The National Museum of Qatar emerges from a desert that has ventured all the way to the sea. On the site, the Royal Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani rises up, a 20th-Century landmark of major heritage value to Qatar. The National Museum is dedicated to the history of Qatar. Symbolically, 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. The building I designed needed to reflect three different stories: the story of the peninsula and its inhabitants; an exploration of the coastal and desert lifestyles as well as the pearling industry; and the spectacular acceleration that gave the kingdom – in just a few decades – the power and prosperity we associate with it today. 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 wind, sea spray and sand acting together over millennia. It is surprisingly complex and poetic. Taking the desert rose as a starting point turned out to be a very progressive, not to say utopian, idea. I say “utopian” because, to construct a building 350 m long – with its great big inward-curving disks, and its intersections and cantilevered element, all the things that conjure up a desert rose – we had to meet enormous technical challenges. The museography that grew out of this specific history and these specific considerations provides an experience that is architectural, spatial and sensory all at once. Inside, you find spaces that do not exist anywhere else in the world since it is the interlocking of all these disks that forms the building, inside and out. The result is a construction made of geometric spaces. A number of floors are on an incline. You walk under them, you walk up, and you become aware that there are hardly any vertical lines anywhere. Looking more closely, you can find a few elements that appear to be vertical but, in reality, are not. You only get the impression they are because that is the natural scheme of things. The museum occupies a vast area. From the moment you step inside you are struck by the relationship between the form and the scale, between the theme and the different eras dealt with. As for the desert, it is always there, even if it has morphed into something else completely. As you walk through the different volumes, you never know what is coming next in terms of the architecture. The idea was to create contrasts, spring surprises. You might, for instance, go from one room closed-off pretty high up by a slanting disk to another room with a much lower intersection. This produces something dynamic, tension. As in a lot of other museums, the circuit forms a loop. The complete tour takes about two hours and ends in discovery of the old Royal Palace, which has been restored. From certain points, you can access the baraha: a central courtyard surrounded by buildings where travelers would come and unload their merchandise. The baraha gives an idea of the scale of the Royal Palace. It is a sheltered space, with the museum built around it. Thanks to disks tilted at different angles, it also offers shade. This space can accommodate outdoor events, performances, theatre pieces, events connected to the exhibitions. The baraha is also connected to the outdoor spaces of the old palace. From there, you can stroll along a promenade at the water’s edge. I wanted to create a structure that evoked the local geography and, in keeping with the tradition of the place, to ensure that it offers maximum protection from the sun. The building is extremely energy efficient. The disks that make up its structure are heavy and form a sort of cushioned barrier that acts as a sunscreen. When the sun hits the building from east or west, the disks cast long protective shadows. The building does not have a lot of openings, and the few windows it does have are set back so that they’re always out of reach of the sun. The interior spaces can be air conditioned more economically as a result. The skin of the building is made of high-performance glass fiber-reinforced concrete that is the same sandy beige color inside and outside the building. As for the museography, I have worked in close collaboration with the National Museum to launch the opening with a series of films that provide glimpses of different aspects of Qatar and its history. Made by filmmakers and video artists handpicked for their talent as creators of evocative poetic images, these films are sensitive testaments to past eras, and they translate the way the architecture is tailored to the expression of a museography specifically designed to evoke the scale and power of the land and history of Qatar, from time immemorial to the present moment.
Text by Jean Nouvel
Location: Doha, Qatar
Completion Date: 2019
Architect: Ateliers Jean Nouvel (Jean Nouvel)
Engineering: ARUP London
Gross Floor Area: 52,167 m2
Project Manager: Hafid Rakem
Project Leader: Philippe Charpiot, Nikola Radovanovic, Daniela Fortuna, Toshihiro Kubota, Eric Stephany
Design Team: Claire Bufflier, Daniela Fortuna, Georges Groppas, Maximilien Montanaro, Valle Pinero, Ghita Berradia, Michel Calzada, Bernard Duprat, Narjis Lemrini, Aroa Lujan, Jose Monteiro, Marian Moravek, Samuel Nageotte, Juliana Park, Edouard Perves, Paul Pires da Fonte, Matthieu Puyaubreau, Magdalena Sartori, Anna Voeller, Marilena Cadau, Adrien Chauveau, Victoria D’Alisa, Yaêlle Devaux, Hakan Aldogan, Maja Kwasniewska, Benoit Pailloux, Pablo Alvarenga, Valentin Bernard, Yann Heckler, Ana Taborda, Kiyomi Suzuki, Laura Collins, Khadija Djellouli, Miguel Reyes, Anthony Thevenon
Architect of Record: QDC
Interior Design: Sabrina Letourneur, Floriane Abello, Sophie Laromiguiere, Daniele Pasin Landscape Design: Michel Desvigne, Ana Marti-Baron
Graphic Design: Marie Maillard, Eugénie Robert
3D and BIM: Edmondo Occhipinti & Susan Constantine (Gehry Technology), Yann Heckler, Narjis Lemrini, Samuel Ageotte, Edouard Perves, Toshihiro Kubota, Aurelien Coulanges
Client: Qatar Museums
Museum Fit-out: Renaud Pierard Studio
Scenography: dUCKS scéno (Michel COVA)
Façades: BCS & INGPHI
Lighting: L’Observatoire International (Hervé Descottes), Scherler
Acoustics: AVEL Acoustique
BIM: Gehry Technology
Civil: B+S SA
Heritage: Mohammed Ali Abdulla
Cost Estimator: MDA Consulting & Northcroft
Photography: © Iwan Baan, © Othoniel Studio / Martin Argyroglo, © Danica O. Kus Photography, courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel
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