Msheireb Arts Centre, Doha

View across the roof of the Msheireb Arts Centre
View across the roof of the Msheireb Arts Centre

There’s a very large hole in the middle of the Qatari capital Doha at the moment. It’s cordoned off from the streets and neighbourhoods around it by metal fencing, and is home to an army of construction workers, most of whom have been shipped in from the Indian subcontinent. Over the course of the next three years, Msheireb Properties, the site’s developers, will fill this hole with luxury hotels, boutique shopping malls, new mosques, office and apartment blocks, townhouses, museums, a national archive and a cultural forum. When finished, the hole will be longer a hole, but an island. The construction workers will likely move on to build Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, and as the metal fencing is taken down, a paragon of modern urban planning will be revealed—Msheireb Downtown Doha: which Msheireb Properties claim will be world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration project.

A hole and (then) an island. Both terms suggest interiority, a marked distinction from the thing that surrounds them. The notion that a hole can become an island suggests a direct inversion of that surrounding space, from something tangible concrete (the land surrounding and defining the edges of the hole), to something less articulate, indefinable (a sea or a lacuna).

In 2009, before the hole existed, the heart of Doha—including the Msheireb district—was populated with a predominantly expat (Indian subcontinental) population of residents and shopkeepers. They lived in a rich urban clutter that had grown up informally over the course of the previous seven decades. I never saw for myself those streets that had to make way for regeneration, but I do know of the sincere efforts have been made by those involved in the redevelopment project to remember, celebrate and respect the character of old Msheireb.

What I have seen, however, are those old neighbourhoods on the periphery of the new development. Their streets and buildings directly overlook the metal fences that cordon off the hole. I’m sure they’re nervous about what will happen once the metal fences come down, and the hole becomes an island. Where will that leave them?

Msheireb Arts Centre
Msheireb Arts Centre

In a side street in one of those old neighbourhoods, not more than a hundred yards from the Msheireb redevelopment, lies the old Al Wassat girls’ school building, an architectural gem that dates back to the 1950s. It is beyond doubt one of the most serene and beautiful places that I’ve encountered in the city; a refuge from the traffic, noise, heat and dirt that it is often difficult to avoid. It’s easy to imagine this place being a school; the way in which its classrooms face inward onto a cool courtyard shaded by mature trees. The warm magnolia and peppermint green of the walls soothe after the headache-inducing glass and chrome glare of the streets outside, and in the trees above, the sound of birdsong replaces car horns and tyres on tarmac. Within minutes of arriving, I feel sure that I never want to leave.

Courtyard, Msheireb Arts Centre
Courtyard, Msheireb Arts Centre

It seems that the teachers and schoolchildren moved out of the Al Wassat buildings in 2005, and I’m not sure if anyone really knows why. At present the school buildings are being used to preserve the collection of found objects that were rescued from the Msheireb redevelopment across the way. In boxes and on shelves, old televisions, typewriters, peacock mirrors, medical records, children’s toys, personal letters, and scores of packets of photographs, never collected from an abandoned processing shop, fill darkened, dusty rooms that were originally filled with the bright chatter of schoolgirls.

Most of the abandoned objects are mass-produced and mundane, but many appear poignant and personal. In truth however, all are detritus—the forgotten flotsam and jetsam of lives that have long moved on elsewhere. It is in the meticulous way that curators store, record and present these artefacts, imbuing them not so much with memory but its irretrievable loss, that succeeds in leaving a lump in your throat.

MH March 2013.

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