Thursday, 14 May 2009

Castles Made of Sand

Architecture in Doha (as in other famous Arab cities like Dubai) has come along way from the likes of this majlis tent. But despite all the grandly comfortable, airconditioned bricks and mortar all around, men still like to gather under canvas for a chat and a spot of TV (if you peer into the shadows you can just make out the row of armchairs. Many houses and some of the top hotels feature an outdoor majlis, and you can often see sizeable tent camps (with rows of chairs) set up on vacant land around the city, often just over the road from the venue for a wedding - the women celebrate in the ballroom, the men gather outside.

We haven't yet taken the free guided tour of the Fanar Centre for Islamic Culture - we might learn more about such customs when we get around to doing so. The iconic building, just a dicey one-block walk from Souq Waqif (via one of the rare lights-controlled pedestrian crossings, which when you do find them, turn out for some reason to have a push button on one side of the road only; in this case it's not our side) has a sort of magnetism.

It looks even better at night.

Likewise the nearby Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a distinctly local kind of dignity. It's a good example of the more sober but not staid official architecture to be seen here -
unlike some other recent additions to the Corniche panorama. This one has a vaguely menacing presence, with its interpretation of the vogue for overhang, verging on the extreme from some angles.

But it too improves at night; even with the purple stripes failing to show up in the photo, you can see that the light show alleviates the looming monolithic look.

It's a worthy reflection of the riot of styles displayed by its grander cousins across the water in West Bay.

Come back in six months or a year and this panorama (next four photos) of the north end of the Corniche will have changed markedly as more and more towers rise to fill the gaps.

Currently in the approx square mile of the CBD there are roughly equal numbers (maybe 50 each) of finished buildings of an average 30-odd storeys, those nearing full height, and sites with completed groundwork and construction under way (including the hundred-storey Doha Tower with its podium half a km long - will Qatar eventually knock up an edifice to rival the coming Dubai Tower in that city, which will be the tallest in the world at nearly one km high?); no doubt there are as many projects again on the drawing board, ready to pounce on the remaining prime real estate.

Green glass is popular.

Gold and pearls are always in fashion.

This is currently the tallest.

But the Sheraton, one of the first to be built, standing in splendid isolation across the road, in its lush gardens overlooking the bay, on the point at the tip of the Corniche, gets the award for swankiest -

once you get inside and realise that this arresting pyramidal edifice is most spectacular from within its towering atrium

which houses cafes, upmarket shops and even a small majlis where you are served a complimentary Arabic coffee.

Not to be denied, however, is City Centre mall which has its own, rather busier, grandeur.

This is the inside of that glassed front entrance. looking down from the top of four floors.

It's hard to photo the size of the place, but here we are looking from near the middle towards the western end 250 metres away.

Plenty of room to lean on the balustrade and watch the ice skating.

A video gives some idea of it - this starts pointing approx southwest and ends approx southeast.

By contrast, our local Landmark mall is long and low -

still several hundred metres to walk from Marks and Spencer (expensive treats in the food section and lots of rather British apparel; BHS is next door) to the Carrefour hypermart at the other end, but only one level

(not including the faux mezzanine, which is occupied only by one or two cafes where it's nice to sit with an iced coffee and enjoy the view of Qatari children and their parents towing Spongebob balloons).

Actually the malls all cater very well for kids, with extensive families-only fun fairs and of course foodhalls that could be anywhere in the world apart from the addition of a few more middle eastern food outlets. Villagio, out by the Aspire Zone sports stadiums, has a really big ice rink right next to the extensive eating area,

and you can even take a gondola ride.

The pretend-Venetian theme is maybe to acclimatise people to the imminent opening of the The Pearl, the vast Italianate residential development just north of the city (see forthcoming blog post) in the hope they will flock to buy up its expensive accommodation.

The Villagio balconies too are faux, but you might forget the sky isn't real until you see a helium balloon stuck there.

The long, gently curving alleys do lend a graceful ambience to the place.

Villagio is the one to visit on Friday or Saturday night, if you can get a park...(please bear with the wall-to-wall shopping malls - here, even more than other countries, this is what we do when we go out). It's a real night out with its restaurants, exquisite decor shops, Virgin Megastore and the Luxury Wing which is about as far in atmosphere from Souq Waqif as you could get.

Here you can browse in every designer boutique imaginable

without having to make the trek out to The Pearl (which is open for the curious during the daytime, and already has boulevards of top label shops awaiting the masses).

You can select from a sumptuous range of Mercedes-Benz merchandise

or just go for the Spyker supercar (QR1.2m in presentation case),

opt for a real Louis Vuitton bag or Cartier watch instead of the QR200 "bandit copy" that took your fancy in the souqs, or admire a YSL swanndri with stylish asymmetric buttons for QR40k. Really.

That's enough luxury, so we drag ourselves away, wallets intact for next week's rediscovery of the souqs, with just a quick backward glance at the Spyker

and the world' s biggest shopping trolley out front of the more prosaic Hyatt mall across the road (yes, there's another mall right beside Villagio - I said they were serious about shopping here)

and emerge into the Aspire Zone. The tower was reportedly the media centre for the 2006 Asian games, and now awaits redevelopmnent as a hotel. That's apparently a swimming pool poking out a bit less than halfway up (about 20 storeys). It would be nice to be able to ascend to the top for a spectacular view of greater Doha - this may be happening soon, as a first-floor covered walkway from Villagio (100 metres away) is in the final stages of construction.

Across the road is the stadium, all ready for the Olympics (Qatar has a bid in for 2024 I think).

Apart from any aesthetic or other merits, it's a very useful landmark for keeping your bearings when trying not to get lost in the endless suburbs and highways on the west side of town.

No gallery of notable Doha architecture would be complete without the 40-storey Lagoon Plaza apartments, otherwise known (surprisingly) as the ZigZag buildings. People tell me they wouldn't want to live in them for some reason, but I would rather enjoy it if I could afford it, I think.

Also the Convention Centre which fronts the new Education City complex mushrooming on the edge of town a few km from our place must get a look in. That's right kids, a building that looks like a tree. You may go figure if you wish.

And of course the lovely Museum of Islamic Art, which also deserves its own separate blog post.

I hope you liked this layman's sampling of Doha buildings, neither particularly well-researched nor over the top in awe and shock. There's lots more to catch the eye, which we may yet get around to picturing for you - or don't hesitate to come and see for yerselves - our door is open.

And lots more to come - why not keep going until all Qatar's 11,427 square km are covered...? (This is not actually 8km of shops but a mixed commercial development, as the made clear later in the comments thread).

Meanwhile what better way to finish than by peeking in the front door of The Villa (a large and well-appointed standalone house rented by Angela's employers for staff on short visits to stay in). Not sure if it's typical, but the stairway to heaven is what immediately dominates your attention. You can see it has been lovingly installed in what would othewise have been quite a grand foyer, leaving about a foot of room each side to squeeze past on your way to the rest of the house.

There must be some sort of lesson here...

Watch out for blog posts on The Pearl, the museum and trips out of town coming up very soon.

1 comment:

  1. Blinkin' heck! You must have to wear safety glasses to retrieve your eyes when they keep popping out all the time.

    More ice rinks than I would've expected.