18 August 2006

Thoughts on local design

I had been working on this job for about 4 months before I came here. It's not giving anything away to say that the design draws heavily on the islamic designs of this region. Think of Arabic art and craft and you think of beautiful rugs, mosques tiled with intricate geometric patterns, golden lamps of Aladdin and of course the Arabic script. All this and more is incorporated into the show and it's a fascinating aesthetic to be working in.

But being here, there's a distinct lack of the things which we are celebrating in the show, or at least that is visible to me so far. There are no ancient grand mosques like in Iran or Turkey. There are not even any old neighbourhoods like the alleyways i have seen in workmates' travel photos of Fez or Oman, where you see a rich local street culture. But subtly, the aesthetic is there if you look for it, it's just not the displayed like you imagine it might be.

Gates and walls - I think I have written before about how all the houses have 8 foot brick walls around them to protect the privacy of the women inside when they're not in abaya. Every fence has gates and every gate has some design detail on it. On a regular home this might be some simple bent metal filigree or repeated geometric pattern. On grander houses (and they get very grand indeed) these might be very ornate and showy, often verging on ostentatious. The walls usually incorporate some cinderblocks cast in a pattern, or have some simple rendered pattern. These are usually very understated in just white or yellow, so it's easy to forget that what you're seeing is actually something you would never see at home and is in fact, local design culture.

TV aerials - Doing up the TV aerial on your roof seems to be a point of pride. The actual aerial bit is left alone, but the 6 feet leading up to it is your opportunity to create some fancy metalwork. They're all bent metal rods, like on a birdcage, but fashioned into curvy spire shapes like the top of a mosque or a fancy church bell.

Shop signage - Most shops have a large back-lit printed graphic running the length of their establishment above the door with the relevant information in Arabic and English. They're kind of ugly at first, but they often have weird photos on them (saw one called The Last Chance with a photo of two babies?) or the name or logo in Arabic looks superb. As in type, there are a million different fonts or type styles depending on your message, ranging from 'traditional' (banks and government agencies), 'hand written/cursive' (spice or shisha joints), to 'funky' (fast food chains and gyms), to 'bling' (typically big and gold; car dealerships, optimistic tailors).

Architecture - There is so much being built, so quickly, that it's easy to dismiss it all as cookie cutter replicas with no interest. On the way to work there are, for example, the 'Beverly Hills Gardens' 1, 2 and 3, all massive estates with hundreds of identical (in the true sense of the word) bare white two story semis without a patch of colour differentiation for a kilometer. Not a tree, not a roof tile, not a lick of coloured paint - the whole lot is rendered stark white flat walls. But despite being a cheap housing development they are aesthetically completely different from what we have at home. I wouldn't want to live there and I don't know who would, but they will make for some amazing photographs.

Fashion - The locals are easy to pick - men in white thobes and dishdash on the head with the black ring and two threads running down the back. Often the arms of their robes will have french cuffs finished in cufflinks. Sunglasses and short cropped beard optional but encouraged. Sandals always. Perhaps not surprisingly considering the location right between the two continents, many Qataris are a clear mix of African and/or Asian. The women are mostly in jet black abaya with varying degrees of face cover (it is said that the more beautiful the woman, the more her father or husband makes her cover up). Fancy footwear like heels often. Omani men can be picked by their turban-like headwear. Saudis prefer the red and white or black and white head scarf. I can't get figure who the ones in the coloured thobes (grey only) and head scarves are, but they're very familiar to us as the Osama look. The local Asian workers like a good pair of stone wash, front-seamed jeans and sandals. Or they're in similar robes to the locals. The better-to-do ones dress as westerners.

Cats - There are lots of ferals. Unlike at home they look like the posh Persian variety that people pay good money for, despite being skinny and dirty.

Graffiti - There isn't much about, probably because the penalty would be harsh. But what there is is again totally different from what we understand of the term. The dodginess paint used suggests a 'I happened to have this can in my hand on my way home from work and decided to do something with it' rather than a planned attack. There's the occasional word or name in Arabic, done quickly. More often it's in English, with the ubiquitous 'No Fear' and 'Wu Tang Forever' both up in our street. Then there's the stuff that's clearly done by someone for whom English is not their first language, with non-sensical phrases like you get on cheap T-shirt in China-town. Often accompanied by equally intriguing drawings, sometimes practiced a few times on a wall until perfected.

Hell, after writing all this, I realise I would be really disappointed if I didn't photograph good examples of all of this stuff. It might not be ancient Persia or the Blue Mosque, but it is a unique look and feel. And at the rate they pull things down and re-build, it will probably all be replaced very soon too.


Now playing - Mice Parade - Ramda.

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