23 July 2019
Qatar is a young country, in flux, and looking to the future. It is profoundly aware of its own geography, suspended twixt sea and desert, of its own fishing and trading past and of its own culture, bound up with oral storytelling and music. The country has undergone a staggering evolution over the last 50 years, since the discovery of oil and natural gas fields, but still conserves the mystery and poetry of a border area.
The population’s desire to give concrete expression to its origins and its identity is perfectly understandable, fuelling the urgent need for a national ethnographical museum. Who better than Jean Novel, an archi-star renowned for underscoring the social and cultural importance of architecture, to ensure that the aspiration of an entire nation became a reality?
“Qatar has a deep relationship with the desert, with its flora and fauna, its nomadic people, its long traditions. To fuse these contrasting stories, I needed a symbolic element. Eventually, I remembered the phenomenon of the desert rose: crystalline forms, like miniature architectural events, that emerge from the ground through the work of wind, salt water and sand. The museum developed from this idea, with its great curved discs, intersections, and cantilevered angles,” said the architect, founder and director of Ateliers Jean Nouvel.
As he says, the National Museum of Qatar reproduces the fascinating and sculptural volumetry of the desert rose through a bold and stunning combination of 539 “disks”. These interlocking disks of varying dimensions and curvatures – from 14 to 84 metres in diameter – are clad in 76,000 concrete panels, reinforced with sand-coloured fibreglass. The asymmetrical building splits the blinding Qatar sunlight up into slender rays, creating secret passages that alternate with large spaces, in an atmospheric succession of volumes and forms. The interior which, like the exterior is characterised by neutral and monochromatic finishes, plays out in a series of rooms that are more or less hidden from each other, tilting walls and small spaces alternating with rooms with monumental ceilings. The further one penetrates into its meandering spaces, the easier it is to comprehend why it took 8 years to complete. It is not merely a matter of structural but also of experiential complexity and, especially, of narrative discourse.
Extending over 52,000 square metres, the museum contains 11 permanent exhibition spaces earmarked for retelling the country’s history; a gallery for temporary exhibitions, an auditorium seating 220, and a slightly smaller-scale forum. It also has two cafés, a restaurant, a museum shop, a research centre and areas reserved for the museum’s own activities, such as conservation studios, stores and offices. The museum also incorporates and encompasses the historic palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, formerly the residence of the royal family and government premises prior to becoming a museum.
Designed to be immersive and experiential, the permanent exhibition provides a chronological narration of the story of Qatar and its people, beginning more than 700 million years ago. This plays out in three themed “chapters”: archive images, archaeological findings and natural history; the social and cultural history of Qatar through storytelling, music and manufacturing and, lastly, a celebration of the oil pipelines, which signalled the country’s rebirth and renewed great prosperity. Film footage, the voices of people across the ages and audio-visual displays created specifically for projection onto the original walls of the museum, are a common thread. Nouvel sees architecture as a visual art and the production of images, in which light and surfaces are the protagonists rather than the sculptural quality of the design.
Several site-specific works have been commissioned to mark the opening from international figures such as the Israeli artist Ali Hassan, the Iraqi sculptor Ahmed Al Bahrani and the French sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel. The latter is responsible for the monumental installation in the museum park – 112,000 m2 of walkways, a lagoon, indigenous plants resistant to the dry Arab climate – made up of 114 fountains, their jets reminiscent of the fluid shapes of Arabic calligraphy.
Curated by Rem Koolhaas, Samir Bantal and Fatma Al Sehlawi, the museum’s first temporary exhibition, which opens in late August, will be Making Doha: 1950–2030, focusing on the recent past and future of town planning in Doha, the capital of Qatar and home to the OMA studio set up by Koolhaas, which has just completed the spectacular QNL ‒ Qatar National Library building.