Living or Surviving? Design for Migrant Workers in Qatar

‘Why do we build cities? What happens when a city is built with the aim of merely being an image of modernity? What is ‘instant urbanism’ are there lessons we can learn from it?’

Qatar, the world’s wealthiest nation, whose wealth is sourced by oil and natural gas, is on its journey from becoming a ‘Carbon based economy’ to a ‘Knowledge based economy’. Consequently, all this money is constantly being converted to infrastructure within the city at a mind boggling rate, allowing the entire city to be developed within a short span of 30 years or so. This sudden, unnatural growth of the city is termed ‘instant urbanism’ or ‘petro-urbanism’.

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Doha has witnessed a massive growth, solely fuelled by the labour of migrant workers.

With a local population of just 278,000, who exactly is building the country? The total population of Qatar is about 2 million (75% male and 25% female). The nationals are a minority in their own country. The staggering 1.8 million consists of expatriates from all over the world of which around 80% are migrant laborers from South Asian and African countries (esp. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines). There is undoubtedly a socio-cultural segregation in the country due to these diverse cultures and economic differences.

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Population Ratio in Qatar

Architecture and urban planning in the country, unfortunately, accentuate this socio-cultural segregation. What is built are fragmented urban structures with three main characteristics: extensive mega-projects, high-rise agglomerations and continuous urban sprawl. (Andrew Gardener; How the City Grows: Urban Growth and Challenges to Sustainable Development in Doha, Qatar) Increasingly, large geographical portions of the urban landscape are encompassed in singular planned ventures. This leads to large scale mono-functional spaces which hardly relate to each other. There is an Education City, a Sports City, a Creative City, a Leisure City (the Pearl Qatar), Labour cities. This is a kind of literalism where the qualities of good urban spaces are clustered into zones. Interaction between these “cities” is limited. There is a lack of cohesion between these vast urban areas.  Zones, partitions, walls, enclaves, and compounds are familiar aspects of the city.

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Zones, partitions, walls, enclaves, and compounds are familiar aspects of the city.
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Floodlights blaze at a nearby stadium, while lights are off at a labour camp. Source: Amnesty International
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The city is built by them; not for them!

Many skyscrapers in the city lie empty or with just a few floors occupied, stadiums are empty but with floodlights on all night, a 325- bedded hospital just serves about 50 patients a day. Money can build buildings but can it build communities? A city without people or life is akin to a body with no soul.

This kind of fragmented urban development produces interstitial and backstage spaces of a strikingly different character. Just a few miles away from the city in the Industrial Area are labour camps in which 6-10 people live in 30sqm rooms; very often with poor sanitation and poor airconditioning – in desert where the temperature may go up to 45-50 degrees centigrade. This is where 60% of the population lives. It’s those who live here who built those skyscrapers and stadiums. How ironic!

There is no real need for skyscrapers in the city at all – but they give the city the perception of urban grandeur and perception is everything. Here you’ll find the biggest of everything; the costliest of everything; the most exclusive of all.

These kind of singular function spaces drain the element of surprise from the city. You don’t walk to the bus stop and buy some fruits on the way. When you go to shop; there is no place to pray. You get exactly what you came for. 

This is not true just for Doha though. The most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community (Setha Low). This is exclusivity in terms of people who can afford to live there. This creates dead edges and introverted communities in cities. Richard Sennet (Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics) says that edges in a city may be either borders or boundaries. Boundaries are limits or edges which separate one territory from another and borders are zones of interactive edge between territories. Are we building borders or boundaries in our cities?

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Boundaries are hard and create dead edges. Borders are permeable and become alive place of exchange between communities. – Richard Sennet

‘It’s an urbanist’s dream to create a space that is intense, mixed, complex and flexible. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building.’ says Richard Sennet.

There seems to be something inherently wrong with the term ‘exclusivity’. While it seems to be a nice word to use in a developer’s ad, making urban spaces ‘exclusive’ to certain people or certain functions kill the life of a city. You invariably become a person either living within the gates or outside it.

“The evolution of urban space in Doha must face a turning point that will lead to new spatial transformations that will shape a built environment reflecting its inhabitants rather than being an imposed urban shell containing them.”

Source: Urban Evolution Of The City Of Doha: An Investigation Into The Impact Of Economic Transformations On Urban Structures’

Can architecture play a role in diminishing socio-cultural boundaries? How can architecture be used for integration? How can a settlement relate to the rest of the city in healthier way- inspite of strongly prevailing social stigmas? Can a settlement with flexible capacities be designed? A settlement with rigid infrastructure; allowing organic growth that adapts to the needs of the transient labour population? 

An attempt to answer these questions is the Undergraduate Design Thesis of Ar. Shwetha Muthu, compiled in the document below.

[This article is a collaboration between Hashtag Urbanism and Ar.Shwetha Muthu, based on her Undergraduate Design Thesis, “Living or Surviving-Design for Migrant Workers in Qatar”]

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