This group of four historic heritage houses dating from the early 20th century, comprises Radwani House, Mohammed Bin Jassim House, Bin Jelmood House and Company House. The brief called for them to be remodelled and extended to accommodate state-of-the-art museum environments showcasing key elements of Qatari history and culture. The restoration of these heritage houses into a unified world-class museum forms a central element of the Msheireb Downtown Doha development.
The subject matter of each museum building relates directly to the occupations or visions of those who originally lived in them. This makes these buildings a genuine and very resonant Qatari cultural resource. The four elements together communicate a distinct chapter of Qatari history and culture, revealing how Qataris lived and worked, creating a vibrant hub for the cultural activity of the modern city. The buildings, with their shared DNA, vividly showcase local heritage through a unified architectural idiom.
The Msheireb Museums generate what Qataris call thikayrat al makan – spirit of place. A meaningful sense of both the present and the fast-approaching future can only grow from an understanding of the past. For many Qataris and international visitors, that understanding will begin in the Msheireb Museums. The creation of the Msheireb Museums in traditional courtyard buildings in the heart of Doha illuminates four important strands of Qatar’s history – the pioneering work of Qataris in the original oilfields, typical domestic life in the 20th century, the past and future of the Msheireb area, and regional and international slavery. The museums have given these histories a living future as part of the modern identity of Qatar and have set a world-class benchmark in the way traditional buildings can be innovatively transformed to tell engrossing stories about the past.
The position of the museums is also significant flanked on one side by the Amiri Guards headquarters and the National Archive, and on the other by the Msheireb Downtown Doha development. And not far away are the shops and restaurants of the re-created Souk Waqif. Thus, these important traditional buildings sit securely at a point where the city’s international future is taking shape.
The museum buildings are located close together, and this is historically significant. From the mid-19th century until the beginning of Doha’s urban modernisation in the 1950s, the cityscape was made up of clustered courtyard buildings divided by alleys known as sikkats.
The four museum buildings are outstanding examples of traditional Qatari architecture, original but altered over time. Their walled and colonnaded courtyards have been typical in Qatar since the early 19th century, and are a direct response to a climate which, in summer months, can produce soaring temperatures. Though the houses are different in size and layout, the buildings share a number of key features. In other words, their designs are individual, but also unmistakably collective.
The architecture of these museum buildings reflects traditional Qatari home life. The courtyard buildings ensure domestic privacy, and heighten the effects of light, water, structural rhythms, and decorative patterns. Pools of water and geometrically decorative stonework create a sense of refraction and dissolution, as do the colonnades and the patterns of light and shadow they create. Juxtapositions of solid and patterned surfaces are typical of traditional Qatari architecture and give protection from the extreme heat and strong sunlight of Qatar’s summers. Domestic privacy is of fundamental importance in Qatari culture. Traditionally, high, windowless courtyard walls, low entrance doors, and dog-legged reception spaces made it impossible for passers-by or visitors to see directly into the courtyard
Traditional Qatari buildings, with walls essentially made of plastered gypsum rubble, have several interesting features. They include ventilation slots in their roof or tower parapets; roof beams made of danshal mangrove wood; decorative ceilings enhanced with plaster decoration and column corner-pieces known as rukniats; projecting spouts to drain water from roofs; and courtyards covered in a layer of tiny sabban seashells. The roof structures of the four Museum buildings have all been meticulously restored.
Despite sharing general architectural features common in Qatari courtyard dwellings, the houses are individually different in scale and in certain key details – differences which accentuate the importance of the buildings as an historic group. Architecture across the Gulf region and the wider Islamic world shares many common features but varies in its details from region to region. The cultures, traditions and religion of Qatar have greatly influenced the design of the four museum buildings, which demonstrate the key architectural and spatial traditions relating to the public and private lives of the Qatari people.
The creation of contemporary museums within existing buildings is always challenging, requiring a forensic understanding of original building fabrics, and the way these buildings relate to their environment. While the heritage value of the structures that make up this project has been respected, they have been sensitively transformed to accommodate the latest museum display technologies. In the age of Google and the iPad, the Msheireb Museums bring history vividly back to life, using interactive exhibition displays to communicate the experience, artefacts and meanings of the past to a 21st-century audience.
John McAslan + Partners is a leading, award-winning international architectural practice based in London, with further offices in Edinburgh and Doha. An extensive portfolio of award-winning projects in the UK and overseas includes cultural, heritage, infrastructure, hospitality, commercial,
residential, education, urban design and landscape sectors.