Two weeks ago, I joined a family trip to Qatar to attend the World Cup as a lucky +1. Aware of the many criticisms of the tournament—bribery, mistreatment and death of migrant workers, and human rights violations, to name a few—we braced ourselves for a chaotic or at least unusual World Cup experience. We were proved wrong on the first point, as the whole experience was surprisingly orderly, and the influx of international visitors was well-managed. But the second was largely true: Qatar put on its best show, showcasing Doha’s crop of buildings and infrastructure as proof of the country’s viability as a global tourist destination.
Everything in Doha is shiny and new, which makes it hard to differentiate what was purpose-built for the World Cup and what was built before Qatar won/bought hosting rights in 2010. Even Souq Waqif, Doha’s traditional and “oldest” market feels uncanny. It is clearly modeled after the winding, historic markets of the region, but the proportions of its streetscapes, swollen to accommodate large restaurants and their patios, can’t be mistaken for historic structures. The souq and the city were easily navigable for visitors. Locals and volunteers were friendly and helpful, and destinations were conveniently served by a gleaming new metro line, the kind of thing transit-oriented Americans dream about. There were even familiar consumer options catering to ex-pats and wealthy Qataris. The Mall of Qatar and City Center were not unlike the Houston Galleria, as each boasted more than one Starbucks, a Shake Shack, and an Abercrombie & Fitch, among other chains.
Certain areas of Doha, malls included, were saturated with World Cup branding and spectacle. The bayside Corniche was transformed into a choreographed spread of fountains, fireworks, drone shows, and photo opportunities. Giant “FIFA WORLD CUP” and “QATAR 2022” signs decorated the waterfront, set against the backdrop of the skyline. Towers across the bay became immense billboards, with images of players plastered across 50-story facades to catch eyes during the day, while at night other surfaces were illuminated by screens that alternated between current match scores and animations of soccer balls tumbling from penthouse to podium. There was talk of “fake fans” who were supposedly paid by the Qatari government to energize these tourist areas and fan zones at the stadiums. We thought we might have spotted some when a group of men wearing matching Brazil jerseys paraded by on the otherwise quiet Corniche promenade, cheering and waving flags.
The most iconic stadiums were lit up like lanterns, beckoning to throngs of spectators from across expanses of paved parking and well-manicured greenspaces. The approach to each stadium was a long, winding procession through what felt like miles of metal (and sometimes human) crowd control barriers. It was exhausting, but we never felt unsafe, and my step count has never been higher.
The geopoliticially tense U.S.A. vs. Iran match was held at Al Thumama Stadium. It’s a circular, midsize stadium designed by Ibrahim M. Jaidah of the Arab Engineering Bureau to emulate the gahfiya, a traditional woven cap common in the Middle East. Its perforated, patterned facade gives the impression of a textile and emits a soft white glow. Inside, some Iran fans wore black instead of their team’s red and green, silently joining the country’s recent protests.
At Lusail Stadium, I watched Mexico beat Saudi Arabia 2–1, but neither team advanced, so a subdued crowd exited the stadium. Lusail, designed by Foster + Partners, is Qatar’s massive flagship venue. It can hold up to 90,000 spectators and, on Sunday, will host the final match of Argentina vs. France. It’s an imposing, intricate, gold-colored vessel that bears similarities to the artifacts on view in the Islamic Art Museum not far away. The facility, beyond its wide apron of parking, is just down the impeccably landscaped Lusail Boulevard from the four Lusail Plaza Towers, also designed by Foster’s office. At night their curvy facades give off an even, purplish glow through gill-like slits.
Pattern Design designed the intricate facade of Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, which can hold about 45,000 spectators. The metal facade extends above the body of the stadium and folds under its mass to create an ornate entry soffit. The body of the stadium is wrapped in screens that gradually changed color from blue to red; at the end of the raucous Argentina vs. Australia match (apparently the Argentina fans’ drums were not on the list of restricted items), a blurry image of the Argentinian flag scrolled around the building. Curved concession stands latch onto the outside of the stadium, supposedly resembling sand dunes. (The stadium, west of Doha, is close to the desert). These structures housed the Hospitality Zones, the only areas where fans with higher-priced tickets can enjoy alcohol, leaving other attendees to make do with Bud Zero.
Much of the design effort at the World Cup was dedicated to creating surfaces for projection and display. Since most games were held after sunset to beat the heat and provide Westerners with better viewing times, stadiums were intentionally designed as lit objects. It was easy to get seduced by the spectacle at night, as LED lights and screens helped to dissolve the heavy structures. But by day, the stadiums seemed more like massive, newly built theme parks teetering on the edge of the desert.
This wasn’t the case at Stadium 974, designed by Fenwick Iribarren Architects, whose name references the number of shipping containers used to build the temporary structure and Qatar’s international dialing code. The design intent is to ultimately dismantle and reassemble the stadium elsewhere, maybe for use in a future World Cup. In contrast to the other pristine, gleaming venues, the exposed conduit, lack of finishes, and absence of LED screens—all intended to reduce waste and simplify deconstruction—made the venue feel dystopian. Still, in a country and at an event that doesn’t seem to possess a conscience for overspending or over-consuming, Stadium 974 was a refreshing departure. The structure is already being taken apart now, less than a week after we watched Brazil best South Korea 4–1 there.
More pervasive than the friendly “Metro this way!” chant heard from FIFA volunteers throughout the city was the hacking cough that half of Doha’s visitors sported. The rumor was that players were blaming their flu-like symptoms on the stadiums’ outdoor air conditioning systems, which pump cooled air onto the field through grilles beneath the seating in an attempt to make the hostile climate more comfortable. I found this explanation less convincing after testing positive for COVID-19 upon arriving home from the trip.
Throughout our ten days in Doha, we kept wondering, “What are they going to do with all this after the tournament is over?” Only the designers of Stadium 974 attempted to answer this question. We were skeptical that such a small city could possibly make use of so many stadiums and the supporting infrastructure and accommodations. Will the artificially green parks and gardens really be maintained once the show is over and the tourists go home? Since money is no object for a country ruled by the Al Thani family and enriched by immense natural gas reserves, the answer is likely yes. The benefits of being a Qatari national extend beyond their metro and stadiums; according to ABC, “Qatari citizens enjoy tax-free incomes, high-paying government jobs, free health care, free higher education, financial support for newlyweds, housing support, generous subsidies that cover utility bills and plush retirement benefits.” If only the American petrostate was this generous.
In the midst of all this hydrocarbon-fueled excess, we managed to enjoy the World Cup experience and appreciate its oddities, but we couldn’t avoid the irony of the generic signage in our hotel bathroom inviting us to conserve water by reusing our towels. “Thank you for helping us conserve the earth’s vital resources,” it read.
Andrea Brennan is an architect based in Houston and an associate at SCHAUM/SHIEH.