To walk into the expansive central atrium of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is to enter a colossal cathedral of geometric harmony. Beneath a soaring central dome, neutral sand tones and natural light couple with the clean and ambitious lines of fortress walls. The grace and gravity dictated by the imposing space are complemented by the playful whimsy of light and shadow.
Visitors stand still along the suspended catwalks high up above, observing the marble patterns inlaid on the expansive ground floor. Silent museum goers drift in and out of dim galleries where glowing glass cases display precious traces of the region’s history. On the outdoor stone terrace overlooking the traditional wooden dhow boats in the harbor, the white heat of the Gulf sun on the skin is instantly cooled by the mist that floats off of the rushing fountains, along the sea breeze.
Ieoh Ming Pei, the Chinese-American architect responsible for the glass and steel pyramid of the Louvre in Paris and the designer of the Doha museum, spent six months travelling in the Middle East studying the local architecture as well as Muslim texts in order to generate inspiration for the project.
‘Islam was a religion I did not know,’ Pei said in an interview at its opening. ‘So I studied the life of the Prophet Muhammad. I went to Egypt and Tunisia. I became very interested in the architecture of defense and fortifications.’
An expression of timeless and minimal design, the building is a welcome oasis of simple elegance in a region where architecture has become associated with the extravagance and excess, exemplified by the skylines of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha’s West Bay District. ‘The museum is an object,’ Pei said. ‘It should be treated as a piece of sculpture.’
Opened in 2008, the 42,000 square metre space sits on a custom built artificial island just off of the coast of the Corniche esplanade in the Doha harbour. Boasting a collection of over 800 historical artefacts and cultural objects such as manuscripts, textiles and ceramics dating back to the ninth century. The collection was gathered from Iran, Spain, Egypt, Turkey, India and Central Asia.
‘We want to show that Islam is a peaceful civilisation which has always called for tolerance and co-existence amongst different people,’ says Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, president of Qatar Museums Authority and daughter of the Emir of Qatar. And among the mist-cooled shades of the I.M. Pei museum, peacefulness certainly prevails.