Transcribing Unconventional Cultural Patterns into Design Products.

Text & Photographs by Levi Hammett.


The city of Doha, Qatar is undergoing rapid urban growth. In the last decade the population of the city has more than doubled,1 growing mostly as a result of an influx of migrant workers, with the urban infrastructure struggling to keep pace.2 The urban identity itself is a victim of this growth, with many iconic districts and landmarks from the 80’s and 90’s being demolished to make room for modern infrastructure and new development.

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An image of apartment blocks in the Bin Mamoud district of the city (1) contrasted with construction in the new 'West Bay' development (2).

Problem & Opportunity.

“With the traditional Doha skyline giving way to high-rise structures, criticisms are also growing that the city risks the danger of losing its cultural identity by trying to emulate other modern cities.”3

A notable residential style utilizing pitched walls. This feature is used in a number of residential designs throughout the city.

Unconventional Cultural Elements.

The goal of this project was to first identify unconventional and overlooked elements that contribute to the cultural identity of Qatar, a small emirate on the Arabian Gulf. As 98% of the countries population resides in urban areas4 we were primarily interested in the landscape of the city and the cultural elements embodied in the built environment.

A different view of the 'pitched wall' design seen above.


There are a number of artists whose work provides a precedent for this subject matter. Reineke Otten was a primary influence, along with Paho Mann, Michael Wolf, and Joe Stevens. All of them have approached the question of urban patterns and the implications for identity in their work. It is worth noting that all of these projects also share the medium of photography as their primary format of expression.

With our project we were interested to use photography as a process rather than an outcome. Then combine this with a critical design process in order to create tangible products that would generate a dialog between their format and the subject matter, and through commercial availability, be easily accessible to the audience.

One of the Cultural Camouflage rugs going through the finishing process.

Initiating Dialogue.

Avoiding the question of whether these cultural elements should be preserved or not, we chose to simply create products that would celebrate their role in creating an urban identity. Through this celebration, and by applying a deliberate design process our goal is to initiate a dialogue around the issue of cultural identity and the implications of losing these elements.

A uniquely designed commercial center located on the corner of a busy intersection in the Al Saad district.

Cultural Patterns of the Built Environment.

Utilizing a visual ethnographic process similar to what designer Reineke Otten terms “streetology”5 we collected photographic data of the urban landscape as an index of the ways “inhabitants assert their own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life.”6

The Wall.

The wall is of great significance in the urban landscape. It creates a clear division of public and private space and blocks site lines allowing families privacy in accordance with cultural-religious principles. It also physically delineates distinct economic sections of the ‘dual-city’ and restricts movement and access to specific classes of the population in what Yasser Elsheshtawy calls “the quartering of urban space”.7

Walls in a sparsely populated residential district on the outskirts of the city.

The Gate.

With nearly every stand-alone residential building and compound utilising walls to delineate space, the gate is a practical necessity. In many cases the walls completely obscure the structures inside and the gate in turn becomes the prominent architectural feature.

A residential gate on a busy street. This design incorporates both concrete forms and trees.

The Form.

Doha is home to a number of uniquely designed buildings, which regardless of their architectural merit, make significant contributions to the visual urban identity. Many of these buildings are located in neighbourhoods that have become unfavourable for upper-class living due to the pervasive construction of new upscale housing developments, and are thus in danger of redevelopment. Many have already been demolished.

The second floor of a residential building rising over the compound walls.

The Facade.

In many instances throughout the city, the facade is used as a surface to apply the rich tradition of pattern in Islamic art on an architectural scale.

The old Civil Defence building utilizes a facade of densely patterned mesh. The building is no longer in use.

The Window.

Windows are often small and highly tinted due to the harsh sunlight and extreme heat of the summer months.

On many buildings the windows closely follow the interior logic of the structure with little regard for the exterior aesthetic.

The side view of a commercial complex becomes a pattern of windows, air conditioning units, and conduits.

The Antenna.

Normally a purely functional component of urban dwellings, the antenna takes on formal significance when seen across the macro-urban landscape dominated by buildings sharing the same color palette as the natural desert on which they are built.

A typical silhouette of antennae atop a residential structure.

Framing the Mundane as Culture.

The Islamic Carpet is used as a mechanism to re-frame the visual patterns of the city as cultural elements. It is generally accepted that the Islamic Carpet is both a cultural format and a cultural artifact for the region.8 By subverting the format to show patterns that are not typically understood as cultural elements, a dialog is created.

A small pictorial carpet from the 'War Rug' style utilizing motifs from geographical areas of conflict and turmoil.

Precedent in Recognized Culture.

This appropriation of the carpet format is not new. The “War Rug”, which fits into the genre of figurative or pictorial carpet is an established format that does just this. In his book exploring the subject, Enrico Mascelloni demonstrates the way traditional carpet motifs have formally evolved into war motifs,9 allowing the design of figurative carpets that explore contemporary issues yet still fit within the established visual language of the Islamic carpet format.


The obvious juxtaposition we are trying to achieve is the contemporary subject matter paired with the classically accepted carpet motif, where one is generally understood as representing culture, and the other is generally understood as ‘underdeveloped’ urban infrastructure. A more subtle juxtaposition is the theme of war from the war-rug genre contrasting the visual content exploring the theme of urban development.

The first carpet in the Cultural Camouflage series depicting the urban patterns of Doha's older districts.

Precedent in Popular Culture.

There is also an inescapable parallel with video game artwork from the 1980’s and 90’s which evolved a style limited by the technical constraints of the medium and production, similar to the necessities of visual representation on pictorial carpets. While being somewhat incidental, this parallel does reference a relative time frame appropriate for both the pixel based style and the architectural forms from that time period, which due to their age, are the ones under threat of redevelopment.

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Various urban landscapes depicted in early 8-bit and 16-bit video game artwork.

Critical Design.

This subversion of existing formats and visual languages is similar to the approach of ‘Critical Design’10 a term coined by Anthony Dunne to describe design objects which challenge preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.11

Transcribing Urban Patterns.

In transcribing the urban patterns into carpet motifs we attempted to create a balance between using color that would loosely reference reality, while simplifying the color palette into a system of data visualization whereby the viewer can immediately shift between the different urban patterns being represented (windows & doors, forms & structures, antennae, signage, etc.)

An early sketch exploring potential colors and motifs (1) shows the design progression toward the final carpet (2).

Cultural Data Visualization

According to Edward Tufte data visualization should “encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data” and “reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure.”12 This project follows these principles but instead of numerical data, it takes visual urban patterns as a data set.

A nearly finished digital drawing of the carpet shows how 4 basic colors are used to create different layers of 'data' so that the viewer can quickly pick out the different patterns of use and function within the architectural forms (windows & doors, signage, antennae, and architectural form).

Emergent Landscapes

A screenshot from the iPad application using a reduced color palette in order to create groupings and classes of object types.

In parallel we began working on an interactive application that would further explore the idea of creating data visualizations out of visual urban patterns. The result is an iPad application that allows users to explore an endlessly generated visual landscape based on the cultural patterns of Doha, Qatar. Color is used to create classes of objects that can easily be distinguished from one another (buildings, cars, people, signage). Districts are procedurally generated with sizes and relative locations that are based on actual data. Likewise, traffic and pedestrian densities are generated to reflect general patterns of use within each district.

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Screenshots of the iPad application which used much more detail in its artwork than was possible on the carpet.

Building a Body of Work.

These projects are part of a larger body of work exploring the idea of “Cultural Camouflage”, which we define as: “Distinct visual patterns that act as an index of the values and behaviors that constitute a cultural identity.”


Despite our initial goal of creating work for commercial distribution, both of these products currently exist only as single edition artifacts. We hope to continue the project with commercialization as a goal.

What is Learned?

With this body of work it was important for us to avoid taking a negative or overly critical view of the subject matter, and instead create work that is a celebration of the unique cultural elements that make up local identity. Ideally, through this celebration a dialog is created where issues of cultural identity can be explored by both the designers and the viewers. It is then left to the audience to consider the implications of the work and come to their own conclusions.

1. United Nations. Demographic Yearbook. United Nations, 2013. Retrieved August 2013.

2. Qatar Statistics Authority. Population 2012. Qatar Statistics Authority, 2012. Retrieved August 2013.

3.“Designs on Doha.” The Peninsula, 27 April 2008, Web. Retrieved June 2008.

4. United States Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook. CIA, 2013. Retrieved August 2013.

5. Otten, Reineke, Streetology, Web. Retrieved August 2013.

6. Otten, Reineke, China Daily Life, Rotterdam: Veenman, 2006. Print.

7. Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Planning Middle Eastern Cities, an Urban Kaleidoscope in a Globalizing World. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

8. Sakhai, Essie. Persian Rugs and Carpets, The Fabric of Life. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2008. Print.

9. Mascelloni, Enrico. War Rugs, The Nightmare of Modernism. Milano: Skira, 2009. Print. p. 19.

10. Dunne, Anthony & Fiona Raby. Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001. Print.

11. Dunne, Anthony & Fiona Raby. Critical Design FAQ. Web. Retrieved August 2013. bydandr/13/0

12. Tufte, Edward R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 2001. Print.

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