IN GROWING CITIES, LOOK TO GEOGRAPHY AND CULTURAL IDENTITY
Globalisation poses an urban design dilemma. As the industrial revolution shaped cities like Liverpool and Chicago, globalisation today is creating a new generation of urban centres. We see it in sparkling new quarters sprouting up in emerging economies - the Dubais and Pudongs of this world - to insertions in established global hubs like London. In both form and fabric, it is worth remembering that each of these cities came from somewhere. There is a vernacular to work with.
The fluidity of borders and the internationalisation of capital have brought about immense progress, leading to an explosion in new building, especially in emerging market contexts. While great wealth has been created - hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty alone in china and India, for example - it often has come at the expense of urban character. Many new districts and cities look increasingly alike. Large swaths of built heritage have been destroyed to make way for the new. If industrialisation's incidental threat to human happiness was squalid living condition's, globalisation's might well be the homogenisation of our living environments.
Think for a moment of the most desirable urban places. Istanbul's Hagia Sofia, Suzhou's ancient canals, the centre of Paris - these are the kinds of places likely to come in mind. Each is vastly different, but they all share one thing in common. They tell you where you are. They tell a story about the place you are in. They are also a good investment, long outlasting the vagaries of fashion. People always come back to them. They reveal topography. They reflect a local culture. This unfolds at different scales, from the block to the neighbourhood to an entirely new city.
A block in Beirut
Cosmopolitanism is etched into the DNA of Beirut. A Mediterranean city shaped by many cultures - Ottoman, Arab, French, Armenian, just to name a few - Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world and grew to be a centre for exchange, trade and intellectualism in the region. In recent years though, it was caught in the cross fire of the Lebanese civil war, a slow-moving trauma that strained the city's diversity while leaving physical scars.
It is in this context where we have been architects for a new block at the edge of the city's historic centre. Called District//S, this new insertion into an old city will have twenty-two buildings, primarily residential and with active commercial ground floor uses. Simple buildings, they are modern, but most importantly they feel local. There are traces of the different cultural layers that have shaped Beirut. Clad in stone, many of them incorporate tall oversized timber shutters that are emblematic of Beirut architecture, a complement to the traditional Lebanese balconies and shutters in neighbouring older buildings. They are arranged around an interlocking series of complex spaces, intentionally irregular, resulting in an intimate arrangement of public spaces that recall the urban fabric of old Beirut. In the more than 20 years since war concluded, Beirut has been quietly stitching the pieces back together. It is through gestures like these, where an old city that had gone off track, can begin to build a future by remembering where it came from.
A neighbourhood in Doha
If Beirut's medicine is to replant the seeds of its urbane character, then Doha's would be planting down roots. Doha, until recently, was a small city. Like two of its nearby cousins - Dubai and Abu Dhabi - it has undergone meteoric growth in the last several decades, growing from a population of 80,000 in 1970 to around a million residents today. Much of this is due to imported labour, migrants from across the region and an influx of expatriate workers. The sprawling city has grown beyond recognition from the old coastal city defined by sikkat - or narrow alleyways - that has walkable, compact character. As part of an effort to recreate (and update) this home for the Qatari people, Doha's Msheireb Downtown development was conceived. The redevelopment is seeking to rejuvenate a 31 hectare site in the heart of the city, adjacent to the Emir's Palace, to become a vibrant compact quarter.
The Msheireb masterplan is unlike most recent new developments in the region; rather than reinforcing the footprint of (an often car-centric version of) Western culture with little scope in furthering local culture and traditions, this masterplan delves deep into the local history and fabric. The masterplan has the DNA of a local pre-modern city. It puts people first, cars second, introducing a new public realm enabled by a tight-knit urban grain that creates natural shading. It is no coincidence that old cities in this hot desert region grew up organically in this way. Allies and Morrison has been deeply involved in the project as 'architectural voice' for the overall masterplan and as design architect for a number of buildings. In doing so, we have strived for a collection of contemporary buildings that will look and feel Qatari.
In addition to our sitewide role, we have been design architects for a number of buildings in Msheireb's first phases. The first phase is the Diwan Amiri Quarter, which sits at the northeast of the site across from the existing seat of the Emir of Qatar. The new quarter is an important collection of civic buildings, containing the offices for the Emir's staff, the barracks for the Emir's guard, the Qatar National Archive and Eid Prayer Ground - all designed by Allies and Morrison. Completed this year, each building retains its individuality, but is designed within the strong design codes and ethos of the wider Msheireb development. Previewing the construction of these five years earlier, as the masterplan first emerged publically, The Architectural Review opined - 'Msheireb is a pioneering scheme for the Middle East, but even defining it in those terms doesn't really do justice to its monumental ambitions'.
A city in Oman
Monumental ambition is at the heart of another Allies and Morrison masterplan just taking shape on the edges of Muscat, the capital of Oman, about 1,000 km southeast of Doha. Oman takes a considered approach to its development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has ranked it as the single most improved country in terms of human development since it started its annual human development index. The country's progressive Sultan and leadership have carefully managed Oman's modernisation, with an emphasis on cultural sustainability that comes from a desire to preserve the country's rich heritage. Working for the Omani government's development arm, we have developed a masterplan for a new capital district - Madinat Al Irfan - for a future population of 100,000 to the west of Muscat. The new urban area will accommodate Muscat's expected growth well into the future.
The masterplan strives to create a distinct and unique place with a compelling vision that will generate significant value and interest in Oman globally by tapping into the area's sense of locality. Irfan will be set within the existing topography, working around the Wadi ecosystem found onsite to work with the distinctive terrain of hilltops, valleys and steep gullies. A linear Wadi park sits at the heart of Irfan stringing together a series of centres, all of which are compact and tightly woven together through complex geometries with bridges connecting them across the Wadi. Buildings will be simple, and like Msheireb, will be clustered close together to encourage walkability and provide natural shading. Architectural guidelines being drawn up are inspired by the local vernacular, providing a 21st-century expression of Omani cultural identity.
Irfan, and the projects in Doha and Beirut, show us that cities can grow and 'modernise' without having to forget who they are. And, perhaps ironically, globalisation has made all too important that most precious of commodities - authenticity and uniqueness - which means this strategy is also a wise investment. Every place, regardless of the particularities of its geography or the nuances of its identity, will be well-served when it works with that very geography and identity.