In ART

Discover Jean Nouvel’s brand-new National Museum of Qatar

Blockbuster, convention-defying, architecture is the new normal for museums today. But ambitious, even eccentric designs face the challenge of integrating within their surroundings, responding to the local historical and cultural context, and adapting to natural conditions – notwithstanding allowing collections to shine. Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ), which opened in March 2019 on the Doha waterfront, masterfully fulfilled the bet. Qatar’s latest addition to its share of cutting-edge museums – one thinks, notably, of I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art – the NMoQ is unique in its natural inspiration: the desert rose.

The new National Museum of Qatar designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel with ALFA (2019) by Jean-Michel Othoniel. Photo credit: Othoniel studio / Martin Argyroglo. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.
The new National Museum of Qatar designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel with ALFA (2019) by Jean-Michel Othoniel. Photo credit: Othoniel studio / Martin Argyroglo. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.

Nouvel made the crystalline structure explode over 40,000 square metres, deconstructed its petals, and reassembled them on a monumental scale, in a concept gesturing towards the basic elements, water and sand, forming the rose, thus bridging sea and desert within the modern urban fabric. The rose’s closely-knit slabs of crystals were blown out of proportion to become 539 overlapping discs of various sizes, clad with glass fibre-reinforced concrete. The museum’s visual impact is astonishing, nested between the sea and an altogether homogeneous backdrop of skyscrapers, with the creamy tone of the structure echoing Qatar’s sandy dunes.

National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Marine Biota in Qatar’s Natural Environments gallery. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.
National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Marine Biota in Qatar’s Natural Environments gallery. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.

With the delicacy of the rose in mind, Nouvel subverted concrete’s brutality to test the limits of the material’s poetic possibilities. From afar, the tilted discs look light and precarious. Yet, they solidly structure the museum, thanks to their various curvatures and precise arrangement. Slanted, tilted, refusing the horizontal and the vertical, the concrete petals become walls, cantilevers, façades, domes and roof, intersecting one another in unexpected ways. The system defines the exhibition space, creates visual apertures and shady cavities, and extends to trace irregular canopies of petals around a courtyard surrounding the recently restored early-20th-century palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, the son of the founder of modern Qatar. The palace is an important Qatari cultural monument, which served as a royal family residence and a governmental building, before housing the original National Museum.

National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. The Coming of Oil gallery – film dir. by Doug Aitken. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.
National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. The Coming of Oil gallery – film dir. by Doug Aitken. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.

Inside, the discs’ structure fashion a promenade through irregular volumes, with no straight wall in sight. The display takes advantage of the architecture, with artefacts generally on show in the centre of galleries, while the slanted walls welcome projections of commissioned films about Qatari history, produced with the Doha Film Institute and directed by international filmmakers. All throughout, interactive exhibits are there to heighten sight, touch, sound and even smell.

National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Life on the Coast gallery – Al Zubarah exhibits and film dir. by Abderrahmane Sissako. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.
National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Life on the Coast gallery – Al Zubarah exhibits and film dir. by Abderrahmane Sissako. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.

A national museum is a momentous occasion for a country to make a statement about its identity, culture and history, and project them to the world. Inside Nouvel’s complex, the history of Qatar unfolds across 11 galleries or, rather, immersive environments, throughout whose 1.5 kilometres the state officialises its narrative for international and national visitors. The journey starts hundreds of millions of years ago, with the geological formation of Qatar, going into natural history, leading, through artefacts and reconstructions, to sections about the lives of Bedouins and Qatar’s fishing and pearl-diving tradition. The story culminates with Qatar’s oil and gas adventure, started in 1939, and the establishment of the modern state of Qatar.

National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. The Formation of the Qatar Peninsula gallery. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.
National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. The Formation of the Qatar Peninsula gallery. Photo credit: Danica Kus. Courtesy of National Museum of Qatar.

The museum represents a landmark effort by Qatar to highlight its culture and history, while announcing its aspirations to position itself on the global cultural stage. Besides the permanent exhibition, the NMoQ has commissioned site-specific works from local and international artists to punctuate the site, including an installation by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel comprising a lagoon and 114 fountains. Meanwhile, the Museum’s inaugural temporary exhibition, Making Doha: 1950-2030, co-curated by Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, puts the spotlight on impactful late-20th-century and early-21st-century architecture in Qatar.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, 21 Artists and a Biennial #49

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