Contemporary Gulf architect

Ibrahim Jaidah of Qatar's Arab Engineering Bureau defines his style and warns against building the ghettos of tomorrow.

Ibrahim Jaidah
Ibrahim Jaidah

Ibrahim Jaidah of Qatar's Arab Engineering Bureau defines his style and warns against building the ghettos of tomorrow.

How did you develop an interest in architecture?

I've had a love for architecture since I was a kid. I grew up in the Al Jassrah area of Doha in Qatar; an area that featured an old souq and an abundance of Arabic homes with courtyards.

I once read a statement, 'we don't inherit the environment from our fathers, we borrow it from our children'. I think it's important to remember this.

Even then I remember drawing the elevations of these buildings. Throughout my studies, I was keenly interested in art and this led me towards the study of architecture. I studied a wide range of styles of architecture in the US and didn't actually ever refer to the style of this region.

When I returned to Qatar I became interested in the vernacular style of the region.

As the head of architecture for the Qatar Municipality, I started to photograph the old buildings that were being demolished and to record Doha as the changes were beginning to take place.

The development of Doha's Al Dana Club was my first attempt at the vernacular and, working alongside Rice Perry Ellis, I developed the concept. Ultimately, the project was nominated for the Aga Khan Award and won the first rank of Arab Cities Award for Architecture.

Is there any particular design ethos to which you adhere?

When I was in the US, I was influenced by post-modern architecture and jazz music. But, I have always been intrigued by the Arabic vernacular in all its varieties and how it has influenced the architecture of the world from China to Spain.

The interesting part is not only the capabilities in terms of design, the carvings and the decoration but also the social functionality of this style.

The function of the building really affected how the Arabic house was laid out in terms of privacy and security.

Amazingly, as the Islamic empire developed and expanded, each region influenced the development of art and architecture and this is why there is such a massive library of Islamic architecture. There is not just one style.

How would you describe your style of architecture?

I would like to see my style evolve into an original form of contemporary Gulf architecture. Unfortunately there are not enough critiques, seminars or people researching and analysing this style.

It would help us to not lose sight of who we are, but also to understand who we are becoming as we are influenced by other cultures.

For that reason, it has not been defined as an official architectural style despite it being built more than any other style in the world. Hopefully in time, people will start to see the necessity of analysing what we are developing.

What are your views on Gulf architecture?

Gulf architecture is so unique, there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. We have the influences of the Arabs and the Yemenis, an Iranian influence, from the rich villages along the coast with each possessing their own style, then due to the trade route, an influence from Al Basra in Iraq. We were also influenced by India and Zanzibar.

All of this has created a uniquely beautiful style which, unfortunately has not been fully documented.

Hopefully, the book that I'm publishing toward the end of the year, which will detail the history of Qatari architecture, will start to analyse and document this unique style.

What is your opinion of star architects building not just buildings but entire Middle Eastern cities?

It is very exciting and something to be proud of when there is an influx of the biggest names in the world practicing here in the region. If you read the history books, you will see that all great civilisations have done this in the past.

When they wanted to design a city named New York, they called in all the big names to do it.

It is very, very healthy and it's exciting to see local architects side-by-side with all these big names.

Is it fair to say that local architects understand the Middle Eastern context better and thus, create better architecture?

I totally disagree. Some of the most beautiful Islamic architecture has been done by non-Arabs.

As a matter of fact, sometimes an attempt by someone who is not from the Middle East has produced amazing results.

Although, admittedly, mistakes have been made. For example, when the urban planners came in the 1950s and they redesigned our cities, they totally ignored the fabric of the cities and implemented the design of a western city, which distorted the social lifestyle.

How have you seen the region's architecture change since you began working in the field?

When I started practicing in the late 80's there was not so much work and only average quality buildings.

Now, both aesthetically and quality-wise the projects are becoming more and more impressive.

We continue to break records-the tallest building, the first seven star hotel, etc.-so regional architecture is changing and I think there is an interesting school of architecture evolving.

Nevertheless, we have to be careful at the speed that everything is developing. My biggest fear is that we will end up building the ghettos of tomorrow. In some of the developments you can see that this will be the case.

At the moment, are there any incentives to build environmentally friendly buildings in Qatar?

Not yet. We are hoping the government will push a law and we are trying to convince the developers to use it as a marketing tool.

If we go back to basics, Gulf architecture was as green as any architecture in the world. I believe that in less than a decade, unless you are a green practice you will not be able to do business.

The architects have a duty to lead this initiative, to fight for it and a smart architect will do it in an economical way so that the client does not have to dig too deep into his pocket.

Projects start with architects so it is up to architects to implement green measures into their design.

What are some examples of 'successful' architecture in Qatar?

Souq Waqif is one of the most successful rehabilitation projects in the world. I say this because not only is it successful in recreating the aesthetics of the old souq but because, in any rehabilitation project, the biggest challenge is to bring life back to an area.

A second example would be the Doha Sheraton [Hotel]. It has been cited as one of the most influential pieces of contemporary architecture in the Middle East and for a long time it has been seen as a symbol of modern Qatar.

What is most exciting about working in this field in this region?

We are going through a renaissance period and no architect would want to be anywhere else in the world. The sky is the limit. It's exciting to work with daring clients who challenge ideas and science itself.

What are the advantages for clients using local architects?

I believe that our knowledge of the culture-not just Arabic or Islamic culture but the knowledge of construction, regulations, materials, contractors, etc.-is our advantage. There is no value in designing a sophisticated building that no local contractor can build.

What are the challenges for local practices in the region?

Now, especially with our size we are competing with large international consultancies from around the world.

These are mature firms and we are entering the same design competitions; we are being compared with them, whether we like it or not, because our buildings are next to theirs.

This is a great challenge. But, competition is always healthy; it makes us all strive to achieve more.

What is the way forward for Gulf architecture?

The Gulf style of architecture is so unique; it works so beautifully with the human scale and has a lot of respect for the environment.

Speaking at a recent conference on green architecture, I gave a speech entitled Back to Basics, which looked at how a typical Qatari house from the 1940s would win a platinum award under the LEED certification. All the materials are local and the orientation is perfect.

That is why I am hoping to go back to the basics in my own work, and then as I mature as an architect, I can take these basic principles and implement them into a more contemporary style.

Moreover, we need to call for a conference so that we can address the identity of the region and to also see what is happening to the style of Gulf architecture. We need to have someone analyse it and define it as a school or movement. But it should be a government or a university who can push it forward.

Really, we can start a revolution. We can re-define where we are now, address what our identity is and determine what is becoming important.

What is the future for AEB?

My aim is to become an international practice. We have already started to take that step by opening offices in Abu Dhabi, Manila and Kuala Lumpur, and soon we will have branches in Dubai and in Oman.

This has all been a result of the demand and we intend to keep taking these steps and growing and evolving further.

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