Growing up, I lived in Umm Slal, a small town on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar‘s capital city. My bedroom window faced open desert, the rocky ground forming a simple line across the horizon, the faint trace of electricity lines silhouetted against the sun. My favourite time of day was when the sun would set directly into my room, the light filtering through the tinted windows and onto my blue-painted walls.
Ours was a small neighbourhood – a row of cement houses with metal gates, one main street and some stray cats. But that was changing quickly. Take-away restaurants and residential compounds were appearing, rows of houses were being built on once-flat desert. Doha’s suburbs were encroaching, rapidly.
Downtown, a glittering skyline was emerging; construction cranes and cement skeletons gave way to metal and glass towers and I could see growing when we drove through the city.
Some of the new buildings gave you vertigo. The Museum of Islamic Art was one of them.
I was in middle school when it was constructed on a man-made island on the south side of Doha’s Corniche, a stretch of seafront along which the city is built.
It was designed by I M Pei (1917 – 2019), the Chinese-born architect known for modern designs such as the Louvre pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong. He had been coaxed out of retirement to design it.
The Qatari government’s vision for the building was clear: It would be the first and crown jewel of a series of museums in the country.
The MIA museum opened to the public in 2008; it was like nothing the city had seen before.
The building feels otherworldly; its light stone rising from the water 60 metres offshore, its shaded arches dwarfing visitors who pass beneath them, its angled walls casting shadows under the shifting sun.
Yet, it also feels like home; the dry rustle of palm trees along the outdoor walkway, the salty ocean air, the warm stone underfoot, and the building’s simple shapes – circles, squares and stars – are familiar to residents of this small Gulf country.
Like many new buildings, it seems to offer a promise for the future while also leaving you contemplating what lay there before.
It is a familiar feeling in a rapidly growing city where the skyline seemed to appear almost overnight.
I wonder now visiting the museum – walking past the white noise of water running down the entrance bridge, through glass doors and into an atrium that feels as simple and bright as the desert itself – why I M Pei, then in his 80s and at the end of his career, had chosen to design it.
I spoke to a number of people who knew him or his work well and they had some ideas why he did: He had never worked in the Middle East before and saw it as a new frontier; he had developed a genuine friendship with our father emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who gave him the freedom to build his masterpiece; he was taken by the vision and drive of a royal family that was putting their money towards preserving the cultural history of the region.
Some of them had met the Pritzker Prize-winning architect – who passed away at the age of 102 last week – and others hadn’t. I wish I had, as I walk through the museum and am again reminded of my childhood bedroom, of the sun setting on its walls, of the open desert.
I M Pei had insisted that the museum be built on reclaimed land so that no number of new towers could obstruct the sun.
I M Pei, I see, also loved the Doha light.
Others shared with me their view of the museum and what it means to them.