William Cook

On the waterfront | 28 April 2012

William Cook says that I.M. Pei’s latest building, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, once again captures the spirit of the age

On the waterfront | 28 April 2012
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William Cook says that I.M. Pei’s latest building, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, once again captures the spirit of the age

Standing outside Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha, watching the sun rise over the Persian Gulf, you’re reminded of Mies van der Rohe’s dictum: ‘less is more’. Van der Rohe was a hero of the man who made this building, and I.M. Pei’s new museum sums up that minimalist rule of thumb. Doha’s modern skyline is a panorama of skyscrapers, but they all look trite and transient beside this discreet masterpiece. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art is only a few years old, but it feels as if it’s stood here for a century. It’s part of the landscape, the way great architecture ought to be.

Sometimes, a single building can sum up an entire époque. Qatar is now, per capita, the richest country in the world (displacing Luxemburg) and its Museum of Islamic Art encapsulates its cultural ambitions. In this sleek new citadel on Doha’s waterfront, you can feel the earth’s axis start to tilt, as the balance of power shifts from West to East. Most architects dream in vain of creating one such iconic building. For I.M. Pei it’s become a habit. He did it in Paris. He did it in Berlin. And now he’s done it here.

Ieoh Ming Pei, who celebrates his 95th this week, was born in Canton, China, in 1917. Austria still had an emperor, Russia still had a tsar, and Pei’s future mentor, Walter Gropius, was still a soldier in the Kaiser’s army. So much has happened since then, so much has changed, that it seems incredible that anyone born at that time should still be hard at work today.

Pei’s mother was an artist, his father was a banker, and art and mathematics met in his love of architecture. When he was 17 he went to America to train at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’d won a place at Oxford, but the United States was a land of building sites rather than dreaming spires. If he were a young man today, he’d probably come here, to Qatar.

Pei had intended to return to China once he’d graduated, but his plans were scuppered by the second world war. He stayed in the US, studying at Harvard under Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, who’d relocated to America after his revolutionary school of design was shut down by the Nazis. Pei taught at Harvard, and became a US citizen. His first landmark building was the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, a monolithic structure inspired by the cliff-face dwellings of the Pueblo Indians. But for Britons and Europeans it was Pei’s Louvre pyramid that really made his name. Like countless other art-lovers, my interest in museum architecture began with my first sight of Pei’s Parisian pyramid. I’d never seen a modern building that was so spectacular yet so understated, so different from — yet so in tune with — the historic structures that surrounded it. It was, quite simply, one of the loveliest things I’d ever seen.

Like all great buildings, it quickly became a symbol of its time. It opened in the spring of 1989. In the autumn of that year, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and Pei’s pyramid of gleaming glass came to symbolise the euphoria that swept through Europe at the end of the Cold War.

Pei’s extension to Berlin’s German Historical Museum, completed a decade later, felt entirely different yet equally apt. His light and airy annex was a stark contrast to the Zeughaus — Berlin’s original historical museum, housed in a bombastic baroque palace next door. Pei’s Louvre extension was a continuum. His Zeughaus extension depicted a dramatic break, between Germany before the Holocaust and the Germany that emerged from it. Seeing it for the first time, ten years ago, I was overwhelmed by what this building symbolised: the eventual victory of German culture over German militarism. Just as he’d done in Paris, Pei had captured the spirit of the age.

As luck would have it, last month I was back in Luxemburg, where I was able to revisit the third and final part of what Pei calls his ‘European Trilogy.’ Pei’s Musée d’Art Moderne (aka Mudam) is built within the ruins of Luxemburg’s old fortress, and in this historic site — once the most fortified city in Europe — he has completed the process that he began in Paris, at the Louvre. ‘By building there, we can make what is there come alive,’ said Pei. And he has. Invigorated by his architecture, weathered battlements have become sculpture. The trees had grown since my previous visit, softening the contrast between old and new. ‘What interests me about architecture,’ said Pei, ‘are the links between past and present.’ Yet what you see in Mudam is also a transformation — from Europe’s warlike past to its peaceful (if not entirely tranquil) present.

So what makes Pei so important? Why do his buildings attract such attention? Well, for one thing — unlike a lot of modern buildings — they’re uniformly beautiful. The reason they’re so beautiful is that they obey the basic tenets of classical architecture: respect for topography; functional clarity; economy of means. The 20th century was an architectural Kulturkampf between traditional and avant-garde. Pei has squared that circle. His use of glass and steel feels futuristic; his limestone masonry seems elemental. There’s something timeless about his buildings, something that harks back to ancient times.

And thankfully, because he’s devoted the latter part of his career to building museums, we’re free to wander in and take a look around. ‘The museum has been my preference because it sums up everything,’ he told his biographers, Philip Jodidio and Janet Adams Strong. ‘From my first project in the studio of Gropius at Harvard, to my most recent work, the museum has been a constant reminder that art, history and architecture are indeed one.’

On my last night in Qatar, I returned to Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art, lit up by the setting sun and the lights along the Corniche. Standing inside, looking out, one is struck by the natural light that floods this building. If you stand outside and look in, it’s like a fortress — impenetrable and opaque. I.M. Pei travelled far and wide, from Spain to Syria, from Tunisia to India, in search of what he called ‘the essence of Islamic architecture’. He finally found what he was looking for in a medieval mosque in Cairo, and that sparse simplicity is reflected here. Driving away, towards the airport, through the vast construction sites of Doha, you sense that in 1,000 years Pei’s building alone will remain standing, long after these skyscrapers have corroded, and crumbled back into the desert, whence they came.