Having navigated West Bay Doha for some months now, I have become more and more impressed by the towers I have been passing by when doing shopping at City Center, coming home from the Qatar University and returning from Doha City to our home in the Falcon Tower along the Corniche.
At first sight the West Bay towers look like a randomly placed bunch of individuals, begging for my attention. To realize that most towers in the skyline are built in the last 10-15 years, helps me to understand the nature of this development. The Doha towers are branding themselves in a brand new down town.
I will not write a report here on the historic development of Doha, many have done that before me, there are some excellent websites abundant of information and [photo]graphic reports on West Bay. West Bay is known as Al Dafna in Arabic, meaning something like reclaimed land. You might want to check www.catnaps.org by John Lockerbie, a planning consultant who worked in Doha to experience the rapid growth of the metropolis of Doha, to acquire very detailed information on the development of Doha. Instead, I wish to understand the nature of their being seen from the perspective of the towers themselves. What do these towers communicate by their existence, and more specifically by their marketing ?
Perfume bottles and real estate
Visiting the Radwani House in the new 760.000 m2 Msheireb development in the older part of Doha, one detail caught my attention: series of sanitary bottles on a recessed part of the wall of the bathroom in the house of a well-to-do Qatari family, built in the 1920’s, unknowingly foreshadowing the explosive growth to come. These shampoo and perfume bottles are distinguishing themselves from their competitors. In much the same fashion the West Bay towers distinguish themselves from their immediate neighbors, some of them very successfully.
Base, shaft, capital
Such bottles necessarily have similar characteristics as the real estate towers: base, shaft and capital, and a distinguishable shape. The difference is of course that the characteristics of the West Bay towers are operational on the urban scale, not the domestic scale. The shampoo and perfume bottles operate on the scale of the shelves in the supermarket, while the towers operate on the scale of the down town city. The bottles simply seem to have pumped up their volume to become a real estate shaped container. The base of the bottle / tower keeps them from toppling / respectively connects them to the urban context. The shaft holds the substance, whether we are looking at the liquid shampoo or at the leaseable surfaces, while the upper part is the interface with the city navigator, the crown functions as the attracting point for the eye of the beholder. The cap on the bottle is the attraction point where the hands go, and similarly the crown on the tower forms the attraction point where the eyes of the beholder are drawn to.
Simple, often curved lines define the shape of the branded containers, whether a household product or a real estate investment vehicle. Both the bottles and the towers are shaped containers of strange substance. What substance do they really contain? It feels as if the uniqueness of the shape brings about a positive effect on the nature of the substance. Substance seems to improve when the branding of the product [bottle, tower] has been successful. In the end a successful branding of individual towers feeds back on the down town area as a whole. Despite an estimated percentage of 70% initial vacancy, I believe that in the long run West Bay Doha will become a vibrant down town to work and to live in, with substance.
I was – together with Ilona Lénárd – visiting the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy for discussing future art projects in preparation of the the FIFA championship. We were welcomed on the 33th floor in one of the most prominent towers, namely the 40 storey high Al Bidda Tower. The many offices related tot the FIFA 2022 form the solid yet temporary substance for the Al Bidda Tower. Not one of the highest but certainly one of the most striking ones. The sharp edged and fragmented plectrum shaped floor plan of the Al Bidda Tower rises up in a rotating movement. The semi-structural facade is triangulated as to follow the slightly doubly curved torqued shape.
The triangulated facade is of my particular interest since I have designed and built the Liwa Tower in Abu Dhabi using a parametric diagrid system for the load bearing structural facade of the smoothly shaped tower. From the inside of the Al Bidda Tower I could unriddle was how it has been built by the Dutch company BAM / Higgs & Hill. The first thing I noticed were the oversized slanting concrete columns, at least one meter in diameter, and that on the 33th floor! The structural engineers [or was it the architect?] have chosen to have a main structure in concrete, a secondary structure using braced steel beams, and another heavy layer for the glass facade. In comparison, in my design for the Liwa Tower in Abu Dhabi  I managed to synchronize the dimensions of a much more fine-grained diagrid structure with the large triangular steel sandwich facade panels, therewith saving at least half of the costs of the facade structure + skin.
Between the brand and the substance there is the skin. The skin is the interface between city and user, a membrane between open outdoor and enclosed indoor environment. The quality of the materials that are used for the skin in combination with the level of design thinking tells the story of how a real estate brand send its message to its immediate environment, at the one hand towards the city, at the other hand towards the user.
The Al Bidda Tower is just one example out of 150 other towers in West Bay in Doha, which all can be analysed in a similar way with respect to their own branding, substance and interfacing membrane. The message is in the bottle.
Having assessed our police clearance, diploma’s and marriage certificate by the Dutch authorities, and having these assessed again by the Embassy of Qatar, and having them accepted by Qatar University’s HR department, we got our one way tickets to Doha. Sounds easy but it took us almost three months to get everything done correctly.
We sold our beach house in the Netherlands, sold our car, packed and went for Doha to find a place to call our home the coming year[s]. When we arrived in the middle of the night we were most courteously welcomed by a hospitality service bureau who led us through customs in a most smooth way. Then another hospitality service drove us to the temporary housing they had reserved for us. Being tired and expecting a nice suite, instead we ended up in one of the compounds hired by Qatar University. “Compound” meaning a gated community with joint facilities, sharing almost everything from kitchen to front door, with 3 very Spartan basic suites behind the shared front door, felt like regular staff housing, desolate yet spacious. Not exactly what we expected, so we called it off and asked us to drive to a the Mövenpick Hotel in West Bay instead. From there we moved to the massive Ezdan complex in West Bay containing a more 3000 units and an Olympic sized swimming pool, ca 300 QAR/night. We heard that many staff of Qatar University and other companies actually live their expat lives there. We stayed for 10 days, had many viewing in West Bay and the Pearl, we were determined to find the best option. Finally we hit home with a furnished 1 bedroom apartment in Falcon Tower on Diplomatic Street in West Bay, an absolute premium location for a reasonable price, coincidentally managed by the same Al Mirqab company that manages the first compound we found ourselves dropped into.
In the first two weeks in Doha we managed to go through all process to get the Qatari ID, residence permit, bank account at QNB to do our shopping, the chequebook to pay the rent, the driving license. Most people were surprised that we managed to get all licenses, home and car within the span of two weeks, it turned out to be extremely effective, we spoke to a number of people who said it could take months. Since the job at Qatar University – and therewith the first payment – first starts the 10th of September, we pre-invested a lot of money for one month rent, complete the furnishing of the otherwise furnished apartment and daily living expenses before settling down. Before we could rent the car we used Uber for almost all trips. Uber service is great here, usually 3 minutes before they arrive on your exact location, only 2.50 € for a city ride using the simple UberGo, driving economy cars like Honda City, and max 10 € to bring us to the outskirts of the city, which we had to do quite frequently to get our licenses.
The first thing we had to do is to have a medical examination at the Medical Commission, which is as we found out a state-owned facility at the south end of Doha, adjacent to a not yet developed part of Doha’s rocky desert. Early morning we took off on a 30 minute ride with a driver from Qatar University [they have 20+ Toyota Avalon luxury cars available for staff transportation], expected to be delivered at a modern hospital of some sort as we had seen under way, but it turned out to be a rather nondescript low-rise facility, processing all immigrant expats. We are workers after all, and all workers are treated equal. To be processed one has to know a number of things in advance, which we had to find out ourselves: first, dress according to formal Qatari rules, meaning covering legs and arms completely, and second pay by special credit card. Ilona was not allowed to enter, the from Sri Lanka originating QU driver took us back, Ilona got changed, returned again we bought credit on a temporary card, and went through the blood sample and X-ray tests. Passing the test means becoming eligible for getting a residence permit. All in all it took us a day, and gave us a first-hand experience of how the Qatari community operates.
After medical check we were sent the other day to The Forensic Laboratory to take fingerprints. They took all our fingers, left and right, and as if that is not enough evidence, they copied our hand palms as well. You give them one finger, they take the whole hand. We are definitely in the system now. As we heard later, all personal data are connected to one’s Qatari ID. All information on any expat worker is available to the authorities. I know my ID number by heart now.
Before we went we were told to bring enough portrait photo’s, which we had made in the Netherlands. So we went well prepared to the HR Department at Qatar University to apply for the Qatari ID. However the rules for the formal portrait photo’s had changed recently and to get our Qatari ID they told us that we would need a photo with a clear blue background. They could not tell us where to get those, they suggested one place in a nearby mall, but the driver of Qatar University got confused, and I was able through Google Maps to find one not too far from where we were lost in some residential neighborhood. Luckily the found studio that was specialised in bridal reports, could help us and one hour later we got our portraits with the mandatory clear blue background, by contrast giving more color to one’s skin. The photo’s were accepted, we handed in our passports to HR and we could fetch our residence permits some days later.
Not The Pearl
To rent an apartment and to apply for a driving license one needs the Qatari ID first. We used the days in waiting for our ID’s to contact some property agents through propertyfinder.qa and went to see apartments in the Zig-Zag towers at the Lagoona Mall first. At first sight from a distance rather tempting, at closer inspection the rooms were not sufficiently spacious, great views but no balconies, but the main problem obviously was the quality of maintenance, especially with respect to the cooling. So we continued our search, guided by a young Moroccan broker girl, who showed us a rather nice furnished apartment in Tower 21 at Porto Arabia at The Pearl. But, small balcony, neighboring tower too close, so we continued our search through a number of other agents. After having viewed almost ten other apartments in The Pearl, we almost signed up for an unfurnished one in Tower 3 with a very large balcony.
Falcon Tower !
The very afternoon that we were on our way to signing the contract to a Algerian agent working for the Majestic managers, we spotted browsing propertyfinder.qa for a last check an apartment in West Bay that looked attractive. We made an appointment for viewing directly with the Al Mirqab management that operates the Falcon Tower, and yes, this definitely was the right choice, spacious 1 bedroom with splendid sea view overlooking the whole 7 km long Corniche bay, great balcony, big 25 m pool, cooling sea breezes, and in very good condition. This apartment in the Falcon Tower, perfectly located between the Hilton and the Four Seasons, felt immediately like a home due to its high level of finishing, more modest and intimate dimensions of the entrance hall, corridors, and the apartment itself, much better than most hastily finished apartments in the Pearl towers. Just in time, we have hit home, otherwise we would have lived in the Pearl which feels like an artificial environment yet without an identity of itself, while West Bay has that Metropolitan feeling of living in a vibrant city.
Rules keep changing. Now having acquired the Qatari ID my Dutch driving license is declared no longer valid. I found this out when signing in for a one year leased car. They told me to go Traffic Headquarters, a brand new classical brownstone building at some other outskirts westwards of the fast expanding city of Doha. Not knowing what to expect exactly, we went there hoping to get the license on the spot. Not so, after having paid 90 QAR or so for the intake document, they told me to go one of the private driving schools to do the “test”. The first driving school we went to was a private facility run in chaos probably by Egyptian staff, after strong persistence especially from Ilona’s side I could go through the so-called Signal Test, 20 multiple choice questions on specific Qatari traffic sign that I had never seen before. By calculated guesswork I passed nevertheless without any mistake. So I thought that was it to het the license in the neighboring building of a local traffic department, it was in the Khalifa district near the Aspire Dome. Not so, they gave me an appointment for a Road Test for the 24th of October. But I needed it the next week, so we asked around whether we could speed up, one younger English speaking staff advised us to go to the United Driving School in another district close to the Villagio shopping mall. The regular staff in these rather shabby sheds told us the same: 24th of October, or otherwise talk to the Captain. That we did, and after some more massaging, I could do the Road Test the next morning. I miraculously passed in the automatic geared car, as all cars are here, by driving two times round the corner in a quiet residential neighborhood, I did not even had to start the car, but as was advised on internet sites I took care of adjusting the mirrors, keeping my two hands firmly on the steering wheel and extensively looking into all possible mirrors, left, right and middle. Next day our car, an almost new Honda Civic model 2015, was delivered to our residence with a half full tank.
Under permanent construction
Now having got a feeling of how Qatar keeps going thanks to 2.2 million expats, predominantly from Sri Lanka, Philippines and India, having the car we are using it intensively to do further shopping at Carrefour in the very well functioning City Center close to us in West Bay, the giant Mall of Qatar 20 km west of West Bay, the IKEA 20 km north-west. All roads between West Bay, Katara, The Pearl and Lusail are heavily under construction, meaning that each day the route can be different. In fact the whole country is under an intense reconstruction, to be continued at least until the Football Games of 2022, and up to the years of harvesting and consolidating after the Games. Google Maps updates only once a month and does not give correct info, instead we use the app Waze which gives much more accurate information based on daily feedback info from its users. Our longest trip so far was 30km westward to the extra large museum collection of Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani almost in the exact middle of the Qatar peninsula, stand-alone in the desert. Non unlikely the now isolated museum lot will be urbanized within a decade. Sheikh Faisal is assumedly the richest member of the ruling Al Thani family. Sheik Faisal owns many large real estate projects in Doha, both lowrise and highrise, and owns a variety of companies in construction, hospitality, trading, transportation, entertainment, education, services and information technology. He is the personification of diversifying the Qatar economy, and in his personal life he is a vigorous collector of almost everything from cars to carpets, art to complete house, from weapons to symbols of a broad scala of religions other than Islam. This is makes his enormous, to a large extent undocumented collection, very special, as explained to us by the new Dutch director Kees Wieringa, who is also a professional classical piano performer, whom we know from his famous recordings of the piano works “Proeven van Stijlkunst” of Jacob van Domselaer, as he gave us the full tour. We have hit home indeed.
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