Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s new National Museum of Qatar in Doha is an overtly dramatic, yet at the same time gentle, structure based on naturally occurring desert rose mineral formations
Words by Johnny Tucker
It can’t be often that an architect of Jean Nouvel’s stature gets sent back to the drawing board, but in the instance of the National Museum of Qatar, that is what happened — and it’s probably all the better for it.
The final result is an overtly dramatic, yet at the same time, gentle structure based on the naturally occurring desert rose mineral formations, which are translated as a series of varying-sized discs at extraordinary angles to each other arranged around a central caravanserai quietly embracing a former palace. Think sherbet flying-saucer sweets, more than 500 of them, all beige, all seemingly randomly grouped together and passing through each other at will. These complete discs, ranging in size from 14m to a massive 87m in diameter, also continue through to the inside of the building to create a labyrinth (albeit a controlled and easily navigable one) of rooms, all with curved surfaces and not one like another.
The site of the new museum, where the sand meets the sea, is the same kind of geography that gives rise to the desert rose formations. Credit: Iwan Baan
The architecture is very much a part of the whole museum interior experience and is not divisible from the exhibition within. In fact, it is a large part of what is going on. This is so much the case that Nouvel is credited as a ‘museographer’ on the project, interpreting and helping to display the history encapsulated within. His involvement is so inextricably intertwined that he was also responsible for helping to define and expand upon what is on show and how it is portrayed. More of that later, but first back to the genesis of this extraordinary building.
A desert rose is a naturally occurring crystal structure made from sand and gypsum. Credit: Shutterstock
Nouvel is a man who bangs the contextual gong with some vigour. His buildings are context, context, context — but for him that is very different from location, location, location. It is something more wide-ranging: ‘The context for me is not only the site, it is the human context first and the context of the history and geography,’ he says. You can also add to that, the ‘epoch’, a contextual touchstone he comes back to often, believing that his buildings must be very much of their time in how they perform and how they are conceived and built.
Nouvel first got involved in this project back in 2002, when he was approached by Qatar’s equivalent of the minister of culture to envisage a new national museum, with a very simple programme. A key part of this programme involved the Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani (1880–1957), the son of the founder of modern Qatar. Sitting on this site, it was built in the early 1900s, is one of the oldest buildings in the country and had become the first Qatar National Museum.
The 76,000 exterior disc panels are made from a fibre-reinforced concrete and have a pattern that looks random, though actually does repeat. Credit: Iwan Baan
Nouvel felt this heritage building was so important, that ‘he didn’t want to disturb the calm and serenity of the area’, according to project architect, partner and area manager for Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Hafid Rakem. So, an underground museum was proposed, something hidden away — a far cry from the dramatic, T-shirt-to-umbrella-emblazoning worthy form that has prevailed.
Nouvel was proposed as the architect as a result of the underground scheme, but times changed. Qatar is a fast-moving place, with the pace of change accelerating almost exponentially in the last decade. Indicative of this is the fact that the population has grown since 2010 by more than 50%, by over a million people to 2.7m (a good deal of this has been an influx of migrant workers, whose awful working conditions are a thing of record).
The historic palace has been refurbished to look as new as the Nouvel addition. Credit: Iwan Baan
Enter Sheikha Amna bint Abdulaziz bin Jassim Al Thani, the current director of the National Museum of Qatar. The subtleties of a subterranean museum didn’t cut it for her — she wanted more of a ‘monument’, as she said at the building preview. In Rakem’s words: ‘She wanted something unique and she wanted a building.’ Back to the drawing board. Where would the inspiration come from? Qatar was originally founded on the pearl-diving industry, so oyster shells perhaps? Then again Jørn Utzon kind of owns that one with his Sydney structure. Instead, Nouvel found his contextual inspiration in a different form, the desert rose, a beautiful, naturally forming phenomenon that, as the name suggests, has an organic flower-like structure, which is created by the interplay of sand and moisture from the sea. What could be better for this site that is situated just metres from the Persian Gulf?
Nouvel has taken the symbolic essence of that object — the interlocking discs — to a beguiling extreme. Steel was the natural choice and Arup London was the chosen partner for the realisation. It was to prove to be a monumental task that would see many a serene engineer looking to pull out clumps of hair as each small tweak in design meant a full reworking and remodelling of forces of the fully interconnected frame.
Looking across from the refurbished palace out over the Nouvel building to the Persian Gulf. Credit: Iwan Baan
This is the very first building for Ateliers Jean Nouvel that has been completely designed on computer from the get-go. ‘It was conceived from the outset in 3D because of the complexity of the geometry — even from the first sketch,’ explains Rakem.
‘This structure is a structure itself, not just something to support the building,’ he continues. ‘The structure of the discs is simple; what makes the complexity is the intersections of the discs, which vary at different angles. So, we have to be sure to control all the forces at each node. The steel work was a real challenge because of the intersection of all of these discs, which makes each node very complex. Even for Arup it was not an easy task.’ Especially when there’s plenty of tinkering along the way: ‘Jean is not an architect who disconnects the programme from the architecture,’ adds Rakem. ‘We started to talk about that from the very beginning. So, we defined how many galleries, shops, restaurants, offices… And then there was playing with the discs and playing with the volumes.’
The interlocking discs physically support one another and range in diameter from 14m to 87m. Credit: Iwan Baan
Nouvel, in his strongly accented whisper, tells me: ‘The whole building is a false random system. It is not really random. If you enter with a new element saying we will need more moving pictures, then we adapt. It can be done and the feeling of the building stays the same. You have to change the proportion in relationship with the programme, if you want to change the nature of the exhibition. If it is adjusted to the strategy needed inside, that changes the proportions of the building.’ He smiles at this, as if to cheekily say, hey, all that tinkering is just the way it goes when you are creating a piece of art, because that’s what he firmly believes great buildings are.
The large overhangs of the discs around the fenestration help to provide a much needed brise-soleil effect. Credit: Iwan Baan
However, for all these structural shenanigans, you would not have the first idea that this painstakingly realised steel skeleton, weighing in at nearly 18,000 tonnes, even exists. It is clad inside and out in sand-like beige materials to create the interlocking forms that allude to the desert rose and to help disperse the idea of the outside and interior being distinct from one another. The discs appear to have a lightness and as if gently resting upon each other in a deeply organic way.
Outside, 76,000 fibre-reinforced concrete (FRC) panels form the skin created in unique geometric pattern, that looks random, but does in fact repeat. Nouvel wanted a textured surface and doing this with panels had the added benefit of being able to control any possible cracking through movement, as well as the quality of the workmanship, since the panels were all cast locally. The FRC also has far better thermal properties than traditional poured concrete and in an environment where the exterior temperature can soar above 50ºC, that is a big contextual factor.
Where artefacts exist, they are beautifully displayed. Credit: Danica O Kus
Move inside and the same colour continues, but this time the cladding is acoustic panels on the ceiling and gypsum on the walls. The latter has the benefit that the ancient Egyptians knew about of absorbing moisture when humid and releasing it when dry.
As alluded to, the building and the exhibition within are one, each informing the other and conceived as a singular entity. Inside, the building is a canvas, that belies the fact that there really isn’t a huge amount of content in the one-mile-long chronological exhibition. All concerned have had to work very hard to create a symbolic and literal projection of what Qatar is.
A dialogue between the displays is formed by artist-created films projected on the sloping walls. Credit: Danica O Kus
As a result, this is a new breed of museum. It has some artefacts (all of them beautifully displayed), but the Qataris were a nomadic nation until pearl fishing made them put down more permanent roots. As such, this is not an object-based museum in the traditional sense. It’s also very much an experience; this is infotainment (more tainment than info). It offers a very bite-size and extremely easily digestible version of Qatari history’s key periods and moments, with very broad brushstrokes, which really doesn’t look to engage with the old grey matter too deeply.
The walls, all angled and sloping, are not hung, but mapped projection fills them and brings them to life, with everything from prehistoric animal recreations to shifting sands. Some of these films — specially commissioned interpretive artworks — are great. The aforementioned shifting sand walls in a narrow tall stretch of the museum are entrancing, but others, while expertly produced, descend into the realms of eye candy. The enormous room that deals with the coming of oil that utterly transformed Qatar, propelling its economy into the world Top 10, is little more than a rectangle of pipes and valves tessellated pleasingly together on a thin slab of steel. The walls show beautiful obliquely oil-related moving images. Nice to experience, but essentially meaningless content, that doesn’t engage with or address this pivotal moment in Qatar’s history.
Pretty, but pointless: the room that heralds the discovery of the oil and gas reserves that woud transform Qatar. Credit: Danica O Kus
Conversely, the temporary opening exhibition is curated by one Rem Koolhaas (who completed Qatar National Library in 2018), and delves into more leftfield documents, images and ephemera to create a content-rich, more traditional exhibition, entitled Making Doha 1950–2030. Maybe there is a happy medium between the two approaches that could be found for some of the main galleries going forward.
All this said, the projection does look fantastic on these wonderfully higgledy-piggledy walls. The walls give the interior a dramatic syncopation, animated both by the projection but more important by Nouvel’s wonderfully realised ‘false random system’ taking the discs to their unnatural, natural conclusion. Nouvel has created a true standout building in the architectural noise of Qatar that even he describes as being ‘like a laboratory of modern architecture’, with structures by 10 of his fellow Pritzker Prize-winners numbered among them. For my money, this is a more beautiful building than IM Pei’s nearby Museum of Islamic Art (2008) and if you add in Nouvel’s brilliant Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened last year, you find that this part of the world is becoming a particularly rich canvas for his art.