National Museum of Qatar – concept developed by Jean Nouvel from a natural formation in the desert, photos by Danica Kus –
The new museum in Doha is a building of the digital age: sculptural play enhanced by the art of engineering. In the form of giant disks of different sizes and directions, the museum surrounds the restored historic Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim. The galleries around the palace create a circular promenade of 1,5 km in total. Showcasing the cultural, economic and environmental developments in Qatar through spectacular films and installations, including a 360-degree video installation by artist Doug Aitken, the galleries span over 7000 square meters for permanent collections and 1700 for temporary exhibitions.
A park with native plants designed by French landscape architect Michel Desvignes provides space for large sculptures, including works by Liam Gillick, Louise Bourgeois and Martin Creed. ALFA, the spectacular waterside installation, shaped to reflect the geometrics of Arabic calligraphy, was commissioned from French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. With free entry to locals, the museum is a vast public space shaded and protected from the heat of the desert climate. A temporary exhibition Making Doha 1950-2013 (28.3 – 30.8.2019) curated by Rem Koolhaas and OMA/AMO explores the ongoing development of Doha and the global discipline of architecture.
As urban gestures, Jean Nouvel’s buildings are strong artistic statements, conceived as visually striking spatial experiments. Nouvel says his approach has been inspired by his mentor French architect Claude Parent, for whom he worked in the beginning of his career. His design for L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (completed in 1987) exemplified great visual impact, where sophisticated technology controlled the mechanics of interlaced window screens, symbolising a connection between mathematics and nature. In Doha the symbol for formal inspiration is the ‘desert rose’, a natural mineral formation in the Gulf region. This starting point is seen by Nouvel as the most primitive form of architecture.
In the Arabic world architectural symbolism and innovation has been famously incorporated into the changing urban fabric, resulting in spectacular forms, where architecture plays a central role as cultural expression. Architecture can be understood as a language of time and space, form and place, where history and the surrounding landscape provide the context. From a functional perspective, what Nouvel has created seems like a giant massing of brise-soleil. Next to the desert, facing the 900- meters-long lagoon, the form creates continuity in space and time.
The new museum follows a succession of institutional buildings by international architects, such as Rem Koolhaas and I.M Pei, transforming Doha’s urban identity. With seemingly endless financial resources, contrasted though by reports of problems in working conditions, these public buildings provide opportunities for architectural experimentation as well as grand civic spaces for the Qatari residents and visitors alike.
The extreme desert climate is a point of departure for bold formal innovation. Jean Nouvel’s architectural concept interacts with the social and climatic situation that prevails in Qatar and conditions this kind of architectural culture. In contrast to the towers marking the skyline, Nouvel has created a form lying low by the Doha Bay. As formal play, it responds to the site, and could not exist anywhere else. Unique and extravagant – it’s an expression of strong cultural ambition.