Museum of Islamic Art

DOHA, Qatar β€” There is nothing timid about the ambitions of the new Museum of Islamic Art that opens here next week. Rising on its own island just off the city’s newly developed esplanade, it is the centerpiece of an enormous effort to transform Qatar into an arts destination. The inaugural festivities Saturday, including a performance by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, attracted art world luminaries from around the globe.

Viewed under the light of a spectacular fireworks display, the museum’s colossal geometric form harks back to a time when Islamic art and architecture were at the nexus of world culture. At the same time, it conveys a hope of reconnecting again.

The building seems austere by the standards of the attention-grabbing forms that we have come to associate with Gulf cities like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Designed by I.M. Pei, 91, who has said it is his last major cultural building, it recalls a time when architectural expression was both more earnest and optimistic, and the rift between modernity and tradition had yet to reach full pitch.

The museum, which houses manuscripts, textiles, ceramics and other works assembled mostly over the last 20 years, has emerged as one of the world’s most encyclopedic collections of Islamic art. The origin of its artifacts ranges from Spain to Egypt to Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India and Central Asia.

Among the exquisite works on view at the opening were a bronze Andalusian fountainhead in the form of a doe with a heart-shaped mouth and an ornate spherical brass plate from Persia or Mesopotamia that was used to measure the position of the stars. (Both date from the 10th century.)

Taking his cue from the diversity of the collections, Pei sought to create a structure that would embody the “essence of Islamic architecture.”

He spent months traveling across the Middle East searching for inspiration. He visited the ninth-century Ahmad ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, a sober structure organized around a central court with a temple-like central fountain, as well as ancient fortresses in Tunisia.

“Islam was one religion I did not know,” Pei said in an interview. “So I studied the life of Muhammad. I went to Egypt and Tunisia. I became very interested in the architecture of defense, in fortifications. It is a very important piece of Islamic architecture.”

“The architecture is very strong and simple,” he added. “There is nothing superfluous.”

The result is a structure whose imposing simplicity is brought to life by the play of light and shadow under the Gulf’s blazing sun. Pei visited several proposed sites in Doha before settling on the site just off the end of the seafront esplanade.

Worried that his building might one day be hemmed in by new construction, he asked Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, to build him a private island so that his monument would be isolated from the rest of the city.

“I worried a lot about what will come after,” Pei said. “Even a beautiful piece of work can be overshadowed, destroyed by something else.”

For now, “Doha in many ways is virginal,” he said. “There is no real context there, no real life unless you go into the souk. I had to create my own context. It was very selfish.”

The result is a powerful Cubist composition of square and octagonal blocks stacked atop one another and culminating in a central tower. A row of giant palm trees leads to the island. Inside, 3,800 square meters, or 41,000 square feet, of galleries are organized around a towering atrium capped by a dome, with a narrow beam of light descending from its central oculus.

Seen from across the waters of the harbor, its massive sand-colored stone blocks have an ageless quality, like the Tunisian fortresses it is modeled after.

“The museum is an object,” Pei said. “It should be treated as a piece of sculpture.”


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