The Colour Crisis: Beige on Beige
Yes, Qatar is beige, barren and sandy. From the humpy camels, to the singing dunes, the old deserted forts outside the city and the buildings in the city itself: we are engulfed by a monotony that is hard to break.
What do colours do to a city? What does it do to us, who live in it? Why do landscape professionals insist on incorporating a proportional mix of colours to a cityscape? JustHere digs deeper into the colour crisis that the country is facing.
It’s long been proved that colours have certain psychological effects on humans due to their mood-altering properties. Dr Ashraf M. Salama, Professor and Head, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Qatar University, in a study on learning environments for children also showed that different colours stimulate the human memory systems, students’ cognitive abilities and address their emotions and behaviours.
Dr Salama suggests using different coloured building materials while designing gazebos or walkways to create a colour contrast. “These could be just different grades of the same colour, but at least you have different colours. Even native plants come in different shades of green,” he says.
The main goal is to stamp an impression on the mind of any given observer. For that you really need to have distinctive images in the landscape. It’s not about leftover spaces, but about well-designed ones.”
But how practical is it to coat the city in vibrant colours? As Dr Steve Wilson, Professional Counsellor and Psychologist, Texas A&M University in Qatar, puts it, “we live in a harsh landscape”. “If you paint a building blue, within a year it has to be repainted because the heat and the sand storms can strip the colour out of anything,” he says. Moreover, beige or white walls also helps to reflect sunlight and don’t absorb heat.
So rather than coating walls with colour, authorities have taken up charge to spruce up the city with green patches of land.The Public Gardens Department of the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning has been responsible for designing gardens, playgrounds and parks in all public spaces in the city. In fact, the department recently planted flowers outside the office to resemble a painter’s palette. “Just like painters bring colour to the canvas with paints, we paint the city with greenery and flowers,” says Mohammed Al Khoori, Director of the Public Gardens Department. In the last two years, around 40 parks were built across all municipalities in Doha, and they plan to increase the number to 60.
In another set of studies, when comparing natural landscapes with urban landscapes, natural landscapes comprising green spaces were shown to have positive health effects on humans. Also known as “therapeutic” landscapes, they served better for recovery from stress, fatigue and illness as compared to urban scapes. The reason Dr Steve says is that, “In an urban environment, life is faster. For humans, the slower we move, the quicker we heal, the less stress we feel.”
But for a country like Qatar, whose natural landscape itself is devoid of vegetation and colour, what does one do?
“Qatar being a desert has naturally limited but interesting species of native plants and trees. We are working on bringing new species to the country and adapting them to the climate. This is part of our responsibility to increase the variety of plants while conserving our native plants,” says Mohammed.
Conflict of opinions
While the colour crisis is most likely an issue among expats who come from countries with a completely different landscape—think snow-capped mountains, sandy beaches, colourful streets or evergreen forests; for nationals and those who grew up here, the desert is home.
“The beauty of what is soothing is in the eye of the beholder,” says Dr Steve. “What we find relaxing is at some level what we are used to seeing. We often think that the locals here would love to go to a place with a lot of forests or trees, but actually they love the sand.” For instance, when he had taken a group of TAMUQ students to Italy on a study trip, while they were overlooking a beautiful valley filled with trees and vineyards, a Qatari student remarked: “This is very beautiful, but its not half as beautiful as the desert.”
In fact, Qataris do know how to compensate for the visible void of colours. The flashy clothes that you spot under abayas or the brightly coloured accessories that they carry is just one attempt at playing with colours. “I think when there is less colour, you notice colour more. It makes the colour stand out more than if everything was colourful,” says Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Qatar University.
What Dr Steve also notices with nationals is that they reserve colour for more personal settings. “When people can’t find colour in their natural environment, they create them. Hence, many would spend a lot of money on private gardens or brightly coloured rugs at home,” he says.
However, what one must consider when talking about colour in the city, or the lack of it rather, is that how much is too much. “Any introduction of a coloured cityscape should be planned within limits to preserve the heritage and desert identity of an Arabic city,” says Mohammed. “Therefore we plan according to the city needs to give the society green spaces to enjoy while keeping it realistic.”
Shift from green to blue
The issue with fostering green spaces is their upkeep. While indigenous plants would easily adapt to the desert climate of the country, non-native plants would require huge amounts of water to flourish, placing a major stress on the already minimal water resources here.
During a presentation at COP18 Conference in Qatar, Dr Anna spoke about shifting the focus from “green” to “blue” due to the lack of water resources in the country. She said it was important to think how water can be efficiently used, reused and recycled in homes, buildings and in the landscape in order to create a symbiotic relationship between a building and the landscape.
“Instead of growing all these green spaces which are really not sustainable, we need to grow indigenous plants that don’t use much water,” she says. “We also need to look at creating productive or edible landscapes such as vegetable gardens to help solve the food security issue in Qatar.”