In this exclusive interview, I.M. Pei, the Pritzker Prize winning architect, shares the ideas behind his design for the striking Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
The Museum of Islamic Art is I. M. Pei's first and only museum in the Middle East. Coming up with its design required an odyssey into Islamic architecture for the Chinese-born, US-based architect who is a recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize.
"Architects by design investigate the play of volumes in light, explore the mysteries of movement in space, examine the measure that is scale and proportion, and above all, they search for that special quality that is the spirit of the place as no building exists alone."
These words of Ieoh Ming Pei in his acceptance speech for the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1983 express his desire to understand the civilizations, contexts and cultures in which his structures are to be built. Indeed, the citation for the Pritzker Prize noted that "Ieoh Ming Pei has given this century some of its most beautiful interior spaces and exterior forms. Yet the significance of his work goes far beyond that. His concern has always been the surroundings in which his buildings rise."
This approach certainly informed how he embraced the challenge of designing the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, Qatar, which opens in November. Pei chose to locate it on an artificial island, which looks out to Doha's West Bay area. "I felt that I needed to defend this building," he explains. "It's small, not like a skyscraper, so I decided it's better for it to be on its own. It needed to be detached yet visually connected."
Born in Guangzhou in 1917, Pei has been based in the US since 1935. His striking buildings include the pyramid of the Louvre Museum (www.louvre.fr) in Paris, the East Wing of the National Gallery (www.nga.gov) in Washington DC, the new wing of the German Historical Museum in Berlin (www.dhm.de/ENGLISH/), the Miho Museum (www.miho.or.jp/english/index.htm) in Shigaraki near Kyoto in Japan, and the Suzhou Museum (www.szmuseum.com/szbwgen/index.html).
I. M. Pei spoke exclusively to Luxuryculture.com about his design for the Museum of Islamic Art.
What attracted you to designing the Museum of Islamic Art?
Since my retirement I have been lucky enough to select work I want to do. This project appealed to me because it gave me a chance to learn about Islam, which I knew very little about. The challenge, for me, is always to learn something about what I'm doing, and about other cultures and civilizations.
What research did you do before beginning your design for the MIA?
I always see and read a lot before I attempt to begin any design. This time, I had to look for the essence of Islamic architecture. Qatar does not have much history, so I couldn't really draw on the history of the country. It was very hard for me as I had never done an Islamic building before. I look at Islam with a pair of eyes made in Asia, so I thought that the one thing I must learn about for this project is the Islamic faith. I read about Islam and Islamic architecture, and the more I read the more I realized where the best Islamic buildings were.
So what did you learn about Islamic architecture?
At the beginning, I believed the best Islamic architecture was in Spain: the mosque in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada. But as I learned more, my ideas changed. For a start, the climate of southern Spain isn't even remotely like a desert, where most Islamic architecture is built. So I kept searching. I traveled to Egypt and to the Middle East many times and saw early Islamic architecture in Damascus, Syria, where they took some early Christian churches and transformed them into mosques. But it wasn't pure Islamic architecture either because it was mixed with Christianity. The same is true of Turkey, where the Ottoman influence is felt. So I went to Tunisia where I was impressed by another type of architecture, that of ribat fortresses at Monastir and Sousse.
Which building inspired your design the most?
The museum I've designed is more influenced by the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, Egypt, than any other building. This mosque is very austere and beautiful, and it has the most refined geometry. Inside the mosque is a large courtyard where there's a small ablutions fountain. That little building is a poem. Its total height can't be more than six or seven feet, but because of the mounting up of geometric forms under the sun, it is magical. I remained faithful to the inspiration I had found in the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and it was this essence that I attempted to bring forth in the desert sun of Doha.
What role does the impact of the sun play in Islamic architecture?
The essence of Islamic architecture is where the sun brings powerful volumes to life and geometry plays a central role. It is the light of the desert that transforms the architecture into a play of light and shadow. This severe architecture comes to life in the sun, with its shadows and shades of color.
If you go to France, where there is not much sun, the details in the great cathedrals are very finely carved. You have to enrich the surfaces in European architecture. But in the Islamic world, it is about strong, simple geometry. That is why you have the Pyramids in Egypt. But you couldn't put the Pyramids in Paris or Manhattan. But in the desert, the combination of light and form makes them perfect.
What did you learn through designing the building?
I learnt that this building changes as the sun moves. In the desert, the sun reveals form and form takes on a special importance. Geometry and mathematics actually originated in this part of the world. It is no accident that Le Corbusier learned much from the architecture of the Mediterranean and the architecture of Islam.
What is the particularity of designing a museum?
To my mind, an essential function of a museum, other than to preserve and display works of art, is to provide visitors with more profound experiences than those of everyday life.
What observations did you make about Islamic architecture?
I have the feeling that Islamic architecture often comes to life in an explosion of decorative elements, when layers and layers of images are put together. Ornamentation isn't something I was trained to look at in my architecture; I was more Eastern in that sense. But when you go to Islam you need to look at ornaments. The decorative art of Islam, and the complexity of the geometry, is absolutely superb, and I didn't know that before. The floating rings are all about geometry. Decorative elements in Islamic architecture are very important. It is just the opposite from Japan, where everything is suppressed to the simplest element. The differences between Kyoto and Doha could not be greater. And we did the two museums – the Miho Museum in the Shigaraki mountains north of Kyoto and the MIA – at roughly the same time, just a few years apart.
Why did you decide to use limestone?
I couldn't use metal because the air in Doha is very salty, and if I had used concrete, humidity and organisms would have grown in the pores. So this is why I returned to stone. The strongest stone is granite, which is a man-made material. But I think art should be housed in a softer material, so I decided to use limestone, more precisely the Chamesson limestone from Burgundy in France. I like the stone in Doha for its symbol of permanence.
You designed the MIA at the same time as the Suzhou Museum in China, which opened in 2006. How was the experience of designing them both simultaneously?
I found them completely different. And for me to do the Suzhou Museum at the same as the MIA was a fantastic experience to be able to interpret two opposite cultures. For me, the culture of Islam is the opposite of the culture of Confucius. Doha has a very strong religious base while China is about philosophy. I'd say they are cultural opposites. Architecture is life. And life is very different from one part of the world to another
What would you say is culturally important in China?
There are two things you need to know about Chinese culture: calligraphy and poetry. A garden is a form of poetry. Architecture is not the same thing; it is a narrow culture. But like poetry, architecture depends on inspiration from an internal source. Poetry is very important in China, and the highest art form in isn't painting, it is calligraphy. Islamic art has calligraphy and poetry too. Calligraphy is the only truly Arabian art of Islam. Chinese writing consists of ideograms unconnected by lines that create a continuous movement. The artistic ideal is the so-called seal character, the isolated ideograms that are significant and decorative. But Arabian calligraphy is an autonomous art and has ceased to be a means of communication.
If you could live your life again, where would you want to be?
I think if you asked me where I would like to be born again, I would not say China. China is too big and it has one simple history, whereas all the complexity is in Europe. China is very monolithic. And what makes Europe interesting to me is its diversity. Take Italy: you travel five miles and you're in another world. I like the people and the food in Italy. The best wines are in France, but for everyday eating, I prefer Italian. If you asked me which town I'd live in, I'd say Florence because you have everything there. The food is quite good, and you have so many museums and so many collections, and the landscape in Tuscany is very agreeable.