Doha: A city with a ‘soul’?

by  — 5 April 2013

Can a city have a ‘soul’ and if so, will its soul be an essential part of its long-term success ? asks Tim Makower.

It is not widely understood how the fragile historic urban fabric of run-down neighbourhoods hold incalculable value for the community of Doha, as the place of memory from where new things of lasting value can grow, says a leading architect, Tim Makower.

The focus of the exhibition was Doha’s distinctive tripartite city centre. Although it can be argued that the centre of Doha encompasses major nodes such as the new airport and Al Sadd, the thesis of Doha_On Centre is that the three contrasting but potentially complementary components at the ‘centre of the centre’ – Old Doha, West Bay and the Corniche – are those which most clearly offer clues to its identity.

The show made the point that although the old city around Souk Waqif and Msheireb is geographically the centre of growth and activity, it is the connectedness between the old city and the new, West Bay via the Corniche, which holds the character of Doha today. Old Doha is likened to a precious patchwork, handed down through a family, from generation to generation; something to be repaired but not replaced. West Bay is described as a piece of unfinished business, waiting for a new layer of streetscape and walkable routes to be added among the sometimes crazy glass towers, which make such an impressive skyline, but such a difficult place to inhabit as a pedestrian.

The Corniche is called the defining motif of the city and, as well as a thorough examination of its present state, tantalising glimpses are given of how this already iconic crescent of public space encircling the Bay, could be dramatically renewed without being reinvented. A grand crescent of lights, and a necklace of trees is illustrated, giving the Bay a three-dimensional presence and affirming its role as the focal point of the city.

With the city’s two urban hubs held in dialogue with each other across the water by the curve of the Corniche, the three parts of the city centre are likened to the heart and lung of the city, without which it wouldn’t have a life, and this raises the question of value. It is indeed appropriate in a nation with such high cultural aspirations, to think of the word value as meaning something deeper than simply investments and returns, and to put quality above quantity as a goal.

The quality of a building, or a street, or a public space, is not just the question of its value as a commodity; how well-made is it and whether it will last, although this matters more than is generally acknowledged. It is also about its nature and the role it plays within the community of the surrounding city. In the case of Old Doha, it is not widely understood how the immensely fragile historic urban fabric of run-down neighbourhoods such as Al Asmakh and Abdul Azeez hold incalculable value for the community of Doha, as the place of memory from where new things of lasting value can grow.

The notion of rootedness or sense of belonging, which is portrayed as a fundamental aspect of the long-term sustainability of a city such as Doha, brings us back to the question of whether a city has a soul and if so, what is its value.

Its value surely resides in its identity, both what it is and where it has come from, and what makes it different from other cities around the world. Old Doha holds the memory of what this city was only half a century ago, when its prosperity was just beginning. Meanwhile the sweeping curve of the Corniche and the dynamic it creates between old and new across the Bay is essential to this truly memorable cityscape.

If these are treated as significant seeds in the garden of Doha from which healthy and lasting fruits can come, then the future of the city, building on its uniqueness and its strong sense of centre, is surely promising.

Here is a video of architect Tim Makower’s video short explaining the interconnectedness of Doha.

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