- Gerardo Lissardy
- BBC News World
With his native Chile on the sidelines, award-winning architect Alejandro Aravena says he has little interest in the great global soccer party going on these days. But in a way, he’s already won a World Cup in Qatar.
The architecture studio he leads, Elemental, was chosen in 2017 to design a gigantic cultural center in Doha: the Art Mill museum of modern and contemporary art.
“We qualified before the playoffs even started”Aravena tells BBC Mundo with a laugh, alluding to the international contest for that project that had 26 semifinalists and eight finalists before he got it.
This 55-year-old Chilean, who in 2016 received the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize for architecture, admits that until that contest he knew almost nothing about Qatar.
It is also his first museum project, in which he turns from his experience in Chile to references to the ancient architecture of the desert, and when it comes to fruition it will share a neighborhood with works by his established colleagues such as the Chinese-American IM Pei and the Frenchman Jean Nouvel.
Outside the world of football, Aravena is perhaps the most notorious Latin American called to work in Qatar.
While the country on the Persian Gulf was preparing amidst controversies to host the 2022 World Cup -the most expensive in history-, Latin American professionals quietly sought to leave their mark on that corner of the planet, beyond sports.
“For being Mexican”
Latin America and Qatar have maintained distant relations, with a limited commercial exchange that largely consists of agricultural products for the liquefied natural gas that has enriched this Arab country.
However, in the past decade the Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani visited the region three times, the last one in 2018 to forge alliances outside the Middle East in the face of the embargo imposed by its neighbors.
It also sought to promote its “National Vision 2030” development plan, which seeks to diversify Qatar’s economy and contemplates, among other things, ambitious infrastructure works or projects, which have turned the country into a unique pole of international architecture and opened up opportunities for experts from different regions, including Latin America.
One of them is the Mexican Daniel Rodríguez, who since 2015 led the design of the luxurious Doha Metro trainwhich these days transports hundreds of thousands of spectators from the World Cup.
Noted as the fastest automatic train in the world, with 110 three-car convoys that can connect with each other and expand the transport capacity of its three lines, the Doha metro designed by Rodríguez seeks to reflect the Qatari culture at the request of local authorities .
Innovative train windows, with curved shapes instead of rectangular ones, they evoke the windows of the local architecture.
And the silhouette of the wagons, with a smooth front and bottom widening, is an allegory of the Arabian horse Al Faras, this Mexican industrial designer from the Japanese firm Kinkisharyo tells BBC Mundo.
One challenge was to give the train “the finish of a Rolls-Royce, because that is what they know,” with resistant material, he explains. The cars are divided by classes: standard, family and gold (although the last two were discontinued during the World Cup).
Rodríguez immigrated to Japan at the age of 27 to study and expand his professional opportunities. Today, at 54, he is still based in Osaka and He has participated in the design of trains in cities such as Los Angeles, Hiroshima, Dubai and Cairo.
To achieve the one in Doha, he traveled to the city in 2013: he walked through its streets, listened to local music, tasted the food and even studied pieces from the Museum of Islamic Art.
Rodríguez believes that his origins made it easier for him to understand Qatari culture, which was key for his project to be chosen before those of other heavyweights in the train industry.
“I am absolutely certain that it was because he was Mexican.or, because Mexico was conquered by the Spanish after the Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish brought all that culture with them,” he points out.
He cites as examples the Huejotzingo convent in Puebla, with characteristics that for him evoke Islamic architecture, and also classics of Mexican gastronomy.
“Our taco al pastor is very similar to shawarma and the Arab bread is shaped like a tortilla,” he compares. “Then Chen I see the culture of Qatar it seems quite familiar to me, with elements that I can identify and handle as a Mexican. It’s what the people of Qatar were most interested in.”
“Let Things Move”
In the area of temporary structures and the stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar, Uruguayan to Mexican architects worked, such as Roberto Muñoz, who designed the roof of Ahmad bin Ali, and Edgar Payán, who co-directed the conceptual stage of Al Janoub, the stadium inspired by the sails of the Arab dhow boats.
Colombian architect Dario Cadavid was in charge of the installation of the innovative cooling systems of the stadiums of Qatarcrucial to be able to play football despite the heat and difficult to imagine some time ago.
The World Cup in Qatar has been one of the most controversial in history. His election provoked much criticism, especially due to the fact that homosexuality is illegal, LGBTIQ+ groups are not accepted and the limitations to which women are subjected.
But labor and human rights organizations also denounced the treatment and abuse suffered by many of the 30,000 foreign workersmostly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, who were contracted to build seven stadiums.
The Western press came to speak of 6,500 workers killed in Qatar in the decade since the country was designated as the venue for the World Cup.
The Qatari government refutes that figure.Ay maintains that from 2014 to 2020 there were 37 deaths in stadium construction zones and only three for labor reasons, and in 2017 he announced measures to protect foreign workers from excessive heat and limit their working hours, which institutions ask to continue after the world.
Rodríguez assures that at least in the tasks where he was in Qatar there were safeguards to avoid dehydration of workerssuch as breaks to drink water, signs in the bathrooms reminding to pay attention to the color of urine and security supervision.
Aravena also acknowledges that it is a worrying situation, but points out that in recent years he has observed “a very rapid transition” towards the homologation of international standards in Qatar labor standards and looks forward to contributing to the process.
“By working on a project, one can make things move in the direction that interests one, away from a kind of moral superiority or ethical purism,” he says.
“A Common Narrative”
Work is still years away from the Art Mill museum, whose conceptual design was recently completed and is scheduled to open in 2030.
Aravena explains that it is also early to talk about project costs, but rejects the notion that there is an architect’s dream of unlimited budget coming true in Qatar.
“When you have infinite budgets, you can do things just because you can do them, and they don’t make any sense. For us it’s very important to ensure that we never lose sight of the abundance of meaning,” he maintains. “It’s because there are restrictions that you have to be creative”.
The Doha site chosen for the museum is an old flour mill complex. Aravena plans to preserve the columns of the silos to form a kind of forest with them, inspired by the ancient architecture of the desert that projected shade without roofs.
“Although it is a different culture (from Chile), there was a certain familiarity in the desert condition“, he says. “In places like Chile or Qatar (…) you cannot build with glass because you generate a greenhouse effect that forces energy consumption that today is unpresentable.”
Almost a kilometer away from the Museum of Islamic Art designed by Pei and the National Museum of Qatar designed by Nouvel, the Art Mill will mark with them a virtual triangle where Aravena envisions the most important park in Doha.
The project, which includes a space for local artists, is closely watched by the emir’s sister and president of Qatar Museums, Sheika al Mayassa, considered one of the most powerful women in the art world.
“She explicitly asks all the time: when you come to Qatar, hang out with young people, we are interested in having another experience of learning with young architects and designers”, says Aravena.
This architect with experience in social housing projects and reconstruction at earthquake and tsunami sites in Chile, says that designing his first museum in Qatar allowed him to reflect on the value of art and culture in a society, including his own.
“The great crisis that occurred in Chile (with the social outbreak of 2019) in addition to being social and political, was a crisis of meaning… we no longer had common sense,” he reasons.
“If I think anything is going to save us as a society, it’s going to be finding a common narrative again,” he adds. “And the common narrative of a society can only be given by art and culture.”
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