Islamic design
menu for this section of the site
A new approach – conceptual
menu for notes relating to this section on Islamic design

Conceptual housing approach

Detail from a notional drawing for the Senior Staff Housing Project on the New District of Doha

This page of notes is being added late in the sequence of notes looking at aspects of Islamic and Arabic design. The notes were intended to be developed for housing in Qatar, but much has happened superseding their relevance. They were started in the 1970s and added to up to the 1990s. As a consequence they now seem out of date in various respects. Many of the ideas noted have been dealt with on other pages where the subjects have been covered in more detail. It is also a fact that some of the information may be contradictory. But the notes are included here as I would like to keep my notes together if only for the purpose of being able to see them in a single place. It is anticipated, or hoped, that they will be sorted out later…

Although architectural determinism – the thinking which suggested that a well-designed physical environment would encourage or produce good social behaviour – has been largely discredited, it is evident from both the professional and lay press that there is a continuing general belief that an attractively designed environment will be of benefit to society and, more particularly, that it will even ameliorate certain aspects of anti-social behaviour. It is felt that a poor or well-designed environment has an affect upon its users, and that design will contribute to the manner in which an environment is used or abused, even protecting its residents from various aspects of anti-social behaviour.

Compounding this is an attitude prevalent in designers that there is an end in itself in design: that there is some form of intrinsic notion that buildings are high art with the concomitant unwillingness to realise that, in the West, buildings have become commodities, reflecting the production of artefacts suited to a capitalistic ideology. This attitude has reinforced the need to find ways of developing vocabularies to reinforce the meaning of design and give increased worth to the professions’ work.

However, it is now generally understood that the policies which are really formative and more likely to have impact in the long term will be social, financial educational or political – as well as the agglomerative effect of incremental change – and that it is the management of this that is likely to have the effect that is now sought by all. The environment does not have the moulding effect that individuals such as Owen suggested. Arguments now revolve around the adequacy of architectural design as it is practised by architects and, to some extent, planners, and as perceived in the main by the public. There has been a considerable popular following of the Prince of Wales’ comments on the impoverished state of the British designed environment and the responsibility of professionals for its present parlous state. It is evident that he has struck a responsive chord in many people, even though it may well be untrue or, at best, only partly true in having its focus on design professionals and their perceived and real inadequacies.

Essentially, the spirit of a place combines people and their activities and these seem to be missed in the scramble to find a set of rules with which to form the perfect physical environment.

Building outside al-Khor, 1980

This debate has moved the focus of design into areas that are both the concern of the layman and the province of the designer. In doing so it has ignored many of the social issues most relevant to the design of an improved environment; but, in particular, it has not dealt with the need for a central funding and management agency to effect the controls and distribution necessary, nor has it dealt with land value and ownership. Increasing land values are one of the characteristics of a free market, but their advance is inimical to the interests of the poor and those with low income. If urban landscapes are to be constructed for the benefit of all, mechanisms will be required to protect and cater for those who are disadvantaged. There is a real risk that policies being proposed today benefit only those who are able to buy into the property system.

Psychological and perception studies into the manner in which urban development is perceived and evaluated reinforce the view that designers are trained to resolve their architectural developments in an essentially rational, deductive manner that is often geometric or structural in basis. Yet we know both that psychophysical and social studies create alternative descriptions of the needs of individuals, and that operational research is often used to define the requirements of organisations. Both of these approaches produce rival generators of forms to those in which designers are trained and experienced. A complicating factor is the need for visual stimulation or, conversely, the need to avoid visual monotony. In the West the lack of stimulation is cited as being a factor in undermining mental well-being. Yet, in the Gulf, the amount of visual material there is to stimulate the mind is significantly less than that experienced by the Western urban dweller.

On top of such alternative layers of requirements is the socio-psychological fact that response to environment is heavily weighted by the individual’s reaction to the amount of stress experienced in daily life. People see their relationships with others symbolised by the environment within which these relationships take place: in the construction of their environment, they automatically evaluate the manner in which they perceive others to care for their welfare and personal fulfilment. For this reason it is difficult for the individual to take an impartial view of the environment. Actively or passively he feels his interests are defined or determined by others. He believes himself powerless as he is receiving the end product of a series of decisions outside his control which have resulted in the environment he experiences. His views are most deeply held when he comments on the environment in which he lives or works, and these views will become generally more disinterested where he moves into environments which he feels do not affect the manner in which he has to live.

But not only is the individual’s view of the environment related to the level of stress, this view is also varied by the response to which the individual feels a need not only to demonstrate opinions to society: both in the immediate vicinity – perhaps within the area of the family home – but also those with whom he is likely to come into contact. This response is, in effect, an image that the individual wishes to project to society; it represents how that person might like to be seen. What is important to note here is that this view does not necessarily coincide with the individual’s taste and preferences. In fact, it can be sub-consciously or consciously at variance to varying extents depending upon a wide number of factors.

go to top of page

An interactive system of visual experience

Diagram adapted from the referenced paper

Nevertheless, most people hold and will express firmly held opinions on their attitude to the built environment regardless of the degree of their education in reading and comprehending urban environments, and regardless of their real attitudes to design. Not only do these opinions tend to be expressed in absolute terms due to the lack of a useful vocabulary for describing the environment in all its aspects, but they tend to be supportive of traditional design – perhaps largely for negative and nostalgic reasons – and particularly unsupportive of modern design and those whom they consider to be responsible for its worst excesses.

Reinforcing this, in the West it is understood that

  • perception can not account for factual estimation and use, and the
  • interaction with the individual’s social system introduces both censure factors as well as deviational influences in the individual.

It is suggested that estimation and use depend upon the

  • symbolic use of the object,
  • reading of its content – or iconic use,
  • estimation of its functional qualities, and the
  • sensual responses to its
    • form,
    • texture, and
    • colour qualities.

Interestingly this study suggests that immediate perception and reaction to visual phenomena is rich and relates to analytical and historical factors, whereas an individaul’s final perception is heavily constrained by cultural imperatives and prohibits. It is argued that social situation and historical tradition condition the meaning and content of visual phenomena which are considered to be loaded with associative content.

In this way it was seen that attitudes to aesthetics differed not only between people, as might be expected, but also within an individual as some types of item were seen, for example, as iconic; others as symbolic. Compounding this it is noticeable that individuals have a character of taste which differs between that which they use to select their own environment and that which governs their attitude within a group. Estimation depends upon a meaning which might be inherent within an object, but is much more likely to have an associative content related to social and historical situations.

In addition it has been noted that past experiences tend to limit the range of likely reactions to future contact with similar visual phenomena.

It is assumed that the way in which we perceive objects in the West is similar to that in which those in the Gulf are likely to do so.

In the States of the Arabian Gulf much of the criticism of environment in the last thirty or forty years was levelled at the poor and inadequate quality of the existing housing which lacked basic sanitation and utilities. This criticism came as much from those moving from the West into the area as from those living in the Gulf the latter, perhaps, taking their perspective both from a newly acquired understanding of Western standards as much as from a desire to improve their environment with the increasing wealth from oil. The pressure for change was immense. In Qatar, for example, individuals carrying out planning surveys brought out the inhabitants of residential areas demanding that any road alignments should be taken through their properties, not around them in order that they should benefit from the income to the State. A particular aspect of this was that it demonstrated the beginning of the reliance of people on the State rather than on the normal process of the qabila or Ruler’s majlis.

An aerial view of Medinat Khalifa to the west of Doha

In other areas of the Gulf all old buildings were razed and redeveloped along the rectangular grids suited not only to planning theories of the time but to the burgeoning motor industry and its related interests. Little or none of this expertise came from Arabic sources but from the West. At best Arab architects, engineers and planners were employed in their new skills learned in the West; a learning obviously based on Western perspectives, perception and, in particular, values. It is true that some Schools in Europe attempted to deal with this problem – as they understood it – but they were still unable to change the values in which the teaching was set and the moraes of the society in which the students lived.

It is not altogether surprising that few buildings survived this period of development, and that the traditional pattern of residential and commercial development was obliterated within such a short period of time. Certainly arguments were given about improving the standards of basic amenities, giving access for motor vehicles – particularly emergency vehicles and, in Qatar, giving more land to the people; but all this was at the expense of the social fabric of the State. The combination of social and financial opportunities, the increasing emphasis on education and welfare, and the exposure to ideas and individuals from the West created a hiatus of activity which, in the urban patterns, resulted in developments essentially unsuited to the traditional ways of life of the inhabitants of the Gulf generally.

There is, in some Islamic countries, a mixture of Western and Arab cultures combining to create a particular, mixed character of architectures. Morocco, for instance has produced a number of cities which combine to give both an Arab and European feeling. Here the colour and traditions of the Berber have combined with the civic spaces of the Arabs and the business operations of Europe. To a large extent this depends on the length of time over which the centres have grown so that there is the more natural accretion of architectures constructed over a long period of time and in which the various uses have developed. This time scale, in particular, has not been present in the Gulf due, in large measure, to the finances necessary for this kind of development, but also as a consequence of the lack of impetus for development.

Sadly, the designers creating the new urban landscapes of the Gulf were unable to deal with those aspects of design which give the more complex Western urban areas their character and which contribute to the stimulation of those who live and move around them. This may well be because of the increasing Western trend to blandness in the planning and design of elements of urban environment but it may also be because of the simplistic need to fulfil the requirements of clients who view progress differently from their design advisers.

Although a lot of consideration was often given to individual buildings, very little thought was given to the visual aspects of the established environment nor to the relationships between the traditional societies and the manner and results of their physical redevelopment. Where policies advising conservation were recommended and, exceptionally, taken it was for the protection of discrete areas rich in a particular form of design which would be readily understood by all to be irreplaceable. Essentially these were decisions based upon Western parameters of visual or historical importance. This followed or, more usually, was led by the normal concerns of Western educated specialists as well as the obvious interests of nationals who had been able to see the state of their towns in comparison with longer established, more affluent or advanced countries. These concerns were both socio-political and economic and required the various States to be brought up to a standard or even to be advanced beyond cities in other countries which had evolved over a long period of time. These standards were not only socio-political and economic but, with regard to individual buildings, visual. In this latter context the standards were intended to vie with formal urban design elements of the main cities of Western nations. American cities as well as European such as Paris, Rome, Geneva and London have all been quoted by clients and their consultants. There was a deliberate attempt to recreate elements of the plans of Western cities as well as use specific structures to reinforce the legitimacy of these rapidly advancing States through the visual and symbolic medium of architecture. Perhaps the most characteristic element of the plans was the dramatically increased use of land for transportation.

go to top of page

Understanding Islamic architecture

An aerial view of part of the Bastakia, Dubai

The essence of Islamic architecture has been studied a number of times. Thirty years ago a colloquium on Islamic cities examined the idea that the physical form and social structure was derived from the teachings and laws of Islam as might have been anticipated. However, it concluded that the concept of the Islamic city was less useful a category of explanation than, for example, those of the medieval or pre-industrial or Near-Eastern or Northern African.

However, the emphasis on the visual aspects of environment only through the aggregation of individual architectural projects was understandable when viewed in the context of recent history. This established the amount of work which the States considered necessary within the frameworks they set for completion. The fact is, though, that in dramatically reconstructing the physical fabric of towns, incalculable alterations were made at the same time to the social structures. Because a wide variety of social and economic structures were amended or instituted at the same time, visual aspects were considered to be all important in those exciting years of change. But these visual aspects were essentially those of the West and, even here, it was the relatively myopic views of the treatment of individual buildings which prevailed. It is only recently that a concern for the visual aspects of urban design has been mooted. To a large extent this is vocalised as being a response to the mistakes made by the, largely, Western designers seen to be responsible for the major architectural developments, and is related mainly to the perceived quality of individual buildings. Regrettably this has chiefly demonstrated itself in a concern, if not a requirement, for what is variously believed to be Islamic design – the regret being due not to legislating for Islamic design, but to the general and widespread lack of its understanding or definition which has led to pastiche. In this there is a remarkable parallel with the West’s leanings towards codified forms of traditional building.

Yet the Arab world has traditionally not placed widespread emphasis on a self-conscious, visual approach to the understanding of the urban landscape. This is probably due to five reasons:

The Royal Pavillion, Brighton, United Kingdom

It was only with the opening of the Arab world by Western travellers of the last century that a widespread interest was taken in the West of this society. This way of viewing the Orient, as it was called, developed as a separate study in the nineteenth century and was based on the ideas of the time, particularly the manner in which cultural history, the nature and development of religions, comprehension of holy books and the relationships between languages. Much comment has been made of the fact that this interest was demonstrated as heavily visual, romantic but, essentially political and the present day Western and Arab interest and conception of the urban character of Arab towns can be traced back to this viewpoint. The Western view appeared to develop in tandem with the consolidation of the West’s interests in the Orient, particularly the Muslim Orient and, even more particularly, with the study of the Orient within the growing discipline of world history. This may now seem naïve but its effect is still with us not only in the continuing romantic manner in which we view Islamic architecture, but in the way in which many Muslims themselves now see it, as can be witnessed by visiting almost any Muslim home which will have elements of ‘Islamic’ design, if not romantic pictures in it.

Secondly, traditionally there appears to have been a lack of real concern in the Arab world towards the outward appearance of the residential buildings which are the major component of urban developments. To a large extent this is a consequence of the Quranic attitude which requires no ostentation to embarrass neighbours or individuals within the society, but it is also, perhaps, what is thought of in the West to be a reflection of the Arab’s typical introversion. However, the very fact that it is characterised as such is not consonant with the way it is perceived from a Muslim point of view: the starting point for direction and an understanding of the sequence of spaces is the innermost part of the house. This should not be confused with introversion.

Thirdly, lack of decoration, ostentation or definition is an obvious strategic response to the protection of houses against marauders in a fluid society. Despite the appreciation by many of the quality and degree of structural, sculptural and decorative design of the mainly public Islamic buildings, Hassan Fathy has stated that he considers architecture to be the space formed by buildings and not the building itself. It seems to be a Western notion that the visual appearance of Arab towns is considered as important as it is has become in the West.

This aspect leads to the fourth reason: the overwhelming manner in which we in the West have been conditioned to the acceptance of visual appreciation by the inheritance of our Greek history. Not only are many of our thought processes essentially derived from Greece but many of our patterns of urban disposition and behaviour are based on Greek activities: our public buildings reflect the Greek structure of society. Public buildings, places of worship, bath houses, schools, and open spaces for discussion and meeting reflect in their siting and relationships not just the hierarchy of the State but its influence on the behaviour, and the expectations of and for, its citizens; statues in our parks reflect the way in which the Greeks would dedicate statues and plant trees in their sacred places; the reproduction of elements of classical building architecture gives status to our public buildings; and, most importantly, the powerful and persistent expectation of beauty and proportion in art and design is fundamentally derived from the Greeks.

Fifthly, there is the fact that what in the West are seen to be streets are, as they may well have been in the West, boundaries. The pattern of urban and rural development was of a number of residential developments gradually coalescing to form the typical traditional urban spatial pattern of irregularity and ambiguity. The areas of land outside the family or feriqs or their sub-groupings became smaller with time and increased development. When they approached the neighbouring sub-group or feriq a space was left as there was traditional concern for security if nothing else. This space was essentially the boundary but permitted access along it as a thoroughfare common to a number of different families. Its width needed only to be large enough to take the form of transport which, in most cases, was a pedestrian or, at the largest, a donkey or camel. Being relatively narrow it had the added advantage of encouraging a beneficial microclimate; but its origin was, essentially, a reflection of social moraes.

Complicating these five reasons, but not categorised as one of them, there is the feeling that the rationale for many of the residential patterns in Islam might well lie to a large extent in the societies creating perceptual forms that are appropriate to the time and location.

Finally, we must try to consider at least the psychological manner in which the urban environment is viewed. Although a number of theories have been advanced for examining or categorising the manner in which our urban environment, these have tended to be biased in favour of visual aspects.

go to top of page

The process of planning

View along a small sikka in Doha

The Royal Town Planning Institute of the United Kingdom (RTPI) has developed its own way of looking at the problem and is in the process of re-defining the manner in which it believes the process of planning should be organised. It should be noted, incidentally, that there is considerable overlap of interests between the RTPI, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and English Heritage (EH). They have taken the term ‘spatial planning’ – a term with very a specific meaning to the Bartlett School and Professor Bill Hillier – and made it their focus of the twin planning activities of ‘the management of the competing uses for space’ and ‘the making of places that are valued and have identity’.

A more accurate, though more complex method might be to combine views which lie at the intersection of

  • aesthetics,
  • cultural sociology and anthropology,
  • psychology,
  • theory of information, and
  • art history.

Such a method has been tentatively developed which suggests that a system for estimating and deciding upon visual phenomenon may well combine the

  • interaction of historical premises,
  • cultural habits,
  • social attitudes, and
  • perceptual tendencies.

But these attempts are now being developed into wider systems of analysis and research, the particular emphasis coming from the perceived impact of the Internet on the way in which we see our surroundings. A university architectural course is now having its students research space and form in cities under the following headings and instruction:

The research and analysis will be concerned with two primary areas. The first is the study into the general cultural and physical context within which that urban area exists. The second is the study into the specific formal and spatial identification of an urban environment. The general cultural and physical contextual identification will study information regarding:







01 Anthropological 06 Governmental 11 Material
02 Sociological 07 Economical 12 Site
03 Historical 08 Scientific 13 Climate
04 Philosophical 09 Religious    
05 Political 10 Methods    

The specific formal and spatial identification will study information regarding:







01 Geometry 17 Hierarchy 33 Living
02 Axis 18 Transparency 34 Skyline
03 Line 19 Programme 35 Roof
04 Space 20 Governmental 36 Entry
05 Grid 21 Monumental 37 Window
06 Centre / edge 22 Commercial 38 Floor
07 Figure / ground 23 Industrial 39 Ground
08 Mass / void 24 Agricultural 40 Wall
09 Symmetry / asymmetry 25 Circulation 41 Façade
10 Measured / non-measured 26 Religion 42 Structure
11 Orthogonal / freeform 27 Residential 43 Facilities
12 Top / bottom 28 Public 44 Finish
13 Back / front / side 29 Private 45 Decoration
14 Inside / outside 30 Recreation 46 Others
15 Frontal / oblique 31 Education    
16 Scale 32 Historical    

This studio will propose methods for the occupation of the space of information. Our definitions of architecture and urbanism are being redefined by virtue of the bit. Our immediate environs are no longer defined solely through physical limits. The bit, the device of the information age, as an anti-spatial and immaterial thing occupies the ether of the electronic mediums. The ether (Internet, telephone, cable…) has redefined our occupiable limits to a point where within a matter of seconds our presence can be thousands of miles away anywhere on the globe. This anti-spatial attribute of the medium, at a glance, describes this as not being architectural. But at further study one finds it is forever intertwined within the limits of space. This anti-spatial place is the redefinition of the classical descriptions of architecture. The architecture of these new places will be as necessary and meaningful as any real building ever was.

This studio will attempt to understand the relationships between the non-spatial and the spatial aspects of our community, the metaphysics of cyberspace and information technology, and the theories of architectural and informational representation.

It is intended that this studio be multi-disciplined. The studio will discuss topics that are clearly not typical to architecture. Some of these issues include typography, fontography, hyper- (typography / text / media) information studies, GUI, linguistics, hacking, and more.

There appear to be two strands here: firstly the re-defined perception of architectural space and, secondly, the thinking which appears to be similar to those ‘systems of learning’ that are to be found in many countries, where every problem is thought to be dividable into constituent elements whose aspects will, if catalogued, researched and co-ordinated, automatically lead to complete understanding and the appropriate solution. Admittedly this particular approach relates to an encapsulation of information to be placed on the Internet as a way of making the facts available to a wider audience, but it is also seen as being a precedent for the manner in which information is increasingly likely be processed.

However, it is proposed to deal with the more physical view of development, and this example is brought in mainly to show the mechanistic thinking behind the approach.

go to top of page

A visual approach to Arab housing

Old buildings in Doha’s suq

So, how should the visual aspect of housing in an Arab environment be approached? It is instructive first to review the manner in which Western designers approach their work within the urban environment. While the intellectual roots of modern urban design go back many years, it appears that the most influential writings have been those of commentators such as Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch, although British designers have been strongly influenced by Gordon Cullen and Ivor De Wolfe and Cullen’s concepts of ‘townscape’, no doubt because of the visual emphasis in which they feel themselves to be most fluent, capable and effective. A common vocabulary which helps designers to investigate urban environments systematically is obviously a useful tool, though with two reservations:

Firstly, that it is recognised as dealing only with a part of those elements which go together to create the full environment and, secondly, it is understood to form highly personal interpretations being based on the individual’s value judgements. Nevertheless, through the use of visual vocabularies, designers have been greatly assisted in being able to analyse, document and discuss their approaches to the design of buildings in their urban context.

In a related area it has been demonstrated that way-finding can be defined in very simple terms: cognitive mapping, decision making and decision execution. Information is gathered, processed and imaging takes place, strategies are plotted out and compared with a variety of perceived views, and then behavioural actions are carried out. This spatial problem-solving correlates closely to the manner in which designers view urban design, particularly at the smaller scales when they are more easily able to identify themselves with the design. It follows that it is in this area that personal perceptions, training, education and a number of other factors are most likely to act strongly. For this reason it is possible for individual experience to benefit or disbenefit a design to a remarkable extent. For instance the author has been presented with designs for a project whose total two-dimensional planning was set out on the basis of the designer’s belief in, and feeling for, lay-lines experienced on the site.

go to top of page

Design control

Part of a design project for Doha’s corniche

It is the norm that buildings are individually designed within the urban context. Although the designer might attempt to ameliorate his understanding of the environment through the incorporation of his own design, it is relatively rare that he is able to achieve more than a passing success when he is unable to control many of the activities and interactions which operate to ensure the success or otherwise of his building. In addition there are a number of requirements – for instance relating to roads and utilities – which he may not contravene. This is just as true in the Gulf States as it is in the West because most of the codes now being enacted have been developed from the West – mainly Britain or the United States. In consequence, attempts are being made to control urban design by a number of parties who have, or believe they have a legitimate interest in the matter.

The interest in Britain for requiring some form of design control is concentrating mainly upon architects and developers, not upon planners. Although there is evidence that the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was intended to incorporate some form of design control, this failed to materialise. However, as the public authorities’ capability of directing planning through land use maps was overtaken by pressures from the social and economic changes of the 1960s, the interpretation of aesthetic requirements continued to be enforced by government officers applying their own notional ideas. Although the 1970s saw the introduction of a new development plan system incorporating legal, administrative and plan making procedures, urban design was not properly addressed. Interest groups developed and, in the use of planning briefs and Section 106 (previously Section 52) agreements, the concept of design being negotiable was embodied within the legal and administrative system of planning. The debate on design controls continues to cause a split between the architectural profession who generally believe that they have enough requirements constraining their designs for the worse, and the planning profession who would like to see more controls. In this the latter are joined by many members of the public and their various pressure groups who appear to see architects as culpable for the poor state of our environment.

Nevertheless, the pressures continue to develop, particularly from the debate on urban issues. The most significant appears to be the thinking now moving towards connecting the physical appearance of towns with those aspects that contribute to their vitality. Although it is argued elsewhere that there is not the emphasis in Islam on the physical appearance of urban areas, this development suggests that the future of urban design lies in a collaborative process that is much in line with one of the central aspects of Islamic society – that of communal responsibility. Eight points have been suggested as focal to the design of ‘living cities’:

  • urban design is most effective when people are able to shape their environment to their own satisfaction,
  • the essence of an urban environment exists in its ‘public realm’, namely the infrastructure which is available – without charge – to those wanting to use it,
  • the experience of an urban area is not described by designers’ drawings, but incorporates a number of senses together with a sense of security,
  • designers should recognise the different scales of city life, from village scale upwards,
  • urban design should have short as well as long term objectives,
  • messiness and vitality go together,
  • life in cities is related to activities of exchange, and people feel comfortable in places where they can participate in these processes, and
  • designers should work with the grain of the city’s culture, creating places which reflect the society’s unique qualities.

However the physical environment is not the main criterion in establishing the quality of life for individuals and society within urban environments. The psychologist, Maslow, suggests that personal needs define the manner in which we perceive and enjoy our environment. These needs comprise a set of priorities which are sought hierarchically; the higher needs being required only after the lower are satisfied. He conceptualises the priorities to be:

  • Physiological – air, food and water
  • Security – shelter, safety
  • Social – group membership, belonging
  • Ego – high self-image, and
  • Self-fulfilment – achievement of maximum potential

If this is transferred to the setting of town centres it would suggest the following hierarchy of residents' needs:

  • Range and adequacy of accessible shopping and service facilities
  • Safety and security
  • Social, cultural, leisure and entertainment opportunities
  • Environmental quality and delight

I believe this hierarchical Western model is not directly applicable to residential housing areas in Qatar. The security and sanctity of the home is of prime importance in Islam with accessible facilities secondary to this as the need for these is provided as a matter of State policy. How it is arranged and where it is located are issues that will be dealt with elsewhere.

It has been debatable whether social, cultural, leisure and entertainment opportunities are more important than than the provision of accessible shopping and service facilities. The character of Islamic societies would require social and cultural criteria to be more important, with leisure and recreational of less importance.

However, these issues have to be seen within the context of the manner in which governance is maintained and developed within the society.

go to top of page

Traditional Islamic society

Qatari guests in a tent, with bodyguard

I have set out elsewhere the manner in which the traditional Islamic society of the Gulf operates. The interaction between the formal aspects of modern government and the traditional operation of the majlis system is interesting to observe in action as it involves continuous confrontation and development. Yet despite this the majlis continues as the most important mechanism for interaction and decision making – even in areas where it would be thought that central or local government operations should be paramount.

This use of the majlis gives a focus to each neighbourhood which can not be paralleled in western societies. Even where there is a large expatriate element of the neighbourhood, the area will still be bound by its Islamic roots. It has to be understood that Muslims see themselves within the context of the overall Islamic society, the Umma, the world-wide body of Islam. This binds all individuals together, not just within the local neighbourhoods, districts or urban conurbations, but to muslims elsewhere. This is a palpable link which gives strength and continuity to small units of development in a way which state government can not do.

It is a truism that urban space can be conceptualised as overlapping areas of power and action, but without study of the manner in which empowerment is affected by the introduction of government mechanisms, it is difficult to be dogmatic about the way in which urban spaces are affected other than in the most obvious ways.

Unfortunately, urban governance studies do not help much in the determining relevance to Gulf planning. There is still considerable cohesion within traditional societies, and the manner in which areas of residential development have been allocated to reflect the kabila and socio-economic group structures have led to two kinds of area development, neither of which in their essential structures are similar to the character of areas studied in the capital cities studied in the Middle East.

Related to Qataris, the hierarchy referred to above is more likely to be thought to be:

  • Safety and security,
  • Social and cultural opportunities,
  • Range and adequacy of accessible shopping and service facilities,
  • Leisure and recreational opportunities, and
  • Environmental quality and delight.

The danger in responding to much of the pressure of visually directed initiatives is that it is ill conceived whether it results either in the imposition of Islamic design principles or in the establishing of codes defining details and materials. The evidence that individuals respond to their environment in a manner relating directly to the manner in which they perceive themselves treated, suggests the corollary that individuals will apply pressure to create environments within which they will feel content. Often the environment they attempt to symbolise is illusory, although this does not make the goal any the less real to them or unpopular.

Suq Waqf, August 2008

In fact certain commercial success has been enjoyed by those able to tap this source of nostalgia or socio-recreational direction. Not only are theme parks extremely popular, but large developments are being created and even towns modified in order to take advantage of the revenue which is available from those who wish to enjoy various aspects of leisure or their past. There is a real possibility that pressures will be aroused to turn whole regions into designed theme parks.

This form of developmental pressure emphasises the visual aspects of urban design at the expense of other components of our urban experience. Yet in stressing the visual component of urban experience critics, such as the Prince of Wales, have also added principles of hierarchy which go back to earlier schools of thought combining, for instance, religious symbolism in a classic framework in celebration of the Wren skyline of London. This approach appears to reflect feelings engendered by the potent illustrations of Islamic cities brought back by the artist travellers of the last century, and which many in the West still draw upon for their emotional response to traditional Islamic design.

As discussed elsewhere the emphasis of design in the Islamic town is not on religious enlightenment or even emotional experience: it is on social cohesion through the medium of egalitarian physical development. In many aspects the traditional Islamic method for achieving amendments to the urban fabric was considerably in advance of the way in which the West has legislated design, as well as the manner in which these codes are being adapted to new developments in Arab countries.

It is not possible to put back the clock and re-create a simpler, deterministic environment which would improve the lot of those who believe they have suffered at the hands of Western inspired or led architectural planning policies. Social change in the Gulf States to a large extent will depend on political and economic policies outside the designers’ control. Yet there seems to be no reason why elements of the Western designers’ vocabularies might not be used to good effect in improving much of the more unfortunate aspects of the public areas of residential areas. In order to do so it is instructive to look at the manner in which urban design has been characterised in Britain, particularly at systematic approaches which incorporate the American view of urban design manipulating the public realm.

go to top of page

Towards defining a successful environment

Trees in an old Doha courtyard

Considerable thought has gone into the basis of what makes a well-designed urban environment. Some of the guidelines produced, such as those promulgated by the Prince of Wales, are relatively restricted with a bias towards the visual aspects of planning and architecture. Others suggest a considerable involvement with the ecological problems now being seen as a crucial element in the direction of future planning. Perhaps one of the most coherent from a Western perspective are the guidelines produced by a Past President of the Royal Town Planning Institute who has suggested the following ten points for defining the issues which are important for a successful environment:

01 Places matter, not buildings: environments should be intimate and individual, not monolithically bland.
02 Contextualism: architects should learn from the past to produce interesting and distinctive work which fits into its locale.
03 Mixing: functions should not be diverse, without zoning, to make each district lively and safe.
04 Human scaling: buildings should not overawe the street level – which does not mean fewer skyscrapers, but rather more sensitive handling.
05 Pedestrian freedom: people should be able to walk around and through their surroundings.
06 Access: areas should be open to everyone. Environments should be open and friendly, not closed and impersonal.
07 Legibility: people must know where they are. Landmarks and distinctive buildings must give an individual feel to each part of the townscape.
08 Building to last and adapt: short life single function developments should be avoided.
09 Slow, steady change: rather than massive transformation.
10 Promote intricacy: joy and visual delight.

When looked at from an Islamic viewpoint it can be seen that a number of these principles are not fully in accordance with Islamic town design, and can even be argued to conflict with it.

The first point sits uneasily with traditional Islamic design. Many Westerners feel that long established Arab towns can appear bland. It has to be remembered that there were virtually no public buildings in Arab towns other than the masaajid. Functions such as those which in the West created a requirement for separate hospitals and schools were also carried out within the masaajid. The other elements of the State or Municipality were not require by Islam and were dealt with either in the masjid or the majlis. Apart from the masaajid and aswaaq, the remainder of the Islamic town was essentially housing with a considerable emphasis placed on privacy and lack of ostentation. Furthermore there is a strong argument that although the Arab has an instinctive appreciation of beauty he does not have the same personal requirement for an attractive environment that the Westerner might wish for because, through his religion, he is less reliant on this aspect of socio-psychological need.

It would be agreed that architects should learn from the past, but the second point would have to be used extremely carefully suggesting as it does that architects design their buildings in novel and idiosyncratic ways.

The third point suggests that lively places are safe. Arab towns placed their retail and industrial areas in locations which were discrete from residential districts, either outside the town or just within its protecting circumference. To some extent this was an outcome of the manner in which residential areas developed, but it also ensured that strangers would be easily noticed in areas where they had no business. This is still very much a feature of many Arab towns and is considered by Arabs to be important.

The relevance of the fourth point would be agreed by Arab designers as an important precept of the urban environment. It should be remembered, however, that the effects of the elements – the sun, particularly – give a different psychological effect to those enjoying spaces around buildings from that anticipated by Westerners utilising their own experience.

The fifth point is problematic in that although pedestrians are required to be able to move into and between their residential areas easily, strangers are not welcome when they have no business there.

This argument applies even more to the sixth point which can be seen to contravene directly one of the more important precepts of the spirit of Islamic town design.

The seventh point is, in a sense, derived from the sixth and, although individuals need to know where they are in a residential area, there are traditionally less clues for the stranger. Nowadays signing and the numbering of houses by various utility departments give more clues to the stranger wanting to find his way into or around an area, but this is not particularly wanted by many residents.

There are a number of reasons why the eighth point should obtain anywhere in the world. However, it must be remembered that the nuclear character of Arab families and their resulting preferences for agglomerative development often required considerable re-building when children married, or when family or orphans were brought into the compound to live.

The ninth point would apply to traditional Arab towns but, more so than in the West, Arabs are now used to massive changes in their urban environments due to the rapid rate of development forced upon them by the circumstances of the past forty or so years. Building character, as defined by the building materials and practices used, is the direct result of the manner in which the construction industry has grown.

The decoration suggested by the tenth point was certainly a feature of many Arab towns. With stability, wealth and the passage of time residential districts saw an increase in the amount of visual decoration away from that developed on masaajid. Yet fundamentalists would see this as reprehensible when experienced on private houses although, within the privacy of the individuals’ homes, there would be no reason why visual delight, fancy and whim might not be enjoyed, provided always that it does not conflict with religious requirements.

It is not argued that there should be no visual delight within public areas, but that in the Islamic world there is a religious proscription upon the uninhibited use of ornament and design features where it can reinforce divisions or strata within the society. Architectural features of buildings which contest or conflict with those of neighbours are distasteful, as are those which demonstrate wealth or a perceived position within the society. Competition is held to be improper. It is in the relationships with each other that the residences of a neighbourhood strive for harmony, and architectural coherence is sought to reflect and reinforce the strength of the society within the neighbourhood. The traditional concerns of visually oriented designers naturally play their part in giving interest and creating a bond between nature, the buildings of the neighbourhood and the requirements of the municipality and utility departments; but this must not be at anybody’s expense, and it must be applied in an even manner.

go to top of page


Planning and Urban Design regulations for a part of the New Distrct of Doha

Guidelines can be dangerous unless they permit flexibility, require better understanding of context and encourage greater skill from those using them. Regrettably formal attempts to improve buildings have a long history of misuse as can be seen from the results which followed the introduction of initiatives such as the Parker Morris standards and the Essex Design Guide in the United Kingdom. These were considered to be good of their sort but obviously did not deal with all the issues that can be understood to constrain and direct experience of the urban environment. If they are to be useful then they will have to be re-organised to take account of other issues as well as the manner in which residential districts are designed and implemented in Qatar.

This approach to design has been widened by approaches such as that of the Urban Villages Group instituted by the Prince of Wales in 1990. They have published their proposals for developments in which they believe people will feel comfortable. In essence these are developments with sufficient critical mass to enable mixed use at all levels of the development. The group propose that development should

  • be mixed use, structured planned urban development – not mono-cultural, and will require
  • support from all political and social elements of the society if a civilised and sustainable environment is to be obtained,
  • flexible,
  • be accessible on foot,
  • conform with the European Community's 1990 green paper on the urban environment (EUR 12902 EN) which states that the root causes of urban degeneration lie in spatial specialisation in the planning and management of urban environment; urban pollution; and lack of attention to open spaces, vegetation and wildlife,
  • have a critical mass large enough to support a wide range of activities and amenities, but small enough to be within easy walking distance, and
  • an ideal size of 40 hectares (100 acres) with a combined working and resident population of between 3,000 and 5,000,
  • cater for daily shopping, basic health facilities, nursery and primary schooling, and some recreational and cultural facilities,
  • contain a mix of uses within each block, and
  • contain a mix of uses within buildings,
  • and a match between residents able and willing to work, and available jobs, yet should
  • provide for the increasing proportion of those retiring and those wanting to work from home,
  • have a mix of tenures for all uses, which will require pump priming of uneconomic and less economic development,
  • be complementary to any existing neighbourhood area,
  • encourage community participation, perhaps through community development trusts, as a continuing activity,
  • be convenient, efficient and pleasing in use, with attention particularly paid to the spaces between buildings, and access for the physically disadvantaged,
  • have a detailed master plan together with the necessary codes,
  • have a promoter legally committed to the development, setting up management and maintenance structures, perhaps with user and resident involvement,
  • contain access to public transport as well as vehicular access which will not destroy or erode environmental quality,
  • be located on brownland sites in urban areas, suburban or edge-of-town sites, or smaller sites within existing urban areas, and should
  • have a duration of development of no more than ten years.

It can be seen that such a wide ranging group of policies will require a significant amount of social and physical control, and suggests strong, central direction, organisation and funding. In particular it avoids the difficulties associated with the value and ownership of land. This is likely to be more easily dealt with in Qatar than it is in the United Kingdom.

As the debate in the United Kingdom continues to be argued it is not possible to see how the issues relating to design guidelines will be resolved. Following up successful American experience it may be that some of the power exercised by planning authorities over aesthetic control should be made to reflect local competencies and aspirations. This would be very much in line with the manner in which traditional Islamic societies behaved. It is envisaged that this advice would concentrate upon scale and density, public areas and ease of access. It would include the appropriate use of locally derived building materials, building techniques and architectural features, not in the form of replication of pastiche but in the assistance towards achieving congruity and a lively sense of continuity. However, the degree to which all societies are capable of perceiving or achieving this is debatable.

go to top of page

An Islamic perspective

Prayer on the Corniche

Many of the principles now being discussed in Britain for better definition of the urban environment already obtain within Islam and its traditions, although they have been superseded and supplanted within many Arab States by new regulations derived from those developed for other purposes in the West. If the principles are to be re-defined for a guide which will be useful for the design of residential areas of Qatar, how should it be structured? The following point towards a general structure and demonstrate the relative importance of issues from an Islamic perspective:

Firstly, man is held in Islam to be a tenant of the earth and its custodian while he is upon it. He may enjoy its fruits but must not take advantage. This takes us to the heart of the present debate requiring that environmental costs of development are minimised or, at best, optimised for the general good of all. From this spring requirements such as

  • those for ecologically sustainable building and development,
  • the integration of natural with man-made elements of the urban environment to create a harmonious environment,
  • the incorporation and protection of flora and fauna in a variety of suitable locations,
  • micro-climates appropriate to function,
  • and so on…

Secondly, and flowing from the Quranic arguments revolving around the environment and social responsibility, there must be guidance on issues such as provision of comfort, cleanliness and convenience; the use of appropriate transport systems; the obviation or control of nuisance from various forms of pollution; as well as social justice incorporated within the distribution, access to and use of public and private spaces.

Thirdly, the issue of the enjoyment of an Islamic lifestyle has to be addressed. In particular this introduces the requirements of privacy, security and safety – all of them key concerns of modern Arabs. As an adjunct to this it will be necessary to consider how lifestyles may develop in at least the near future.

Fourthly, there is the appropriate structuring and grading in their importance of visual and aesthetic principles.

These factors might apply to many Arab countries. Notwithstanding these it has been my experience, over a long period of time in Qatar, that the two chief issues which have been focused upon by Arabs living in residential areas are security and the adaptation of their housing to many of the principles of Islamic planning. Most of the latter have been dealt with in other sections, but there is a real and widespread concern for security, perhaps as a consequence of the degree of change as well as the high proportion of foreigners living within the country.

Finally it is worth stressing that the development of housing areas in the Gulf has seen the use of sites that are free of constraints. For the most part such sites are relatively flat and have no apparent natural features on them. Upon such sites is imposed a regular geometry of large house plots with as many owners as possible obtaining exactly the same size as their neighbours. Although parity may be considered to be proper, this particular geometric approach has made it difficult to give developments not only the small creative eccentricities that permit it to work well, but also to take good advantage of the edges of irregular sites to the benefit of only some of the owners.

Where developments have been made near older buildings, there has been no attempt to integrate the scales of the two or more different types of building, one acting as a wall to the other. Yet it is often in the variations and interplay of forms that the pedestrian is able to find his way and identify with his area: it is in the hard geometry of the new estates that he is likely to feel at risk and to show less concern for the external appearance of his district – but this time, for the wrong reasons.

more to be written…


The household on its lot    |    top   |   A new approach – principles

Islamic design
menu for this section of the site

Search the Islamic design study pages