“We wanted to celebrate the books”

by Ellen van Loon

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Your firm was commissioned to design three buildings for the “Education City”, amongst them the National Library. How did the site look before construction started?

Basically, it was a desert. Most children from the Middle East are sent abroad for their education. In Qatar there was a strong desire to have a local University. This is why they began the construction of the Education City, where renowned international institutions, such as Cornell or Georgetown University, have established local branches. The Qatar Foundation wanted there to be a university library for these institutions, and only during the planning process it was decided to turn it into the National Library –– a library for everyone.

How did the local culture of Qatar influence your design concept?

Culture was our starting point. Many of the new buildings in Doha are inspired by the Islamic architecture already there. We have decided on a modern structure. Additionally, we had to consider the climate, of course. The first time I flew to Qatar I faced temperatures of almost fifty degrees Celsius during the day. In the summer it is nearly impossible to be outside. Therefore there is a need for public spaces inside buildings. There is also need for places where people can meet and spend time together. This was the key idea behind our design. Our second desire was celebrating books. Nowadays, within many libraries, they often disappear into basements and digital storage. We thought it would be nice to be actually able to see the books. Walking along the shelves gives you the opportunity of accidentally discovering something of interest –– without being guided along by some corporation’s search engines.

One especially noteworthy feature is the “Heritage Library” –– a collection of historical and antiquarian writings…

One day our commissioners told us that there was a beautiful collection of special old books in Qatar, and asked whether we wanted to see it. The books were so marvelous that we decided to integrate them into the project. We designed a hollow in the ground that looks like an excavation site in old Qatar. When you enter the library, you can observe all of those old books below, and at the same time you are surrounded by the contemporary books rising upwards on the terraces of the interior.  

Is the Arab-Islamic tradition also present in the architectural details of the building?

In the entire Middle-East there is a traditional use of Mosaics and natural stone, especially lime stone. We used Iranian limestone for the shelves of the Heritage Library, in other parts we used Italian marble. Almost everything has to be imported into Qatar, because the main material available is sand. At least the cement comes from Dubai.

You’ve just finished a project in Copenhagen, that was strongly focused on sustainability. Did you have the possibility to build sustainably in Qatar?  

The entire project of the Education City was conceived with district heating in mind, which is very sustainable. Also, we’ve of course paid close attention to energy-efficiency for our buildings. There is one particularity, however, that one doesn’t think about here –– the sand! It’s a real challenge to open a window. There is a lot of sand in the air, and it’s not just that it dusts up the interiors, but also, it damages the electronics and other technology. However, we succeeded in not having air-conditioning everywhere in the library –– there is still a way for fresh air to enter the building. The old books are kept in showcases, of course. And the books that are borrowed the most must be replaced every few years, anyway.

Did you get the impression that sustainability was important for your commissioners?

Not when we first started the project. But this topic is definitely gaining in relevance. This is partly also due to the country’s difficult geographic location and the economic blockade. Currently, there is much interest in sustainable agriculture to be able to utilize local produce and not be dependent on imported vegetables.

How does it feel for an architect to be able to work with large sums in the world’s most affluent country?

The many possibilities this provides don’t always make everything easier! Of course, we’re used to working with smaller budgets. However, in Qatar luxury is symbolized by “golden water faucets” and other materials, which are not especially interesting to us.

The working conditions for labourers in Qatar have been sharply criticised. How did you personally observe the construction sites?

The situation at the construction sites themselves was not as problematic as the worker accommodation. One of the main questions was: Above what temperature does working outside become unacceptable? However, in our own western societies most construction workers are also from poorer countries, and we must also ask ourselves about how are we are treating them.

In the past decades Doha has quickly grown. What does that mean for a city?

The Qataris have lots of giant buildings, however, thankfully, they’ve quickly realized the importance of protecting the old districts of the city center. Additionally, the speed of building is luckily decreasing.

Did you see the new stadiums for the World Cup in 2022?

Not yet. In 2006 I saw the old horse racetrack –– beautifully designed with traditional tents. Now one of the new stadiums stands in its place. These are the things, including the smaller format typical of its original culture, which Qatar should work to preserve –– otherwise Doha soon will look like any other city in the Middle East.

Does the population make use of the new library?

Oh, yes! During weekdays it is mostly filled with students and on the weekend entire families come there to pass whole days at a time.

How was it to work in Qatar as a woman?

I got on the plane without any idea of what to expect. Of course, one always deliberates how to behave appropriately, but I just decided to be myself, and that worked out well. I was especially surprised by the meetings, in which only women were present. They were so open all of a sudden. Much more than one is used to, elsewhere. We had a lot of fun!

The interview was conducted by Friederike Biron

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