On a recent three-day trip to Doha, Qatar, Becca Bergman found it "an odd place with not a ton to see." With one striking exception.
Dear Museum of Islamic Art,
I haven't felt this way about a building in a long time. From the moment I walked through your doors, I was filled with a giddy, nervous excitement. I know, you're a building. And yet. Your soaring, central atrium, with light spilling from a central oculus, is captivating. Your feast of geometric angles and repeating patterns and shapes at every turn is dazzling. I felt like I was trapped in a kaleidoscope. From the outside, your façade of white Cubist limestone blocks makes for a fine contrast against the bright blue sky. And speaking of contrasts, I went nuts for the outdoor space with prime views of Doha's hypermodern skyline framed by classical Moorish arches.
In short, you are a sublime example of Islamic architecture for the 21st century, at once traditional and forward-looking. Strong yet simple, resplendent yet understated — the ideal museum building with a true sense of place. Your incredible collection of manuscripts, textiles, ceramics, and other works, collected over the last 20 years from Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India, and Central Asia, isn't too shabby either.
I heard the story of how you played hard to get. The ruling family of Doha wanted I.M. Pei to design their flagship art museum, but the busy architect demurred for years. Eventually, "we forced him," a smiling guide told me, "with money." When the museum opened in 2008, Pei was 91 years old — this may well be his swan song. Making marvelous wonders appear from nothing more than desert dust using gobs of money is Doha's forte. After all, Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world and just a tiny population of two million on which to lavish the wealth. But your understated, studied beauty is a refreshing change from the city's other buildings: They tripped all over themselves, trying to impress me with flash and glitz, always competing to be bigger, taller, shinier, more costly. No thanks.
I know eventually there will be competition. Further south along the waterfront, Jean Nouvel is creating a fantastical structure for the National Museum of Qatar, due to open in 2014. And the city's citizens talk feverishly and constantly about more architectural feats to come. An artists' colony built atop artificial sand dunes. Mini-cities floating on man-made islands. Air-conditioned soccer stadiums that will be dismantled and rebuilt in developing countries after World Cup 2022.
But a girl never forgets her first love.