Jean Nouvel’s ‘desert rose’ design for the National Museum of Qatar completes

Jean Nouvel’s ‘desert rose’ design for the National Museum of Qatar completes

At the heart of the new National Museum of Qatar is a platform displaying the components of a traditional bait al-sha’t, or ‘house of hair’, the tents Bedouins constructed and dismantled as they roamed the peninsula. Resembling long Persian rugs, they were knit by women from the hair of black goats for their ability to protect from harsh, unpredictable weather.

The message, that architecture here in Qatar must work hard, is as true today as ever. Like the skyscrapers of Doha’s West Bay area, Jean Nouvel’s latest feat, a blast of interlocking concrete discs, is tasked with ‘bridging the sea and desert’ (or, as it were, the city and motorway). But it also must project and shape the nation’s cultural identity, draw publicity to a tiny country growing in geopolitical heft, and help develop a new cultural industry to mitigate the dominance of oil.

The structure is a blast of interlocking concrete discs. Photography: Iwan Baan

Nouvel’s design nails a tough mission: to balance, superlative for superlative, IM Pei’s pyramidal Museum of Islamic Art, down the road. Not to mention Nouvel’s own Louvre satellite next door in Abu Dhabi. The architect takes as his inspiration a naturally occurring phenomenon of the ‘desert rose’, a layered crystallisation of minerals occurring in salty sand. He designed 539 conical discs to act as ‘petals’ and cast them in glass fibre-reinforced concrete. The neutral-toned finish will provide a foil for the scourge of flying sand that ends up coating even Doha’s steeliest towers after a storm. ‘They symbolise at once the eternity of the desert and its link with the sea,’ he says.

Driving Doha’s palm-edged Corniche is how most visitors will approach the NMoQ – the building creeps up on you that way. But taking the narrower inland roads allows it to properly surge into view. The nimbleness and litheness of the forms belie the heavy brutality of the material, which is supported by deftly placed vertical volumes that form a steel superstructure, anchored into the grainy public plaza.

At the entrance, petals fly outward into archways, and as you pass under, the arrangement appears to blossom before your eyes. The complexity, says Nouvel, is in the connections at each node. Arup engineers in every timezone worked to control the forces at those intersections. ‘The structural system is a mystery,’ concludes Nouvel. 

National Museum of Qatar interior
Inside, the museum hosts displays that celebrate the nation’s identity. Photography: Danica O. Kus

Indoors, the first curiosity you’ll encounter is an escalator, leading up to a second lobby and corridor. Windows, set deep within the voids to minimise harsh light and heat, work with inward-slanting walls to suppress the visitor experience slightly. The wonky walls deliver an effect not unlike walking through a series of Bedouin tents; instead of bearing the brunt of the artefacts, they bear giant, high-definition screens broadcasting historical video reenactments by seasoned directors like Mira Nair and Peter Webber.

Moving into the centre of each gallery are the actual artefacts: tools and runes from prehistory, falconry gear and pearl-fishing equipment from the early years of this 200-year-old nation and finally extraction machinery from Qatar’s recent arrival as a world leader in liquid natural gas. They go on nearly a mile, culminating at the largest artefact of all: a century-old palace once inhabited by the late Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, now under restoration.  

Nouvel says ‘architecture is the testimony of an epoch,’ and he believes his building and this collection ‘will help develop better understanding and communication between civilizations and political entities.’ §

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