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The Things Architects Do #4: Concepts

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Client: Qatar Foundation
Project: Qatar National Convention Centre
Architect: Arata Isozaki

concept 1
concept 2
concept 3

The Sidra is an iconic symbol in Qatari culture – not only does this plant signify nourishment, strength and courage but also learning and growth. It is held in high regard for flourishing in the harsh deserts of Qatar providing its fruit, flowers and leaves for the locals’ medical use, and traditionally, for providing the cool shade in which conferences of poets, scholars and travelers took place in ancient times. Being native to Qatar and possessing those admirable qualities the tree is used as an emblem for the Qatar Foundation, of which QNCC is a part. It was only apt that the organic design that was to ornament the main façade of the QNCC be none other than the Sidra tree. [Thanks Malaysian Structural Steel Association for the lowdown.]

This is why famous architects are famous. Devising a client-charming concept takes them about ten seconds. Basically, it goes like this. Select something local that’s not a building and make your building look like that. Isozaki really lucked out with the sidra tree thing. I was wondering who in the office gets to research these things but it seems the sidra tree concept was a given. How nice it must have been to present such a tight concept that the client couldn’t possibly misunderstand or dislike – it couldn’t not be done!  Next, all they had to do was build it!

Engineers: Buro Happold
Structural Steel Fabricators: Victor Buyck Steel Construction

This links to a pdf presentation that describes the options considered and how the final one was built, and this links to an architectureweek article that has more detail as well as diagrams. I quote

The entire structure of the trees and roof was modeled, analyzed, and optimized by Buro Happold’s SMART (Software Modeling Analysis Research Technologies) team, a group focused on solving complex engineering problems such as those presented by unusual structures.

Dr. Shrikant Sharma, the SMART technical director, describes his group’s role in the project as “resolving the geometry and the structure inside to make sure it will keep its organic form while being structurally efficient and buildable.” The end result of the SMART team’s work is electronic data sent to the contractor, Victor Buyck Construction, based in Belgium. The fabrication takes place in Malaysia, with final assembly in Doha.

First, Isozaki’s office sent Buro Happold their own geometry of complex curves. This is basically what we see, although Buro Happold then used Rhino to rationalise it and break it down into cladding pieces that could be fabricated in Malaysia and then transported to Doha. (This is a LEED Gold building btw.)

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Holding up the cladding is a structural core of octagonal tubes made up of flat plates.

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And as the roof had to be first jacked into position, I expect it completes some important triangles somewhere and stops the “trees” from falling over. The pdf presentation has lots of interesting construction pics and diagrams about the transfer of forces during construction.

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The completed roof is concrete so, in addition to the weight of all this steel, the forces involved are not inconsiderable


so there’s nothing like a nice concrete block to tie it all together.

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That’s basically it. Btw, the structure is repeated on the inside in case you didn’t understand the concept while you were on the outside. However, the structure appears to be mostly free standing – which makes it that much more like a tree I guess. [Thanks bigstory for pic2.] As far as before and after pics go, this pair is pretty good!


As you might imagine, the rest of the building is a shed.


That’s probably all it needs to be. So was it all worth it? Well, the engineers did some good work, as did the structural steel fabricators in getting these tree-like structures built. They should be proud. The architects are probably happy – it’s another slide on their website, another page in their folio. Everybody’s contributed their bit to adding some value to raw materials and land. The clients too, are certainly happy, I’d say. They get to show how much money they had to spare on a concept that, albeit expertly executed, was exactly what it needed to be and nothing more, including (or perhaps because of) the sheer cost of executing it.

I have no idea how the Qatar National Convention Centre achieved LEED Gold. I don’t have any reservations about the fabricated steel being transported from Malaysia. I’m sure it was a clever thing to do according to some logic. My only real misgiving is that the only interaction the architects had with the engineers was to send them a file of 3D geometry. This separation of roles does nobody any good. Architects retreat into the dreaming up of visual concepts and this degrades their worth as spatial organisers. And engineers retreat into the role of making those concepts work, and this degrades their worth as generators of structural and other types of engineering concepts.

Generally however, architects and engineers are still attempting to do more with less. For the engineers, if you’re going to build two huge inverted steel triangles disguised as a tree, then there are still good and bad ways of doing it. For example, somewhere between the initial artist’s impression and the final building, somebody suggested just calculating the structure on one side and mirroring it – and again on the other side of the glass. (Clients too – even rich ones – want to maximise aesthetic bang for their buck.) And for the architects, there’s no need for the entire building to be a showpiece, just the front of it. The result is that some of our best architectural and engineering brains are concentrated on the parts of the building that have no function other than to be photogenic. This is of course important if the client is ever going to claw back the cost through tourist and convention $$$ and prestige. For me though, I’ll give the poetry a miss, especially if it involves sitting or standing under a hot steel sidra.