A lot has been spoken about the Islamic Art Museum in Doha, Qatar, as is the case with rest of the architectural marvels designed by Pritzker prize winner I M Pei.
My chance rendezvous with this museum had me believing that I had some karmic connection with this structure since my visit happened purely because I missed my out bound ‘connecting’ flight from Doha.
And as luck would have it my hotel was just a walking distance from the museum. At a junction I came across a skewed glass building, just like the ones the veteran is synonymous with, and just as I turned the corner, I saw the iconic Islamic art museum sitting proudly between a vast landscaped area and a backdrop of the city beyond.
Seeing the development around you it is really not difficult to understand why I M Pei , in his own words, ‘selfishly’ demanded for an exclusive man-made island (approximately 64 acres) along the corniche of Doha. His fear of the building losing its character in future stands justified, what with most of the gulf countries rushing towards the goal of rapid modernisation.
It’s been said that the 91 year old I M Pei was coerced out of retirement to do this museum and he travelled around the world to understand Islamic architecture till he finally found an example which was in complete sync with his cubist sensibilities. A rather modest building, Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo, Egypt was the inspiration behind the final design for the Islamic Art Museum.
Geometry has an unprecedented importance in Islamic architecture and in this museum Mr. Pei has played it out to perfection. But those who are not well versed with Islamic architecture’s geometric connection would be highly perturbed with the absence of the traditional minarets, domes and floral carvings. Right from the two-dimensional format comprising of the flooring patterns, engravings, floor plans which are stacked up squares and octagons set at different angles; to the progressive form of the structure, the design is a one big geometric carnival.
As one walks up the ramp flanked by palm trees on both sides (which were transported and replanted on site), one is completely smitten by the austere simplicity of this limestone building that slowly reveals itself. Once on top you enjoy the majestic views of the museum along with its connecting educational wing and the fast changing city skyline in the backdrop.
The museum’s atrium is an animate space which is set in rhythm by the blazing sunlight and the fantastic use of geometry. As one enters the atrium all the dynamics come into play. When you are at the centre of the atrium and staring up at the dome it casts an uncharacteristic spell on you. The circular oculus that directs a beam of light in the interior, transcends into series of octagons, then translates further into a square and finally in four triangles that connect at different floors, and alternatively play the role of load bearing column capitals.
On the south are two half curved stair flights and a large glass curtain on the north allows the desert sun indoors which in turn seems to orchestrate the action within. The light falling on the planes and surfaces transforms the architecture into a play of light and shadow. The glass curtain also provides a panoramic view of the city beyond.
Some other noteworthy features are the coffered dome ceiling used throughout the building, the perforated circular chandelier suspended at the centre which is engraved in an archetypical geometric pattern found in Islamic architecture and the indoor and outdoor fountains (again display a good use of geometrical forms).
The galleries which surround the atrium on three different floors are a complete antithesis to the external architecture of the building. The sun bathed building is countered by dark interiors of the galleries with beautifully lit up display items; in fact the brightly lit display vitrines guide you through the galleries. The intent of the gallery designers is crystal clear; they didn’t want any distractions and wanted the art displays to literally hog the ‘limelight’. So if you had to draw parallels between the architecture of the Islamic art museum and the galleries within, then one can say that in both cases light has been beautifully put to use to commemorate the displays, as the museum itself is nothing short of an artistic display of architecture.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t visit the educational wing which is connected by a courtyard to the museum as it is not open to public, but one couldn’t miss out the arcades that run along the wing and the fountain in the courtyard which has an uncanny resemblance to the Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun.
The project was commissioned by rulers of Qatar with the vision of transforming Doha into an art destination. The museum covering an area of 45,000 sq. m hosts an extensive collection of items collected from India, Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Other things that work well for the building’s repertoire are the library, a large souvenir store and of course the French restaurant facing the glass curtain.
As far as strategies go, converting a sleepy city like Doha into an art hub was a brilliant one considering the success of a city like Bilbao and its famous Guggenheim museum ( this phenomenon is famously known as the ‘Bilbao effect’). For me at least, when I would think of Doha in future it would always be for the Islamic Art museum and of course the generous hospitality of the Qataris!
Text and Photographs By Shweta Salvi