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Thu 6 Aug 2009 04:00 AM

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Arabian expansion

The UK’s Allies and Morrison is set to launch its new office in Doha. Principal Tim Makower speaks with Jeff Roberts about the potential for Qatar and the region.

Arabian expansion
Tim Makower sketches in Doha’s newest souk. (Jeff Roberts/ITP Images)
Arabian expansion
Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University (UK). (Allies and Morrison)
Arabian expansion
Paradise Street, Liverpool One (UK). (Allies and Morrison)
Arabian expansion
Allies and Morrison design studios, London (UK). (Allies and Morrison)
Arabian expansion
Blue Fin Building, London (UK). (Allies and Morrison)

The UK’s Allies and Morrison is set to launch its new office in Doha. Principal Tim Makower speaks with Jeff Roberts about the potential for Qatar and the region.

After putting together a large European portfolio, what brings Allies and Morrison to Qatar?

Partly with the support of DohaLand we’re setting up a branch office in Qatar, but we’re also looking further a field. There’s a lot going on in Doha and we feel we’ve got a lot to contribute.

We feel the vision from His and Her Highness for a sustainable, lasting architecture—architecture that isn’t just glass and metal greenhouses overheating in the desert—is our kind of vision. We also feel that our contextual approach can have a very broad application and will appeal to a broad variety of clients.

What has been the market response to A&M’s arrival?

We’ve had nothing but good experiences working with people here. Doha is very exciting right now; it has a very convivial feeling about it. To feel comfortable with one’s clients and co-consultants and to enjoy working with them is quite an important part of the whole mixture. Considering everyone we’ve worked with so far, we certainly feel very comfortable.

How is the Qatar office coming?

Simon Gathercole, one of our associate directors, is coming over to head up the office and he’ll be here from September 2009. We are planning to start as very much a satellite office with a dedicated team dealing with one or two of the most important projects that require specialised or sensitive client communications.

That said, we do have a wider strategic plan to make sure the world knows we’re here and we’re available for other projects if people are interested. We’ve begun talking to several other people about various things, so it’s very exciting right now.

Why Doha? Why not Abu Dhabi or Bahrain or even Kuwait City?

You could argue that we’re fitting into a niche in Qatar. First, we are design architects, no doubt. In a way, there is no one like that based in Doha.There are some who do projects like the ones we’re looking at and of course there’s competition from other countries but I don’t think any of our competitors have branch offices in Doha yet. Your most recent commission, The Heart of Doha, is a very important project for Qatar. What is it like to work with and for Her Highness Sheika Mozah?

Our relationship with Her Highness has been one of presentation and response. In terms of the Heart of Doha, we weren’t there at the early stages. We came on board once there was a vision in place.

I am not sure where the original set of ideas about what the site might become and what the architects should bring to the project or what kind of approach to urban living the project should instil came from.

Having met Her Highness a few times though, I am sure that she was an integral part of that debate. She is an expert at the art of listening. Her Highness is an expert at getting straight to the point and being extremely insightful without getting drawn into too much detail.

She feels and acts and talks like a real driving force and she will continue to be throughout this renaissance of Qatar.

A&M has a reputation for being a very contextual firm. Can you give the readers some examples?

Opposite our own office in London, just south of Tate Modern, is a large development of retail/office space. It’s a new piece of city. It used to be pretty industrial, pretty grungy but we wanted to create a new vibrant place to be.

We wanted to create a new destination for people to work and live. One of the buildings is quite glassy and bright. It is very big, strong and visible. It’s sliced and carved to reflect the geometries of and evolving patterns of that part of London. The other two buildings are terra cotta; much more solid; much more like warehouse buildings. They’re quite tough; they reflect the tough surroundings.

The King’s Cross master plan is another project in which we demonstrated a quite extraordinary reading of context. It’s the most significant railway cluster of Victorian railway buildings in Britain. The northern half is goods yard—train sheds and warehouses—but the southern part is a crunching together of King’s Cross and St. Pancras and it much more to do with passengers and the insertion into the older urban grain. That is a highly complex context within which to work. That project doesn’t just feel like Canary Wharf or Broadgate—it feels like King’s Cross.

Other than the Qatar office, does A&M have other ties to the Gulf or the greater Middle East?

We’re working with Solidere in Cairo, on a huge master plan on which Solidere did the preliminary design for the Egyptian developer SODIC. They are setting a new standard for high-quality residential and office development.The project is called ‘West Town’—not to be confused with its adjacent project ‘East Town’—and includes a town centre, a central boulevard, several urban blocks as well as some suburban residential developments. We’re working on an urban block of about 20 mixed-use and shading structures in the central boulevard.

Solidere has certainly made a name for itself in the region…

It’s fantastic to be involved with Solidere. What they have done in Beirut is magnificent. It’s really a benchmark for urban design around the world…I’ve hardly ever seen such good master planning anywhere in the world.

There are many parallels between the scale and integrity and harmony between the Solidere area of Beirut with what is intended in Doha.

Back to Middle East connections…

Right. Our other major connection to the Middle East is in Abu Dhabi, which hasn’t come to anything concrete yet. We did essentially what was a paid feasibility study for a project in Abu Dhabi, which is now underway with another architect. It’s called Al Falah, which is a big satellite community in the desert.

We submitted a winning design but, sadly, another architect was chosen and our design is a piece of history now. What we did with Aldar at the time was very enjoyable and very edifying; we hope to get more involved in Abu Dhabi in the future.

In fact, just at credit crunch time, we were on the brink of starting a piece of Jumeirah Gardens in Dubai for Meraas but that, of course, was put on hold. We’re fascinated by the whole region, there’s a lot of it we don’t know. Those bits we’ve seen are giving us a glimpse into the region and Doha seems like a perfect place to have found a base.

What are your impressions of architecture in the region so far?

If you take a typical modern development—whether it’s in Beirut or Doha or anywhere—it’s generally a block of flats; it’s a European model. That’s not local typology; it’s not uniquely suitable for this climate. Similarly, go to a street full of suburban villas, you’ll see it’s not building on the special character of this place—it also doesn’t perform as well.

We’ve been working to set an architectural language which is uniquely of Qatar and rooted in the traditions of this place and the wider region. Many of our initial designs have been successful because we are fundamentally contextual architects—we produce a different response to each different site. Can you identify an ‘ethos’ to the Heart of Doha project?

The spirit of the master plan by EDAW and Arup will very much affect our architecture and will be based on the balance between formality and informality and the interweaving of the grids. It’s a very rich plan; a pattern made of grids but not exclusively grids.

There will be an overlay of the soft lines—the historic lines—and the irregularities that are produced when these lines are interwoven. In the Islamic city, the irregularities are an integral part of the character. Those irregularities give the city an organic quality and traditional form.

In fact, that is a theme running through the Heart of Doha project and one that continues to run through all of our work.

All of your work or just high-profile Islamic architecture commissioned by rulers of countries?

Even in Britain, we’re always looking for eccentricities which are irregular yet significant. If we have a site that is irregular, we’ll make something of it. We won’t deny the bit that isn’t square, we’d embrace that non-square area because therein lies the character of the site and part of what contributes to its history.

Which aspects of traditional architecture are you looking to incorporate in your Middle East work?

Over-sailing roof structures. Big over-sailing cornices are a theme in our guidelines and are beginning to become a theme throughout our work.

Indented arcades and cantilevered balconies, both of which can be used to shade the buildings as well as the streets below them, are very typical forms and are essential to the spirit of local architecture. They are absolutely timeless—and functional. We like to say that our job is to decode traditional architecture and reinterpret that language for the future.

Major themes running through the character of a place are overhangs and shade and the way buildings can reflect history and make outdoor spaces habitable.

Too many cities in the Middle East aren’t set up to accommodate their users. For example, if you were in a shaded arcade on a hot day, you’d be hot, but you wouldn’t be fried by the sun. What would you say is A&M’s greatest architectural strength?

We do small special projects and we do vast developments. We are uniquely known—we really stand out in Britain—as having an exceptionally strong balance between master planning and architecture. There are very few of our competitors that are quite so strong equally in both fields. I think most people, even our competitors, would acknowledge that.

Can you give an example?

We were part of the original bid for the Olympic Games and we’re part of the consortium working on that; we did the master plan for King’s Cross; we’re doing master plans all over East London in the regeneration areas, and the list goes on. We’re also doing significant jewel-like buildings such as the new Observatory at Greenwich, London, and smaller university buildings in Oxford and Cambridge. If I’m a developer or client, what makes me choose A&M?

What you’ll find true of, I think, every single project we’ve ever done is that there’s something special about the brief. Take, for example, Thames Water. Not many architects would put a lot of love into a shed. After all, it’s a pumping station. What could be more ordinary? But the clients knew it was a special pumping station so they came to us.

We had a great deal of interest in exploring the mechanisms of this pump and trying to understand how to express the science of it in architecture. I’m sure you noticed it is a rather Islamic form, that’s by coincidence, but it has a certain Islamic resonance. We love that project.

What is the future for A&M?

We certainly want to grow in the Middle East. We certainly want to grow internationally. At the moment, we aren’t declaring that we want to grow numerically but we’re not inclined to turn down projects that seem worth doing. We’re not good at saying ‘no’. We love competing and that’s how we’ve grown. What is your personal goal for the future of the firm?

My personal view of what our goal is for the medium to long-term future is that we’re currently in the first generation of the firm, but it’s aging. We’re all getting older. But, if we can be as good, if not better, in the second generation than we are now, well, that’s an ambition. I’m not sure any architecture firm has ever quite achieved that.

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