There are plenty of attractions in the fabulously wealthy city of tomorrow, Doha, and the number is growing all the time. Time will tell on some of the burgeoning buildings, but one already stands out as indisputably world-class, the Museum of Islamic Art
Set on a manmade island, it’s swiftly become the symbol of the city and, like the Burjs Khalifa and Al-Arab down the road in Dubai, an iconic symbol of the Arab world as well.
The building is beautiful, and unmissable, sitting proudly across its causeway along the Corniche. In a town where a new “look at me!” skyscraper seems to go up every week, the Museum of Islamic Art
is in a totally different class.
It’s the brainchild of Chinese American architectural legend I.M. Pei. I’d recently admired his work elsewhere, as he also designed the jaw-dropping MUDAM Luxembourg - Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean
. I’m not sure that he’s the kind of architect you could employ to come round and help you with a roof extension. Designed on a mammoth scale, and in the case of the Museum of Islamic Art, apparently constructed largely out of marble, these projects must have caused a deep dive into the pockets even of Luxembourg and Qatar.
The results are astonishing, though.
After a boulevard flanked by fountains, the main entrance sees you come into a soaring foyer with a café enjoying huge windows facing out to sea. Despite the compulsive viewing of the skyline across the water, your eye is still drawn inwards and upwards.
There’s a temporary exhibition space on Floor 1 but I was itching to get up a storey, to see the Introduction Gallery, as well as the Figure in Art, Science in Art and Calligraphy. To me, the most stunning section of all was simply entitled “Pattern”: an exploration of the intricate themes of Islamic art. This complex geometry, doing far more than looking pretty, has metaphysical points to make, you discover, as you explore the underpinning ideology of individual pieces.
The top floor open to visitors houses what must be the most important collection on earth detailing the history of Islamic art. A mass of booty from the 7th
Century onwards has been assembled, embracing different movements in Iran, Central Asia, Egypt, Syria, India and Turkey.
This museum has been a passion project for His Highness the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and in terms of creating a lasting historic monument on the skyline, I.M. Pei has certainly fulfilled the brief.
Given that I’m a museum addict and this space has been open since 2008, I regret not getting there before 2013. A more recent visit, though, meant we had the chance to enjoy some newer attractions. The Museum waterfront now has MIA Park, a big green space (almost 70 acres) with a giant sculpture, “7”, by Richard Serra. Once a month the whole place becomes a mock-up Bazaar with 100 stalls selling traditional crafts and jewellery.
For all its 35,500 square metres of titanic grandeur, what most impresses is the surprising and compelling narrative this museum creates around the formation of Islamic art, and its gentle assault on preconceptions such as the idea that there is no figurative art within the culture.
You get the impression that this is a process of education for Islam about the rich syntheses and cross-cultural fertilisations within its own culture as well as a crash-course for curious outsiders. There’s a touch of the Taj Mahal about the Museum of Islamic Art
, too – a lasting love letter to the treasures of Islamic art and the aspirations of this most ambitious of cities. A tribute, too, to I.M. Pei – at 96 he still looks like he might go on forever, but this may well be his last great statement piece.