November 22: Pei in Doha

2012/11/22 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2008 the Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha, Qatar.

Doha was established as a city only in the early nineteenth century; before then it was a small village that depended on Persian Gulf pearl diving.  In the mid-twentieth century Doha suddenly discovered a new source of wealth: oil.  Its growth at the turn of the millennium was as astonishing as other Gulf cities, and with the surge in population to about 1.7 millinon in 2010, the government made swift and grand efforts to ornament the city with pop-up cultural institutions.

One challenge for all of the new building in the Gulf region is the tension that exists in places with little permanent precedent for architects to consider–either the local idiom is oftentimes ephemeral and usually has already been swept away in the name of earlier modernization efforts–and the desire to articulate a sense of place, which necessarily depends on drawing something specific from that place.  Granted, many architects see their task as contributing only to the ideal of the Modern, which is understood as absent of any external references whatsoever (Dubai is pretty expert in this category).  For them, the job is pretty easy, as their clients are supremely wealthy and just as eager as they to create stand-alone monuments to themselves.

But in the very nature of building a museum, the state (which had to amass its collection in quick order) expressed the need for a memory-monument rather than one more glitzy new blob.  The challenge then for the architect, even a modernist like I. M. Pei (b. 1917), was to design a contemporary building with some cultural relevance.  In his work for the museum at Doha, Pei indulged in a lengthy study of Islamic art, the heritage of the artifacts that his building would actually house.   What he found there was an emphasis on stacked and overlapping geometries, complexity spun from straightforward drawing exercises, and the ever-present use of light as a design element itself.  These were not new discoveries for him (this other museum from the mid-1970s is a good point of reference), but rather interests that had defined his work for over half of a century: a happy coincidence that he was able to use to great advantage.  The difference here was to accommodate his own impulses into a context that would be recognizable and relevant to a new audience.

By all accounts, Pei accomplished his task brilliantly in Doha.  The museum is obviously contemporary, and is indeed another grand gesture of Qatari dominance over nature (at least for now) as it is built on a manmade peninsula.  But its particular masses and shapes and design elements coalesce in an image that is at home in Islamic traditions–skirting the edge of modernity and tradition in a skillful, and usually accomplished, way.

Great collection of photos and drawings here

Image: interior of the museum (from this source)

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