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Jean Nouvel’s doha masterpiece

JEAN NOUVEL’S DOHA MASTERPIECE

THE NEW NATIONAL MUSEUM OF QATAR WAS INSPIRED BY A DESERT ROSE

At the National Museum of Qatar, the newest masterwork by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Jean Nouvel, history unfolds like the petals of an intoxicating, exotic flower.

The 361,861-square-foot concrete-and-steel museum, which opened in the capital city of Doha in March, boldly embraces the past. Its spectacular, saucer-shaped discs form a necklace whose ends are clasped by the historic palace of Sheik Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, son of the founder of modern Qatar.

Nouvel’s design was inspired by the aptly named desert rose, a flower-like aggregate of mineral crystals that forms only in the country’s coastal regions. “It’s the first architectural structure that nature itself creates, through wind, sea spray, and sand acting together over millennia,” he writes in his architectural statement.

The French architect is known for his daring designs, many of them with over-the-top theatrical elements. His Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, for instance, features a facade made of mechanical oculi that open and close via photoelectric cells in response to light. His Louvre Abu Dhabi is defined by a dome with pierced openings that look like interwoven palm leaves and a complex arrangements of stars.

Nouvel designed the National Museum of Qatar to reflect three interconnected story lines: the peninsula and its inhabitants; the exploration of the coastal and desert lifestyles and the pearling industry; and the rapid economic acceleration prompted by the discovery of oil, and then gas.

The new National Museum of Qatar, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel
The new National Museum of Qatar, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Credits: Iwan Baan

“Symbolically, the architecture of the museum evokes the desert, its silent and eternal dimension, but also the modernity and daring that have come along and shaken up what seemed unshakable,” he writes. “So it’s the contradictions in that history that I’ve sought to evoke.”

Nouvel’s interlocking, multiangled discs form gorgeous geometric spaces that, he writes, “are architectural, spatial, and sensory all at once. You find spaces that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

Emulating the perfect imperfection of nature, Nouvel put some of the museum’s sand-colored polished concrete floors on an incline. “You walk under them, you walk up, and you become aware that there are hardly any vertical lines anywhere,” he writes.

The walls, too, are more than they seem: Films about Qatar and its history are screened on them.

An aerial view of the new National Museum of Qatar

Credits: Iwan Baan
An aerial view of the new National Museum of Qatar

Nouvel uses the odd-shaped spaces to spring what he calls architectural surprises, the biggest of which is the royal palace, which appears at the end of the two-hour tour and opens to a traditional central courtyard. From this shaded and sheltered space, visitors can stroll along a promenade at water’s edge and enter a 28.4-acre park that reinterprets the country’s landscapes, with low sand dunes, flooded crops, and gardens inspired by sabkhas and oases.

The park features a 2,952-foot-long lagoon and ALFA, a work by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel that includes 114 black fountains whose shapes resemble Arabic calligraphy or the reeds calligraphers use to make their pens.

Inside and out, Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar is meant to make a grand statement. “From the moment you step inside,” he writes, “you’re struck by the relationship between the form and the scale, between the theme and the different eras dealt with, between the small desert rose that comes down to us from out of the mists of time and this outside creation.”

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