Image Making and the Multiple Architectural Identities of a Growing Metropolis

08 Apr 12:32 AM

Sector : Real Estate Country : Qatar

By: Dr. Ashraf M. Salama

The interest in creating meaningful places within the professional and academic communities always result in a wide spectrum of approaches to place and image making.  Architects and urban designers with interest in incorporating meaning into place typically manipulate different elements to emphasize a locality or reflect an international tendency. Depicting history, craft and cultural traditions, or reacting current global trends represents these elements. A glimpse at contemporary architecture of Doha shows that architects find themselves dealing with the irony of needing to project a certain image of whom they are designing for while advocating the necessity of speaking to the contemporary global culture.  I adopt the concept of ‘multiple modernities,’ a term coined by Mojtaba Sadria to denote that there are forces of modernity that can be received, perceived, reacted to, and developed in different ways and in different contexts.

Utilizing symbolism in contemporary imaging

The acts of symbolization and cultural and personal attachment to what is called ‘symbols’ are recognized modes of thinking, feeling, behaving, associating, and understanding. Two origins of symbolism are applicable in the context of this analysis: social and spontaneous creation of new places or buildings by the public, and planning or intentional actions of those who have the power and authority to introduce change in the urban environment. The use of symbols is an act intended to create a symbolic space or building with preconceived meaning that either can or cannot be comprehended and assimilated as a point of reference by the public, and that might or might not become a shared symbolic element. This corroborates the notion that most of the important urban and building actions and artistic interventions in the city of Doha are deliberately intended to evoke a real or imagined memory, recall images from the past, or record a significant event, and thus put a political, artistic, or social moment indelibly on record.

In many development efforts within the city, influential decision-makers and project developers are actively promoting, together with building professionals, the increased use of traditional symbols to enhance building images and the urban context within which they exist. Their ultimate objective is to establish a contextual architectural and spatial language that speaks to the public. By and large, the existence of historical and recognizable symbols can help foster a sense of cultural identity while, at the same time, satisfy an inchoate longing to reinstate the vanished intimacy between a community and its surrounding physical environment. Indeed, the use of symbols derived from architectural heritage has an important role in invigorating the preservation of traditions and tangible elements of cultural heritage. The desire to instigate a sense of cultural belonging by replicating, through built forms, the visual attributes, signs, and symbols of historical or traditional architecture, has encouraged building professionals to increase the use of such symbols in their contemporary practices with the clear aim of creating iconic buildings or urban settings that establish far-reaching effect on local image-making practices and processes  links with the actual or imagined past. Examples of efforts toward materializing these desires and concepts are evident in a considerable number of buildings and projects in modern day Doha.


Tradition-modernity dialogue in search for identity

Addressing the sensitive relationship between tradition and modernity is another approach that involves continuous attempts to construct an architectural or urban identity. Tradition, in this respect, can be viewed as both an internal action and a response to external forces and perceived desires. In essence, the result of an interaction between internal influences and external forces helps creates an identity. In turn, this understanding contributes to th far-reaching effect on local image-making practices and processes e narrative of expressing cultural identity through architecture and urban form, a narrative, which continues to present and represent itself on the map of architectural practices and urban discourse in Doha. While some theorists see identity as a human need that has transformed itself into a necessity, others regard it as a process of constructing meaning on the basis of giving priority to a set of cultural attributes over other sources of meaning. Others adopt the position that it is a matter of being and becoming, reflecting a more in-depth understanding of identity: one relates to similarity and continuity, while the other delineates difference and rupture.

Consequently, the idea of identity appears to have three underlying qualities: a) the permanence over time of a subject unaffected by environmental changes below a certain threshold level, b) a notion of unity, which establishes the limits of a subject and enables us to distinguish it from the others, and c) a relationship between two elements, which allows us to recognize them as identical. This suggests that permanence, recognition, and distinction determine the presence of identity in a physical object, a work of architecture, or a portion of a built environment. Indeed, identity can be further understood as the collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which an object, a building, or a portion of the built environment is definitively recognizable.

The city of Doha’s earlier efforts at representative image-making can be seen in the buildings of the Qatar University campus, where a visual dialogue was established between traditional design elements and the utilization of the contemporary technology. As the discourse continues on the dialectic relationships between tradition and modernity, the contemporary and the historic, and the global and the local, a number of important projects exemplify the presence of multiple resistant identities. Some architects have continuously attempted t far-reaching effect on local image-making practices and processes o achieve such a balance in their work by developing syntheses of contemporary images based on revived traditions and by simulating traditional environments, in some cases using modern technologies while in other cases combined with traditional techniques. These endeavors aim at returning architecture to its former position of being not only a visual expression of society, but also arising from within it.


Speaking to the Global World

Architecture and urbanism continue to be regarded as a crucial catalyst for cities to sustain their position in the milieu of a global knowledge intensive economy. Reactions to this global condition can be seen in infinite and hybrid urban forms and typologies in Doha. The global condition and its impact on the city and the production of space have been heavily discussed in the literature. City branding or urban branding is one of the responses to such a situation. As a rising area of discourse, it has emerged as a response to growing global and fiscal competition, and as such is witnessed in the realization of local and regional aspirations with an agenda to entice global investment or gain international attention. In this context, two phenomena toward image-making can be identified.

The first phenomenon can be seen in the organization of large-scale stage and hallmark events such as the case of ASIA-D 2006, where the city of Doha branded itself as a sport-based city, a hub for international sporting events, by organizing the Asian Games in 2006; this event is considered to be the second largest sporting event in the world after the Olympic games itself. Through the use of environmental graphics such as the distribution of strategically placed billboards and signboards throughout the city, sculpture installations in public spaces, as well as building and street wrap pictograms, key areas within the city immediately acquired an instantly recognizable new image. While such an image referent can be considered temporary, pursuing an event of this scale typically results in improving infrastructure, the creation, refurbishing and development of public spaces, and the introduction of new amenities and facilities. The successful result of this branding strategy has encouraged the government to host a further series of regional and international sporting events, which eventually led the city to successfully bid for the FIFA World Cup 2022. This event will have a dramatic and far-reaching effect on local image-making practices and processes.

The second phenomenon can be seen in the creation and promotion of urban districts or enclave developments for key segments of society. These types of projects stem from mutually beneficial alliances between government agencies and business interests. By promoting new work opportunities and desirable lifestyles, new urban images are generated in key areas within the city. Examples of this phenomenon are evident in two major development projects. One is Doha’s new business district, near the waterfront in West Bay, whose visually arresting developments and buildings have created a strikingly iconic urban image and cityscape. The second project is the exclusive development Pearl Qatar, where various eclectic and hybrid styles of regional and European architecture promote another distinctive development image (Figure 5.19). While in the first project individual buildings compete aggressively in contributing to the new urban image, priority for image-making in the second project is given to the overall urban setting and activities rather than to individual buildings.

The preceding narrative identifies three types of local image-making endeavors, which can help contribute to the understanding of the overall environmental imagery of the city. However, the first two are based on establishing real or imagined visual references borrowed from a real or imagined past. They delineate attempts to construct an architectural and urban identity through the selection of historic features stemming from Arabic heritage. The third type has produced manifestations that represent ‘multiple modernities,’ with the aim of satisfying perceived global aspirations and socio-economic transformations; these are effectively characterized by a desire for Doha to position itself as a growing metropolis.

Dr. Ashraf M. Salama
Professor of Architecture and Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, United Kingdom.


Leave a reply