Icon in Qatar 28.11.08

Icon of Qatar

words William Wiles

Icon has just returned from Qatar, where IM Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art is about to open. The museum, an angular ziggurat of pale limestone jutting out of Doha bay, isn’t just impressive as a no-expense-spared Gulf state grand projet. It’s also a remarkable example of how a small, extremely rich, country is integrating architecture, culture and education to plan for a time after the end of the fossil fuel economy.

We were fortunate enough to be able to speak with IM Pei himself while we were there, and there will be a story on the museum in the February issue of icon, which comes out in January 2009. In the meantime, here is a preview with some pictures from Qatar and information on other megaprojects in the state.

Doha, Qatar’s capital, is built around a bay, which sports the kind of under-construction sci-fi skyline that we’ve come to expect from the Persian Gulf. At the right of the image above is Jean Nouvel’s “Burj Qatar” tower under construction, a project that’s strikingly similar to his 2005 Torre Agbar in Barcelona.

Mia Dusk

Pei’s museum is essentially a man-made island at the end of a small peninsula in the bay. Two bridges connect the museum to the mainland; the main one, shown at the left in the picture above, is the end of a magnificent ceremonial approach cooled by an artificial stream and shaded by palms. The museum is built from cream-coloured French limestone, detailed with darker granite.

The museum will open to the public on Monday. Most visitors will approach it by the bridges, but the press and dignitaries who attended the VIP opening last weekend were able to get a taste of the unique way that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar’s Emir, will be able to visit the building.

Arab dhow

The Emir will be able to approach by yacht, or traditional Arab dhow, from his palace across the bay. One side of the museum, facing west across the bay, is dominated by a ceremonial boat dock for the Emir’s personal use. It’s a spectacular way to arrive at a museum, which appears to float on the water of the bay, and the dock has a joyous theatricality worthy of Cecil B Demille.

All of the Gulf states are banking on tourism as an important part of their post-oil economies. Dubai has its resorts, and Abu Dhabi is building a mammoth series of cultural facilities at Saadiyat Island, which will include Zaha Hadid’s performing arts centre, Jean Nouvel’s Louvre, Tadao Ando’s maritime museum and another Frank Gehry Guggenheim. The Museum of Islamic Art is certainly a tourist attraction, but it’s also intended as a centre of scholarship, a central element of Qatar’s ambitious effort to become the Gulf’s centre of education.

Arata Isozaki Convention Centre

It’s here, in the desert just outside Doha, that the rest of that strategy is coming together. The above is an under-construction convention centre by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, a centrepiece for Qatar’s “Education City”.

Qatar campus of Texas A&M

Education City aims to address a key defect in the Gulf’s long-term development – its lack of world-class universities. If you’re a respected Western university, you can set up a state-of-the-art campus in Education City, and the Qatar Foundation will pick up the bill. The result is a slightly surreal architectural zoo. Above is the Qatar campus of Texas A&M University, designed by Legorretta & Legorretta of Mexico. It’s an unusual blend of Santa Fe and ancient Babylon.

Texas A&M courtyards

One of the four courtyards inside Texas A&M, which specialises in engineering. Six American universities have established, or are in the process of setting up, campuses in Education City.

Weill Cornell Medical College

As well as the Convention Centre, Isozaki has designed this campus for Weill Cornell Medical College, and the Liberal Arts and Sciences buildings. The ovoid volumes contain lecture halls.


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