Rubina Singh speaks to Ashraf M Salama, Professor of Architecture and Urbanism
and Founding Chair of the Department of Architecture at Qatar University, about the
various challenges faced by Doha as an ‘emerging city’ in the Arab World
Last week in Doha saw many seminars involving experts in the field of urban development discussing the city of Doha, the past, present and future ... the architectural, social, economic and cultural aspects ... the new and the old.
One amongst these was a symposium organised by the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS) which brought together experts in urban development to discuss Doha as an ‘emerging city’ in the Arab World. Amongst these experts was Professor Ashraf M Salama, Professor of Architecture and Urbanism and Founding Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University.
Prof Salama has held permanent, tenured and visiting positions in Egypt, Italy, Saudi Arabia, United States and the United Kingdom, and holds the fellowships of the Royal Society of the Arts-FRSA and the Higher Education Academy-FHEA, UK.
He has published over 130 articles and research papers in international conferences, academic refereed journals and authored and co-edited seven books on architectural design pedagogy and the dynamics of people and environments.
Professor Ashraf Salama’s work on Doha’s architecture and urbanism is based on extensive research over the past two years, funded by Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) under the National Priorities Research Programme.
A unique feature of the project is that it is interdisciplinary in nature — crossing the boundaries of different disciplines (architecture, planning, urban geography, environmental psychology) and engages the graduate students of the Master programme of urban design and planning at Qatar University.
His latest book (authored jointly with his post- doctoral research associate — Dr Florian Wiedmann) Demystifying Doha: On Architecture and Urbanism in an Emerging City will be launched this summer and features a comprehensive discussion on the evolution of architecture and urbanism as products of the contemporary global condition while also exploring among others, issues pertaining to emerging service hubs, integrated urban development strategies, image-making practices, urban identity, the dialectic relations between the city and its society and sustainable urbanism and concludes by suggesting a framework for future studies of the city.
According to Dr Ashraf, Doha as an emerging city keeps positioning and re-inventing itself on the map of international architecture and urbanism with different expressions of its unique qualities in terms of economy, environment, culture and global outlook. Excerpts from an interview...
How does your research differ from other studies and how does Doha fare as an ‘emerging city’?
Doha with its global outlook is beginning to position itself as a knowledge-based economy and this is evident by the presence of international universities, high-tech IT industries, businesses and international partnerships in key academic fields and industries. So, the question that can be posed here: Is the urban environment of the city able to accommodate these practices?
There have been a considerable number of studies by specialists on investigating images and the development of architectural language. However, how these images relate to people and how people react to them was never integrated into the discussion of architecture language.
In our research we measure reactions of people to images of buildings and public open spaces and we investigate environmental preferences.
Additionally, while a considerable effort is made to develop responsive architecture and urbanism in the city, the dynamics of people and the every-day urban environment is a critical aspect that has received little attention.
In this respect, in attempting to understand the impact of multiculturalism in Doha, our investigation focuses on examining how different people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds perceive the city, its architecture, and spaces.
We also investigate urban mobility, and how people move in the city, and how they use the spaces within, how they relate to their workplaces, living areas and entertainment spaces.
What is the impact of globalisation on Doha?
Globalisation comes with its positive consequences and also with challenges. For example, it boosts the economy through diversification of investments activities. It is translating the vision of Doha as a future hub in different areas — such as a cultural hub exemplified by museums and cultural events, a sports hub manifested in a considerable number of hallmark and stage events from the Asian Games of 2006 to the successful bid for World Cup 2022, a business and services hub witnessed in the intensive activities of international companies, banks and high-tech oil and energy industries. Yet, there are a number of challenges facing Doha including economic diversification, effective and efficient urban structure and coalescing society.
Within this global condition, what are the challenges of sustainable urbanism in Doha?
One key challenge can be identified for each area of sustainability in the case of Doha. The establishment of a sustainable economy will essentially depend on a successful transition from a real-estate driven city to a diversified regional and business hub.
For sustainable ecological balance, a more efficient urban structure will be developed on the basis of a new evolution within urban governance. Thus, the key challenge in developing environmental sustainability is the installation of good governance and appropriate regulations that guide, regulate, restrict and monitor urban growth.
In the case of establishing a sustainable society, a new identity will emerge, one that can mediate between local values and the continuous internationalisation patterns of Doha. However, this new identity cannot only be produced by governance it must also be the direct product of an interacting and thus coalescing society. Luckily, these challenges are being addressed through many government initiatives and policies.
Can architecture and urbanism be seen as a reflection of the psyche of society’s culture? And if so, how would you describe the psyche of Doha as represented in its architecture currently?
In my view, there is no one psyche; there are multiple. I can envisage three voices; the first voice calls for a complete return to traditional architecture and its value system, another voice adopts pure ‘modernity’ and calls for addressing the global condition, and the third voice calls for reconciliation and balance.
The three voices represent various interests and ideologies, and are evident in contemporary architecture of Doha. Still, we can say that the three voices combined reflect the contemporary psyche of Doha.
Can there be a place for traditional ideas to exist in the emerging character of Doha?
Balancing need and supply is the first step toward reducing any negative consequences in evolution. The issue of maintainability should be addressed as an integral component of the thought process of initiating and developing large-scale interventions.
The impact of global architecture can be made positive by awareness, participation, and relating the current developments to socio-cultural aspirations. In this respect, successful interventions can be seen in the architecture of the Education City, Katara Cultural Village, Sharq Hotel to name only a few. Notably, the restoration of Souq Waqif is an excellent example of efforts. Also, the vision of Msheireb project is being translated to address the desired balance. Yes, I would argue that there is a place for genuine traditional ideas as manifested in some of these projects.
How does Doha fare in terms of ‘image making’ and what are some challenges?
What is important here is that Doha is learning a lot from the experiences and experiments of other cities. ‘Image making’ practices in Doha can be seen as a reflection of the three voices I mentioned earlier. Still, more effort is needed to avoid the practice of literal borrowing or ‘cutting and pasting’ or cloning images. This can be enabled through critical consciousness and the screening and filtering of ideas and images — the incorporation of academic discourse into design practices.
I would say, in order to build responsive architecture, we must not copy our past, nor must we copy other people’s present. We need to embark on a comprehensive effort toward re-interpretation of traditional images and the integration of efforts of academia, public institutions and design practices/professional architects.
In your opinion, is there enough importance being given to urban open spaces particularly vis-a-vis the labour community which constitutes a large majority of the population of Doha? What more needs to be included in urban development planning that is not being done so far?
There is a considerable effort and attention given to developing effective urban open spaces. In addition to the Corniche promenade, this is evident in a wide variety of projects that include the Aspire Park, Rumeila Park, the outdoor green space of the Museum of Islamic Art ... These open spaces are available to the public and accommodate a wide spectrum of needs of socio-economic and cultural groups. However, one should say here, the degree of “public-ness” or “openness” varies where the labour community is not fully considered in some of the new projects.
Therefore, in order to instill in people the sense of loyalty, a more inclusive approach to the design of these spaces should take place to create more effective places of desired cultural encounters, while accommodating the needs of the labour community.
What can be done towards making Doha a more coherent society?
We need to think of the city from three key angles to development — the conceived city, the perceived city and the lived city. The conceived city is based on decisions by the public sector, specialists, architects and planners. The perceived city represents the interactions between people and companies, and the networks that develop. The lived city is the way in which people actually live and interact with their environment, exemplified by their houses, workplaces, public spaces, etc.
The three approaches function as parts of a cycle where the results of understanding the lived city (individual experiences of environment) and perceived (business networks) should feed back into the conceived (policy) again.
Our observation is that the lived and the perceived city are an outcome of a non-responsive conceived, and the cycle will do well with some work so that a sustainable city can take root. Therefore, the three angles need to be integrated both in academic research and professional practice.
I, me, myself
Best thing that ever happened to me
Being an academic
My greatest fear
My greatest weakness
Never saying no to work
My strongest personality trait
My weakest personality trait
Thinking too much about the future
Most dearest possession/treasure
My writing, research and publications
My favourite celebrity ...
There are many
I love ...
Many things ... but one important thing is urban life but not crowdedness
I dislike ...
I idolise ...
Good, kind and caring people
I can’t live with ...
Coffee or tea?
Snow or sun?
Sun but not heat — snow but not ice
Gadget I couldn’t do without
Many, but access to the Internet is crucial
Biggest turn on/ turn off ...
Turn off — being forced to interact with self-centred people
Turn on — many good things
... makes my life worth living
Doing quality work
I don’t believe in...
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