The Emerging Design Hub of Doha

Qatar’s cultural landscape is progressing at a dizzying speed. The office leading the diminutive Gulf country’s cultural development, Qatar Museums, is investing heavily in the effort, allocating billions  to erect world-class museums, restore important heritage sites, and stage public art installations, many of them in far-flung patches of the desert. Barely the size of Jamaica, Qatar has opened no fewer than five major museums in the last 15 years, as well as numerous stadiums—as many as eight—in advance of the World Cup in 2022, the first Arab nation to host the international sporting event.

A new biennial, Design Doha, is the latest arrow in Qatar Museums’ quiver, and the newest initiative from its chairperson, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family. She is also a leading collector, known for acquiring major works from Paul Cézanne to Mark Rothko, on Qatar’s behalf.

Design Doha continues Qatar’s bid to transform the peninsula’s capital city into a global center of art and design. This year, its inaugural edition, the platform featured over 100 designers from the Middle East and North African (MENA), working in a range of disciplines, from architecture, urbanism, and landscape design to graphic design, textiles, woodwork, glass, and ceramics.

Richard Yasmine, After Ago Collection, 2020.

Richard Yasmine’s After Ago Collection, a tribute to Beirut’s architectural history.

Attending the opening week of Design Doha followed a dizzying pace, too, hustling between a head-spinning line-up of events, exhibitions, popups, and activations—each one bursting with top-notch craftsmanship and novel ingenuity. The sentiment was shared by the platform’s artistic director Glenn Adamson. The New York-based art and design historian said he was taken with the “explosive energy and creativity” of the Arab design scene. “As a newcomer to the region myself, I didn’t appreciate just how much talent there was,” he continued, “and it’s been inspiring to see the energy and commitment that participants brought to the event.”

The central showcase, “Arab Design Now” (through August 5), is said to be the first museum-level survey of contemporary Arab design. It consists of 74 works by MENA designers spread across several floors of M7, a creative hive centrally located in the modern, bustling neighborhood of Msheireb. The exhibition, curated by Rana Beiruti (founder of Amman Design Week in Jordan) reflects how “the Arab world is a diverse place,” she told me, “full of people from different walks of life and cultures. I wanted to celebrate that and show that Arab design is not disconnected from the global condition of design. Arab designers face and respond to the same challenges for our collective future.”

Installation view of "Arab Design Now" with Salima Naji's clay dwellings on the right.

Installation view of “Arab Design Now” with Salima Naji’s clay dwellings on the right. © Edmund Sumner. Courtesy of Qatar Museums.

“I also wanted to highlight,” she added, “the importance of looking at craft as an extension of the land, and the way designers in the Arab world respond to the unique geography of the region with innovation in material and attentiveness to sustainability.”

In one work, Sharing the Earth (Spatial Interiorities) (2023), architect Salima Naji mined her decades of research into vernacular building in Morocco, constructing a two-part cylindrical dwelling out of clay, straw, wool, and palm trunks sourced from a farm in Qatar, with traditional oculi at the top to allow for air flow. In another work, Tiamat (2023), designer AAU ANASTAS created a structure in self-supporting stone, its undulating shape informed by computational analysis of sand dunes as well as the Gothic-inspired pointed arches found across Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon.

AAU ANASTAS, <em>Tiamat</em> (2023).

AAU ANASTAS, Tiamat (2023). © Edmund Sumner. Courtesy of Qatar Museums.

Another observation from Design Doha is how carefully the designers have struck a balance between traditional craft sensibilities and contemporary aesthetics. “This is clearly a region that is currently enjoying the best of both worlds,” said Adamson. “Like Japan, Italy and Scandinavia in the 1950s and 1960s—geographies that reshaped global design at the time—you have a basis of continuous artisanship combined with newly emerging experimental practice.”

Installation view of "100 Arabic Posters."

Installation view of “100 Arabic Posters.” © Jochen Braun. Courtesy of Qatar Museums.

Elsewhere in M7, an exhibition of 100 Arabic posters presented the vibrancy of graphic design in the region while another looked back on a century of architecture in Doha, tracing the history of the city’s built environment through a variety of interpreted styles such as Arabic Deco, Doha Classicism, and Qatar’s take on Brutalism.

Upstairs in a dimly lit, contemplative space, we took in “Weaving Poems,” showcasing the talent of Afghan-born, Amman-based designer Maryam Omar, who was commissioned to create a series of hand-woven abstract carpets inspired by the poetry and oral heritage of women weavers in Afghanistan, with whom she co-created the carpets. The exhibition is a product of Turquoise Mountain, a nonprofit founded by King Charles in 2006 to support artists across Afghanistan, Myanmar, and the Middle East.

Installation view of "Weaving Poems."

Installation view of “Weaving Poems.” © Julián Velásquez. Courtesy of Qatar Museums.

Another highlight is Moroccan artist Amine al Gotaibi’s astonishing work Desert installed at the Ned. “The combination of his soulful work in copper and wool with David Chipperfield’s sublime reimagination of an existing building (the former Ministry of the Interior) is just perfection,” said Adamson.

No cultural excursion to Doha would be complete without outings to the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, an instant landmark when it launched in 2008; the National Library, created by Rem Koolhaas/OMA (who’s also designing the Qatar Auto Museum, to be completed later this year), said to house a million rare books, manuscripts, and other materials stacked in a single open-space plan; and the striking new National Museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel to resemble massive discs of “desert rose” crystal formations, the kind that occur naturally in the Arabian Desert.

The National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel.

The National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel. Photo: Lee Carter.

Two more major museums are planned before the decade is out. Opening in 2029, the Lusail Museum—designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron—will hold one of the world’s most extensive collections of art, much of it from Qatar Museums’ holdings of European painters depicting the Arab world. And, in 2030, the Art Mill Museum will arrive, housed in a historic flour mill and designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. The museum will incorporate the mill’s signature towering silos in its design.)

Then there’s Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East (2014) near the village of Zekreet on the western shore of the peninsula (about an hour’s drive from Doha on the east coast). Its four monumental Cor-Ten plates jut out of the sand like relics of a future civilization, in keeping with the cryptic austerity of the surrounding terrain.

Richard Serra, <em>East-West/West-East</em> (2014).

Richard Serra, East-West/West-East (2014). Photo: Lee Carter.

There’s no question this is an optimistic moment for Qatar’s art and design scene, bolstered by the royal family’s largesse, a long history of fine craftsmanship, and a newly outward-looking perspective.

“Now that we have this success behind us and people know what Design Doha is,” reflected Adamson, “I think it will be possible to do something still more ambitious… I think the Arab region is now positioned to assume not just a more active, but in fact a leadership role in the global design conversation.”

Where to stay in Doha

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