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Head for Heights

Head for Heights

Middle East Architect speaks to tall building experts to get on top of Doha’s ever-changing skyline

With its neat cluster of iconic towers reflecting in the calm water of the Gulf, Doha’s high rise skyline is one of the most striking features of the city.

Yet the cranes are a reminder that this panorama is far from static. Like many cities around the world, Doha is the middle of a tall building boom.

The epicentre of tall building activity is the West Bay area by the waterfront corniche, which contains seven of the city’s ten tallest completed structures. Quite remarkably, the skyline has changed beyond recognition since the seemingly recent mid-Noughties.

Philip Oldfield, lecturer in Sustainable Tall Buildings at the University of Nottingham, UK, elaborates on the dramatic change in the skyline.

“Only one of the current 10 tallest buildings was completed before 2006, so the other nine were completed in the last five years,” he comments.

Yet Oldfield is quick to point out that this is a global trend. “More tall buildings were completed in the first decade of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th century.

“It’s fair to say that we’re in a golden age of tall building construction, in spite of the financial crisis. There has been a massive rise in the number of tall buildings thanks to advances in modern structural engineering, and the dramatic forms that are apparent in places like Qatar will continue to appear in the future,” he adds.

He believes that the skyline could be very different by the time of the World Cup in 2022. “There are several towers under construction in Doha that are over 200 metres and many are at the proposal stage.

“I would not be surprised to see a big change in the Doha skyline by the time of the World Cup. This could be a combination of towers that are currently proposed as well as brand new ones.

“After all, 11 years is plenty of time to design and build a tower from scratch. But it’s difficult to predict what will happen.”

William Maibusch, Qatar representative for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), agrees that the skyline will see further transformation.

“Yes, it will continue to develop, just like it has been rapidly developing over the past six or seven years. There is a lot of growth and opportunity for development in Qatar.

“It is fortunate that Qatar has thrived from the oil and gas industry and the skyline indicates that this is the place to do business. I believe the towers are not just for show – people need places to work and live.”

Even though the tall buildings have emerged quickly, Maibusch believes that Doha’s development is more controlled than elsewhere in the region.

“I think Doha has been very careful about development – it’s not just ‘build baby build’ – the city is taking its time. I appreciate why it is doing that as it allows the city to develop. Development is at a different pace.”

Oldfield is adamant that Qatar is not trying to emulate Dubai. “Doha has its own identity, and part of that involves a diverse range of architecture in its skyline.

“Many cities around the world – such as Shanghai, London and Manila – are constructing several high rises. Are they all trying to emulate Dubai? I don’t believe so.”

He continues: “Dubai is famous for constructing many towers in a short space of time, so any other city that does this is billed as the ‘next Dubai’.”

Maibusch believes that the Doha’s skyline is more reflective of the Arab culture than Dubai’s. “When I visited Dubai I felt that the skyline resembled Manhattan as there are a lot of glassy towers.

“Doha’s skyline also has a modern look, but it is also respectful of Qatar’s culture and history. This is a welcome change from other Gulf cities. A good example of this cultural sensitivity is the Burj Qatar by Jean Nouvel – the façade mimics the Mashrabiya screen which is traditional Islamic shading,” he comments.

The façade of Nouvel’s 232-metre tower is also applauded by Oldfield. “I’m not too enamored with the shape but I admire the beautifully crafted façade.

“The screens reflect the Islamic culture without being a postmodern pastiche, and also produce exquisite patterns of light inside the building.”

The Arabic-style screens also act as an environmental solution by limiting solar gain. Oldfield highlights the intelligent arrangement of the shading.

“The percentage of shading is not the same all the way around the building. It is 25% on the north, 40% on the south, but on the sides with the most sun exposure – the east and west – it is 60%,” he explains.

He believes that this tower is an example of how tall buildings are evolving to become more sustainable.

“We are starting to see a paradigm shift away from gas guzzling glass boxes. However, there is still a long way to go. My main criticism of Gulf cities is the overuse of glass in an environment where solar gain is massive and shade is welcome. A fully transparent building is viewed by most architects, engineers and green activists to be inherently unsustainable.”

Oldfield puts this trend down to do the “laziness of some architects”. He continues: “A glass curtain wall is the default choice of a lot of designers as they know how to do it. Glass also allows companies to appear open and transparent, and a heavy use of glass can be beautiful.

“However, I believe that high rises should respond to things like the context, sun path, key views and wind direction. These requirements are commonly followed in low-rise buildings, but for some reason tall buildings tend to ignore them.”

Maibusch believes that Qatar’s future towers will address sustainability issues due to the increasing influence of the Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) and the Qatar Sustainability Assessment Scheme (QSAS).

“Future towers now have guidelines for design and build. In time we will see more and more towers addressing sustainability issues. There will be fewer heavily glazed towers and a increased use of materials such as stone and precast concrete,” he says.

It should be noted that a number of Doha’s current iconic towers, such as the 200-metre Tornado Tower by German firm JSK Architekten, fall under the ‘heavily glazed’ category. Maibusch identifies the Tornado Tower and the 300-metre Aspire Tower – the tallest building in Qatar – as his favourite designs.

He adds: “These two towers are notable for their unique design and construction techniques. They both have a concrete core and a steel frame that links into the core.

“The Aspire Tower is not a typical tower as many floors are cantilevered and discontinuous. The Tornado Tower is a diagrid structure with a noteworthy shape. It’s dazzlingly illuminated at night with multi-coloured lights.”

Oldfield also notes the Tornado Tower as a stand-out icon. “It has an interesting shape – the floor plates are bigger at the top than at the bottom. This also makes commercial sense as the rents are highest at the top of a building,” he says.

When it comes to future icons, Oldfield believes that the World Cup could be an influence. He adds: “I would not be surprised if towers became icons for the World Cup. Tall buildings are inherently iconic.

“They dominate the surroundings and are linked to the environment. The Aspire Tower was a focal point for the 2006 Asian Games.”

Yet Oldfield highlights the pitfalls of a skyline cluttered with icons. “The trouble with building lots of icons is they stop being iconic. This is a concern I have about skylines.

“If every city has its ‘tilting tower’, ‘gherkin’ and ‘hyperbolic parabola’, then they will all start to lose their identities. Skylines are starting to look similar as they contain a cluster of icons.”

He believes that unique skylines stem from design that is rooted in the surroundings. “I think the best approach is to consider what makes a city different, or special, and then design a tall building to suit those characteristics.

“In the Middle East, the sun is an important consideration. Designers can take inspiration from the vernacular architecture for use in tall buildings. For instance, internal courtyards and solid facades.

“The National Commercial Bank Headquarters in Jeddah by SOM is a great example of this approach. The outside is very stark but it feels like a desert skyscraper. You couldn’t put it in London or New York.”

Oldfield concludes that Doha should be pioneering, rather than reactionary, when it comes to sustainable tall building design.

“The Middle East is currently at the forefront of tall building development and some towers are extremely innovative when it comes to sustainable solutions.

“For example, Atkins’ Bahrain World Trade Centre saw the first integration of wind turbines in a tall building. With this precedent in mind, cities like Doha have a great opportunity to develop some of the most sustainable skyscrapers in the world.”

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