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All Things design and COVID-19

In our first edition of Liwan Sessions, part of our ongoing series for Al Journal, architect and designer Thomas Modeen spoke with Qatar's leading architects and urbanists, Ibrahim Al-Jaida and Fatma Al-Sahlawi on all things design and COVID-19. 

Al Journal

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COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted all facets of design--from product and fashion design to architecture and urbanism--it has brought into question the defining role design has in helping to tackle and curb this virus. Furthermore, like all countries across the globe, Qatar is grappling with its own social distancing rules and regulations and their impact on daily life. Does Qatar have its renditions of 'Corona-clapping' or 'Grey-Hours'? How will social distancing impact Qatari customs, fashion, traditional communal living, future architecture, space planning and building regulations? And what role does design have during global pandemics?

Thomas Modeen (TM): We live in interesting times. What has been striking about the last two months is how we currently seem to be flying in a holding pattern above our old lives, attempting to figure out when and how to land and what this will entail. Will we eventually land on something familiar or new, and what format will such endeavours take in its aftermath? 

Over this period, it's been interesting to follow the different remits of engagement of the design world, ranging from product design to architecture and urbanism, and the related discussions permeating the various disciplines. Some provocative ideas are coming out of such discussions. Whether these will have an impact is still up for debate. Some examples of these design interventions include the plethora of different types of facemasks currently being produced. Including a 3D printed facemask introduced by architect Alvin Huang which allows anyone with a generic 3D printer to (free of charge) produce a copy to the various anime-inspired masks or face masks produced by Prada or Apple. 

There are also interesting historical precedents of comparable events, ranging from the black-plague, which in the 1600 hundreds catalysed a need for less cramped spaces and better ventilation. The 'Great Stink' of London in the mid 19th century brought about better sewage treatment. Later, in the early 20th century, tuberculosis had a profound effect on architecture, examples of which include the Paimio Sanitorium by the architect Alvar Aalto and some of the ideas explored and discussed by Le Corbusier in some of his writings and work. Whether these types of quite notable and dramatic interventions will result from the current events remains to be seen, but what do you think will be the effects and outcomes of what we've learned over the last two months? 

Ibrahim Al-Jaida (IAJ): Over the past few months, I've been confined at home doing sports and walking around the neighbourhood. These types of activities differ from one community to another. These experiences will impact, one way or another, our lifestyles. 

Sometimes I sit with my friends, and we talk about how, if at all, we are going to go back to the same life we used to live, or is there going to be an adjustment, regardless of the hygiene aspect, but even socially or habit wise. After this adjustment, I've added new things to my life that I'd like to keep.  

Interestingly, I started a brainstorming session with all my teams about a month ago. We're about 500 within the mechanical, electrical, urban-planning, interior design, etc., departments, so I gathered all the department heads. We started brainstorming on the impact of rehabilitating existing buildings or building new ones. Detail designs such as fingerprint or eye-readers can also be replaced by facial recognition. There are anti-virus doorknobs and antibacterial paints. We are reinvestigating this whole topic, and we're putting together a paper addressing all such issues and their impact. 

Fatima Al-Sahlawi (FAS): Yes, I agree with the point by Abu Mohammed that the residents of cities are becoming more aware of the desires or things that we prefer in our environments that we hadn't appreciated before. After talking to my family, friends and colleagues both local and abroad, this time has given people an opportunity to understand how they would rather not fit into this pattern or life or way of living that we've inherited. And that people have very different individual desires regarding the way they wish to live or the environments they want to occupy. Such positions bring many interesting observations and challenges for architects, urban designers, and urban planners. If anything, what this pandemic will leave behind in spatial design is a need for a comprehensive and holistic rethink and recalibration of urban planning and urban design, especially in Doha and Qatar. One of the questions (provided earlier to the panellists) stated that the 'cities are vacant'. I think that, if anything, I've never seen the over-designed public realm of Doha being used and as active as it is today. 

I commute every week between our house in Doha to the farm. On the way, every single sidewalk is busy with people walking, running and cycling. These routes have never been tested in this way before, as they are now. The city of Doha has grown so fast. Urban development throughout the country has been happening at an unprecedented rate. So much so that the planners never had a chance to test or understand what society needed exactly. They were simply going by the rule book. Now there's finally an opportunity to conduct some social testing to see how people see and use spaces and how effective urban planners were when designing Doha. Some parts are proving to be successful. 

TM: Yes, I live on the Pearl, and I've never, especially now during Ramadan, seen it as crowded as it is nowadays. So much so that one has to avoid going out around 8-9 p.m. because of the crowds. But as someone who walks quite a bit around Doha, I've also noticed that the level of detail implementation of various urban elements is somewhat lacking. For example, sometimes sidewalks just end, and you have to turn back. Also, when walking from Katara to the Pearl, one has to cut across lawns as there aren't any sidewalks around the roundabouts. So hopefully, from an implantation-based perspective, considerations for such details can be resolved and improved due to the current pandemic. 

It has been interesting to observe how the virus is the same worldwide, but it seems to have had a different impact on other parts of the world. You both touched upon this in your earlier answers, but do you have any more direct concrete examples or ideas you would like to see implemented in Doha, design-wise, be this in an architectural sense, an urban perspective, or anything else? 

IAJ: You realise that home becomes a safe place, and you wouldn't want to be anywhere else but home. 

There is a lot of development taking place in Qatar. It's become clear that any new development should accommodate and create space, a pleasant space within the apartments with natural light. Also, if I were now asked to design a house, it would become a must to include a domestic working space within the proposal. Regarding Qatar's master planning and zoning, the density of labour accommodation would need to be spread out. There are a lot of lessons learned, and, particularly now, knowing that this pandemic could repeat, I believe it will have an impact on how we design individual dwellings, apartments and urban plans. Clients will need to accommodate such concerns.   

FAS: I'm currently working with my partner Nasser Al-Emadi on our first residential project, and it's perfect timing, as it started simultaneously with the pandemic. During conversations with our client, we've been having a completely different discussion about what the client wants. It's a conversation that starts with the scale of his desk, then the room, the house, the garden, the neighbourhood and the city, and how we occupy all of these different scales, and how one can redraw this daily commute or route one can take from the scale of an object, a desk, to scale of the city.  

An interesting realisation that came out of the current circumstances is that, before the pandemic, it was customary in a Qatari house to add rooms, spaces and annexes. There's now been a realisation of how spaces can be repurposed and how programmatically uses can be overlapped. What we used to see as redundant spaces, we now got the chance to think about how to repurpose and how we can take advantage to make our needs work in these spaces. I'm having this conversation about the scale of a dwelling unit and the scale of the city. There was a long list of things we thought we needed in a city culturally. We want to add this, we want to add this, but there is space already for everything. It just requires us to adapt and overlap things instead of having single spaces for single uses. Those are some of the more interesting ideas I've come across as a designer during some of the more recent conversations and undertakings I've worked on.       

TM: I come from Finland, which in one sense, is almost the opposite of Qatar in climate and culture. Here in Doha, we have a spacious apartment that is open plan, which makes these types of Zoom conversations quite tricky, because my wife might be 'Zooming' in one end of our space whilst my daughter is 'Zooming' with her school at another. There's an overlap of soundscapes, which can be quite challenging. We also have an apartment in Finland which is a bit over 90 square metres, inhabited by the four of us. As an apartment, it has 'good bones', as it has natural light coming from both directions and natural ventilation. It has no AC. We're perfectly happy in space when we visit it. If a space is well designed and well-executed, generous volumes are not necessary or even preferred. 

Thinking about places like Japan or Tokyo, you can come across small niches or gardens by the sidewalks, often occupying no more than two square metres, filled with a grove of bamboo trees. Similarly, I remember visiting Kanazawa, by the west coast of the main island Honshu. In the back of shop interiors, one could find something similar, again no more than a few square metres in size, but providing a truly beautiful space (and focal point) in the back of a small store. So, one can achieve some truly atmospheric and distinct spatial qualities without exceeding amounts of effort or space. It would be interesting to think about what such considerations would entail in a local context? 

When one now walks around the city, and as there are so many more people walking around, how could the current 'nodality' of the city be diluted? How could a city with these critical nodes, such as the Pearl, West Bay, Msheireb, etc., which we usually only drive between, but which 'in-between' spaces (the volumes separating such nodes) are often forgotten? Perhaps the current situation is inverting that again, as people are beginning to occupy those zones, notice things, smell things, touch things, and engage more directly with these environments. It would be interesting to see if such experiences influence how we occupy and think about these spaces and related experiences. 

Ok. Let's ask another question. There is evidence that the current situation has triggered an interest in focusing more on what's important, for example, an updated take on 'slow design'. Do you have any thoughts on what this entails for you and your practice and related engagements in general in Qatar? Do you see this situation affecting how Doha could/ should be configured? You both have already touched upon this query, but what's the next step? You both mentioned how you think some of these interventions should be implemented. Not wanting to be excessively sceptical, but there is a distinct chance that once the current situation begins to fade away, all our old habits will return. How can we try to avoid this? What will we need to do to allow the valuable lessons we've learned from this experience to stick?  

IAJ: It's definitely going to have an impact. There is going to be an 'After Corona' life. There are good things that I've gained, which I'm enjoying. I have kids from high school to college. We started having dinners together every day, which we didn't do before due to their work. My daughters say, "baba, it's like travelling" because we do this on holidays and don't do this at home, maybe once a week. So, you start appreciating things that you took for granted; this applies even to the space around you. We live in a compound with five brothers with one big garden, where kids get to play together, so we are much more fortunate than some of our relatives living alone. I used to smoke one cigar a day, now, I smoke one per week, and I appreciate it more. It tastes much better when you do it once a week! Now I'm also walking for an hour every day. If I walked an hour every weekend, I would be lucky. These are habits I would like to keep so that we will see. 

I wouldn't want to be anywhere else during this type of a crisis than home. But now, out of all of the topics discussed, an aware client will add a few design considerations that reflect how we appreciate the qualities of a space more than ever. You also start appreciating your town, your surroundings more than before. 

FAS: Yes, I think our houses, and I'm again referring to the Qatari dwelling, are usually very static. The day you move in, the layout of things and furniture placement doesn't change much. One main reason is that the father and mother are both working. Schools and universities finish late. It almost feels like the house or dwelling unit has become a transitional space—a space you only visit temporarily. 

I remember times when I was out for thirteen hours per day, so I didn't spend much time at home before I went to sleep. I spent so much time making my office comfortable, finding a lovely coffee shop to work in after-hours, and finding a pleasant meeting space where I could meet with clients or colleagues. The focus seemed to be on finding and making your 'other' living spaces comfortable. Doing the same with your home was not a priority. But now, I see more and more interior and exterior spaces being moulded and tested. There are domestic trial & error experiments now; there's time to do that. "Let's move the light to this corner where it works better, let's change the…". You start to learn about each nook & corner of the house; this makes a big difference in future housing design. 

I think it's going to result in a transformation of residential design, both at the level of the person who is going to occupy the space and at the level of the person developing, be it a development of a residential building or an apartment. Or even at the level of an urban planner or urban-planning authority that develops related building and zoning guidelines; this will lead to many changes at those different scales. Such changes won't necessarily be equally applicable or even desired by everyone. Still, we will have an interesting mix of people who will continue liking these new things they're enjoying now, applying and developing them and allowing them to shape a legacy. There are people, of course, who are just ready to go back, and are very keen to go back. 

IAJ: Now that I walk in my neighbourhood, it's not very dense and has many locals, who have become an 'indoor species' over the past few decades. We hardly use our gardens, and we've become the opposite of what our parents were, spending time in the courtyard, always outdoors. Now that I've started walking in my neighbourhood, I've noticed a lot of people are spending time in their gardens! So now, when you design a new place, you should allow for a proper garden that can be used as a gathering space rather than a space for your vehicles. 

TM: I lived in one of these larger compounds for a few years. Because all the houses were so similar, I remember counting the houses to find where I lived. The same pattern and look of homes are repeated on all the streets of the compound, which as an urban environment, makes it tedious. Perhaps now that more people are spending time outside, there is a realisation and recognition of the value of having variety in an urban setting. It is also here where the value of blurring or smudging the borders between different practices within architecture and urbanism becomes apparent. As an example of this in practice, one could mention the notion of the urban-design term 'shared-space', developed by the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. He created these overlapping choreographies of functions between vehicular traffic and pedestrians, raising the awareness and role of non-vehicular individuals occupying the space, making the environment much safer. It would be interesting to see if something like that could be implemented in Qatar. 

FAS: I think the notion of 'governance of public space' towards a more shared public space would be very interesting to see if that would change. If you're a family living in a gated villa, does your outdoor space stop at the gate, or would some mediums allow you to 'spill out' (beyond the car you parked outside)? Could this 'spilling-out' animate this outdoor space beyond your boundary? It's the same with cafes, where outdoor seating has this three-metre boundary. Could a person grab an outside chair and pull it outside this set boundary? How could that be changed or challenged? 

I mentioned earlier that we have the beginning of a somewhat successful outdoor pedestrian and bicycle network. It would be interesting to see how that could become more of a gradual exercise of how public space is occupied 'organically', as in beyond the rules and regulations; 'organically' also in terms of how people start to feel they should occupy these spaces. 

After the Gulf war, something interesting happened in Kuwait. In many neighbourhoods in Kuwait, there is a green 'buffer zone' between a strip of villas or apartment buildings and the main vehicular street. It started as a wide pavement to allow distance between the main highway and the adjacent house and buildings. It slowly became a landscape component that the 'baladiya' or municipality maintained. The neighbouring houses next to the green area gradually started to take charge of the plots fronting them. They don't own the plot (the government still owns it), but it's spatially related to their houses. Many families started to grow food in these areas and placed seating areas and playgrounds. So, you begin to have this buffer zone that also functions as a communal space which is not a municipality park, and it is not a private piece of land. Instead, it is a public space that can be organically infiltrated and occupied. 

In Kuwait, those are the most interesting places to visit to understand the social demographics of a neighbourhood and its streets. They're also a great place just to see and better understand the different interests of those families along the street. There's a ceramic artist who lives by one of these zones, and she has placed lots of ceramics in the plot next to her house. It's almost like an outdoor gallery that you can walk through. 

So, it's how to allow public space to grow and be animated organically, whether it's in Msheireb, a very 'strict' development, or just in an older local neighbourhood. But I think that from the scale of the planning authority to the individual scale, increased exposure to the public space will change those understanding of how public space can be occupied and used differently.  

TM: Indeed, usually around this time of year (around mid-May), people claim that it's too hot to go outside, yet, the streets are currently full, so by default, we've proven the general and pervasive attitude wrong. The season one can spend outdoors is much longer than people often realise. 

Great! Maybe we should start concluding this session, but do you have any final matters you'd like to mention or discuss? 

IAJ: It's going to be interesting to see how some of these current projects will endure now that you have a choice of where to live. Particularly thinking about some of these dense buildings with twenty apartments per floor, today you wouldn't want to live there. So, there will have to be some adjustments. The same applies to office spaces, where efficiency and interaction are important. Now we'll have to revise, keep a bit more distance, perhaps return to the cubicle, so it's interesting to see how people will behave and react when the current situation is starting to ease. Socially it's sad, as we're not able to properly greet or shake hands, and it's going to take a while before we can do that again (an 'over-zoom' elbow-bump is performed). It will be interesting to see what the people's reaction is to their new, adjusted environments. 

FAS: I think the notion of density, particularly when studying urban design in architecture school, was one of the fundamental elements for urban and environmental sustainability: themore density, the better. Right now, there is this dilemma, do we still want density, or does this dispersal of society make more sense? Coming back to Qatar, this is an interesting moment to allow some of the other towns and potential cities to come into existence again. Historically, many of them had greater importance than Doha. Geographically and in terms of their natural offerings, economy and trade, their reasons for being and forming were different. But today, there is this opportunity to develop an understanding of the context. Will some of them become the epicentres of food production because they're close to key farms?  

As noted earlier, I visit the farm once a week. I do this because we noticed so much more demand for specific things now. So there almost seems to have been this shift in the yearly, seasonal 'curriculum' of what to grow. I've been visiting a local farmers' market where new produce is being sold, and I've been observing all the different farms there. There is a local farming industry, and Qatar is doing very well regarding its food security. There is an economy to be tapped into in the local production of food and developing settlements and towns around that specific industry. So, that is one example of an industry that employs many people, but it's still secondary to the priorities of local industries. 

Now there is an opportunity to 'let go' of density, reconfiguring it throughout the country and extending development beyond Doha to its north, west, and south. Other developments can take some of this density and population in ways that would allow one to explore and reform the methods of designing residential buildings, workspaces, and roads for the people of these expanded towns and potential cities. It is an exciting and critical time for urban planning in Qatar. 

TM: In some sense, it could be configured similarly to Tokyo, which doesn't have a single epicentre, but a cluster of epicentres next to each other, each self-sustaining. 

FAS: Yes, and for neighbourhoods to be somewhat self-sufficient in what they need. So, for example, living by the airport, I won't have to drive to the Pearl to get something I need today. There is a foundation for that, with the municipality organising local markets, but these need to be expanded, so there's not only the grocery store and maybe a barbershop. It needs to be a little more than that. These considerations should also include developing different characters and identities for each neighbourhood. 

TM: Great! Anything else to add? No? Well, thank you very much! That was very informative and enjoyable. Hopefully, the discussions will continue at a later date.  

FAS: Thank you! This was such a great discussion, and it would be amazing to see it continue. 

Aisha Al-Sowaidi, Director, Liwan Design Studios and Labs: It was such an interesting conversation. Thank you all for your participation. 

The notion of 'home' is such a worthy subject matter for research and something I find very interesting. During these times, it's encouraging to reflect on our way of living. You all have tackled some issues and made very relevant observations, like the change in neighbourhood dynamics and the testing of the urban plan of Doha. It's a good time to reflect and rethink how we build. We need to expand on how our houses are used. Our homes need to be more than gathering spaces. We now also need offices and workout spaces. I'm sure you all have much more to add. It's such a vast topic to cover. Thank you all for your time. 

This is the first conversation we're conducting for Al Journal. Hopefully, we'll be having more conversations to add to the journal in the future. 

Khalid Al-Baih, Head of Programs, Liwan Design Studios and Labs: It was very interesting. Thank you all very much. As Aisha said, this is one of many programs we'll be doing in LIWAN. We'll continue to talk more about design in Doha, what we can do to improve life, and will continue to look at Doha with 'local eyes' from the standpoint of people who live or have lived in Doha. Thank you! 

May, 2020