such an important design element it seems only fair that it might be examined as an object and, in this example, it seems surprising that it should not fall within a recognised system of proportions. The letter ‘aliph’, for instance, commonly has the proportions of 1:7. This manara is of the proportion 1:9. But, more than this, it might be thought that the vertical elements of the manara would fall into a recognised and pleasing system of proportions, the most obvious being those of the Golden Mean or Section. But, as you can see, none of the sections has either an approximation to the Golden Section – 1.618 – nor do they appear to have much in the way of internal consistency with each other. It seems a pity that this should be so in such as prominent element of the urban landscape.

In the development of masaajid within Qatar, it is worth remembering the history of the peninsula and its association with wahhabi traditions of the hinterland. Both this tradition and relative poverty are likely to have combined to produce the masaajid typical to the country. Domestic in character, with relatively short abraaj, they were a precise reflection of the relationship between the population and their religion.

But it seems that, with the increasing numbers of expatriates moving into the country, particularly Muslims, architectural styles – for houses, schools and mosques – were directly affected by these professionals introducing the designs with which they were familiar into the peninsula where they were now living and employed. Looking at these designs the predominant influence appears to have been from the Indian sub-continent. The larger scale of development saw larger masaajid constructed, these having taller towers as by this time, two generations ago, this was the way in which it was considered normal to call the faithful to prayer. Although I have seen the call made from the top of a masjid, by a generation ago it was the norm to have loudspeakers attached, the mu’adhin standing at or near the entrance to the masjid with his microphone.

Well before this, the burj had become to many the signifying architectural element of the masjid, conflating the call to prayer with the masjid. This feature, perhaps together with the dome, are now thought to be proper characteristics of a masjid, though this wasn not the case with the masaajid developed in the early days of the Qatar peninsula. But the manara has now become the marker for congregational prayer within its area, a significant socio-religious statement and, in urban design terms, both an important vertical element in the urban landscape as well as a way-finding marker.

Comparison of Hagia Sophia with and without minarets

This view is also supported by the architect, Hassan Fathy, though for different reasons. He holds that the qubba is a necessary element of the architecture of a masjid in that it is an expression of the sky for those within the musalla. While from within the musalla this may well be the case, from the outside of the building the qubba has a different effect, one that is constraining and directing its energy towards the ground. Fathy argues – illustrating his point with alternative sketches of Hagia Sophia with and without manaraat – that it is necessary to employ the addition of manaraat in order to counter this effect, thus balancing any potential negative or downward aesthetic direction with the vertical energy directed by the manaraat.

As an aside, there is an interesting anomaly here with regards to the way-finding argument. Elsewhere i have discussed one of the important security aspects of traditional residential developments. The amorphous character of their layouts developed from ad hoc agglomeration of the housing and this served to make them impenetrable to strangers. The incorporation of elements that improve the ability to orientate and assist movement through a neighbourhood would have been in apparent conflict with the security of those living within it.

You should be aware of anomalies in the naming of minarets. I am aware that I have used the terms loosely and, perhaps, inaccurately. In English we refer to the towers associated with mosques as ‘minarets’. In the sense of it being a tower, perhaps burj is the preferable term to use. But you will have seen that I have used the Arabic terms, sawma’a, midhan’a and manara, apparently interchangeably or with respect to different geographical locations. Yet sawma’a was the name for the cell of an early Christian monk, and later appears to have become attached to the simple, square device designed to improve ventilation on early masaajid; the manara, from which is derived the English word, ‘minaret’, has the meaning of a sign or signpost; and, midhan’a is the place from which the adhaan, or call to prayer, is made. Thus the etymology of these three words is not geographical in nature, but functional.

A night view of a typical small modern mosque

Finally, you should be aware that, while the presence of manaaraat around the city provide distinctive way-finding elements as well as identifiers for the area in which they are located, their presence at night is even more important as other elements of the urban environment become hidden or changed by the night. This photograph is of an ordinary, small modern masjid seen just after dusk in the south of Doha, and distinctive to those around it by its outline and lighting.

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Integration of the mosque and community

A local mosque

All housing areas in the country have masaajid associated with them. The masjid is an intrinsic element of an Islamic society and needs to be seen not just as a place of worship but as an essential part of any residential area, in the sense of its being an extension of the house. As I have written elsewhere, muslimeen pray five times a day, some of those prayers being more important than others in that they are made in public. Commonly, the men of the household will walk to the masjid to pray before moving on to work, back to their house or on to one of the nearby majaalis.

Mosque in the north of the NDOD

masaajid are provided within easy walking distance of all housing usually on the basis of about one masjid to sixty or seventy houses. The salat al-maghrib prayers, particularly, are an important marking of the day and are commonly followed by the men of the area moving off to a majlis, usually a nearby one associated with the socio-cultural group to which each belongs, where they will talk over the matters of the day, issues related to their family and other business. At this time of night the masjid forms an attractive focus to the community with the act of going to worship tending to characterise both the activities around it as well as the relaxed mood in the majaalis afterwards.

A street scene with mosque in Wakra

But the same is true for the daytime where, despite the frenetic pace of development in Qatar, life seems to move relatively peacefully. Here is an unpaved street in a typical older residential area of Wakra with, forming an important focal point at the end of the street, a traditional masjid with its manara recognisably Qatari by its proportions and shape. Cars are parked in the late afternoon shade and pedestrians are going about their normal business. This is a very common sight, one that will be familiar to those living in and around this type of development. It is this combination of housing and masjid that demonstrates the socio-cultural relationship between muslimeen and their physical link with Islam.

Not all masaajid sit well within their physical environment. There are a number of reasons for this, the main two being the fact that masaajid must face in one particular direction and, secondly, that they tend to be located adjacent to roads. While it is true that many people will travel to their masjid by car, a more Islamic relationship would be that enjoyed by those travelling on foot. In particular, this would require the move from the urban, residential area and its association with the activities of the day, to the place of prayer through not only those spaces associated with preparation to prayer – moving onto the ground of the masjid, the removal of shoes, ablution, the musalla – but also an external area of public space that helps prepare for the prayer to come.

A theoretical example of a mosque located at the entrance to a cul-de-sac

Within an urban environment, masaajid are more likely to be squeezed into sites where they have contiguous walls with other buildings, and where their entrances may have been dependent upon historical decisions, more than likely, accidental or unconsidered. In suburban settings, however, there is a tendency to situate masaajid on sites that would otherwise have a residential development on them. These can occur in different geometrical arrangements due to the necessities of orientation, but may also be found at the end of a run of residential plots in an exposed setting, sometimes with roads on three sides of them. This may be a benefit in providing areas for parking, even though this may create circulation problems with traffic. But it also opens up the masaajid to full inspection.

In some ways the ability to have masaajid stand by themselves as discrete elements of an urban landscape seems wrong. Although the burj can be seen as a marker, way-finder or identifying element of a particular urban environment or family group, it may appear so chiefly as an element of a Western urban design vocabulary and perspective. The real importance in the setting of a masjid is in its approach both by foot and, as is now important, by vehicle. The sequences of space need to be very carefully considered and structured in order to assist those called to prayer as they move physically and psychologically from the surrounding environment into the musalla.

Hassan Fathy, in his unpublished work on mosque architecture strongly promotes the importance of the masjid as an element in the urban design of the Muslim street. He argues that the masjid has always been pre-eminent in the urban fabric, both in the appearance of its burj as a focal point or landmark, as well as by its plan location with regard to the street. He makes the point that its position should be marked either in its being pushed into the public domain, or by being rebated within the urban fabric away from the coarseness of the day-to-day life on the street. Essentially he is asking for a more considered positioning of the masjid especially with regard to its entrance. As I have written elsewhere, it is not just the entrance but the whole sequence of spaces from the public realm to the area for prayer that has to be carefully considered.

Of course, there is the important point that, in a Muslim state, where the Holy Quran and ahaadith govern behaviour in its widest sense, it can be argued that the location of a masjid must be an imperative of urban design, an issue that is increasingly difficult to fulfil with the growing density of urban development and, particularly, tall buildings that tend to mask the sighting of masaajid.

The Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul – by courtesy of Wikipedia The Shah mosque, Isfahan – by courtesy of Wikipedia

It is evident that the present trend of architecture in the Gulf is to produce buildings that are designed to be seen in the round. I have argued elsewhere that this does not accord with Islamic principles and, in a masjid, arguably this would be more so. There are certainly some famous masaajid around the world that stand apart within their urban context, but there are also masaajid that are hidden from direct approach. The upper example to the right is the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, Turkey which started life as a Christian church and perhaps exemplifies a building that can be seen in the round, whereas the lower photo, of the Shah mosque in Isfahan, Iran, is approached from the great maidaan obliquely, though I have to admit that its size does make it an element of the urban scene. However, it is not an object to be seen and appreciated in the round. The approach sequence is beautifully considered, those moving into the mosque going through an evolving series of pedestrian scaled spaces that enhance the purpose of entry.

This sequencing of spaces seems to be more suited to the purpose of prayer. It is suggested as a design objective or imperative even where the planning framework and site suggest the building be treated as an object in the round. It follows that the design of a masjid should be considered as a series of external and internal spaces related to the character of the area in which it sits, rather than as a separate building standing alone from the community.

A theoretical example of a mosque located at the entrance to a cul-de-sac

Compare this sketch with that just above. It is intended to illustrate a notional change to the manner in which a masjid might be designed in order to play down its appearance as a separate building and emphasise its integration into the life of the area. Here the masjid has been designed to have a screen around it with, immediately outside, a place for drinking as well as a dikka, the intent being to provide a shaded area for sitting, in effect an informal majlis, an intermediate point between the public and religious realms. To emphasise the integration of masjid and housing, the paving would be taken across the access road to the cul-de-sac and could, of course, be extended to the distributor road outside, again marking the importance of the masjid in the urban design of the area.

Although there are a number of trends operating to diminish the physical proximity of masjid and house, this physical proximity is still important and should be more carefully considered in future.

The mihrab in a new mosque

My intention here has been to make notes on the external relationship of masaajid with their setting, but it might also be useful to make a note about their interiors. In the smaller masaajid there seems to be a return to simpler designs. Whether this is a reflection of wahhabi influence or of other trends, I don’t know, but here is the mihrab of a small masjid that appears to indicate the wish to have little to distract the worshipper. Unfortunately, cabling to lights, a speaker system and air-conditioning units just out of picture, has rather diminished the effect.

more to be written…

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The design of new mosques in the peninsula

The manara of the al-Mansuwra mosque

There are over two thousand masaajid in Qatar. The increase in population and the consequent demands for development in Qatar have witnessed the design and construction of a large number of masaajid in the peninsula. In conformance with Islamic tradition they range in scale from the small local masaajid, commonly within a short walking distance of those needing to have access to pray, to the larger masaajid al juma’a, the masaajid used for the communal Friday prayers and to which people both walk and drive. As with other buildings in the peninsula, these masaajid encompass a wide variety of architectural styles as can be seen in this photograph of the manara of the al-Mansuwra masjid, demonstrating that not all of them having reference to the architectural traditions of the peninsula but draw upon a wide variety and longer tradition of masjid design.

In various parts of these notes there are comments on Islamic design and how it might be defined, as well as on the importance of designing honestly. At its simplest, I suggested that true Islamic design is produced by local Islamic culture. It is expressed in the architecture, design, music, organisations and structures of Islamic society – wherever they are found. Thus we should anticipate that Islamic design will differ from place to place, reflecting those traditions, pressures and solutions found by each cultural group, as well as the different vocabularies and materials available to them. By extension we might hope not to find considerable stylistic interventions from abroad.

If this is true then I would anticipate differences in the architecture dependent upon geography at least. But this appears not to be happening. Instead, the Western trend of internationalism is creating architecture which is location insensitive and tends to follow international architectural trends. Bear in mind that Qatar has had a wahhabi tradition, and that much of its traditional architecture is based on simple, unmannered design.

The qubba mosque in the centre of Doha – with the permission of hectorlo on Flickr

The first example of a new design shown here for a masjid in Qatar is interesting in that it is a development of a much earlier structure. In this aerial photograph the masjid, known as the Qubib masjid because of the domes roofing the musalla. The masjid has been developed within an extended compound that did not exist with the previous building which was demolished in 2008 but was itself a copy – albeit larger – of an earlier building that can be glimpsed in some of the old aerial photographs – the white building next to the water on the lower right edge of the photograph. This new masjid with its eleven bays and the surrounding associated development is an interesting reinterpretation of what an Islamic compound with its ancillary functions might have looked like, though in a more affluent State two or three generations ago.

The mosque at the Sharq development

This next example of new mosque architecture in Qatar is interesting as it uses a number of traditional features, but does so in an unusual way. Constructed as part of the Sharq development this masjid is small and designed utilising trabeated forms – seen at the entrance on the right and in its fenestration, as well as a stylised roofline articulated in a form reminiscent of the traditional badgheer, but with no attempt, or need, to create a functional system. But this has been married to a corner element more associated with shurfa and fortified buildings. There are also maraazim on the qibla wall but not on the other walls, which seems the correct way of treating them – reflecting a single-fall roof.

But the most unusual element of the masjid is its manara which, as you will see, is the same height as the roof of the main masjid building. The height is lower than any traditional manaaraat i have seen, even this one I photographed in the north of the peninsula in 1972. It style, however, follows that of other masaajid in the country, as you can see in this example at al-Arish, though with necessarily smaller openings. As with most masaajid, it is not a functional manara but, unlike most modern or updated manaaraat, the loudspeakers are not on the manara but are mounted exposed directly on the roof of the masjid – rightly or wrongly.

The minaret of the Ain Khalij mosque in Doha

By way of contrast, here is a photograph of the top of the manara of another new masjid, the Ain Khalij, that illustrates a different type of approach to the design of masaajid from that employed in the photograph above. This design has absolutely nothing in common with any of the traditional work in the peninsula, either on masaajid or any of the secular buildings. It is certainly not informed by wahhabi traditions, the design having more in common with the architecture of religious buildings in other parts of the Arab world. The drum of the burj is octagonal, there are hints of stalactitic work below the top balcony and, above that, of shurfa detailing. There are perforated mushrabiyaat in the windows at the bottom of the photograph, though within a shape that is not usual in traditional Qatari buildings.

The minaret of a mosque in Doha

The top of this manara falls between the two styles. It has a simplicity to it which accords with the traditions of the peninsula, and the four openings at balcony level have the staggered head design that can be found in many buildings and relates to trabeated forms. The octagonal shaft of the burj and the pendentives supporting the balcony level are not typical, however, and the staggered roofed cap of the manara seems particularly alien to local traditions. But there are two interesting features to note. The first is the addition of vertical brackets to support lighting tubes, though why they should be located where they are, is unclear. They appear to have been added as an afterthought compared with the loudspeakers which have, unusually, been incorporated into the structure in a relatively coherent design manner.

The minaret of a mosque in Doha

This photograph illustrates the usual method of incorporating loudspeakers at the to of a manara. The speakers are just fixed to the top of the balustrade and pointed outwards. There is no attempt to conceal or to incorporate them into the design as has been done in the example above. There is an interesting point here. When working on the restoration of traditional buildings, the master craftsmen tend to favour exposing any elements that would not have been there in the original design. Red pyro cable, for instance, is usually face-fixed and not led below the plastered wall face, and this also tends to hold for wiring to electric fittings. In the case of new designs it would seem that, like the provision of air-conditioners on buildings, it will take a little time for loudspeakers to be incorporated sensitively. Bear in mind that this is one element of the manara that is known about from the beginning of its design.

Al Mansuwra minaret by night

In similar design vein to the two photographs above, is the al Mansuwra mosque which, by night, shows something of the complexity of some of the newer masaajid being constructed in the peninsula. The pendentives seem to be a recurring design feature in many of their manara, but the over-elaboration is inconsistent with the original architectural detailing of traditional buildings.

A mosque at al Khisah

You will see that I have made no attempt to classify the designs of mosques or, more relevant here, their manaaraat. This masjid has been included as it represents a slightly different style of design from the two into which most of the masaajid might be grouped, certainly by their manaaraat. At its simplest, their manaaraat could be seen to fall within one of two basic style groups: the traditional, and those heavily influenced by northern Arabic styles and usually characterised by their tall proportions.

While it is interesting to see that the corners of the masjid have been accentuated, a local feature, it is the manara that is interesting here. This burj is very different, its proportions unusual with its heavy base surmounted by three short stages topped by a supported and decorated hemispherical dome, to a small extent similar to the main qubba. The manara is also unusual in being square on plan rather than octagonal, though the stages it supports revert to the more traditional octagonal plan.

A simply designed mosque, Doha, 1986 The east face of a simply designed mosque, Doha, 1986

The design of this masjid is quite different from those above in that the shapes forming the main elements of the complex have been rationalised and reduced to their simplest geometric forms – or almost simplest. In this the masjid can be considered to reflect the simple geometric forms of the early masaajid of the peninsula, perhaps a more accurate interpretation of the wahhabi traditions on which the country might be thought to have been based.

In many ways this is an attractive design in its basis in the cubed and hemispherical forms although the east and entrance side of the masjid disappoints slightly in the resolution of the strong semicircular canopy and its two side elements which join above its natural horizontal diagonal.

The top of the minaret of a simply designed mosque

The manara follows the design of the hemisphere over the musalla, but there is a difference which is a little uncomfortable. Instead of following the form of the dome and its continuity into a drum form, the top of the manara is treated as a hemisphere sitting on four circular columns, creating a discontinuity at this junction which might be thought to detract from the basic simplicity seen in the dome over the musalla. Having said that, there is a degree of interest created by dissociating the hemisphere from the four columns. As always, the loudspeakers are not integrated into the design, to its detriment.

The qibla wall of the masjid in suq Waqf, 2008

In the centre of Doha’s suq Waqf is a masjid used by those who work in the suq or who find themselves there at the times of prayers. Constructed on two levels, the qibla wall faces the street and is dominated by the mihrab indicating the direction of prayer, providing a distinctive element in the urban design of the street. Perhaps because of this, the architect of the masjid has decorated the qibla wall with a blind running frieze of a simple traditional pattern to enliven its surface.

The minaret of the masjid in suq Waqf, 2008

On the east side of the masjid there is a manara marking its location, and designed in the traditional style of the peninsula with a battered shaft sitting on a square base, and a simple domed head with four pointed arched openings together with small rectangular openings lighting the internal circular staircase. Here the manara is viewed within the context of the redesigned suq Waqf in a semblance of its original form and architecture.

The interior of the masjid in suq Waqf, 2008

The interior of the new masjid, the musalla, continues much of the feeling of the original masjid in its form and character. The column and beam construction is a strong suggestion of the character of the traditional masaajid in Qatar. The heads of the columns have been decorated in the traditional manner but, reducing the clarity of the architecture, small shelf units have been added to the columns for the benefit of those needing copies of the holy quran. The carpet sets out the lines for those praying, and the mihrab can just be glimpsed left of centre, wall clocks on each side of it. There is no air-conditioning and ceiling mounted fans are provided to cool those using the musalla.

Wholesale Street mosque’s minaret by night

Perhaps more in keeping with the traditions of the country is this masjid on Wholesale Street. The manara has an uncomplicated feel to it, the shaft of the burj being circular and with the support to the balconies created more simply than by the use of pendentives. The top of the manara is treated as a ribbed dome similar in design to the main dome over the prayer hall. There are two curious features of this design. The first is that the openings in the shaft of the burj imply a series of floors rather than reflecting a spiral staircase, the more usual arrangement in manaaraat. The other oddity to the complex is that the tower windows are all finished with semi-circular headed windows, whereas the masjid incorporates, for the most part, pointed arches.

The manara of a new mosque with attached loudspeakers

The manaaraat illustrated above belong to some of the larger and more important masaajid in the peninsula. But the majority of masaajid are, of course, the smaller ones associated with residential communities, to which the local residents are able to walk in comfort five times a day. Designed to serve around seventy residences each, they tend to have individual designs, while following the standard requirements for masaajid established by the Awqaf. This example is typical of the sort; in this case a circular column incorporating four, narrow, continuous, vertical windows rises from an octagonal base to a projecting concrete balcony supporting a minimal decorative steel balustrade. Eight circular columns support haunched, flat arches, on which a conical dome rises to a finial in the design of the moon and star, the latter a feature which seems to have taken over from the traditional, mushroom type of finial. As with many masaajid, the four loudspeakers are not integrated into the design but lie on the balcony.

The top of a minaret at al-Khor – with the permission of mistymorning23 on Flickr

These two photographs are each of the heads of two relatively new manaaraat constructed in al-Khor. In themselves, they are not exceptional designs, nor are the masaajid to which they are attached. They are included here because they are representative of some of the designs that have been introduced to the peninsula and exist within the same town.

The top of a minaret at al-Khor – with the permission of mistymorning23 on Flickr

There are a few obvious similarities in their design. Both have octagonal shafts – though the first is sub-divided to create sixteen parts to the upper elements, and the latter sits on a square base – and both have a conical finishing to the burj, yet their characters are dissimilar, having differing degrees of connection with local traditions. The upper design has, to me, a more primitive and African feel to it, perhaps engendered by the canopy to the walkway which gives the top of the burj something of the look of a Fulani hat from West Africa, while it also has something in common with the far more elaborate burj in Doha shown above. By contrast the lower design is more refined and integrated with the body of the masjid, with the shaft of the burj taken up through the canopy before narrowing to the applied crescent finial. In this, and with the smaller and more unusual, circular openings in the burj, there appears a stronger link to the traditional architecture of the peninsula.

The top of a minaret at the Industrial Area – with permission from alexcheek on Flickr

Generally, the photographs here illustrate manaaraat that have been functionally designed and, perhaps, embellished. Here is an example suggesting an inexpensive approach to their design. The majority of mosque designs have their minarets established in plan with an octagonal base. Occasionally their design may diverge, particularly at the top of the structure, but octagonal geometry fits readily with the orthogonal character of most structures. In the case of this manara, the structure is based on a simple square plan and, at its top, the gallery is roofed by a two-stage construction with pyramidical capping, surmounted by a traditional crescent device.

This manara was constructed in the Industrial Area and is evidently a small and low-cost exercise. Two loudspeakers have been located in the gallery and the element on the left of the shaft is, I believe, decorative lighting. It is interesting to see how the perceived design and practical requirements for a manaaraat have been interpreted by those working in the Industrial Area, the majority, if not all of whom might be anticipated to be expatriates. While this should be understood to be a temporary and small-scale structure, it is fascinating to see how the importance of this element of masjid design has been interpreted.

The Ahmed Yusef al-Jaber mosque – courtesy of Google Earth

Increasingly, it appears that the designers of masaajid, both in Qatar and elsewhere in the Muslim world, seek to redefine the spaces in and around which the faithful worship. This aerial photograph is of the Ahmed Yusef al-Jaber masjid, situated in the east Hilal area of Doha. It is an interesting grouping for a number of reasons, particularly for its geometrical form on plan, one that emphasises the centre of the circle.

The main structure is circular on plan and has been constructed with thirty-three concrete ribs radiating from its geometric centre, this relating to an important number in Islamic prayer. The fan-shaped arrangement on its east side appears to be established by five of the ribbed divisions suggesting that the mihrab wall will be immediately opposite, and curved. However, I believe the entrance must use two or four of the ribs otherwise the qibla would coincide with a rib. Unusually, there appears to be no external visual expression of the qibla on the outside of the building, or within the ambulatory arrangement that encircles the masjid, other than the curved wall.

A view of the Ahmed Yusef al-Jaber mosque from the west

Here is a view of the complex from, approximately, the west, illustrating the architectural scale, vocabulary and massing that create this striking grouping and bring visual liveliness into the area when read against the modern residential architecture in which it is located. It might be that there is lip service being paid to a tented structure, but the central element and manara do not have any regard to the traditional architecture of the peninsula. Whether they should or not has been argued elsewhere in a number of places in these notes.

A view of the ambulatory of the Ahmed Yusef al-Jaber mosque

The ambulatory surrounding the musalla is an interesting feature, its design suggesting half of an ogee arch, but the detailing is clumsy, if not dangerous to pedestrians, and its purpose is questionable as it places outside the masjid a feature that would be traditionally within it – albeit on a larger scaled masjid. My understanding is that its normal purpose would be to aid reflection or contemplation; placing it on the outside of the masjid is likely to conflict with that function. Although it is not easily seen on these photographs, the grouping is set on a plinth with around six steps from the surrounding ground to the floor level of the ambulatory. These serve to cut the masjid off from those requiring access functionally as well as visually or notionally when the very function of the building should be to encourage ease of access for the faithful and to integrate it into the surrounding community rather than, literally, to set it on a pedestal.

A detail of the head of the minaret of the Ahmed Yusef al-Jaber mosque

The head of the manara is a dominating visual feature but, unusually, has no real gallery – though it might be argued that nowadays this is not a requirement as most manaaraat use loudspeakers to summon the faithful to prayer. The architectural elements, as mentioned previously, have little or not relevance to Qatar and might be found anywhere in the Muslim world. It seems strange that the architecture of religious buildings in Qatar appears to be moving away from the simple strength of the earlier models, particularly when bearing in mind the character of religion in Qatar.

But these comments really only reflect my views of the details. The oddest decision that was taken in the design of this masjid was to base it on a circular form. While Christian religious buildings tend to be linear with their focus on the altar and the celebrants leading the service, Islam treats all as equals, with those praying doing so in lines at right angles to the direction of Mecca. This requires a musalla that is wide and not long, giving parity to those praying. A circular space does not allow this and can even suggest a hierarchy antithetical to Islam.

A detail of the head of the minaret of the Ahmed Yusef al-Jaber mosque

It is not possible to say if this is a trend either in Qatar or in the Islamic world, but here is another example similar to, but smaller than that above. Although not circular but octagonal this masjid, adjacent to the al-Andalus petrol station on the ‘C’ Ring Road, is likely to have similar problems with the arranging of its internal spaces. This photograph of it from the west shows that there is the traditional mihrab expressed externally but, unusually, the manara is closed at the top with a square pyramid, no gallery below it and an unfortunate connection with the octagonal shaft of the burj. Nor is there evidence of loudspeakers on the manara for they are located on the eaves of the masjid.

The folded roof structure allows light to penetrate into the interior of the musalla through shaded clerestory windows, and is set back from a heavily expressed horizontal eaves, both features that will help reduce external noise. But the octagonal theme has been interpreted two-dimensionally both in plan and on the elevations of the manara, whereas a more coherent or a more three-dimensionally inspired design might have been effected. To the Western eye, this grouping might even have an ecumenical feel, the manara having some resemblance to a clock tower.

The top of the minaret of the Ibn al Khattab mosque in Doha

A number of masaajid – for both daily and juma’a use – have been constructed in Qatar over the years in order to meet the needs of the burgeoning Muslim population. Perhaps one of the more important of them in architectural terms is that known as the Ibn al-Khattab masjid, situated at the junction of Ibn al-Khattab Street and the al-Shamal Road or Doha Expressway in south Medinat Khalifa.

A view from the courtyard of the minaret on the Ibn al Khattab mosque in Doha

The first photograph shows the head of the manara, octagonal on plan and utilising a series of simply organised flat arches organised in receding planes to articulate its decoration. This vocabulary has been taken right through the building, creating a harmony of relationships by integrating all the elements of the architecture of the masjid. This may seem the normal requirement of a work of architecture but, regrettably, it is anything but the norm.

A detail of external decoration on the Ibn al Khattab mosque in Doha

It is just possible to see, on the parapet surrounding the top of the manara, a naqsh pattern derived from the traditional designs to be found in Qatar. It is formed from a series of spinning arms, based on eight-part geometry, running in an anti-clockwise direction and repeated on each face of the octagon. In the lower areas of the building pre-cast naqsh panels are used to enliven the façade, bringing into the design traditional elements of the architecture of the peninsula.

The reflecting pool and courtyard inside the Ibn al Khattab mosque in Doha

The entrance courtyard, or sahn, is more strongly contained than is usual, the elements of the building integrated on three sides, the entrance face defined by a long beam supported on a number of columns with simplified columns and bases. Inside the sahn there is a reflecting pool raised around half a metre from the pavement, surrounded by a channel and with a single fountain provided in its centre in much the same way as was found in traditional Islamic gardens or courtyards.

The architecture of building is relatively austere compared with other new works. Although this is not an inexpensive building it is arguably in keeping with the wahhabi traditions of the country in its clean lines and the architectural vocabulary it incorporates. This is not always the case with other masaajid in the peninsula.

A view of the Amr bin Jundab mosque in the New District of Doha

One of the early masaajid built in the New District of Doha was that of Amr bin Jundab, situated at the junction os Samriya and Al Adaid Streets, north of the Central Post Office which can be seen in the distance. The masjid was constructed as a low dome supported on a regular octagonal plan with the geometry being carried through to the manara, both of which can be readily understood in this photograph. Though simpler, it has much in common with the masjid above, this simplicity perhaps being more in keeping with the older traditional masaajid in the peninsula.

A view of the Airport mosque – courtesy of Akbar Nemati on Pexels

Sitting on a circular podium with its manara enclosed in a second, smaller circular wall approximately to its south-south-west, sits the public masjid at Hamad International Airport. Completely circular on plan and surrounded by a water feature, it is covered in diamond- or triangular-shaped glass panels established on thirty-two radials allowing light into the interior by day, lighting at night being provided by an array of pendant lights.

The manara is thirty-six metres high and is developed in three stages with a similar curved shape to the Torch Hotel to the west of Doha with, at its crown, a feature which seems to be an open grille.

It appears that the qibla is not expressed externally but sits as an arrangement of vertical white marble panels within the volume of the musalla, the prayer area being only around half the volume of the overall shape, a timber grille circling the space with, between it and the roof system, a band of calligraphy which livens the otherwise calm interior.

There are notes on the State mosque on one of the other urban design pages.

The development of masaajid continues on the peninsula in order to match the increasing population and the need to repair or rebuild many of them. The masaajid display a wide variety of designs, not all of them interpreted within the more strict religious character of the country.

The leaning mosque at al-Shahaniyah – developed from an image on Google Earth

One of the most recent has been developed at al-Shahaniyah by a member of the Royal family with considerable business interests, and has been added to his private museum as an extension and demonstration of his wide interests. This aerial view shows the simple layout of its roof plan and the relationship of the manara to its south-east. The plan shows a single barrel vault running the length of the building turning down to become the mihrab. Three barrel vaults on each side of the roof connect into the main barrel vault. Within the masjid the barrel vaults can be seen to be supported on beams clad in timber.

The leaning minaret at al-Shahaniyah

Both the adjacent masjid and manara have been designed to lean, though at different angles, the manara’s being significant. How this design principle can accord with the precepts of Islam or with its interpretation within the peninsula won’t be assessed here, however the patron views the design of the masjid and associated manara as paying homage to traditional Islamic architecture while being innovative and demonstrating the country’s commitment to progress. It is also an attraction to the adjacent, large private museum housing an eclectic collection of artefacts and, even, houses.

Ignoring the leaning issue, the design of the complex does have something of the simple character of the more traditional architecture of the peninsula. Cantilevering from a substantial foundation, the twenty-seven metre tall, battered shaft of the manara inclines at 20°, has a smooth finish and is surmounted with a decorative capping of Egyptian copper and finial. As is usual, there is an internal metal staircase allowing a muwadhin to make his regular appearance although most muwadhin rely upon electronic amplification of their calls to prayer.

The leaning mosque at al-Shahaniyah

In contrast to the manara, the masjid has a solid but curious feel to its architecture which is perhaps likely to disturb some who have perception or balance difficulties. Its construction is of roughly faced stonework quarried on site creating a building which is tall in proportion to its plan. The proportions of the floor are long across its width, a normal layout of masaajid. The interior is a simple, undecorated space lit by three semi-circular headed windows on the north and south sides infilled with coloured glass with no traditional pattern, and the designs on the south being different from those on the north. This lack of ornamentation also accords with the traditions of the peninsula.

The entrance doors to the leaning mosque at al-Shahaniyah

The entrance is, however, unusual in that instead of a single doorway there are two adjacent doorways containing timber doors within which are clear glass panels at eye level, coloured glass above. More unusual is the arrangement of the windows above the doors which are semi-circular headed coloured glass windows, one divided in two horizontally, its neighbour in three. The second eccentricity is that the heads of the two windows at the west end of the south, entrance, wall are higher than the two on the east end, a consequence of the leaning design.

Floor covering of the leaning mosque at al-Shahaniyah

The musalla is approached through an iwan approximately two metres deep, and is covered with five lines of what appear to be butted large prayer mats, though their long side is arranged parallel with the mihrab wall. A raised area or minbar is set within the mihrab. There is no air-conditioning for the space, and lighting is from modern designed octagonal pendant chandeliers.

There appears to be no accommodation for a muwadhin on or adjacent to the masjid, nor is there space for the activities preceding prayer such as for wudhuw’.

more to be written…

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The design of new mosques

A scheme for a suq and mosque in Sharjah A scheme for a suq and mosque in Sharjah

The Gulf States have witnessed dramatic increases in their populations as a reflection of the considerable wealth created from the oil and gas located there. The concomitant physical development has included a significant number of new masaajid designed and built, virtually all of them reflecting the traditional patterns of layout that have developed over time and represented by most of the existing masaajid of the Qatar peninsula, if not the Arabian peninsula. This illustration is not of a design for Qatar but for Sharjah where a Western architectural company produced this design for the suq, adjacent to which was a masjid designed in what was considered to be a similar style. Yet the suq can be seen to have a burj al-hawwa device on top of it reflecting something of the traditional architecture of the region, but the masjid has a design character more common to northern Islamic states. Some have likened the suq to a Western train station, for while the interior has something of the traditional suq about it, the scale and simplicity of detailing is markedly different from the traditions of the region.

An aerial view of a mosque design for Abu Dhabi – with the permission of Rux Design, New York

There are a number of exceptions in the design of the new masaajid in Qatar, but they tend to follow the requirements embodied in the traditional designs which can be seen all over the Islamic world. In general they do not follow the simplicity of Wahhabi traditions and are never as different in concept as the design that follows, and which is discussed for the novel issues it introduces.

This scheme won a competition held for Abu Dhabi in 2010 where the requirement was to think about the possibilities presented by the design of masaajid as fundamentally as possible. The result is illustrated here because it is a radical departure from the traditional approach to their design, and deserves examination. The aerial perspective here, and the plan and section below, illustrate how the scheme is intended to fit within its urban framework.

Plan of a mosque design for Abu Dhabi – with the permission of Rux Design, New York

In this design, the masjid is seen not as an enclosed building but as a part of the public realm. As such it is an urban element that is visually open, its containing walls and the directions they create contributing to the sense of public ownership. It might be considered, in urban design terms, to be a public meeting place and thoroughfare were it not for the fact that the prayer area is stepped and can not be crossed, circulation being peripheral. In an urban setting this creates an ambiguity, though not in terms of its traditional use; in the latter sense it preserves the central space as a prayer area, confirming its role as a communal facility.

Section through a mosque design for Abu Dhabi – with the permission of Rux Design, New York

The purpose of a masjid is as a setting where members of the community are brought together at specific times for communal prayer. Elsewhere I have noted that there have been, and continue to be in some parts of the world, other purposes related to education, health and communal care that are commonly found there. Usually these are in associated spaces but can occur within the prayer hall itself which can be thought of as a haven open to all, but one in which there is a sense of calm that enables those praying to relax and focus. Having passers-by able to see in, and for those inside to see out is likely to be unacceptable. While the stated intent admirably wishes to assist in connecting prayer with the spiritual and cultural setting of the town, prayer requires and deserves visual and aural peace.

There is, of course, a tradition of open areas established for prayer such as the ’eid mosques where large numbers of people will meet to celebrate. It is also a fact that people will stand both within an open courtyard or adjacent to a masjid when it is too full. But bear in mind that in some parts of the Muslim world, all commercial and recreational activities close when the call to prayers is made.

View of the minbar and public ablution pool of a mosque design for Abu Dhabi – with the permission of Rux Design, New York

Although I believe this to be an important design, there seems to me to be a conceptual problem with the three-dimensional shape of the prayer area and its containing elements. Here it is the pointed and stepped effects that may cause problems. In prayer all are equal. In traditional terms this has always meant that those praying line up, shoulder to shoulder, facing the qibla wall that signifies the direction of prayer. The use of the enclosing building façades to create the mihrab is a clever way of integrating the masjid into the urban fabric, but while the triangular design can be argued to have the same rationale as the qibla wall, it automatically has the effect of creating an apparent hierarchy, an effect magnified by the ascending steps that have resonance in my mind with Christian concepts and traditions which include hierarchical leadership, a structure inimical to Islam.

Perspective view of a mosque design for Abu Dhabi – with the permission of Rux Design, New York

Returning to the urban design aspects of the design, provision has been considered for a canvas shade structure, in effect turning the open space into an enclosed building. In this part of the world this is likely to be a necessity during the summer months and a certain benefit during the winter months, unless there are alternative facilities that may be used on the occasions when it rains.

Finally, there is the issue of the natural amphitheatre created by the stepped prayer area. In towns where there are gently stepped areas, it is common for people to sit, meet, talk and enjoy the day or night in a setting that naturally focuses, in this case, on the east, lower end of the space. These are natural activities and are suggested in the competition drawings. While these activities may be supported, it is less clear if the steps might be used as seating for events at the east end of the area. It would be a pity if they were not.

Some of my comments may seem critical, but I believe this to be a fascinating scheme that, if it is to be constructed, will signify a very different model for future projects. It will not be a model for all masaajid, but it is a significant scheme. The thinking behind it is radical and deserves to be studied seriously both by those who will be responsible for its operation as well as others involved in the design of other masaajid.

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Increasing variety in the design of masaajid

As might be anticipated, the design styles of masaajid differ across the Islamic world, varying in response to traditions, culture and, in the past, the materials and construction techniques available. Now there is a greater awareness of the Islamic ummah, more funds available, increased design capabilities through the use of computers and novel materials and, perhaps, an intent to present the religion more strongly through its physical edifices.

But many of these new masaajid designs seem to be schematic projects. Whether this is deliberate policy – perhaps testing the likely reception of those who will use them – is unclear. What is clear is that many of the designs appear to moving toward a grander scale and increasing cost as architectural experiments are developed and refined.

In the main it seems that there will be a continuing use of the burj, more radical architectural designs reflecting aspirations of the states in which the masaajid are to be constructed and, perhaps, a reinterpretation of those parts of the masjid set aside for family worship.

more to be written…

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The Sancaklar masjid in Turkey

External view of the Sancaklar mosque

It may be that some of the above reasons reflect clients accepting or directing significant design changes in the creation or alteration of masaajid in different parts of the world; and it seems that there are many other styles developing. For example this photograph is of the Sancaklar masjid, completed in 2012 in Büyükçekmece, a Turkish suburb on the outskirts of Istanbul.

External view of the Sancaklar mosque – developed from a video on youtube

In contrast with most traditional masaajid, this structure is depressed into the landscape, the premise being that its interior reflects the ghaar hiraa’, the cave inside the jabal al-nuwr in which the Prophet is thought to have received the first revelation, that of five verses or aayaat of surat al-Alaq. From its approaches, a simple rectangular burj indicates the presence of the masjid below.

From here the visitor moves down paths or terraces to the simple entrance. To its right the visitors finds the shelved space for shoes, at the other side of the shelving space is the women’s entrance to the raised and screened area of their prayer hall. The spaces for wudhuw’ are on the other side of the prayer hall, and approached from outside. Women are accommodated to the side of the men’s prayer hall on a slightly raised level.

View within the Sancaklar mosque – developed from a video on youtube Part of a Quranic quotation within the Sancaklar mosque – developed from a video on youtube

The qibla wall has a simple finish created by expressing the boarding of its concrete construction. Light falls down the wall from clerestory lighting above, intensifying the simple drama of the wall. In the first of these two photographs, looking across the prayer hall with the women’s prayer area behind and the entrance left, out of picture, the mihrab and qibla are on the right, and a position from which the sermon may be given is on the right of the wall opposite (behind the group) on which there is also a calligraphic quotation from the Holy Quran, surat al-Imran, aayah 41, with the meaning “remember your Lord so much” or “praise thy Lord again and again”. The lower photograph shows the calligraphy in a little more detail with the position for the sermon beyond and the qibla wall to the right.

The qibla wall of the Sancaklar mosque – developed from a video on youtube

There is little decoration in the building, the materials being allowed to create texture in the floor, ceiling and containing walls. The qibla wall focuses the faithful and to the right of the simple design of the slot forming the mihrab is the equally elemental geometric treatment of the steps leading to the minbar. Note that the treatment of the ceiling and floor serve to focus the faithful horizontally if not slightly downward, in strong contrast to the design of Christian churches with their vertical emphasis.

As mentioned above, the entrance to the masjid is stepped as is, unusually the floor of the prayer hall which may create difficulties for those with limited mobility.

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The Valiasr masjid in Iran

External view of the Valiasr mosque in Teheran – screenshot of TED presentation by Reza Daneshmir

Perhaps even more unusual is the controversial Iranian masjid in Valiasr, Teheran. Again, the design sits close to the ground but with its roof rising from the ground with a series of steps incorporating windows allowing light into some of the spaces below, the flowing surface developing into a flattened dome. Seen from the perspective of this image, the building appears to be relatively low, but it is still a large volume, designed to be lower in height than a more traditional design it replaces. This was accomplished in part by locating four of its seven floors below ground level, with two above it. There is accommodation for over five hundred in the prayer hall.

Sketch showing relationship between the first mosque design and the city theatre

The design of this masjid came about following local complaints that the traditional classical design which had been previously mooted was over fifty metres tall and did not accord with the character of that part of the city. However, it appears that the first masjid was deliberately designed to be imposing as, while part of it was designed to match the character and height of the adjacent city theatre, the religious elements of the masjid – particularly its qubba and four abraaj – dominating in a reflection of their greater significance. By comparison, the new design rises to a little over sixteen metres on its façade and twenty metres to the top of its domed roof, a similar height to the adjacent city theatre, in this schematic illustration, shown on the left with the first, traditional design on the right.

The most important break with tradition is that the design of the masjid not only lacks a traditional, geometric dome but, in particular, there also is no burj. In making this decision, the architects can be seen to be developing a design from the original, simple character of the masjid of the Prophet in Madina and, in doing so have created a new typology for the design of masaajid emphasising the horizontal flow and form of the structure compared with traditional designs and their vertical emphasis.

As might be anticipated, this design has heavily criticised as being too Western in concept, and of departing from the familiarity of traditional Islamic masjid design.

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The al-Dana masjid for Abu Dhabi

A night view of the al-Dana mosque for Abu Dhabi – with permission from X-Architects

While this masjid is still an unrealised project, it has a number of features that make it an interesting example in the changing typology of masjid design. It is representative of some of the buildings now being developed that combine traditional aspects – in this case, of masjid requirements – with more Western urban design considerations and, particularly, with nascent national visions and perspectives.

The above illustration shows two of its more important conceptual features: the splitting of the masjid into two elements separated by a new version of the sahn, and the incorporation of the burj as an integral element of one of the two volumes of the masjid.

The main floor plan of the al-Dana mosque for Abu Dhabi – with permission from X-Architects

In most masaajid, the main prayer hall is devoted to men with women and children occupying a space that is out of sight of the men, usually either on a balcony overlooking the men or in a side space as in the Sancaklar masjid, noted above. In this case the areas established for men’s and women’s prayer are completely different enclosed spaces separated by an area the architects see as the equivalent of the sahn. These two spaces are articulated as separate volumes, the larger being for men, the smaller for women.

Traditionally the sahn is a space contained by other elements of a masjid where, among other activities, ritual ablutions or wudhuw’, can be carried out. While this is very rarely the case nowadays the sahn can be thought of as an intermediate space between the external spaces given to the rhythms of daily life, and the necessary tranquility of the prayer hall. In this scheme the area between the two hall volumes is defined by those spaces and is an integral part of the overall design.

A section through the men’s prayer hall of the al-Dana mosque for Abu Dhabi – with permission from X-Architects

In the plan, above, the mihrab is at the top of the diagram within the curved qibla walls of each of the prayer spaces. It is unusual for the qibla to be curved as it might be thought that there is a degree of ambiguity on the direction of Mecca. It is also unusual to have the prayer hall longer than wide. There is a brief note on this here and here, though the latter link showing a masjid with a similarly long central axis.

The design of the burj is an interesting development in that it has been designed as an extension of the smaller of the two volumes of the masjid rather than standing as a discrete structure, but integrating well with the overall design.

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The Hassan II masjid in Casablanca

A view of the distant Hassan II mosque in Casablanca The approach to the Hassan II mosque

A note on this particular masjid has been included as it is said to be the largest operating masjid in Africa, as well as the fourteenth largest in the world.

Situated adjacent to the Atlantic ocean on the western edge of Casablanca, Morocco, the masjid is comprised of a large complex of buildings, its burj dominating its surroundings and, at sixty storeys high and 210 metres, being readily visible across the city. It is understood to be the second tallest minaret in the world, the taller burj being that of the jama’a al-jaza’ir in Algiers at 265 metres.

Although the development seems large, even at a distance, it is only as it is being approached that the scale of the masjid project becomes increasingly apparent and the true size of the impressive complex can be better appreciated.

A detail of the arches near the entrance to the mosque A detail of tilework

The development and, in particular the burj, displays many of the features of traditional Moroccan architecture and, at closer inspection the detailing can be seen to be characteristic of the region with prominence being given to the use of a limited palate of materials. There are clustered columns and horseshoe and double arches placed against rectangular framing as well as the considerable disposition of muqarnasaat inside the masjid. All material used is from local resources.

In keeping with local tradition the modest range of colours used in the zulij treatments are restricted to blue, green and beige, with the patterns used throughout the building being based on traditional Islamic geometries.

It is possible for 25,000 worshippers to be accommodated within the musalla of the masjid, with another 105,000 provided for outside the masjid.

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The Mamluki Lancet masjid in Kuwait

The main entrance to the Mamluki mosque in Kuwait – with the permission of the architects

By comparison with the traditional design of the Hassan II masjid in Morocco, at the northern end of the Gulf the city of Kuwait has been developing its planning and architecture in a similar way to other States in the Gulf. The characteristics of architecture and planning have many similarities to those of the Gulf; a mixture of Western theory, modern styling with elements of traditional architecture used to create an Arabic or Islamic styling. There are many examples of this, particularly with its masaajid, the pyramidical Shaikh Nasser al-Sabah masjid in the Salmiya district being one, the conical Sheikha Fatima masjid in the Abdullah al-Salem area, another, and the Mamluki Lancet masjid shown here, situated in the al-Masayel district of Kuwait, a third.

Illustration of the revolved elements of the roof design – with the permission of the architects

With its lancet styling developed from the Mamluki architecture of Cairo, the masjid is unusual in the manner it is designed, respecting both the orientation of its orthogonal site as well as the direction of the qibla. This is effected by the building being contained by five vertical layers revolved in equal increments, the highest aligning approximately with the site boundary and the lowest to the qibla, the five layers not only reflecting internally muqarnasaat, but also the five pillars of Islam as well as the five daily prayers.

The masjid uses lancet arches throughout, not a feature of traditional architecture in Kuwait or the Gulf but, as noted above, found in the Islamic architecture of Cairo.

View from the entrance to the mihrab – with the permission of the architects

Both externally and internally, the masjid uses a restricted palate of colour and materials, reinforcing a feeling of calm on those worshipping within the space. The rotated ceiling elements are the setting for Quranic phrases developed in relief on the plain background, and further reinforcing the purpose of the space.

Section across the mosque looking approximately south – with the permission of the architects

As can be seen in this cross-section of the masjid, looking approximately south, the volume within the masjid is generous, around twelve metres, though appears lower in photographs due to the effect of the lines of the rotated elements of the ceiling design. However, these spaces between the muqarnasaat have been developed in order to introduce light into the musalla. These horizontal openings are covered in a decorative mesh which will enliven the interior with the movement of the sun, and additional light is also brought into the space with a large semi-circular opening at the top of the building.

The cross section also shows the manara which reaches a height of thirty-nine metres. It is unusual is that it sits on top of, and aligns with the mihrab, and that the column is not enclosed but is, on plan, a semicircle within which a circular staircase rises to a platform ten metres short of the top of the manara, and unprotected from the elements. It appears that adhaan is broadcast not from the manara, but from four loudspeakers set at the corners of the top parapet of the masjid.

View across the musalla with the mihrab to the left and main entrance to the right – with the permission of the architects

Of particular interest is the location of the prayer area for women, the musalla saidaat. In many masaajid this will be located in a screened area at a different level to that of the main musalla. The Mamluki Lancet masjid has the musalla saidaat located at the same level as the musalla with relatively minimal screening to separate men from women. In this image, and that immediately above, the musalla saidaat can be seen to the right, and adjacent to the main entrance – though women have access to it from their own entrance on the north side of the masjid.

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The Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah masjid in Kuwait

Aerial image, looking approximately north, of the Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah mosque in Kuwait – with the permission of Steve Rogers

Mentioned above, the pyramidical Shaikh Nasser al-Sabah masjid in the Salmiya district of Kuwait has a number of characteristics suggesting an interesting comparison with two other relatively modern masaajid in Kuwait.

As with the Mamluki Lancet masjid, this masjid is planned as a regular, four-sided space. It is pyramidical in form and covers just under three thousand square metres. Externally, its musalla is articulated by fourteen horizontal bands or mastaba, visually softened at their corners and surmounted by a hemispherical dome raised on a low, windowed drum. The mihrab has been inserted into the western edge of the structure, and the manara, around fifty metres high, stands away from the pyramid on its east corner. A two storey development attaches to the east of the pyramid comprising a dramatic entrance and ancillary accommodation.

Inside the musalla, the external articulated bands translate into twelve geometrically decorated mosaic bands which are composed of repeat running patterns of a regular octagonal star on each side of which is an irregular pattern. The bands are supported on four pairs of ribs at the corners of the pyramid, culminating in a circular occulus set in a square ceiling from which a large chandelier hangs. The only daylight introduced into the interior appears to be from the lantern set below the hemisphere.

As with many masaajid the area for wudhuw and administrative offices are contained within a secondary structure, glimpsed to the right in the image above, which also contains the main entrance lining through the musalla with the minbar. The musalla saidaat is situated on the first floor of the masjid directly above the main entrance to the musalla from which it is screened. This level also contains the library and Islamic study area. The minbar is set within a white frame on which there is kufic calligraphy.

The Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah masjid is another example where the form of the architecture – in this case a square on plan – does not reflect the Islamic practice of having the faithful spread for prayer in parity in a long line. This can be compared in a note above with the Christian practice of having their churches narrow, focussing the congregation on the celebrant. It appears that the ease of making architectural statements is increasingly creating regularly symmetrical prayer spaces. It might be argued that form is not following the function…

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Sheikha Fatima Mohamed Ali’s masjid in Kuwait

The steel structure being assembled for the Fatima mosque in Kuwait, 1972 – with the permission of Alnusif on Flickr Section through the Fatima mosque – permission requested from the architect

Sheikha Fatima Mohamed Ali’s masjid is the third of three Kuwait masaajid discussed briefly here due to certain similarities.

This first image shows an early stage in the construction of the masjid, the photograph dating from July 1972. It is difficult to tell from this early photograph but it appears that there are six steel ribs forming the parabolic curves that will cover the main space, and the same number of columns is used on the shaft of the manara. The number relates to the twenty-four divisions used on the external and internal sub-divisioning used to decorate the masjid. This small cross-section shows, more accurately, the shape of the building and its integrated entrance structures.

Aerial image, looking approximately north, of the Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah mosque in Kuwait – with the permission of Steve Rogers Aerial image of the Sheikha Fatima mosque in Kuwait – screenshot from a YouTube video by Q84K

Constructed between 1972 and 1976, the masjid is located in the prestigious Abdullah al-Salem area of Kuwait and is unusual in being circular on plan and conical in shape. While the plan of the building is circular with an attached circular addition, it is established at the centre of an eight-pointed star pavement. It is said to be capable of containing sixty thousand worshippers, though this must include an open area outside the masjid.

The main mass of the development contains and reflects the internal volume of the musalla. The attached two storey structure merges with the main volume, its centre on the main axis leading from the entrance to the mihrab. Unusually, the location of the mihrab is not reflected on the exterior of the masjid. The manara is located just north of the entrance, its burj driving through at the junction of the two main volumes. A third volume is a two storey ancillary structure containing facilities for wudhuw and the imam. This aerial view of the masjid looks approximately south-east, the location of Mecca from Kuwait being approximately south-west.

The entrance to the Sheikha Fatima mosque in Kuwait – developed with permission from an image by Mark Lowey

Perhaps unusually, a covered approach to the main entrance to the Sheikha Fatima masjid has been developed immediately from the adjoining road to its west, as can be seen in this image and that immediately above. Similar covered entrances have also been added at the two sides to improve circulation within the musalla. These side entrances give immediate access to the musalla and will be used by men, so it appears that women will use only the main entrance which has stairs to gain access to the musalla saidaat on the first floor from the circular, naturally lit space on the direct line of access to the musalla, shown prominently in this image of the main entrance.

Above the entrance canopy are a sequence of six white hemispherical domes which are likely to be lighting devices, illuminating the way to prayer. On top of the secondary building are eight circular drums with hemispherically domed tops which appear to be external lighting devices, although this is unclear.

The tower has been designed to complement the masjid although there appears to be no hint of the parabola in its design. Six lines run up its shaft culminating in openings above which are six green semicircular features which appear to be windows but are not. As with the masjid, the manara is surmounted by a large gold crescent.

Interior image of the Sheikha Fatima mosque in Kuwait – screenshot from a YouTube video by Ibna Battuta

The interior of the musalla is unlit by natural means, although the circular space worshippers pass through on their way from the main entrance to the musalla does have a ceiling with a slightly domed cupola raised on a drum containing twenty-four windows acting as a lantern for natural light. There is also a large chandelier in that space. However, the musalla is lit only by a central chandelier and lighting sconces arranged within a relatively low level frieze around the circumference of the space, and uplighters above it.

There are also two other entrances to the space on the north-west and south-east sides of the musalla which will make access and egress to and from the musalla easier, and is a function of movement within the space when people are praying and should not be disturbed. One of them can be glimpsed on the right in the above image.

Interior image of the Sheikha Fatima mosque in Kuwait – screenshot from a YouTube video by Ibna Battuta

That low level frieze contains not only the lighting for the space but, between each sconce, a blue panel in which there is a Quranic inscription written in gold. The frieze is broken only by the mihrab on the south-west side and a heavy designed, wooden insertion on the north-west where the entrance to the musalla is located. Within this structure is heavy decorative screening marking the location of the musalla saidaat.

Interior image of the Sheikha Fatima mosque in Kuwait – screenshot from a YouTube video by Ibna Battuta Interior image of the Sheikha Fatima mosque in Kuwait – screenshot from a YouTube video by Ibna Battuta

As mentioned above, entrance to the musalla is along the main entrance axis and is focussed on the mihrab which is a relatively simple wooden insertion with a curved head and sloping sides, reflecting the parabolic shape of the masjid in elevation externally. The materials used in its construction are similar in character and colour to the architectural device which establishes the point of entry to the musalla. That, and the dark green of the prayer carpet are contrasted by the brightness of the illuminated ceiling. Compared with the lantern in the space outside the musalla, there are no windows admitting light but the space is completely lit by artificial means, the peripheral lighting mentioned above and a large crystal chandelier. Within the ceiling is a twenty-four pointed star within which green and gold patterns are established.

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more to be written…

The baraha and its importance

External majaalis

The photographs to the right were all taken in ordinary housing areas around Doha and are representative of the kind of inexpensive solutions to the baraha found in many areas. They show how necessary this element of the socio-cultural tradition is for both residents and visitors. The most traditional is the dikka, shown top left. In the evenings it will usually be supplemented by having a zulia thrown over it and masaanid added both for tradition as well as comfort. In the most informal arrangements there may also be a television brought out to entertain those sitting there.

There are a number of notes here and on the sociology page dealing with the importance of both formal and informal meetings of Qataris, and the manner in which this takes place. The baraha is the most informal location for these meetings. Its importance is that it appears in a public or semi-public space where the users can see and be seen by those passing.

Built-in dikka

The same is true for the more up-market example shown here. Marble clad, it is built into the wall as an element of the external design of the residential wall. It is similar in this respect to many in the old centre of Doha and has the same quadrant-shaped stop at the end – albeit a bit small – against which to lean. The window surround is also a bit awkward, but the principle in use is exactly the same as those above.

Seats at Khor

In complete contrast, but capable of fulfilling the same traditional function, here is an isolated group of seats at Al Khor. I assume they are there more for tourists than for locals and, as such, don’t need to have exactly the same form as a traditional wooden dikka which tends to have longer legs. The curious aspect of this seating from a Western point of view is that it appears almost to be sculptural, the seats being introverted and apparently taking no account of the views to be had from them. The reason, of course, is that this is established as a majlis for the benefit of local tradition, rather than tourism.

A wooden dikka in the centre of Doha

Simply constructed from teak with mortise and tenon joints, these dikka were relatively common as they are easily fabricated and used to be one of the normal products of the carpentry factories all over Doha. Many houses have them outside where they become part of the informal majaalis which are a feature of everyday life. Here, in the centre of Doha, there is no cover to it, but they are often draped with a kilim and may also have a misnad or two for additional comfort.

An informal grouping of chairs

The photographs above illustrate the baraha and dikka, the latter an element of the baraha, and that being a form of majlis. But the tradition of men meeting together to discuss the events of the day and other issues important to them, can also be seen in many informal settings. This photograph illustrates such an arrangement where people have brought together a carpet and six chairs to form a majlis structure. Judging from the surroundings this arrangement would not have been created by locals but by expatriates living and working in Doha. The reclaimed carpet seems a particularly important element in establishing the function of the grouping. These informal arrangements can be seen around town and are important indicators of the persistence of socio-cultural traditions. As such they are necessary devices in the maintenance of a degree of normality in the lives of the expatriate population.

In addition to the activities mentioned above, it is common to see people moving between houses either visiting, going to the local shops to buy items needed for the next meal or, after meals, taking food to other houses. Families often eat together but it is the custom for guests and the men of the house to eat first, then the women and children, followed by the servants and then those in need. The latter often sees the moving of food between houses.

Children playing in a cul-de-sac

Young children play in and around the periphery of their house, but not as much as they used to now that there are so many diversions as there are in the West. It seems to me that the difference in play between the Gulf and the West is that there is less because the children are Muslims and follow the socio-religious habits of their parents. This no longer happens in the West nor did it, I believe, to a similar extent. From the age of about seven, boys tend to carry out their religious duties with their fathers, daughters with their mothers within the house. This pattern dictates to some extent their play habits though there is, as there is in the West, a trend towards passive at the expense of active play. In terms of children’s play around the house, this inhibits play outside the curtilage of the property though it is not uncommon to see children playing on the pedestrian systems around the property, albeit usually with relatively expensive aids – bicycles, sports equipment and the like.

Thirty-five years ago it was not uncommon to see kerosene and water sellers with their donkey-drawn carts and itinerant traders carrying massive sacks over their shoulders knocking on doors and selling to the women of the house as part of the street scene. These traders have now gone but, in their place there are a number of additional types of person to be seen in the vicinity of housing. These include, but are not limited to:

Municipality workers maintaining landscaping
  • municipality employees dealing with refuse, street cleaning and landscaping,
  • utility employees working on the electricity, potable water, sewerage, watering, street lighting and telecommunications systems,
  • ex-patriate servants moving to and from the main roads in order to catch taxis, and
  • private maintenance contractors.

So, there is still pedestrian movement around housing. It replicates, to some extent, the patterns of the past. But two things are different. First, the density of housing is lower as plots are either thirty or thirty-five metres square, considerably larger than previous urban densities. Secondly, this decrease in density is, to some extent, compensated for in terms of pedestrian activity, by the increase in the numbers of people having legitimate business in the housing areas.

What I have described here is a pattern which, in its essence, has not changed in centuries. What has changed is the use of the roads and motor vehicles to take the pedestrian movement on a wider tour. It’s not quite the same as in the West; the movement of men in terms of their daily mix of work, chores and play are very similar to what they have always been. They just range further, though they also behave as pedestrians in the immediate area of their house.

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Local areas by night

A door, seen by night, in an area of Doha about to be demolished

When we consider urban designs, we tend to think of them, at least initially, in daylight conditions because our natural design instinct is to see forms and detail under ideal lighting conditions. But we experience urban design under differing conditions and it is imperative that consideration be given to the look of our urban developments by night as well as dusk, dawn and night as well as, perhaps, under unusual conditions such as those relating to celebration. Because of this it might be useful to add a note on the character of urban areas by night.

There are notes above relating to the character of Islamic urban design and its relationship with tenets of Islam. At its simplest it is argued that buildings should not show up or dominate their neighbours, should be considerate of the environment, and not use resources needlessly. The old urban settlements in Qatar exemplified this admirably.

Elsewhere there are notes about the character of the urban public spaces in the older parts of Doha, those which existed prior to the post-war development of the nineteen fifties and onwards. These areas were characterised by a tight, irregular urban network of sikkak lined with, in the main, blank walls and doors. Those windows which looked out – at ground level invariably majaalis – were barred and shuttered to preserve the privacy and security of those living within the containing walls. None of these sikkak were lit with public lighting, and the lighting of the dwellings themselves was made with kerosene lamps which could occasionally be glimpsed indirectly through openings in the walls, or reflected from planting and exposed ceilings.

The post-war expansion took place in a more structured manner, and was based on the development of a ring road system and a relatively orthogonal road structure within it. Because of this, the irregularity of the old housing layouts contrasted with the regularity of the new developments and was seen to be old-fashioned, though there was also a benefit to be seen in obtaining larger areas of land, and land on which there were plans to install mains drainage, electricity and water. Although there was no public lighting system here either, these services became available to the houses and the first lighting fittings purchased.

A door, seen by night, in an area of Doha about to be demolished

As you might expect, the old areas of urban development were extremely dark by night and, if ambient light conditions were poor it was difficult for strangers to find their way around, though easy for residents. In the areas later developed around them, the wider roads and more regular buildings made way-finding easier but, coinciding with the beginnings of artificial lighting, there was the additional benefit of sufficient lights around to provide points of reference. In the main these were of two sorts, those illuminating entrance gates to properties, and small shops opened by nationals, usually operated by an expatriate from the Indian sub-continent.

A door, seen by night, in an area of Doha about to be demolished

Lighting of doorways was initially with naked tungsten light bulbs, but this was quickly overtaken by fluorescent tubes which had the advantage of producing more light and spreading it across the width of an entrance more effectively. In general expatriate observers saw the purpose of the artificial lights as being both to illuminate the entrance as well as advertise a presence. But it has to be borne in mind that these were the first modern benefits of the developing oil industry that could be enjoyed by residents and, from conversations with Qataris, it was evident that the lighting was also, in a sense, celebratory of the new utilities as well as of the State and its benefit to its people, something not readily understood by Western observers.

A door, seen by night, in an area of Doha about to be demolished

Whatever the rationale was for the lighting of doorways, they became an immediate assistance to way-finding and identification as well as altering the feeling of the streets in which they were located. Their crude lighting effect brought an element of sharpness to the soft urban night scene while creating islands of focus within both new and old housing areas. This form of selective lighting brought a sculpturing effect that is not easily replicated in modern urban areas due to the small amounts of light used then. More than this, it introduced a similar effect to the lighting of paintings in an art gallery as might be seen in these first four photographs, all taken in an area of Doha due for demolition at the time these photographs were taken.

A shop, seen by night, in an area of Doha about to be demolished A shop, seen by night, in an area of Doha about to be demolished

As were the next group of photographs of shops in old residential areas of Doha. As these old areas and their surrounding newer housing areas developed, some of the owners took benefit by opening small shops, often based on the agencies they owned, but also providing a service based on the needs of the area. These small shops had to sell most of the requirements of the area, and were able to provide a wider cross-section of goods than might be expected in order to cater for the increasing disposable income matched with the expanding needs of the local communities. One of the chief characteristics of these shops was the ability to open for the hours necessary to cater for each area, generally this requiring them to stay open late. Often, as illustrated in these two photographs, the units were relatively small and carried a specific area of goods or services – here a grocery and tailor’s shop.

An informal sitting area, seen by night

As such retail facilities were a focus for activities outside the houses and would commonly be seen to have men, children and servants visiting as well as standing or sitting and talking. In effect they acted not just as commercial resources for the occupants living in the immediate neighbourhood, but also as informal majaalis for the areas in which they were established, mainly for the expatriate population and children, the normal majaalis still operating as was the custom. In many cases they would have a dikka constructed outside. Here a more modern arrangement can be seen, but providing the same majaalis function. One characteristic of these arrangements is that, nowadays, they also tend to cater for young Qataris.

Shops in a residential area, seen by night Shops in a residential area, seen by night

The shops which appeared in the neighbourhoods had and still have an important planning and urban design function. Here are two photos, the top of a single unit and the lower of a pair of shops, all in a new residential area on the outskirts of Doha. They are the direct descendants of the small shops shown above. In planning terms they act at the initial scale of unit in the hierarchy of retail facilities. In urban design terms they represent visual relief from the boundary walls which surround all residential developments as well as relief in terms of movement and colour. So their importance is in their provision of social facilities made visible in design terms. This is particularly so at night when they appear in stark contrast to the surrounding uses. This relevance appears to be so even when there is public lighting available: our eyes are always drawn to light sources and movement. Urban design is often taken as an abstract exercise, but it can only exist within the context of the society using its elements.

The top of a minaret, seen by night

At the same time that lighting was attached to the entrances and exterior of buildings in the old parts of Doha, the opportunity was taken to light the tops of almaadhan. In the first instance the lighting was relatively crude as it was on the housing, but the effect was significant in making each mi’dhana a recognisable and familiar landmark by night. This tended to coincide with the amplification of the call to prayer with loudspeakers being placed at the top of almaadhan, allowing the adhaan to be called without having to mount the mi’dhana.

A mosque at dusk

The importance of this to the urban design of neighbourhoods was significant. It reinforced the importance of the masaajid visually within their communities, this being the most vital religious and socio-cultural association. The symbolism embodied in the mi’dhana connection is one of the strongest there can be, and this physical relationship is tangible when moving around manaataq by night. Perversely the masaajid appear to be warm and inviting despite their general use of cold fluorescent rather than warm tungsten light sources.

more to be written…

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Land uses complementary to housing

The main mosque would normally form the focus of the suq and, around it would be the vendors associated with its use. Scribes, booksellers and small leather goods would be grouped in the immediate area of the mosque along with prayer beads, shoe repairs, cleaning materials and traditional wooden tooth brushes. Then there would be the cloth and textile sellers – commonly the province of the richer merchants – followed by the gold suq – perhaps to give it some distance from the mosque – domestic goods and utensils and the more ordinary artefacts joining those associated with the trade routes, with noisy industries farthest away.

From about the tenth century, Islamic towns were normally enclosed by walls as were many of their European counterparts. The entrance gates on the enclosing walls took on a symbolic value as the places where the inhabitants met the visitors, and it is here, more often than not, that business and entertainment was developed. This very much reflects the manner in which public and semi-public spaces are organised within residences or residential areas, and parallels the symbolic values of the residential portal to the street and the public room.

The funduq was also located on the outskirts of larger Muslim towns. Here visitors to the town would be accommodated in a development consisting of a courtyard surrounded by units in which a variety of traveller-related uses would be contained, the travellers generally being accommodated on the first floor.

A significant point which should be noted is that the basic house has developed from one type of building to another: from a free-standing shelter to a sheltered open space incorporating rooms. This distinction is reflected in the names of the two types of house, respectively, bayt and dar. In Arabic bayt has its roots in a covered shelter with an implication of a temporary – hence moveable – chief characteristic. The term dar has its roots in the enclosure of a space by a wall and carries the implication of protection. At its simplest this might be seen as a defensive wall but in the Maghrib a bedu encampment is termed a duwwar.

Perhaps, more importantly, the dar is also the symbolic Islamic house as it is based on the type of house which the Prophet Muhammad built for himself when he established himself in Madina.

The surrounding wall had a protective screen along the side nearest Mecca to protect the faithful at prayer, there were entrances on the other three sides, and one wall had a series of rooms along it for the Prophet’s wives. A particular characteristic of these rooms was that there was a porch of palm branches in front of them with the possibility of giving privacy by the addition of curtains of camels’ hair. This porch, or riwak, acts both as a visual link with the more public activities of the courtyard as well as a semi-private lobby to the rooms and their activities.

The importance of this is that Islamic social and ethical issues can be addressed:

  • visual privacy is assured and structured with members of the household being able to maintain two degrees of privacy while keeping them in touch with the outside world of the courtyard;
  • the need for interdependence between neighbouring courtyards is required, and the
  • Islamic values of batin and zahir are introduced and resolved.

Batin is the inner aspect of self or a thing, and zahir its external expression. The courtyard and its aggregated development resolves this in permitting a neutral expression of construction outside but permitting owners to express themselves inside where only the family and a small group of friends will experience it.

In Qatar the main towns which grew up were established initially on the coast. They were located there and developed mainly in response to the demands of commerce, fishing and pearling. There appear to have been four main prerequisites for the establishment of these settlements. They had to:

  • be situated on or near a good bay, doha, or inlet, khor, so that there would be a natural harbour for the trading, fishing and pearling boats.
  • be as near as possible to the sea, where the main activities of the settlement were focussed, and concomitant with good building conditions and safety. Normally this meant a maximum of two hundred metres.
  • be capable of parallel expansion along the sea shore, naturally forming a lineal development, and
  • have a source of drinking water available a maximum of about four kilometres from the settlement.

It also helped if there was a position which provided good visibility to any approach from the interior. A watch tower would be constructed from which a view of raiders and the return of the fleets could be obtained.

A typical graveyard

In addition to these requirements there would be two other important features that characterised these settlements:

  • graveyards, maqbarat, would generally mark the outskirts of the development, and
  • a Friday, juma’a, mosque would mark their centre, where the men meet to make their prayers in public.

This photograph illustrates a typical maqbarat in Qatar. The simplicity of the burials and their markers reflects not only the hard character of the ground, but also the requirement for the faithful to be buries without fuss or ostentation. While in some parts of the muslim world graves are marked, unmarked graves are the tradition. A little more is written about this on one of the socio-cultural pages.

Zubarah, in the north of the country, demonstrated the characteristics described above of Islamic towns, albeit on a much more modest scale, but the town is now completely destroyed. However, the pattern of the town can be seen on the ground, complete with its encircling wall – the only one in Qatar – which locked on to the sea at both ends.

A view of Al Khor, 1972 Google satellite photo of a part of Al Khor

Within this century the littoral towns of Doha, Wakrah, Khor and Ruweis, together with the inland towns of Rayyan and Umm Salal Muhammad have been the most developed urban settlements in Qatar, with Doha assuming the role as the capital. The first photo of Al Khor was taken in 1972, a little while before the buildings were razed and the occupants moved to new buildings on the outskirts of the town.

It can be compared with the sepia photo taken about twenty years previously. The second photo shows a part of the re-planned area, south of Al Khor, to which the inhabitants moved from their littoral dwellings.

Originally established by a number of families settling on the higher ground some distance from each other, Doha slowly coalesced into a single town by the middle of this century, but the funds provided by post-war oil began the process which led to the destruction of the Islamic town pattern, most dramatically in the nineteen seventies. With the incursion of Western planning and architecture the traditional way of life was irretrievably damaged.


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