Qatar's Crown Jewel
Qatar's Crown Jewel
When the cultural ambassadors of Qatar asked I.M. Pei to design thenew Museum of Islamic Artdestined, they hoped, to be the emirate’sanswer to the Guggenheim in Bilbao—the 91-year-old architect wasshown several choice sites on the Corniche, Doha’s palm-lined, baysideboulevard, which hosts this capital city’s imposing civic structures.
Pei eyed the boulevard up and down. Too cramped, he finallysaid. Then he gazed out at the glittering Persian Gulf. Why not buildme an island?
In the gonzo geography of the Arabian Peninsula, of course, islandsare plucked from the sea like pearls. Pei got his wish, and Doha hasgotten a new museum that puts Qatar spectacularly ahead of the pack.
As the first of a tidal wave of major cultural buildings to crashon the oil-flush, bling-chasing Gulf—among them Abu Dhabi’smultibillion-dollar flock of museums designed by all-stars includingFrank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid (who’s alsosketching up an opera house for Dubai)—the Museum of IslamicArt, which opens November 22, sets a dauntingly high bar.
That’s in part because Pei asked the emir for one more favor: time.He embarked on a six-month odyssey to find the soul of Islamic architecture,studying mosques in Spain and Syria and the sheer-walledfortresses of Tunisia. The eureka moment came in Cairo, in the form ofa 13th-century sabil, or ablution fountain, at the Mosque of Ahmad IbnTulun, with its spare, sun-drenched volumes and a plain, high dome.
Pei’s journey paid off in a remarkably successful synthesisbetween East and West. The architect’s crisp-lined, geometric forms—his glass pyramids at the Louvre, or the faceted planes of the NationalGallery of Arts East Building in Washington—are here powerfullyenergized by Islamic tradition. “In his travels to Iberia, and even toChina and India, he grew very familiar with the cultural and ornamentaldiversity of Islamic architecture,” said Hiroshi Okamoto, an architectin Pei’s New York office who worked with the Pritzker Prizewinningmaster on the project. “He was trying to grasp the elemental form, theessence.”
With its faceted stone planes raked by the sun, the building makesa striking composition: a series of stacked,rotated volumes stepping back to a centraltower. As in the traditional mosques Peistudied, the largely undecorated exteriorgives way to filigreed ornament inside:coffered domes, an arcing grand staircase,and a stainless-steel chandelier inspired byrenowned Mamluk craftsmanship. The five story-high atrium is crowned by a stainlesssteeldome. And north light pours in from aglass curtain-wall running the full height ofthe building, flanked by more than 40,000square feet of gallery space, designed byJean-Michel Wilmotte & Associés of Paris,housing a continent-spanning collection ofmanuscripts, ceramics, metalwork, andtextiles. A two-story education wing connectsto the main structure across a courtyard.
Rising majestically from the water, thebuilding pays homage to Louis Kahns designfor the National Assembly Building of Dhaka,Bangladesh, which Pei is known to admire.Like that complex, set on an artificial lake, themuseum shines in its island site. Connected tothe mainland by three 215-foot-long bridges,Pei’s building is set at a sharp angle to theformal date-palm allée, so its Chamesson limestoneis lit from all perspectives. “Because ofits sculptural form, the sun animates thatbuilding all throughout the day,” Okamotosaid. Viewed from across Doha Bay, the buildingis an instant landmark. As its reflectionscatters on the water, the building dissolvesinto a bit of looping Arabic script—an inkyecho of the 16th-century manuscripts inside.
"Qatar's Crown Jewel" originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' November 2008 Table of Contents.