Colours of the City Finds Major Influences in Architecture Styles

Architectural students and practitioners, if there is one exhibition that needs to be seen to understand the evolution of Doha’s architectural landscape, then it is the Colours of the City: A Century of Architecture in Doha presented at M7 as part of the Design Doha Biennial. And for those who missed it, here is a gist of what went behind the making of it. 

For those with architectural affiliations, the Colours of the City is a dual-themed exhibition presenting global influences in the capital of Qatar that highlights treasures of Art Deco, Classicism and Modernism. The exhibition focuses on Qatari adaptations of those styles brought about by architects or mere workmen from Europe, America, the Middle East, and South Asia. For those with no architectural roots, you need to see this exhibition to explore the past of Doha and for some to revive the nostalgia of Doha of the 80s and 90s and the early 2000s.

The flowing banners gave a sense of openness and a lightness to the exhibition space that actually encourages the visitors to move forward. Photo by Julián Velásquez, ©️ Qatar Museums

The large open space within M7 was beautifully set with enlightening screens hung from the ceiling, automatically freeing up the exhibition space for slow meandering trails as information is imbibed.

The two curators of Colours of the City; Dr Glenn Adamson, Artistic Director, Design Doha Biennial (left), Dr Peter Nagy, Heritage and Architecture Interpretation Specialist, Qatar Museums (right).

The two curators of Colours of the City are Dr Glenn Adamson and Dr Peter Tamas Nagy. Glenn is also the Artistic Director of Design Doha Biennial, and Peter is the local art historian from Qatar Museums (QM), who delved deep into the project to come up with interesting insights.

Glenn curated the elements of the second part of the exhibition which was Ibrahim Al Jaidah’s narrative but what was missing was the local element, the historical roots of architectural design in Qatar.

We asked Glenn about his role as a curator in this exhibition and he said, “Peter of Qatar Museums was the curator of the historical aspect of the show (I curated the section on Ibrahim Al Jaidah). Peter is a very knowledgeable expert on the subject having done extensive fieldwork and archival research on 20th century architecture in Qatar, so that part of the show drew on years of work on his part.”

What preceded the planning of the exhibition was deep research uncovering hidden landmarks of history in Doha and its suburbs to locate buildings and styles to classify them within the known variants in architectural styles which led Peter to coin groupings to signify Doha’s own particular architectural language.

The Starting Point

SCALE met Peter to understand the research behind this exhibition, the Colours of the City, on the making of Doha as a city.

“My background is in art history especially Islamic architecture and I used my research on 20th century historical architecture in Doha to curate the exhibition. The initial conversation started in July 2023 and we started work in September 2023. Soon the designers of the exhibition, Karl Bassil, Creative Director and Founding Partner and Carla Khayat, Lead Designer of Mind the gap joined to start visualising the exhibition. Since then, we worked together to piece the final look and feel, with me contributing on content while Karl and Carla masterminded the design,” explains Peter on the path towards the final exhibit.

But the exhibition started to materialise only as Peter started finding more relevant material that would add up to become the whole picture.

When the art historian joined QM, two and a half years back, he started the research on the royal palaces that were owned by QM and since then had completed a monograph on the Old Palace, now within the National Museum of Qatar.

Reconstruction of the Old Palace and its surroundings in East Doha, 1920s. Design by Pazirik Co, © Qatar Museums

“My work focused on sites that QM owned, but soon I realised that to have a full picture, I needed to expand my scope. I attempted to identify a grou of relevant building of each stylistic category, filling in missing pieces of the mosaic of architectural trends,” he says.

The Fahad bin Ali Palace is an exhibit at Colours of the City, and the starting point for Peters to dive into the history of the evolution of architectural styles in Doha.

“This building opened my eyes to Art Deco buildings in Doha as I had not seen such buildings here before and then I started my search for other examples of architectural detailing belonging to the same genre,” explains Peter.

Doha Deco, Doha Classism and Doha Brutalism

These specific details, some of them an amalgamation of the Art Deco styles found around the world, gave rise to “Doha Deco” a name that Peter prefers using as it expressed the geographically circumscribed nature of the phenomenon.

“As the label suggests, the phenomenon was specific to a city, even though belonging to a worldwide classification. And this brings us to Doha Classicism, which is a label I coined, and which applies only to decorative details of a handful of buildings. The Zaman House, located near Bank Street, is a fine example in this class. The building is still under restoration, but we decided to use it in theexhibition because its main gate, according to archival images, once had floral decorations similar to the Neo-Classicist style. There are a few other buildings with such floral tendril elements, most of which we have displayed under Doha Classicism,” explains Peter.

Zaman House, main façade completed c. 1964. Photo by Julián Velásquez, © Qatar Museums.

This led the researcher on an investigative foray to find buildings around Doha that fit these typical styles. Many gates, walls and multiple entryways to now-empty squares, were discovered through this study, all of which has been documented by Peter, who was completely captivated by these discoveries. One of the gates have decorative rabbits kissing, falcons and even fishes, each of them telling stories of the creators and the exchanges they have had with the local owner.

An example of Doha Deco. One of the main residences, palace at Umm al-Amad, 1960s. Photo by Péter T. Nagy, © Qatar Museum.

“One example is in Umm al Amad, the Northern-most tip of Doha, featuring a portico which has floral decorations or ornamental tendrils. Another example is a mosque in Wakrah. This was interesting, as it was the first time that we saw elements of  Doha Classicism incorporated in a place of worship. But the building was already demolished in 1990 and we only have few pictures to show this,” says Peter.

Mosque in Wakra, built c. 1960 and demolished in the 1990s. © Qatar Museum.

This mosque in Wakra, unique in the architectural history of Qatar, dates back to the 1960s and illustrates how Doha Classicism manifested not only in elite houses but also in the religious sphere. The Quranic epigraphy on the prayer hall’s main façade featured a polychrome tendril design; its dome illuminated with lights had a silver coating.

Gulf Cinema, designed by Rifat Chadirji, Doha, completed in 1977. Photo by Julián Velásquez, © Qatar Museums

The pictures of the mosque were from archives of QM and some of the images were also sourced from Ibrahim Jaidah’s personal archives, both of which proved to be invaluable for the historian in beading together information for the exhibits.

Nostalgic buildings, Gulf Cinema Building, a classic example of Doha Brutalism. Gulf Cinema, designed by Rifat Chadirji, completed in 1977. Photo by Julián Velásquez, © Qatar Museums

Doha Brutalism was another era which comprised of buildings that old-Doha-residents would be familiar with, like the Gulf Cinema building, with some residents like this writer, who has been lucky enough to watch movies within this building in the early 2010 period, before it was classified as unfit for public events.

Qatar Post, designed by Twist and Whitley Architects, completed in 1982. Photo by Julián Velásquez, © Qatar Museums

This segment of the exhibition showcases iconic landmarks including the Sheraton Hotel, Qatar Post, Qatar University, Ministry of Interior building and the Amiri Diwan.

Mind the Gap

The banners take one through a labyrinth of information all brought together in these few months prior to the exhibition.

While the content was provided by Peter, relying on a vast amount of archival materials,  he had no previous experience or vision of how it materialise on the display.

The work of Mind the gap, branding agency, a perfect use of space and content. Photo by Julián Velásquez, ©️ Qatar Museums

Filling that gap was a design and branding agency from Beirut and Doha, Mind the Gap, with thirty years’ practice in branding, packaging, publication, signage, exhibition, digital and information design and leading this agency was Karl Bassil with Carla Khayat who was also involved in the designing.

The perfect solution for an exhibition that was growing in content day by day was the flexible banners which gave Peter the flexibility to keep adding or taking down content as and when he came up with new data.

“It was work in progress till the last few weeks,” remembers Karl, “When we started, we realised that there was way too much text than the initial plan and it kept coming. Production cost constraints and tight schedules of timelines made it impossible for us to use typical exhibition partitions.

“Content also kept evolving. We also wanted to avoid the typical mouse maze construction as the viewer experience would be very boring.”

Construction materials were displayed on the floor of the exhibition space of Colours of the City. Photo by Julián Velásquez, ©️ Qatar Museums

The idea of using construction material as part of the exhibit was also introduced and some of the material was quite large and would not be possible to incorporate that in the pace planning, though freeing up the ground seemed like a perfect solution for their placement.

All these constraints led the designers to come up with the suspended screens for display. “This is when we introduced the suspended screens which fulfilled many of our formal and functional intentions. The translucency of the screens created a sense of depth in the gallery entrance space, which was accentuated by the gaps between the banners. It is not a closed banner and thus the visitor could glance between the screens and be guided forward to explore what he spies from before,” says Karl.

The banners gave a sense of openness and a lightness that actually encourages the visitors to move forward. Almost like a metaphor for the emergence of Doha from the desert to a metropolis.

Outcome and Final Words

Peter might have completed this project, but he is still entwined between the layers of history of Doha and he has some very thought-provoking insights.

Ministry of Interior, designed by William Sednaoui, Doha, completed in 1978. © Qatar Museums

“The main task for me continues to be to get all the details right. There is no definitive information available on the names of architects or dates of constructions, but for the exhibition, it was more fundamental to establish stylistic trends following the influences that contributed to the design of these buildings. From the art historian’s perspective, it is inevitable to search for analogies, influences, contributions, investigating other buildings with similar features,” he says.

Ministry of Interior, designed by William Sednaoui, Doha, completed in 1978. © Qatar Museums.

More information is available on the buildings, including the names of their designers, from the 1970s on. For example, the Ministry of Interior by a Lebanese architect William Sednaoui was said to be inspired by the Boston City Hall. But even with the buildings looking similar, they were still not the same. The architect of the ministry building also used an characteristic of Islamic architecture, according to Peter.

“The longer facades of the building were actually reminiscent of Muqarnas or a form of decorative vaulting in Islamic architecture. This is thus a combination of Brutalism which is an international classification and a style that is very specific to the area and to Islamic architecture.”

“This is why it matters where these buildings are situated, right here in Doha, and not anywhere in the world. While it is quite easy to overlook Brutalist architecture as a worldwide phenomenon, in this case it is valuable for Doha as it shows the elements of Islamic architecture in a very modern movement of architecture,” he says.

Peter is invested in not just documenting the historic buildings in Doha, he is keen on deciphering the influences and the stories behind the making of these buildings.

“In the case of the Doha Deco, much beyond the name or the terminology, which is just one point, what is more important is to understand where this is coming from,” says the historian, “This is why the slideshow of selected Art Decco buildings from India , where I spent a month of fieldwork, is relevant. I believe that the closest analogies one can find of Doha Deco are in India. Art Deco as we know it is extinct in Europe and in the US, while very much flourishing in India and also in Pakistan.

West Portal, palace of Sheikh Fahad bin Ali, completed c. 1962. Photo by Julián Velásquez, © Qatar Museums

Iran has also had a very big influence in Doha Classism, and in one example, the Zaman House, the former inhabitants of that building remember the presence of Iranian builders and decorators working on their house. It is of particular interest to note that while there were no architects involved, it was these workmen who conducted all the functions assigned for professionals.

The Jaidah Touch

Ibrahim Jaidah is the face of contemporary architecture in Doha who has many towers and high-rise buildings in Doha’s skyscape to his credit.

Ibrahim Jaidah’s creative works are focused on, in this portion of Colours of the City. Photo by Julián Velásquez, ©️ Qatar Museums

From the iconic FIFA World Cup venue, the Thummama Stadium to large malls and hospitality projects, Jaidah has been instrumental in giving the buildings in Doha, a touch that is an eclectic mix of modernism with elements of Qatari architecture imbibed quite subtly.

He has also designed carpets in a collaboration with Iwan Maktabi, which hangs majestically from the ceiling diving the large space into these two galleries.

The highlight of this exhibition curated by Glenn is the model of Doha city recreated with all Jaidah-designed towers and buildings in miniature.

Thus, it seems as if the two segments of Colours of the City, while being a visual and educative delight has paved way for context of origin, of influences, of collaborations of nations and minds and of exchanges much beyond buildings and architecture.

All Images Courtesy Qatar Museums and Dr Peter Nagy.