Doha is Flat: who said that?


As I walk along Sikkat al Hedaya, into square A2, I am drawn by the slope. Old Doha is a consistently carved sculpture of horizontal forms, accented by verticals, so to encounter a diagonal as strong as this is unusual. If I close my eyes and keep walking, I think I can feel the topography of the land before the buildings.

As I turn the corner onto Sikkat al Ishraq and climb up to number 21, which sits at the highpoint, it is an easy decision what I should draw. The frontage of this substantial house, and its neighbours is a joy of urban collage, although, looking at the open wound on the face of number 21, where its skin of rough render has fallen away and its rubble stone flesh-and-bone is revealed, it does look as if it may fall down entirely, if there are any more rainstorms this Winter.

That would indeed be a tragedy because inspite of the fact that its future is secure as a ‘heritage house’ – due to be renewed by QMA or PEO (I think) – what does that mean ? Does it mean conserved or demolished and reconstructed ? Will it lose its patina of age; its character, and its context ?

It’s face is full of character; the interplay of rhythms and syncopations is charming – and natural. One feels the common sense logic of windows just being where they want to be;

being balanced with the gentle order of repeated proportions and approximate alignments. There are eccentricities here to which we could claim there is no apparent rhyme or reason but what is more ‘reasonable’; for it to be the way it wants to be, through a natural process of influence and response, or to be forced to be something else ?

The frontage of the three houses is a set-piece of Old Doha; ‘traditional’ masonry and ‘early modern’ side by side. The more recent concrete portal of number 21 blurrs the boundaries between the two periods. Together the parapet line rises and falls 6 times up and down; carved city. Together, thicks and thins, and verticals and horizontals, chime together to make rich music.

And I must not forget that an important part of the music is the grandly named Al Rathib Trading Estate, housed within number 21. It is a very small convenience store; does it belong ? How long has it been here ? Should it be erased in the renovations ? Or should it be allowed to continue; adding surprise and variety to the street; bringing the scene to life in its very quiet way, signal of a living city, with all its quirks and foibles ?

As I leave I realize the absolute quietness here. Even the pigeons on the tall TV aerial are silent. The only sound is the sharp crunch of gravel underfoot from a passer by, and a bicycle bell as a man comes out of number 23, on his way to work.



Bier al Husain, DOHA


It is 9.29am on National Day the 18th December 2012. Old Doha is filled with a festive air – everyone is wandering aimlessly about, off work. The sky is filled with aeroplanes, large and small, heading to and from the Amiri flypast, over the Bay.

There is no need to ponder what to draw in this square – B2 – it is obvious. The dazzling contrast and harmony between number 6 Bier al Husain – a small masterpiece of early modern Qatari architecture in concrete – and its older, traditional neighbours in load-bearing masonry, is irresistible.

The bold horizontals of number 6; reaching out over its own wall, overhanging the street, are the architecture of common sense before style. Just as with the surrounding buildings of traditional construction, this is a natural response to available building materials, and to climate.

What I see in front of me is a perfect summary of Old Doha’s identity. It is an old city beginning to change; it is a living patchwork. The new is looking forward, while the old stands in permanence (I hope). Although one is cast in concrete, visibly enjoying the cantilever, and another is constructed in rubble-stone, respecting the need to carry loads simply down to the ground, yet ‘it is all made of the same stuff’. This is a carved city.

Each building conforms to certain important conventions – a common understanding, common language, binds the city together. Walls make edges to tightly defined streets and enclose courtyards. The ‘type’ – the archetype, the prototype – of the house is consistent.

Within the balance of new and old (both now are old) is the balance of horizontals and verticals, woven together. The traditional house (pre-concrete) is a horizontal form, but is made up of verticals. In the early modern house the horizontals have taken over the primary rhythm and the verticals provide a secondary beat.

If this is harmony – and I do believe it is – then it is a lose form of harmony, absorbing, and benefitting from the disparities and differences which enrich the ‘urban music’ of this place; so full of interest and character. I do hope it will not be lost.



Sikkat al Hedaya, DOHA


It is 6.59am on Saturday the 15th December 2012. National Day is nearly here. Christmas is nearly here. There is a chill in the air and a gusty breeze. It feels grey, even though there are no clouds in the sky.

I have decided to do my own stitching; to make my own patchwork quilt; seven along and seven down, from A1 to G7. Seven is a nice number. The quilt will keep me warm and I will pass it on to my children when it gets tattered. They can see to its repair when I am old.

Stitching the city is the topic of the moment in Al Asmakh – the neighbourhood of the deaf sheikh

– but so often it seems that things do not come together, as fast or as connectedly as one would hope. So here I am.

My first patchwork square begins just off Al Asmakh, the voluminously curved street which takes its shape from a millennia-old wadi, flowing down to Doha Bay.

It is a street with no name (I will find its name) and there is a saloon, a shop full of dusty TV’s, two no parking signs and some bins. If I carried on straight it would take me on a magical journey, looking into the future, wandering through one of loveliest, most characterful pieces of city I know, one small block south of the busy Msheireb St; amongst quietness and echoing morning sounds, not cars. But instead I turn South on Sikkat al Hedaya (I will find out what Hedaya means).

I gravitate naturally to the large house on this small street, number five. I start to draw. Its ogee arch with a simple rosette is nice, and I think it would be even nicer if it was repaired and cleaned up, provided it didn’t lose its patina.

Its door is not one of the special old ones; for all I know it may have been knocked together in the 70’s or ‘80’s when the original one fell off its hinges. But as I look carefully amongst the mediocre woodwork of its almost-symmetry I realize that even this unremarkable door contains a door-within-a-door on the right hand side. This is the small door (I will find out its name in Arabic) which people say was used as the everyday entry, to make visitors look down as they came in, giving time for the women of the house to hide themselves in the private parts of the house.

The house is a classic; its only windows are to the majlis on the left – five in a row. It is a grand house (I will find out who lived there). The fact that it has been rendered at some point in ‘pebble dash’ texture could be remedied. What drew my eye to begin with was its projecting cornice of corrugated metal, an accidental celebration of entry, giving grandeur to the central portion of this pleasantly asymmetric house. The pipes on the outside are also appealing, even though if renovated, I have to admit they would probably be replaced by something invisible.

As ever when I stop, stand and draw, I start to listen. The bin lorry is gently grinding on no name street. Gutteral ablution sounds from within are intermittent. A blue plastic bag has wafted past me to the left and is now returning to the right, making a whispering sound as it goes. Two perfect pigeons walk by; a married couple in this neighbourhood of ‘batchelors’. They are smaller than English pigeons and are tinted, it seems to me, with the pink of Qatari stone. I hear them cooing softly even though they go by in silence. Suddenly a sharp click. The door opens but no person appears; nothing. I try to carry on regardless but I find this strange; how did the door open ? I am too shy to investigate and keep my head down, shading in the darkness of the cornice above the door with my HB lead. After many minutes, when I am not looking, a blue shirt and a bright smile appears from inside, nods and goes off to work.

As I pack up to leave – only then – do I see that inside the car beside me, masked by reflections on the glass, is a man, motionless and still. Is he asleep, is he reading ? There are fractional movements from time to time, but I cannot tell. I felt solitary, all these minutes from 6.59 to 7.48, but someone was there all along, just beside me.

As I leave I think to myself, of course the city is full of things we do not notice, but it is good to notice them from time to time.



Cracked Earth Table


This is the first finished piece from Pattern-Book Qatar: Designed in Qatar, Made in Qatar.

It is a large table and – as with all of Pattern-Book products – its pattern tells a story. The patterns of the earth as it dries and curves and cracks in the Sun have been traced and meshed to create a dynamic field of timber inlay. Floating shapes are captured in time and space.

The genius of computer technology and the work of the human hand are in balance here; from the moment when a photograph was taken looking down at the ground, followed by pencil tracings and the creation of computer modules and final drawings sent to the wood workers, to the laser cutting and CNC, used to make the final piece.

The story told is that of the sunken palm garden of Al Rayyan. one of the walled ‘rawdahs’ in the desert, West of Doha, where the Al Thani family would spend time in the cooler months of the year – the rainy season – and date palms were cultivated. It was just south of here, in the Wadi al Shaqab Fort, that the Ottoman forces hid in their flight from Jassim bin Mohammed in1893, after their defeat at the Battle of Wajba; an event which led in the end to the creation of the State of Qatar. In the Winter rains, which are so much less these days than in the past, the water floods in torrents into the low point of the rawdah, forming meandering gullies and wadi paths. It is here that the earth gradually dries, making thick curved ‘biscuits’ of clay as it cracks.

The table is indeed a joy to work on. A broad clear table surface has always been for me symbolic of an ideal way to work. I did wonder if the patterned surface would be distracting as I draw but, to the contrary, I find that its ambient intensity helps the eye to focus on the work in hand.

To add to the pleasure of woods; a meditative aid to concentration.working in a quiet space, with good daylight and a large, well-made working plane, the surface of the Cracked Earth Table is itself irresistibly tactile. As I work, I find my fingers tracking the edges of the shapes between the lighter and darker



To complete this experience of tactile and visual delight, the smell of linseed oil is the crowning pleasure. Unlike so much fine furniture I see today, this table has a living surface; it has not been encapsulated by an impermeable layer of varnish; rather it is allowed to breath.



Serpentine Pavilion 2012: Sound & Smell … and Plankton


I am meeting a friend at the new Serpentine Pavilion; Summer 2012, London.It is a floating disc of water with a dark sunken space beneath.

As I step down into the space of the carved steps, two things strike me at once; Sound and Smell.

Sound is deadened; everything is made of cork – molded steps, molded seats – all absorbent. It is hard to say if this makes it easier to hear the noises about me or less easy – because the cork sucks in the sound around. The Smell too is definitive; cork has a distinctive smell. If I was blind I would be able to sense this place, inspite of the darkness.

What strikes me next is that I cannot get my bearings – this cavern is disorientating. People moving, children jumping. Where is my friend ? I scan the space horizontally; the glare of daylight blinds me. The metal ceiling is softly reflective, pulling in an eerie light. And the darkness beneath the daylight is tinted by strings of electric bulbs.

More than the edge-glare however, beneath the disc, I think it is the space which disorientates. It is intricate, complex and incomprehensible; I like that – I can feel lost and so can the children running around.

I am told that the 11 columns supporting the water-roof mean something, but I do not want to know what. I have always wondered, do Herzog & de Meuron believe in Narrative ? Do they like to make architectural jokes I wonder ? Why are the seats shaped like champagne corks?

As I get up to leave, I think Le Corbusier would have appreciated this structure; the master of the horizontal; the maestro of ‘droiture’ would smile.

Corbusier preached about the horizon; above it, below it; the all important datum. Water finds it own level … and in this water – the pool of water on the roof – we find an innumerable population of plankton; enjoying their day in the life of an architectural gem.