During the last decades, countries in the Middle East have gone through an unprecedented transformation which is most visibly apparent in architectural design. A majority of modern buildings in the Arab world are very similar to Western models but are they really suitable for the region’s climate and cultural environment?
While some welcome futuristic buildings, many urban planners, engineers and architects along with city dwellers, are resisting the wave of Western architecture, and trying to reassert the suitability of local architecture. In addition to commissioning new buildings whose designs respect Islamic architecture, government officials and inspired businessmen are also encouraging renovation projects.
The stunning restoration of Qatar’s Souq Waqif to its original appearance has proved to be an incredible success: It has become one of Doha’s most popular sites. The decision to revive its narrow streets was accompanied by a bold decision to pull down new buildings and reconstruct old ones. The renewal plan was undertaken under the guidance and supervision of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Located in the heart of Doha, Souq Waqif is one of the most traditional souqs in the Gulf. It was originally a week-end market for local Bedouins, where meat, wool, and milk were the principal items sold. In recent decades, it metamorphosed into an ugly web of concrete streets. A stunning renovation has thankfully returned it to a typical 19th century souq, complete with attractive shops. An intricate labyrinth of streets offers a natural shelter from the country’s sweltering sun. Unlike impersonal air conditioned malls where shoppers are entirely shielded from the environment, traditional markets in the Gulf, offer passersby refreshing shaded areas.
One of the main purposes of the region’s vernacular architecture was to protect buildings from the sun by providing shade. The increasing number of buildings in the Gulf with glass-façades signals a different architectural approach. Moreover, is this new desire to build the tallest tower the logical result of a consumer society spiraling out of control?
Islamic architecture, despite its astonishing diversity, has throughout its history adapted to different cultures, without ever departing from the spiritual essence, which was its sole source of inspiration. Islamic architecture is not only in total harmony with the people and the environment but it also reflects the love of God.
The successful renovation of Souq Waqif highlights the nobility and wisdom behind the region’s traditional architecture in the face of modern construction devoid of any cultural identity. It also reminds us that the traditional Islamic city is an organic entity. Its center is the main mosque and the arteries of the complex organism are the alleyways of the souq. Traditionally, the key monuments and facilities of the city are situated in and around the souq.
The importance of the souq all over the Muslim world highlights its long established commercial tradition. Cities in the Arab world developed from the beginning an architecture of trade which reflected the thriving economic activity, centuries before the same phenomenon happened in Italian and northern European cities. This architecture of trade includes covered bazaars or souqs, caravanserais or khans which are the medieval equivalent of modern hotels. It also shows that Muslims throughout their history have always been on the move for commercial as well as for religious and educational reasons.
It is neither desirable to construct buildings which offer only an Islamic façade and do not embody an Islamic approach nor is it reasonable to produce an architecture free of any Islamic spirit. Urban planners in the Gulf region should encourage engineers and builders to understand the essence of Islamic architecture and make full use of the latest building techniques. One should not forget that Islamic architecture, in fact, does not follow strict rules. Some of the most beautiful examples of Islamic architecture have been made with local materials and local building methods to express in their own way the essence of Islamic architecture.