horizontal line

Islamic Architecture, Modernism, and I.M. Pei: The Challenge of the Museum of Islamic Art

Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar
October 29th, 2011

The Museum of Islamic Art is a key event—indeed, in some ways it represents the ultimate moment—within the career of I.M. Pei, one of the central figures in the architecture of the last sixty years. Yet even as it is marks a critical point in the arc of Pei’s late career, the museum is equally a part of several entirely different narratives. It needs to be discussed within the history of the museum in contemporary culture, itself, of course, a rich and compelling narrative of its own, and one within which this museum aspires to play an important part. The Museum of Islamic Art is also conceived as an attempt to evolve a contemporary expression of Islamic architecture, an effort that places it within another narrative, the extended quest by architects in the Middle East and the West to find common ground between modernism and Islamic tradition, a dialogue between Islamic and Western architecture that precedes this building by many years and will continue long beyond it. And finally the museum must also be seen as part of a fourth narrative, the story of Qatar itself, and the capital city of Doha, and the ambitious attempt to establish within Doha both a vibrant cultural life and a meaningful urbanism.

It is in the nature of architecture that buildings call for analysis in multiple ways: every building is at once an aesthetic object, a practical one, and a structural one. It is expected, in other words, to be beautiful, to be functional, and to stand up. This tripartite view of architecture, which has its roots in Vitruvius’s never-surpassed definition of architecture as “commodity, firmness, and delight,” stands as a reminder not only that no building’s story is a single narrative, but also that its multiple narratives are braided together so tightly that none can be said to exist on its own.

And an ambitious public building like the Museum of Islamic Art also almost invariably needs to be considered in aspects beyond the three main categories of the aesthetic, the practical, and the physical. Any urban building is a physical object within a larger set of adjacent objects, and cannot be discussed entirely apart from its relationship to its context, which is to say the buildings that are around it. And there is also another meaning to context, a less physical one. Every building—and surely an elaborate museum of Islamic art created by a prominent Western architect of Asian descent for a rapidly growing Middle Eastern emirate—is also a political object with a particular meaning within its own culture and for other cultures.

So there is no shortage of ways in which to view this building, and Pei’s, and Qatar’s, intentions in bringing the Museum of Islamic Art into existence—and also no shortage of ways in which these various narratives are inextricably intertwined and interconnected. I.M. Pei’s career, for example, plays a key role in the broader story of the expansion of the museum in our time. And in turn, the position museums hold in contemporary culture is closely tied to the cultural ambitions of Qatar, which like so many places today have been driven by the recognition that architecturally ambitious museums have become iconic presences for many cities and states, signaling their ambitions to the world.

Indeed, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the museum has come to occupy a position in contemporary international culture not unlike the position once held by the cathedral, a building notable not only for its size and aspirations toward majesty, but also for its distinction from other cathedrals elsewhere. A city now aspires to be known for its art museum, as it was once known for its cathedral, and frequently seeks a museum that is sufficiently different from other museums to serve as its identifying symbol. It might be added that museums are repositories of the past, as cathedrals are; they represent a set of more or less common values, as the cathedrals did when they were new; and museums can function as community centers as well as places of enlightenment, just as cathedrals did.

Of course it is the rise in visual literacy, not spirituality, that drives the contemporary museum, and the democratization of art. A more educated, more visually literate public has come to view the museum not as the province of the elite, but as a democratic right, open to all. The museum has come to symbolize not just the importance of art, but its accessibility.

It is also the case that in an age in which so many people spend most of their days communicating, working, and being entertained by computers, they begin to cry out for the experience of authenticity, which is the art museum’s very essence. In the art museum, everything, whether a twelfth century Iranian bowl or a seventeenth century Indian carpet—or a twentieth century Matisse—is real. When the current wave of technology was new, there was considerable fear that it could have the opposite effect, that it could destroy the power of the real, or at the very least compromise it by blurring the distinction between the virtual and the real. In fact, the opposite thing has happened. The real, by being more rare, became all the more precious. It takes on an almost holy aura—we are in the presence of the real thing, not the virtual image of it, and that aura, when everything is working as it should, extends to the very core of the museum’s being.
Another thing that has grown and not diminished in most technologically advanced societies today, both in the West and in the Middle East—and this is also contrary to many predictions—is the value of good public space. The ability to work, shop, and be entertained by computer had threatened to make streets and town squares and retail shops obsolete, but the opposite has happened: technology has made public space its own kind of authentic object, all the more precious than it was. People, it turns out, want to walk on streets as well as to talk online. They want to be in real places, so long as those real places offer them something beyond what they can get through their computers.

Where these two phenomena coincide and the increased power of authenticity joins with the desire to be in truly special public places is, of course, the art museum. It is no accident that the art museum has become the most important public building of the age. It is both a temple to authenticity and a public gathering place—not to mention a place in which the very idea of immortality seems always to hover, offering the hope of some degree of transcendence from daily life.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that the last generation has sought to give art museums a more conspicuous architectural presence, and that we have come to think of them not just as containers for works of art, but also as works of art in themselves. While the notion of the museum as an ambitious and significant work of architecture is hardly new to our time—indeed, it might be said to have begun with the first important building constructed solely to serve as an art museum, Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin, of 1830—expectations for the museum have grown far larger, and become much more widespread, over the last few decades than ever before. The current view of the museum as an architectural event in itself begins, at least symbolically, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, completed in 1959, its round shape and spiral exhibition ramp for more than half a century as much of an attraction in New York City than any painting in its collection. In the years immediately following the opening of the Guggenheim, and perhaps to some extent in reaction to it, the modernist preference for showing art in simple, straightforward, orthogonal white rooms, an attitude exemplified by the Museum of Modern Art of 1939 by Edward Durell Stone and Philip Goodwin, remained fairly common, driven in part by the belief that such places were neutral environments that deferred entirely to art. That was something of a fallacy, of course, since no space is truly neutral, and the white, boxy rooms of the Museum of Modern Art, or of so many art galleries, while hardly as distinctive as the Guggenheim, nevertheless make a potent architectural statement.

But these simple modern spaces that we might refer to as classic modernism were hardly the only way of making museums, of course; the nineteen-seventies brought two of the greatest museum projects by Louis Kahn, the Kimbell in Fort Worth and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, both magnificent, brooding buildings that reinterpreted the modern aesthetic as something no longer light, but heavy, solid, almost primal. At the same time, Richard Meier was beginning an active career as a museum architect by reinterpreting modernism in a different way, as light and picturesque, almost romantic, supremely elegant, and not at all neutral. And as museums became a more important architectural commission, the counter-reaction to the simple modern box grew, driven in part by the increasing democratization of art around the world, making museums more popular, as well as the gradual but steadily mounting doubts among both architects and clients that the straightforward, orthodox modernism of the International Style—the simple modernist box, that is—could provide the degree of popular attraction that they sought.

Surely Lina Bo Bardi, the Brazilian architect who designed the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, of 1968, and Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, in their competition-winning entry for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, completed in 1977, had a new model in mind. Both of these buildings somewhat disingenuously pretended to neutrality by virtue of their flexible, changeable interiors, but they were not, of course, neutral at all. They were powerful statements, as powerful, in their way, as the Guggenheim had been. Piano and Rogers turned modernism into hyper-modernism, exaggerating functional elements and turning them into what for all intents and purposes was decoration. The Sao Paulo museum exuded a Brutalist swagger. If the Pompidou was more fanciful and playful, both of these museums suggested that modernism was far from exhausted as a source of new, distinctive and highly expressionist design.

All through the last two decades of the twentieth century, the museum seemed to expand exponentially as a vehicle for architectural expression. Renzo Piano built, and continues to build, museums at an astonishingly rapid rate, and many of them, including the Menil Collection in Houston, the Beyeler in Basel, and the very recent Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago are important further steps in the quest to find a modernist expression that is at once light and substantial, and a vivid but not too assertive presence. And it is essential to mention two architects who chose other ways of breaking away from orthodox modernism: James Stirling, whose Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, completed in 1985, is perhaps the greatest post-modern museum built, an intense, extreme play on historical form that is almost an inversion of classicism; and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whose Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery of Art in London, completed in 1991, represented a less playful, less cartoonlike, and highly mannered play on historical form. In neither of these cases did the architects use historical form to create what in any way could be considered a traditional building. Quite the contrary; they saw their museums as very much of the late twentieth century—it is just that to them, the spirit at the end of the century, with modernism no longer new or revolutionary, called for some degree of looking back and embracing architectural history, and making of it something of a collage. In that way, the sense of a collage or an assemblage, these buildings and the aesthetic they represented broke significantly from the modernist quest for a kind of platonic ideal, a pure and perfect object—a quest that I.M. Pei, for his part, very much continued to pursue.

Post-modernism did not fulfill its expectations for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the slightly cartoonlike nature of many of its buildings did not seem convincing as a way of making architectural statements that would be permanent, important, and monumental, which we have always wanted our museums to be. But even more of a factor, surely, was the rise of a key figure in the architectural history of the museum at the end of the twentieth century, an architect whose impact now seems to be at least as significant as that of Kahn or Pei, Frank Gehry. Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, completed in 1997—paid for by the Basque government but built and managed by the same institution that built Wright’s great Guggenheim in New York—is without a doubt the key museum of the late twentieth century. It is a building of great power, energy, and assertiveness, yet also of great beauty, and its curving titanium forms, in combination with elements of stone and glass, represented a truly new way of building that was less mannered than post-modernism, yet every bit as much of a break with classic modernism. It became wildly popular, one of the few buildings of great architectural ambition, depth and complexity to excite the public imagination. There are not many such buildings: in the category of museums only Wright’s Guggenheim, and two works of I.M. Pei, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the glass pyramid at the Louvre, have managed to be so worthy of extended critical analysis and so popular at the same time.

Pei had designed numerous other art museums of note before accepting the commission to design the Museum of Islamic Art, and it is important to consider all of them not only within the context of contemporary museum design, but also within the larger framework of his exceptionally wide-ranging career. Pei has never been easily characterized. A committed modernist who was born in China and educated in the United States, he began his career not as what we might call an artist-architect, but in what might be considered the most commercial venue of all for an architect: as the chief of design within the office of a real estate developer, William Zeckendorf. In the early nineteen fifties, Zeckendorf, unlike most of his colleagues, was eager to prove that it was possible to build commercial projects at large scale without sacrificing architectural quality. Pei shared both Zeckendorf’s unusual mix of idealism and pragmatism, and the two were so comfortable working together that the developer convinced him to work directly for him rather than begin an independent architectural practice.

It is not the sort of beginning that one would expect for an architect who would eventually become one of the leading designers of museums in the world. But as Pei was not a typical architect, Zeckendorf was hardly a typical developer. He was genuinely excited by architecture and the possibilities modern design held in the postwar years, and he envisioned himself less as a conventional client than as a true partner of his architect. The association with Zeckendorf lasted through the nineteen-fifties; in 1960, as Zeckendorf ran into the financial problems that would eventually result in his bankruptcy, Pei took the large architectural department he had built for Zeckendorf and turned it into an independent firm—making himself the rare architect to have opened his own practice with a staff of several dozen already in place.

Pei had done some notable buildings for Zeckendorf, mainly housing like Kips Bay Plaza in New York, and commercial towers like Mile High Center in Denver. There are elements of simple, direct geometries in most of these buildings, as well as a desire to move away from the light, transparent structures of the International Style toward something more sculptural and more defined by masonry. And once Pei was on his own, he began to move more assertively in these directions, beginning with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, completed in 1967, a project that has echoes of his contemporary Paul Rudolph, and surely emerges out of a view of modernism as capable of possessing both traditional dignity and a new kind of sculptural energy. The influence of Le Corbusier is clear, as it is in the Luce Chapel in Taiwan, finished in 1963, a small religious building that seems to owe a debt to Le Corbusier’s celebrated chapel at Ronchamp, which had been finished just eight years before. At more or less the same time, Pei also showed a willingness to learn from Frank Lloyd Wright, since the Newhouse Center for Communications at Syracuse University, finished in 1964, very clearly uses the aesthetic of Wright’s Prairie Houses, but then turns it into something altogether different—something civic, monumental and, most un-Wrightian of all, symmetrical.

In his first years of independent practice Pei seemed to be looking at the entire range of modern architecture, treating it almost as a smorgasbord, picking and choosing from a wide range of different influences. He was seeking his own voice, and he hadn’t fully found it, but what unites these early independent projects as well as most of his work for Zeckendorf was a desire to make modernism that was actively geometrical, yet solidly monumental. He had relatively little interest in the notion of modernism as connoting lightness, as exemplified by the work of Mies van der Rohe; if anything, Pei’s sensibility seemed more akin to the rough, heavy, powerful style influenced by late Le Corbusier that came to be known as Brutalism. But Pei did something quite unusual, even contradictory, here: he sought to make Brutalism refined, to keep its sense of mass and solidity but remove all its rough edges and make them smooth and elegant.

These qualities would remain paramount in his work as he moved on to other civic and cultural buildings, projects that we could well consider precursors to the Museum of Islamic Art. Pei’s first museums, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, completed in 1968, the addition to the Des Moines Art Center, also of 1968, and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, finished in 1973, are all different, but each in its way was an exercise in the use of blunt, direct modern geometric form to yield a powerful yet at the same time highly refined building. So, too, would Pei’s other buildings explore different forms and influences and yet, however varied, would always be defined by an exercise in geometric shape making that was at once blunt and elegant. The airline terminal Pei designed for National Airlines at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, completed in 1970 and demolished, unfortunately, in 2011, can stand for a large group of buildings designed at roughly the same time as the early museums, most of which shared the airline terminal’s quality of being both exceptionally massive and exceptionally refined.

If these general qualities prefigure the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, so do many more specific aspects of earlier projects. One of Pei’s first independent commissions was the John F. Kennedy Library, originally planned for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and eventually built in a revised design at Columbia Point at the edge of a University of Massachusetts campus that overlooked an outer section of Boston Harbor. Pei convinced the client to locate the library far at the farthest point of the site, far from the other campus buildings, all the way out at a point at the water’s edge—actually beyond the buildable portion of the site, so a tremendous amount of site work was required before any construction could begin. The final version of the building was heavily compromised, but it is still very much a Pei composition: a combination of basic geometric shapes, in this case a circle, a square, and a triangle, and an elaborate glass space frame looking out to the water and to the view of the city skyline in the distance. The Kennedy Library project was begun in 1964 and not finished until 1979; despite the distance of thirty years between its completion and the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art, not to mention the enormous differences between these two buildings in terms of quality of materials and detailing, it is not difficult to see that they represent a very similar view toward siting: in each case the museum is envisioned as a fairly simple geometric composition, set at the edge of the waterfront on a site created out of landfill, in deliberate isolation from other buildings and from the city center.

Considerably more successful, and definitely an advance in terms of the quality of its details, was the East Building, Pei’s addition to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, completed in 1978, a year before the Kennedy Library, but designed many years after it. Here there is of course no waterfront site, but the themes of Pei’s earlier museums remain: the East Building is a solid masonry structure of crisp geometries, in this case dictated by two adjacent triangles, with a large, light-filled atrium between them. Carter Wiseman, Pei’s biographer, recounts that William Pedersen, the architect who began his career as one of Pei’s chief design associates, grew concerned that the rigorous geometry of the triangles would compromise the functional success of the building, and yield galleries that were potentially awkward. He raised his concerns with Pei, who listened carefully and then responded that he remained absolutely committed to the overall form of the building. It was clearly of critical importance to Pei that a powerful and highly readable geometry be driving the design. (Wiseman, 2001, 165)

Indeed, as Pedersen predicted, the East Building has always been somewhat compromised functionally: its galleries are clearly secondary spaces, organized around a spectacular central atrium that is in every way the primary space of the building. While it would be an exaggeration to refer to the galleries as leftover spaces, it is difficult not to feel that they are subordinate ones. The atrium, unlike the great central halls of many classical museum buildings, including John Russell Pope’s original National Gallery building next door, does not lead in a natural sequence to the galleries. It feels less like a prologue to the gallery spaces than like a destination in itself.

Still, the East Building represented an important moment in the history of American museum architecture. It was surely the most monumental modernist museum built up to that point and probably, even with its shortcomings, the most widely admired. Its success underscored the extent to which modernism had become an accepted, perhaps even a conservative, style by the late nineteen seventies. If an important new museum might also be an avant-garde architectural statement, as with Wright’s Guggenheim twenty years earlier or Piano and Rogers’ Centre Pompidou just the year before, the East Building made a different kind of statement: it said that modernism could, in its way, be as monumental and self-assured as classicism, and could project the same air of permanence. For all of its powerful diagonals, the East Building nevertheless seemed fixed and grounded, as if Pei had wanted to prove that his building—and modern architecture in general—could stand beside a classical building like John Russell Pope’s with equal gravitas.

Two other museum buildings by Pei further set the stage for Pei’s work in Doha. In 1989, Pei completed his glass pyramid that now serves as the public entrance to the Louvre. It is at this point surely his most famous work, and a project that was highly controversial when it was proposed. Now it has been so widely accepted that it is difficult to understand why it provoked such strong opposition, though much of it, to be fair, was directed not toward Pei’s actual design, but toward the vast expansion and modernization of the Louvre to accommodate larger crowds of which the pyramid was the most conspicuous symbol. Here again Pei uses modern elements and modern materials to create a simple, almost primal shape, exquisitely detailed and absolute in its geometry. In this sense the pyramid represents not a departure from Pei’s previous work, but an extension of it. What marks the pyramid as different is both the sense of overall lightness it projects and the extent to which it relies upon, and connects to, older buildings; it cannot be viewed or even conceived as a thing in itself, as the East Building, for all its connections to its older neighbor, can stand alone. Every image of the pyramid shows the Louvre behind it; the courtyard of the Louvre quite literally becomes part of Pei’s architecture. Here, lightness and transparency become an act of architectural deference, as if Pei were ceding to the older sections of the Louvre the solidity and opacity he normally wants his museums to have. The intimate relationship between Pei’s sleek glass pyramid and the eighteenth century buildings of the Louvre is, of course, is what many of the original critics had objected to, fearing that the juxtaposition would provoke an untenable clash. In fact, the opposite has turned out to be true: Pei’s pyramid is remarkably comfortable beside the older wings of the Louvre, as Pei had predicted it would be, and might even be said to enliven them at no cost to their dignity.

If the Louvre project showed that Pei could be more comfortable with classical symmetry than anyone had expected, further setting the stage for the Museum of Islamic Art, it provided another element that would prove beneficial in Doha. At the Louvre, Pei worked for the first time with Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the gifted designer whose collaboration with him on interior exhibition spaces was so successful that the architect invited Wilmotte to work with him again on the Museum of Islamic Art, where Wilmotte would have a substantial impact on the design of the galleries.

Pei was to design one other museum that might be said to serve as a precursor in a different way for the Museum of Islamic Art: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. It was an unlikely project for Pei, who received the commission in 1986 in large part because he was thought to bring an air of established respectability to a new institution that was logically associated more with youth and irreverence. Pei characteristically immersed himself in the culture of rock and roll, even traveling to Memphis to visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home, not, to be sure, in search of literal architectural inspiration, but in quest of a greater understanding of rock and roll. In fact, the museum, which opened in 1995, has many of the characteristic Pei elements: bold dramatic shapes and a large, glass-enclosed central atrium. And like the Kennedy Library and the Museum of Islamic Art, it has a prominent site along the waterfront.

By the time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened, Pei was approaching the age of 80 and had largely withdrawn from his firm. He did not retire; he formed a partnership with his two architect sons with the understanding that he would accept only those commissions he considered meaningful to him. One was the Miho Museum outside of Kyoto, completed in 1997, which is reached via a dramatic approach through a tunnel and over a bridge, and which is a clear effort to re-interpret classic Japanese design; another was a museum for Suzhou, Pei’s family’s ancestral home in China, which opened in 2006 and which represented a similar effort to integrate traditional Chinese architecture into what was clearly a modern building. Both of these buildings possessed many of Pei’s characteristic elements, underscoring the fact that Pei had no desire to imitate a traditional building directly.

But while he was never comfortable with direct historical quotation, he was gradually becoming more interested in modern buildings that made overt attempts to synthesize historic style, as he had first tried to do in a project much closer to home than Kyoto, Suzhou or Doha: his design for the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, a stone-clad skyscraper completed in the early nineteen-nineties that has an elaborate, setback top clearly evocative of classic Manhattan skyscrapers of the nineteen-twenties. The hotel tower represented a significant aesthetic distance from the stark and simple modernist buildings of Pei’s early years, but it would set a tone for all three of his late museums, where Pei sought, in three entirely different contexts, to create modern buildings that would similarly recall many elements of traditional style while copying none of them literally, and that would appear sympathetic to traditional buildings while being very much of the twenty-first century.

At Doha, Pei was to make what was perhaps his most ambitious attempt to create a modern building that would synthesize elements of traditional architectural styles, as to conclude his career with a ringing declaration of his belief that modern and traditional architecture need not be seen as representing entirely opposite philosophies. The Museum of Islamic Art was a key building block in the program of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to establish Qatar as a major international cultural center, and it was intended to be the first in an extraordinarily ambitious series of museums overseen by Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani that would eventually include a national museum designed by Jean Nouvel.

The Islamic art museum project actually began some time before Pei was called to design it. In 1997, an architectural competition was held to select a design under the aegis of the Aga Khan’s long- standing initiative to encourage contemporary expressions of Islamic architecture. The winner was the Jordanian architect Rasem Badran, who produced a scheme that philosophically if not architecturally had certain similarities to what Pei would design several years later. (Badran’s competition design bore little resemblance to the building Pei would eventually create, but it represented a particularly engaging, not to say self-assured, synthesis of modernism and traditional Islamic motifs.)

Badran’s project did not, however, go ahead. The Emirate of Qatar had already become an active collector of art and artifacts from across the Islamic world. It was eager to invest in further acquisitions, and it is possible that Badran, despite his distinguished reputation within the region, did not have the degree of international stature the nation sought. Whatever the reason for the abandonment of Badran’s design, Luis Monreal, a member of the competition jury, suggested to the Emir that the project might appeal to Pei, whose prestige, it probably did not have to be said, would bring welcome attention to the emirate’s already rapidly growing cultural stature. Pei was approached and he agreed to accept the commission, despite the fact that he had never designed a building in the Middle East—or perhaps because of it, since he has said that “I chose to do buildings in places I’d never been before—I enjoy learning about a place. I knew the East because I was born there, the West because I was educated there, but the Middle East I didn’t know. My early education never revealed to me Islamic architecture as a major architectural invention,” Pei said (Landin and van Wagenen, 2009).

Pei was clear from the outset that at Doha he would try to do much the same thing that he had done in Kyoto, and was in the process of doing in Suzhou: he wanted his building to stand as evidence that there need not be a contradiction between modernism and traditional culture, to show that it is possible to design a thoroughly modern building that absorbs and reflects the influences of traditional architecture. Islamic architecture, of course, is another thing from Asian architecture, and as Pei freely admitted, he could not claim any real familiarity with it as he began the design process. His Western education had taught him nothing about either the art or the architecture of Islam. At the start of the design process, for Pei, Islamic architecture was as unfamiliar as the culture of rock and roll.

But as he had prepared himself for the process of designing the building in Cleveland, Pei immersed himself in this new culture, and sought to understand not only its physical forms but also the minds of its creators. He began by reading a biography of the Prophet Mohammad, which revealed to Pei, he later said, “how little I knew about Islam” (Landin and van Wagenen, 2009). And then he began to travel across the region, seeking, he said, to discover the “essence” of Islamic architecture (Jodidio, 2008, 26). It was a journey that underscored the extent to which the architect was anything but casual in his attitude toward this project.
Pei went to see the Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, which he later said he had previously assumed to be the high point of Islamic architecture, but which he now felt was too Spanish, perhaps even too Mediterranean. Similarly, the Jama Masjid, in Fatehpur Sikri, in India, was too Indian. The Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus felt too suggestive of Roman and Byzantine architecture. Nothing Pei saw seemed, to him, to reveal the essential qualities of Islamic architecture as a pure thing unto itself. In Tunisia, Pei found himself more attracted to ancient ribats, or fortifications, than to mosques—in the forts, he said, “sunlight brings to life powerful volumes and geometry plays a central role.” (Jodidio, 26).

In time, Pei’s travels took him to Cairo, where he visited the ninth century mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the oldest mosque in Cairo to have survived intact, and there he found what he had been looking for—if Cordoba, as Pei said, was “too lush and colorful,” Ibn Tulun was “severe and simple in its design,” a place “where sunlight brings forms to life…an almost Cubist expression of geometry progression from the octagon to the square and the square to the circle. This severe architecture comes to life,” Pei said, “in the sun, with its shadows and shades of color” (Jodidio, 26).

It is not difficult to see the connection between the high domed fountain in the central courtyard of Ibn Tulun and the museum Pei would come to build in Doha, just as it is easy to see the influence of the arcades facing the courtyard of the Ibn Tulun mosque and the arcades in the courtyard he would design in Doha between the main building of the museum and its education wing. Pei’s attraction to the mosque in Cairo was genuine, and ran deep.

Still, every architect, like every artist of any type, sees what he wants to see. He or she sees what is relevant to the ideas and sensibility that they bring to any situation. As Frank Gehry looked at Los Angeles and saw the energy of chaotic, industrial sprawl, not the softness of pink Spanish Mediterranean houses, as Le Corbusier looked at pure architectural form against the landscape, not the architraves and entablatures of classicism, so I.M. Pei looked at Islamic architecture and saw its clear, strong, basic geometries—elements that connected to the aesthetic sensibility he brought to his exploration. He did not see the calligraphy, the decoration, or the way that geometries are often used in Islamic architecture to create delicate and intricate pattern and ornament. He once admitted to being uncomfortable with those examples of Islamic architecture that were too dependent on calligraphy and ornament—those that depended, in other words, on the things that did not align with his own aesthetic. So Pei’s quest to seek the essence of Islamic architecture, while deeply earnest, was in every way colored by his own lifelong preferences for Western modernism, and his own reading of Western modernism as predominantly a composition of geometric forms and spatial volumes, not of decorative detail.

We might contrast Pei’s view of Islamic architectural tradition with that of Jean Nouvel, who also has a presence in Doha in the form of a new cylindrical tower, and will eventually have an even more conspicuous presence through the new National Museum under construction not far from the Museum of Islamic Art. When Nouvel designed the Arab World Institute in Paris he, like Pei, sought to evoke Islamic tradition. But Nouvel saw precisely the opposite of what Pei saw. To Nouvel, it was not the solid, severe masonry forms but the intricate ornament and the exquisite decorative patterns that connoted Islamic architecture, and he sought to evoke this intricacy and filigree in an entirely new way by making it the inspiration for an ingenious system of sunscreens. He put these Islamic-inspired sunscreens behind a glass curtain wall, which is about as distant from Islamic tradition as one can get.

So it is not only Pei who seeks in Islamic precedent those elements that would allow him to make a work of architecture that is consistent with what he had done before. But this inevitably means, of course, that the elements of the Museum of Islamic Art that evoke Islamic precedent are somewhat limited, and cannot be said to be truly defining of the building as a whole. And in some cases, what Pei has cited as Islamic is a condition not limited to Islamic architecture—for example, Pei has spoken often of being inspired by the way the forms and volumes of traditional Islamic architecture are brought to life by the intense sun, and said that he envisioned his building also as very much a structure designed to be seen in bright sun, its crisp forms outlined against the blue sky. It is indeed so, but it is difficult to list this welcome but very general quality as evidence of strong connection to Islamic tradition. This is first and foremost a modern building—albeit a modern building designed with great sympathy to, and engagement with, Islamic tradition.

The connections to Pei’s other work parallel, and at times overshadow, his desire to respond to Islamic tradition. The choice of the museum’s site is a good example. The building had been proposed for various sites along the Corniche, all of which Pei rejected, fearing that large structures might in time overshadow the museum. He suggested a man-made island sixty meters away from the shore, to be connected by landfill, so that the museum might stand wholly apart, and be seen against the water, not against other buildings. And thus the museum occupies this spectacular, indeed unique, site, breathtakingly beautiful, but set apart, with a formal, axial approach—a siting that would seem to have more in common with the formal axes of Western buildings in the classical tradition than with Islamic ones, although the diagonal entry axis subtly but powerfully asserts its connection to modernism as well. While the Museum of Islamic Art is vastly grander and more thoughtfully conceived than the Kennedy Library, its siting on landfill, overlooking the water and as far away as possible from other buildings, surely evokes that of the Library or, to a lesser extent, the waterfront site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A great central interior space, several stories high, is absolutely key to this building, as it is to almost every other Pei museum. There are elements here, like the side staircase details and the great dependence on natural light, that remind one of the atrium of the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington; the orientation to the water and the view of course evokes the Kennedy Library—or perhaps we might say the Kennedy Library as Pei might have wished it to be, without the many compromises that weakened that building.

While the symmetry of the Great Hall is not characteristic of Pei, and neither, for that matter, is the dome or the fountain, one still has the sense that despite these factors, this space has more in common with other Pei work than not. It is a large, light-filled public space, defined largely by walls made of the same stone as is used on the exterior, with the galleries are arrayed around it, in spaces that are clearly subsidiary to the central hall. Those words could certainly describe the central space of the East Building in Washington, and even though that space is asymmetrical and defined by diagonals, it is still very much a space where a clearly articulated geometric form is the determining factor.

The dome is not typical of Pei’s work, but neither is it what one would call a traditional Islamic dome, either. If the fact of the dome is an acknowledgment of Islamic tradition, its specific design, with an interior of faceted stainless steel, is not, though it is unquestionably beautiful and eloquent as a way of mediating between Islamic tradition and modernist form, and of enhancing the play of light, which enters through a small oculus and then shimmers as reflected by the facets. On the exterior of the building the dome is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent, since it is surrounded by stone walls which combine to form a central tower, roughly square, that is the culminating element of the mounting sequence of masses that make up the overall volume of the building. The square tower is a dramatic break with the precedent of Ibn Tulun, which inspires the stepped-up, angular masses below but which of course culminates in a very visible dome. Pei’s decision to cover the dome is partly, I think, a response to scale: his dome is fairly small, and is more of a punctuation mark at the top of the atrium, not a dome that covers the full breadth of the space, and if it were visible on the outside it would seem under-scaled, almost trivial. Still, these walls create a striking paradox: in search of a more modern appearance, Pei has created a set of false walls, indulging in the very sort of architectural cover-up that modernists have tended to criticize as characteristic of historicist architecture. In search of the “honest” appearance of modernism, in other words, he has made the building less honest.

Does this matter? I think not. I mention it not to be critical, but to point out the fallacy of so much modernist rhetoric. Pei is using a false tower as a kind of stage set here, denying the structural reality of the dome. But while this may be a contradiction of modernist doctrine, it offers instead something more meaningful than rhetoric, which is an exterior that is whole and complete as a composition in itself. Within the decision to shape the exterior this way, and to not express the dome, there is an implicit admission that composition and the visual pleasures it provides are more important than modernist doctrine.
Below the dome, the space becomes complex, and despite a number of elements that allude to Islamic decorative traditions, such as the patterns in the floor, the octagonal fountain, and the filigree pattern to the chandelier, the overall sense is of modernist space and structure. One of the most remarkable elements of this building, the unusual sequence of geometric forms within the structure by which the dome is supported, Pei has described as “a geometric matrix [that] transforms the dome’s descent from circle to octagon, to square, and finally to four triangular flaps that angle back at different heights to become the atrium’s column supports” (Jodidio, 31).

It is a good description, and from it we can infer the reality of this space, which is that while it makes use of several shapes that are common in Islamic architecture, it is in almost every way a modern interior space. The enormous V-shaped corner supports, which Pei refers to as the “triangular flaps,” are emphatically modern; so are the thick trusses supporting the glass bridges that cross the atrium. Even the low hanging chandelier, which evokes the intricate details of ancient lamp design to create a huge, floating circle of light, while admittedly not like anything Pei has done before, still has more in common with his modernist sensibility than with the ancient lamps that inspired it.

Perhaps the double stair, flying up from the very center of the space, is the one exception here; while it, too, has no precise precedent, it feels light in a way that is very much in accord with the delicacy and intricacy of Islamic design, the very element that Pei most of the time chose not to see. Then again, it is hard not also to see some connection to Palladio and the Palladian tradition, a line of Western classicism that Pei has generally not pursued. The issue a critic might have with the stair is not its degree of connection to Islamic or Western precedent, however, but its placement in a position that means that the visitor sees the backside and underside of the stair as he or she enters the museum, and not the exquisite way in which, from the other side, it appears to float upwards.

The atrium overall, then, is a curious combination of the modern and the traditional, which sometimes seem to relate very comfortably, and other times less so. The symmetry of the main building suggests that the space will possess a repose that it doesn’t fully have, in part because there is a lot going on with all of these stairs and bridges and structural elements, some modern, some less so; and in part because of the somewhat idiosyncratic structure supporting the dome, in which the triangular supports meet the columns on different floors, throwing the space a bit off balance. The serenity that Pei sought in the atrium is achieved more fully, I think, in the courtyard between the museum and the educational wing, a space that is austere but powerful, with modern screens that provide shade and balance the modern and traditional aesthetic with particular ease, and an beautifully scaled, rhythmic series of open arches, providing a greater sense of connection between you and the water and the vista of the city than you get within the atrium. It is a space that is rather too open for comfortable use in the intense heat, but it remains one of the most successful elements in the museum.

It is somewhat paradoxical that Pei has succeeded so well in a section of the museum in which, thanks to the arcades, there is a stronger feeling of Islamic tradition than in some of the other areas. But it is important to say again that this is not a building that can or should be judged by the standard of how it should be rated on the scale of traditional Islamic architecture. Its goal was something else altogether: to make a modern building that would acknowledge traditional architecture and learn from it, and then use that knowledge to make a work of modern architecture that would be different from any other.

But to what extent is that actually possible? Is there an inherent contradiction between Islamic architecture and modern Western architecture that will make any attempt to synthesize them inevitably a compromise? It need not be, in part because, as the architectural historian Marvin Trachtenberg has pointed out, many of the fundamental elements of Islamic architecture are shared with the architecture of the West: domes, arches, columns, vaults, all elements that Pei chose to emphasize (Hyman, Trachtenberg, 1986, 215). Surface decoration is far more essential in Islamic architecture than Western, of course, and here Pei was more hesitant to embrace precedent. But Islamic architecture does make much of monumental interior space, as Western architecture, and particularly Pei’s own work, do.

Pei succeeded, then, in creating a meaningful synthesis, in part because he was able to use so many architectural elements that Islamic and Western architecture have in common. While he may have used some of these elements in a more Western way than Islamic traditionalists would like, his goal was to make a modern building, as well as a building that will be a landmark in Doha, in Qatar, and in this entire part of the world. Pei has done this by continuing and extending the themes of his own work, as well as by pursuing, with the utmost sincerity, the traditions of Islamic architecture.

Pei’s career is one of continual searching for ways in which other places, other cultures, other traditions, can be integrated into his own modernist sensibility. “Architecture is form, space, light, movement, all of that. But more important is the place where you build,” Pei has said (Landin and van Wagenen, 2009). The museum at Doha, in that sense, is his capstone, the ultimate expression of this lifelong quest. Every architect is hired for two reasons: to solve a problem, and to be true to himself. Pei achieved both of these things in the Museum of Islamic Art—a building that brings the modern world to Islamic culture, and brings Islamic culture to the modern world.

horizontal line