Oil-rich cities of the Persian Gulf that fifty years ago were sleepy fishing and pearling villages have remade themselves into spectacles of architectural pomp in the 21st century as they seek to cement their geopolitical prominence. Cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become synonymous with the decadent post–Guggenheim Bilbao era in which municipalities have used spectacular architecture by brand-name architects to lend their locales international glamour, and the close concentration of rival states in the Persian Gulf has spawned a sort of starchitect arms race, with neighboring cities jockeying for aesthetic supremacy. Pritzker winners like Zaha Hadid have raced to the area to show off the full extent of their talents, despite reports of widespread abuse of construction workers.
The National Museum of Qatar, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, fits squarely in this moment, although it has not been associated with reports of labor abuses. When it opens in March, 2019, it will set a new benchmark for stylistic exuberance in the area. The design, an almost literal translation of desert rose sand formations, is dizzyingly intricate, almost unbelievable in its complexity. Nouvel said of the design in a statement: “Qatar has a deep rapport with the desert, with its flora and fauna, its nomadic people, its long traditions. To fuse these contrasting stories, I needed a symbolic element. Eventually, I remembered the phenomenon of the desert rose: crystalline forms, like miniature architectural events, that emerge from the ground through the work of wind, salt water, and sand.”
The 430,000-square-foot institution will house displays that tell the story of Qatar’s rise from its deep geological history to its cosmopolitan present. Displays will emphasize the power of the Qatari royal family, showing the nation’s history culminating “in the very heart of Qatari national identity, the thoroughly restored Palace of Sheikh Abdullah,” according to Qatar Museums, the state organization led by Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani focused on promoting Qatari culture.
Iwan Baan, the photographer-par-excellence of architecture’s millennial gilded age, has captured the nearly-completed building in images that testify to the architects’ ability to realize the bedeviling design.
This is not Nouvel’s first foray into the area. His Louvre Abu Dhabi, another daring dish design, opened last year in that United Arab Emirates capital city. Museums by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster were scheduled to join Nouvel’s work there, but construction on those projects appears to have been indefinitely delayed.
The National Museum of Qatar joins I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art, OMA’s Qatar National Library, and Nouvel’s own Burj Doha in Doha, Qatar’s capital city. The country is in the midst of a construction boom as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup.