The tiny, super-rich emirate of Qatar has big ideas about how its wealth can be used to create a special place in the world. (…experiencing a growth…) The Museum of Islamic Art is a particular focus for the capital city of Doha, where emphasis on culture is front and centre.
The museum’s massive geometric form rises out of the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. It is no coincidence that renowned 91-year old architect I.M. Pei – mastermind of the landmark Louvre pyramid – was summoned out of retirement to conceive it. The building was designed to make an impact: to put the Qatari capital on the map as a cultural centre and to broaden global perceptions of Islamic culture.
Pei insisted that the museum not be overshadowed by the encroachment of new construction, and so the emir built an island. Sited 200 ft away from the Corniche (waterfront promenade), it is connected to the shore by a grand esplanade of palm trees and fountains.
Pei wanted to create a structure that would embody the “essence of Islamic architecture” and travelled through the Middle East searching for inspiration. The resulting building’s design calls to mind the fortifications that had intrigued the architect. It is a simple but powerful Cubist composition of square and octagonal sand-coloured stone blocks stacked 5-storeys high that culminate in a central tower. Near its peak are semicircular vents representing the eyes of an Arabian woman glimpsed above a veil. Under the gulf’s blazing sun, the play of light and shadow across the building’s surfaces transforms it into a work of living art.
Inside the museum, galleries are organized around a towering atrium capped by a faceted dome with an oculus to the sky. One’s gaze is continually drawn upwards by the narrow beam of sunlight, sweeping symmetrical staircase, and wide circular ring of light with intricate patterns suspended above the central space. A stunning 150ft floor-to-ceiling window overlooks the bay.
The museum has emerged as one of the world’s most encyclopedic collections of Islamic art, housing manuscripts, ceramics, textiles and precious stones dating from the 7th to the 19th century. Artifacts originating in Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India, and Central Asia are exquisitely displayed: astronomical instruments; wooden door panels with ivory and ebony inlay; and, book bindings and mosaic tiles with patterns extending to infinity.
In the harbour outside the museum, with the post-modern skyline of contemporary Doha in the background, are clusters of traditional dhows. Those sailing vessels were used through the millennia for pearling, fishing, and now, frequently serve as pleasure cruises.