Windtowers to Skyscrapers
“To arrange three stones in a fireplace on which to set a pot was the only architecture that many of them required.”
The Past: For centuries, the dwellings of Gulf Arabs were virtually non-existent. Home for Bedouins was where they slept that night, either under the stars or in simple tents of woven goat hair blankets. Royal families lived in more elaborate tent structures consisting of several “rooms” divided by drapes, made comfortable with thick carpeting and cushions. Modern desert camps for tourists resemble those traditional compounds.
The first distinctive architecture in Dubai appeared relatively recently, in the late 19th century. It was imported by merchants from a town in southern Persia called Basta, who were re-settling in the tiny fishing, pearl diving, and trading village of Dubai on the creek opening into the Persian (now Arabian) Gulf. That creek is still simply called The Creek by the locals. The Persian immigrants built handsome homes with windtowers and courtyards, designed to adapt to the harsh desert climate. Green, sustainable architecture, before those terms were even used. I have never seen anything like them. They are stunning.
The windtowers are designed to capture the breezes from The Creek and the sea, funneling the air down to the rooms below. The houses and towers are made of petrified coral blocks dug from The Creek and bonded with sarooj- a mixture of clay, manure, and water. Ceilings and roofs are constructed around hardwood beams finished with a mixture of straw and silt. Since it rarely rains, the roofs are flat, providing another gathering and sleeping area for residents, depending on the season. They serve as exterior rooms, designed to maximize exposure to winds for cooling, as they are surrounded by perforated parapets. When it does rain, the run-off spills through spouts and can be collected for other purposes, such as washing clothes or watering plants.
The elegant functional form of the windtowers is beautiful in itself. The Arabs, however, with their love of elaborate mosaics and decorative patterns, have added geometric and floral designs wherever they can. Thus, there are finely carved ventilation screens, arches and balcony balustrades made from limestone slabs covered with chalk and water paste. Intricately carved wooden doors, with fanlight panels over them to diffuse the light and increase airflow, enhance the artistic effect. An intriguing side note: the stone balconies on traditional homes in the Middle East, with Arabesque motifs cut into them, are meant to both let in air AND to conceal the women sitting on them.
The Present: My previous posts have alluded to the impressive energy and imagination fueling the emergence of Dubai and Qatar as cosmopolitan international centers. Nowhere is that spirit more evident than in the bold, innovative architecture in these cities. The pictures below tell the story. These gleaming steel and glass buildings, in such extraordinary shapes, make a striking contrast to the limestone, coral and mud structures of olden days. When known, the architect’s name is in the caption on the photograph, which you can read by moving your cursor over the image.
The Future: In December 2010 Doha was awarded the World Cup for 2022. Most people on the planet are skeptical that they will be able to pull this off, this miniscule dot of a country, with summer temperatures of over 125 degrees Fahrenheit! Well, here are just a few of their plans, already underway: lodging for tourists on floating hotels off the Pearl Island; free public transportation throughout the city on a “People Mover”; covered stadiums made comfortable by vast cooling systems and remote control clouds (stadiums which they will then fold up and donate to Third World countries).
Big dreams. Smart ideas. I, for one, hope they succeed, especially if they are sensitive to the environment as they proceed. If they do, we are all winners. Look at the pride on this young girl’s face on Qatar National Day soon after the awarding of the World Cup! Next Post: Wandering through Bastakia