Phillip Denny

Sabkha City

Future Cities
over,under / Carnegie Mellon University
with Rami el Samahy and Adam Himes

Future Cities is an ongoing research project that investigates the evolving situation of cities in the twenty-first century, and beyond. This research was completed in preparation for the forthcoming book, Doha: Scenes and Speculations from an Emerging City.

sabkha: n., an area of coastal flats subject to periodic flooding and evaporation. Typically found in North Africa and Arabia.

Sea-level rise of between one and three meters in the next century will impart profound effects upon the topologies of urban life around the globe. Sabkha City investigates the design opportunities present in Gulf cities facing rising seas.


In 2012, Qatar relied on mechanical desalination plants to supply over 99.9% of the nation's freshwater needs. Desalination plants continue to increase the local salinity of the Gulf as waste brine is returned to the sea after desalination. All of Doha's desalination infrastructure is located in areas that will be affected by rising seas.

Inundated Coastlines

30% of Doha's developed landmass is projected to be flooded given a sea-level rise of three meters. Further swathes of Doha would be inundated in daily tidal cycles of +/- 1.5 meters. Doha's oldest settled areas are concentrated along it's distinctive coastline.

Preservation or Conservation?

Sabkha City is a set of architectural strategies for the conservation and transformation of the city of Al Wakrah, Qatar. The state's only extant historical village, Al Wakrah is a key monument in Qatar's cultural history.

Abandoned since the mid-twentieth century, the historical village has become surrounded by postmodern development in support of a population of 31,009. Al Wakrah's population is projected to surpass 100,000 by the end of this century, at which time much of the historic urban fabric will be tidally, or permanently inundated.

As the seas encroach ever further inland, sections of the village will become subject to daily flooding that will wash away the village's built form. The historic city must be made useful again to ensure its continued preservation into the future.

Sabkha City

The city, in recognition of its impending destruction in the lapping of the waves, is transformed into a machine of preservation.

A skeletal framework of construction scaffolding occupies the village's abandoned villas, becoming host to countless mechanisms, pulleys, tubes. Capitalizing on the rhythmic certainty of the daily tides, villa courtyards are transformed into vessels, ducts, and reservoirs--the infrastructural framework for a novel process: passive solar desalination, at an architectural scale. Twice daily the reservoirs are filled with seawater, and twice daily the products of desalination: freshwater, and high-saline brine, are discharged through the city's ad hoc scaffold-plumbing. The freshwater to be consumed by the population, the brine, sprayed under pressure onto the city's skeleton of steel and textile.

Soon, pillars of salt emerge from the negative forms of the old city. Climbing the scaffolding, the salt begins to extend away from its springing point, joining with adjacent pillars in a haphazard network of vaults. Soon, a saline landscape forms above the Gulf.

As the seas reach ever further into Al Wakrah, the sabkha becomes a territory of refuge. Housing blocks are grown from the saline landscape, lithic volumes to be excavated and inhabited. A new urban fabric emerges organically as scaffold architectures are extended and aggregated to collision.

City squares form around freshwater reservoirs, modern fonts replenished by the mechanisms of the city's making.