On the Waterfront

The Spectator, April 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

On the Waterfront


William Cook says that I.M. Pei's latest building Qatar's Museums 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 epoque. 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. …

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