Desert Learning

A trip to the Gulf region awakens thoughts of twenty-first-century cities based on principles of sustainability.

Doha, Qatar, March 2007—As our car idles in traffic, I spy a dozen cranes perched atop high-rises in various stages of construction. When the engine accelerates briefly, another view reveals a dozen or so more cranes. Sealed glass facades shimmer in the relentless sunshine. Buildings seem to be oriented every which way, not a shading device in sight. Sidewalks are hard to find. This once sleepy settlement on the Persian Gulf is experiencing the kind of massive building boom we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Dubai, Shanghai, and other old cities pushing into the twenty-first century.

We’re heading to the sprawling grounds of the Education City campus, a collection of five American university outposts, for a three-day design conference organized by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. Fifteen speakers and a large audience of locals and students from the U.S. cam­pus, plus groups from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as teachers and local professionals, are immersed in sustainable design at all scales, from textiles to the urban fabric. On the last day of the conference, at the closing panel discussion, the first lady of Qatar is in attendance.

Known for her patronage of education, Sheikha Mozah is currently developing a sustainable site for design and research. She invites a few of us to lunch the next day. Both she and the emir want to hear more about our LEED rating system and growing green building practices, about why Interna­tional Modernism from the twentieth century is inappropriate for the hot and humid regions of the Arab world, about what historic local ­expressions—everything from Bedouin tents to well-shaded and well-insulated traditional structures—are teach­ing American architects about site-sensitive design, and what they can teach their own architects.

A development devoted to twenty-first-century design practices could have worldwide appeal and influence. I think of how each discipline might be involved—including product designers—to create an environmentally friendly place based on the unique conditions of culture and climate that exist in this region. And I wonder how different our product issue will look when industrial designers heed Paul Hawken’s advice (“Blessed Unrest,” p. 92, April 2007) and really get involved with breakthrough en­vironmentally benign materials, with practices that integrate the power of the sun and the wind into our built environment. A subversive thought in a kingdom that fossil fuels built? Sheikha Mozah doesn’t think so, and neither do I.

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