Disused girl's school in Doha revived as creative design hub
The pistachio and cream-coloured halls of Qatar’s first school for girls have been empty for years. Located in the heart of Msheireb – an area of Doha undergoing an ambitious redevelopment into a new design district – the school will once more be opening its classrooms, but with a new purpose.
A recently launched project has reimagined the historic school complex as Liwan Design Studios and Labs, a space dedicated to supporting and connecting design professionals, acting as a dynamic hub for creatives in Doha.
“When I moved from an academic setting to a professional one after I graduated…I realized that without the scaffolding of an educational institution, it was hard to find a fulfilling artistic community and space to experiment,” Liwan director Aisha Bint Nasser Al Sowaidi said.
“Qatar Museums has met that need with Liwan, an institution that is far more than a building with design infrastructure. It is a home for the community, where emerging designers can feel welcome, connect with others in their field, and elevate their work.”
"The Liwan Archival Library now houses about 850 children’s books and objects from the former school, displaying old storybooks showcasing typography, illustration, and design from the Arab world"
Liwan will act as a co-working space, providing the designers who join as members with labs for pottery, leatherworking, digital photography, and prototyping, as well as private and shared studios, giving them the resources needed to advance their work. For members, Liwan will be open 24/7, should they get any late-night inspiration.
Workshops, talks, historical tours of the complex and exhibitions will become part of a public program, allowing visitors to see what the designers are working on or attend cultural events.
“The project began in 2019, as part of Qatar Museums’ vision of renewing these old buildings for contemporary use,” Liwan head of communications Dzena Berbic told The New Arab during a tour organized for Qatar Creates. “We had our official opening in March and our membership is just opening now, so we've started our campaign to target different creative groups in Doha.
“You can have an individual membership or a group membership and it's an affordable price because we are aware that a lot of the members that we'd be receiving are students or young designers,” she added. “We are looking for both new and established designers, who are producing good, authentic and interesting work.”
First opened in 1956, Banat El Doha School - later renamed Umm Almo'mneen Primary School - shut in the early 2000s. It briefly served as the Msheireb Art Center but has been otherwise empty until 2019, when restoration of the site began.
The unique architectural and design elements, along with a small collection of objects from the school that were found from its educational days, have been preserved under the supervision of Qatar Museums.
The somewhat brutalist concrete complex’s architecture, softened with corridors of curving archways and airy courtyards, is typical of the time period, with similar features found around Qatar and other schools built around Gulf in the ‘50s.
“We stayed true to the design of the building, so we didn't change the windows and we tried to keep the door handles the same,” Berbic said. “We wanted to keep this feeling and purpose of education and learning throughout the building, and hopefully, designers can still learn in their own right while they’re members here.
“It's a very minimalist design. Everything is very much the same style as what it would have been if it was a classroom,” she added. “There are a lot of objects that we found left around from when it was a school, which we’re putting on display. The rooms are peppered with these really beautiful objects from the ‘80s and ‘90s, like educational posters or this [educational model of the solar system].”
When the school was active, many books were brought in from Egypt, Lebanon and other regional printing hubs of the 20th century.
The Liwan Archival Library now houses about 850 children’s books and objects from the former school, displaying old storybooks showcasing typography, illustration, and design from the Arab world - including illustrations and designs by Helmy El Touny and Burhan Karkoutly.
The library will be open to the public, as well as to members, and will host monthly panel discussions, called Kotob Zaman.
Liwan is already filling up with creators, with three studio residents already using the space. TypeAraby, an experimental platform dedicated to creating, preserving, and evolving Arabic typography and type design, who are currently using the Liwan library to research the typography styles found in old Arabic children’s books.
Al Mafyar, a heritage revival project, has also taken up an office studio space at Liwan. The project aims breathe life back into a series of 15 dwellings that was once a fishing village tracing back to 1958, which has since been abandoned.
Plans for the restoration of the village into an open-air tourist attraction, inviting guests to walk through the narrow streets and stone houses, and attend cultural and artistic events planned to share the area’s history, can be seen at the Liwan studio. For now, a virtual tour of the structures has been created.
“Thomas Modeen, an architect living and working in Qatar, is using this space to create his curriculum for [Qatar Preparatory School, a vocational school for creative industries], which he’s heading,” Berbic said. “It's going to be a vocational school for creatives. He’s staying with us for two years until the school opens and they will offer workshops and talks to members about different design topics.”
In the coming years, Liwan will also serve as the organizational hub for Design Doha, a biennial exhibition launching in 2024 that will draw on the extensive network of Qatar Museums, to support local and regional designers, generate exhibitions, commission new public artworks, and host public programs.
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She worked for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for several publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6