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The Pioneer of Qatari Vernacular Architecture

At a time when Qatari architecture was about mimicking modern glass structures, Ibrahim Mohammed Jaidah (IMJ), Group CEO, Arab Engineering Bureau (AEB), revived and practiced a strong vernacular architecture that explored the far-reaching style of Islamic art within a modern context.  By Sindhu Nair

“Our traditional buildings give us a glimpse of the life of people of Qatar before the discovery of oil and these buildings are endowed with elements that provide today’s architects with lessons to guide contemporary designs.”

Ibrahim Mohammed Jaidah,

GCEO

Arab Engineering Bureau 

IMJ is a much loved and respected figure in Qatar, arguably the first Qatari architect to set up his own practice in the country. As a journalist with a background and passion for architecture, I was lucky to have landed the opportunity to interview him in the very initial days of my career in Doha. Being one of my first interviewees, more than  a decade ago,  I have been following all his work, intermittently tracking him down for interviews every 2 to 3 years and yet again last week for my own website.

There is no perceptible change in IMJ. He is as engaging, as passionate about architecture as he has always been and is still the charmer, I met more than a decade ago. As he playfully adjusts his Ghutra to look good in the picture, I can see what endears him to many in the world of design; his open-mindedness, his love for inspirational designs, and architecture, the history that he incorporates in each of his projects and not the least, his love for the country that has helped shape his identity as he has shaped the country’s.

Acquired in 1991 with just six employees, AEB, IMJ’s design firm is not a small practice anymore. With offices in Doha, Salalah, Muscat, Manila and Kuala Lumpur employing close to 600 employees, the firm has come a long way.

Last year,  AEB was the winner of MIPIM/The Architectural Review (AR) Future Project Awards 2for the Sports and Stadiums category for Al Thumama Stadium. But the buildings that truly exemplifies his work are The Al Shaqab Institute for Girls and the Barzan Tower, two projects that were nominated for Aga Khan Awards.

The Al Thumama Stadium has a capacity of 40,000 seats during the tournament and 20,000 seats in the post-tournament legacy mode. In the legacy mode, the arena will be used for football and sporting events. In addition, a branch of Aspetar Sports Clinic will open on-site and a boutique hotel will replace the upper stands.

At the opening of the architectural masterpiece by Jean Nouvel, the National Museum of Qatar, IMJ was part of a panel that discussed the role that cultural institutions play in defining the national identity to local and global audiences.

The discussion also featured Rem Koolhaas, the architect of QNL; Jean Nouvel, Jacques Herzog, a Swiss architect, and Ben van Berkel, a Dutch architect.

Clear and articulate IMJ held the audience captive, stealing the spotlight even in the presence of star architects, as he held ground and explained how national identity is exemplified when every architect interprets the inherent features of the land in their distinctive styles.

His passion for vernacular architecture resulted in the publishing of History of Qatari Architecture (2009) which has become a referential material in many educational institutions in Qatar and the region. Since then IMJ also authored 99 Domes Masjid of Imam Muhammad Abdul Wahhab (2015) that was instigated and published in collaboration with Qatar National Museum and recently another book titled Qatari Style (2019).

 

SCALE is in conversation with Ibrahim Jaidah.

SCALE: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill in 1943. How did buildings shape you?

IMJ: Growing up in Al Jasra, the area which is now within Souq Wakif, walking through narrow sikas, playing in courtyards, had an impact on my thought process. Growing up in an intimate neighbourhood with houses close to each other, where everyone knows one another, had a positive effect on me versus others in my college in the West who lived in skyscrapers and complained of the lack of social spaces. It was only when I was in college studying architecture that I realised the effect these spaces I grew up in had on my sensibilities.

SCALE: How do you see yourself in the architectural map of the country? Have you made a distinct mark on your country’s landscape through the practice you follow?

In the year 2003, the Al Shaqab Institute for girls was honoured on the 100 riyal note.

IMJ: I was fortunate to have started at the right time. We did make an impact on the skyline of Doha, not only by the buildings created but also by creating a distinct identity of Qatari architecture which is now a reference point being used by everyone. I also was honoured by the State Encouragement Award by HH The Father Emir and one of the major milestones in my career was having my building, the Al Shaqab Institute for Girls within the Qatar Foundation, printed on the currency of the nation. It put an additional responsibility of passing on the knowledge acquired, of defining and refining vernacular architecture of the country to the youth so that it could be passed on to generations.

The Al Shaqab Institute for Girls is one of the first buildings ever built within the Education City.

The architectural concept was derived from both traditional Arab Islamic architecture as well as the function of the school.

As part of an initiative to preserve important historic buildings in Qatar, the former Civil Defense Building was renovated and converted into 24 artists’ studios and art gallery by AEB.

SCALE: When did you move on to vernacular architecture and what prompted it?

IMJ: When I came back from the States after my education, having learned about different international architectural movements. I found that there was hardly any mention of the architecture of the region. I remember we had two pages on Islamic Architecture in all our five years of learning architecture. I rediscovered the different characteristics of traditional architecture and it inspired and astonished me as I was now more aware of the impact each feature had on human well-being. Here, I discovered varied forms of traditional architecture existed that combine distinctive decorative features with forms that have developed in response to the region’s demanding climate.

Till then, no modern buildings were constructed using these traditional lessons, mimicking them in a modern context.

The only place which made an impact on me was the restoration work of the old National Museum which was made in a truly Qatari style. I remember since I was working with the Municipality, I used to suggest that we design in this style but this suggestion was constantly unheeded as they wanted buildings in modern styles as seen from examples around the world.

It was only when the Father Emir became the Emir that the cultural evolution or revolution of the country in its true sense happened. I was fortunate to be involved in the concept design of the Al Dana Club and when Ali Al Fardan saw the sketch, he took me to meet His Highness, the Father Emir. His Highness was so happy to see the concept drawing and he took me to his home and showed me more black and white pictures of buildings of the 40s and 50s. He said to me, “Son, you could inspire others by what our fathers built.”

Since then, I started researching about our historical buildings. I spent my time reading, researching, analysing and studying examples of vernacular architecture. I started where the vernacular architecture as a practice ended. The local vernacular architecture diminished when oil was discovered and I started right from that moment in architecture until I reached where I am now.

Aesthetically, I wanted the facades to look exactly like the old architectural buildings. My early works were taking that style and then developing it. Slowly after years of evolving and more understanding, we have reached what we now call Qatari contemporary architecture.

SCALE: Now you have helped create a distinct understanding of the Qatari architecture. And used it as an example in your buildings. Take us through some of them and their design processes. What are your learnings through this process?

IMJ: I learned that vernacular architecture goes way beyond aesthetics. It is about the function, the material used, the orientation and all this is learnt as you develop your practice. You learn that vernacular is not just the skin, it goes into the heart of the building. When I describe the Qatari vernacular to the students, I tell them it is in the layout. It is the orientation of the building with regard to the sun, the wind. You worry about the façade much later.

Some of the buildings that I designed which practiced vernacular architecture was the Al Dana Club, Al Shaqab Institute for Girls and the Sharq Hotel.

The concept design is derived from the traditional headpiece worn by men across the Middle East locally referred to as “gahfiya”. Gahfiya is worn by young boys before they would wear a full headgear and adult men wear it under their Ghutras. It is an important part of every young boy’s pathway to adulthood, and this rite of passage was the fundamental inspiration for the design, according to IMJ.

 

SCALE: Take us through the first stadium project of yours. How important has it been to your career?

IMJ: I was thrilled when we were invited to compete by the Supreme Committee. It was a design competition and we worked hard on the submissions and gave it our best. Six months later we were announced as the winners. I was extremely honoured to be part of my nations’ pride, challenge, and ambitions. To play a part in this extremely important event is of momentous pride, honour and a great achievement for me. We have learned a lot in this process, simply by working with dozens of consultants from around the world. From FIFA compliance consultants, the façade consultant, the structural guide, the landscape consultant, and even the turf consultant, to being the chief designer for all of this to come together, within time and budget, is a great professional experience.

Located in the West Bay area of Doha, this $190 million state-of-the-art property is operated by hospitality group Kempinski. This aluminum-clad tower has 62 levels that offer spectacular views from its shimmering glazed curtain walling. At 252 meters high this tower is the tallest operating tower in Qatar to date.

Kempinski Marsa Malaz Hotel is constructed over a 46,113m² area and has 281 guest rooms spread over six levels.

 

SCALE: Looking back at your creations, what would you like to be known for?

IMJ: It is very difficult, sometimes a very small building makes a strong impact. Every building, is a journey, of the experience of the construction. The client who is the first contact in this experience, whom you get to know very closely, as architecture is very personal.

There are some buildings which will always be in my mind as they have had an impact on my professional growth. My first tower, the Barzan Tower, the first building to be built in the Education City, the tallest building in Doha, The Kempinski Tower is special, leisure hotel projects are always distinct, the Al Sharq is one such important project in my learning curve. And now the Al Thumama stadium, which is getting completed, with the skin getting done, is a milestone in my career. Something I will always be proud about.

SCALE: Are today’s architects bend on creating structures to be known for them rather for the people who use them?

IMJ:  This happens a lot. A lot of signature architect build monumental forms, towers that are sometimes out of context, but they get away with it, so it must be fine…

Architecture, through historical times, has been a reflection of somebody’s ego, might or ambition, whether it is religious or monumental architecture.

Short Takes

1. Your first completed project

From my first completed project, which was the four steps I designed and built, which I climbed up and down a hundred times, to a small hut for a friend in a farm. Those are the first completed project.

The first completed project of IMJ is a small hut made in a farm owned by his friend. Every project and each client tells the story of IMJ’s experience and learning and is important to the architect.

 

2. Your biggest regret

I believe that you win some and you lose some.

I believe that you win some and you lose some. Thankfully the projects I have lost were never meant to be, as very often it would appear that they have had some issues before or during construction and sometimes even had to be abandoned altogether.

Regret, in terms of decision-making, I believe that every act is a learning process, and it is through these actions that you learn what to avoid the next time.

3. One client you would aspire to build for

All clients are important to me. I love clients who challenge me and make me come out with my best design. Many of the good projects that you see are the result of having an intelligent client.

4. The city that inspires you the most…

London, for the paved streets; Paris, for its museums and the parks. How these cities maintain their identity through modern times is what amazes me.

The Al Sharq Resort resort is located on a site of over 95,000m² and comprises the largest spa in the region, Six Senses Spa, covering 5,200m². The design of the Al Sharq Village and Spa recreates, with exceptional attention to detail, a traditional Qatari environment.

 

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