“Since the beginning of his architectural career, Jean Nouvel has broken the aesthetic of modernism and postmodernism to create a stylistic language all his own. He places enormous importance on designing a building harmonious with its surroundings,” said Bill Lacy in his book, One Hundred Contemporary Architects.

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This statement is rightly justified with the advent of the eminent National Museum of Qatar. Like a free inspired rose amidst the desert and oases of a mix of international and Arabic architecture, this structure is a breathtaking blend of culture, technology, and symbolism, thus becoming an important part of Qatar’s Identity. The museum opened to the public on 28 March 2019.

 It entails a chronological display of the progress of Qatar, from being a no man’s land to its Bedouin and pearl fishing history and then to its post-oil transformation to one of the richest countries in the world. Built with a motive of bringing the people of Qatar close to their heritage and history and generate self-pride while also becoming “a bit show-off thing” for the large foreign crowd expected in the 2020 FIFA World cup. It is architectural, spatial, and sensory all at once, Just like its architect wanted it to be.

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Close to the Hamad International Airport, and on a prime location opposite Doha’s Corniche, this cultural structure sits on a destined location enveloping the twentieth-century palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Tahani, the former ruler of the country. The historic palace was restored by Berlin-based architecture and engineering firm ZRS Architekten Ingenieure. This location thus enhances the ramifications of the noble motive and bridges the gap between the country’s past and the present emotionally and visually. Advocated by Sheikha Al Mayassa as a way to “define ourselves instead of forever being defined by others […]” and of “celebrating our identity”.

Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet1
View of the restored historic Palace with close up of the new NMoQ-image ©Iwan Baan
Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet2
Site plan Qatar National Museum- source( iloveqatar.net)

Figure 1Plan of NMOQ representing its envelope around the restored palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani – inexhibit.com

The concept behind the design of this iconic monument is as noble as the motive of its construction. It is inspired by the Desert Rose. In the Pritzker Laurette’s own words,” The desert rose, a flower-like aggregate of mineral crystals occurring only in arid coastal regions, is the first architectural structure that nature itself creates, through the wind, sea spray and sand acting together over millennia. It’s surprisingly complex and poetic”.

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Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet3
Desert rose- source (Wikipedia)
Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet4
View of NMoQ in its prime location, adjacent to the Doha Corniche( seafront)- source (Architectural Digest)

1. Areas:

The 430,000 square foot (40,000 m²) museum is spread on a 1.5 million ft² site at the south end of Doha’s Corniche, paired with a 1.2 million ft² landscaped park that celebrates Qatar’s indigenous fauna, mounds representing dunes and an artificial lagoon. With a capacity of holding 400 cars, it houses a 220-seat auditorium, a research center, laboratories, and dedicated food forums viz. two restaurants, a café, and two museum shops, (one for children) spread across the campus thus making it a complete cultural panorama. The total cost of construction of this marvel is estimated to be $434m (£333m).

A surreal walk from parking to the museum entrance, keeps the eyes fixed on the amazing structure, with an inviting pattern wrapping the entangled discs. The pattern breaks the mass and creates an eye-pleasing edifice. The entrance leads to a large open to sky plaza, that organically leads to the desert rose restaurant and the reception for the museum. The plaza is a great transitional element for the visitor to absorb and admire the unconventional design. 

As the visitor crosses the regular security checks and ticketing system, the entangled walls of the museum pave the way towards the surprisingly unique exhibitions and galleries. They are loosely arranged in chronological order with projections of films, lights and videos on the face of the disks, and audio in the background. It is indeed a unique, sensory experience. The inside completely detaches the visitor from the bright outside world and immerses them into the ambiance.

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Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet5
(a)Desert tent exhibit with projections and movies Photo credit: Danica Kus-iloveqatar.net
Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet6
(b) Life on a coast exhibit-image ©Danica Kus- Iloveqatar.net

The 21st-century audio, a visual display in the museum

The various floor levels that merge into each other, as the disks from walls and ceiling weave the space, offer a unique circulation, and transition making it quite organic and effortless, yet organized into different galleries. The transitions are adorned with appropriate halts, seating, and activity zones, to keep the visitor attentive and fresh during the 2-hour journey inside.

The design is not just iconic but also fully functional with designated spaces for everything that goes into a museum and cultural hub. Carefully planned VIP drop off and reception area and school Drop off and orientation area next to the main public lobby, and dedicated facilities for entertaining school groups and VIPs have been incorporated in the site plan. All this with thoughtful and appropriate support facilities like toilets for visitors and staff, baby-change facilities, prayer rooms, support-staff offices, storage areas, loading areas, and service rooms.

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Staff facilities include conservation laboratories, staff offices, collections management, storage areas, Two restoration/conservation laboratories in the basement and on the second floor, Administrative offices and conference rooms (approximately 150 staff )

2. Materials

The structure is built with 539 disks, with a spherical section, where a few vertical ones support the structure. All the disks are of different diameters and curvatures. The largest disk diameter is 87 m, and the smallest is 14 m. 

The skin of the building is made of high-performance glass-fiber-reinforced concrete carrying the same sandy beige color throughout the building. The finishes are neutral and monochromatic. The floors are sand-colored polished concrete with tiny mineral aggregates. The vertical walls are coated in stuc-Pierre, or stone stucco, traditional gypsum, and lime-blended plaster that gives a stone look. Ceilings are covered in a microporous acoustic plaster sprayed on mineral wool. (Archdaily)

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3. Sustainability

Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet7
Figure 3 The disks as shading devices for its envelope and the surroundings.image ©Patric Bazz- source- The Guardian

The building is extremely energy efficient. The disks that make up its structure are heavy and form a cushioned barrier that acts as a sunscreen. They cast long protective shadows on the built-up and on the few fenestrations it has in the setbacks, thus protecting it from the harsh sun, and enabling the visitors to explore the interior as well as the exterior in comfort. As a result, the interior spaces are efficiently air-conditioned. This unique design feature is among the many that have enabled NMoQ to become the first museum to also receive LEED Gold certification and a four-star sustainability rating from the Global Sustainability Assessment System.

 This Monument has been recognized worldwide for its breathtaking design. It received three nominations in LCD Berlin awards, and became the only cultural destination in the world to win two LCD Berlin awards (equivalent to Oscar in building awards) and its gift Shop designed by Koichi Takada, also received four international awards, in US, UK, Australia and on international blogging platforms.

Qatar National Museum by Jean Nouvel: The Desert Rose - Sheet8
Figure 4 The awarded Gift Shop by Koichi Takada-image ©tom ferguson- Designboom

Cited by all the leading magazines, it has been described as one of the World’s Greatest Places to Visit in 2019 by Times Magazine

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In the end, Ar Jean Nouvel’s own words are the best way to conclude this overwhelming case study,” its architecture evokes the desert, its silent and eternal dimension, but also the spirit of modernity and daring that have come along and shaken up what seemed unshakeable. So, it’s the contradictions in that history that I’ve sought to evoke here.- Jean Nouvel (Quoted by the New York Times)

Bibliography

Archdaily
I love Qatar
The Pritzker Award
Dezeen
The New York Times
The Time Magazine
Designboom

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Author

Mubaraka Surury Saifee is a passionate architect and writer with a keen ability to appreciate the humble gestures of architecture. She believes that there always exists more than single way of looking at things. She sees architecture and writing combined as a medium to reach people and produce some food for thought, to bring positive changes in the society.

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