a teatray in the sky

National Museum of Qatar, Jean Nouvel

Posted in Architecture, Concepts, Jean Nouvel by firthefirst on March 24, 2010

I know what it looks like.  somebody’s unfinished 3ds max renderings just escaped from studio at 3 in the a.m.  for real, the sky hasn’t even been retouched, it’s just what the skylight system sets as the default environment map.     

but no, this is in fact what Mr. Nouvel dropped on tuesday as his proposed design for the new National Museum of Qatar at MOMA up in new york.  apparently, when you’re a student and you pull one of these, you get a frothing critic and ringing eardrums (up until the fifth beer or so that night).  when you’re Nouvel, you get the new york times critic and a gushing rave, claiming the project as Nouvel’s “most overtly poetic act of cultural synthesis yet”.     

I’m not saying I disagree.  when it comes to integrating contemporary design with the visual culture of the arab world, Nouvel does it better than almost anyone.  from the start, he was one of the first to explore mixing a stunning motorized adaptive facade, that responded to the amount of incident daylight, with the traditional motifs of islamic architecture at the Arab Institute in Paris:     

photo pirated from archisketches.blogspot.com


sure, all of the micromotors broke.  sure, they were designed in such a way that it was pointless to fix them once they broke.  the fact remains, the building would be a staple of any architectural education either for its adaptive facade or its exploration of islamic architecture in modern construction, much less the both of these bold moves in a single building.  for those of you who don’t care for archie geekspeak, when it all comes down to it, just look at the photo.  it’s a gorgeous space.     

the new york times review also compares Jean Nouvel’s new piece to I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art.  to me, there is no comparison:     


you can call it timeless and praise its solidity all you want, but let’s be clear.  it’s flat-out boring.  it looks halfway islamic and halfway pei, and that’s no way to be a building.  an odd pile of mute boxes that looks like a neat stack of packages waiting to be picked up by a Paul Bunyan-sized UPS delivery man.  sort of like how the new National Museum of Qatar look like an odd pile of pancakes waiting to be eaten by Paul Bunyan himself.     


but whereas Pei’s museum and even Nouvel’s own earlier work attempt to imitate arab architecture, the new National Museum is striving to reinterpret a lifestyle (that of the nomadic bedouins) and give it a form of its own.  the pancakes / concrete plates may look random, and if Jean Nouvel were to be frank with you he’d have to tell you that to some extent they are.  it doesn’t mean the form isn’t tightly tied to the program of the building, however, but whether or that is successful will only be revealed once visitors can experience it for themselves.     


images like this one of the interior concern me; in the endeavor to create monumental abstract form, modern architects often neglect or fail to reconcile different scales of architecture.  it can look great on paper, but what if it’s just an amorphous space when you step inside, leading you from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular.  one of my favorite things about the Milwaukee Museum of Art by Santiago Calatrava is the amount of detail and space-crafting that gives the building an iconic, almost made-for-two-tone-logos look, yet also creates a procession of rooms-within-space that give the visitor a clear sense of scale, progression, and rhythm.     


ultimately, the National Museum of Qatar is meant to be explored from the landscape, and that’s where its evocation of the desert dunescape is most meaningful.  it immediately captures the imagination of a visitor as a landscape-within-a-landscape, an oasis to climb over and under and explore.  and that’s exactly the feeling going to a museum should conjure up in you.

One Response

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  1. Daniel Tsui said, on March 25, 2010 at 11:38 am


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