»I would have designed more decorative patterns if I had had the guts,« reports world-famous architect Ioeh Ming Pei, erstwhile student of Walter Gropius at the Graduate School of Design in Harvard, looking back at the completed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Throughout his career, the modern-inspired Pritzker prize-winner had remained true to his conviction of naked style and no-frills design. But at the age of 91, the American architect, born in 1917 of Chinese extraction, produced ornamental design details for the atrium of the museum in the emirate of Qatar.

He was inspired by a study trip lasting several months and passing through Cordoba, Tunisia and other places full of Islamic architecture with a view to discovering the essence of the artistic style. The aim was that this would provide him with the basis for his museum design for the Emir of Qatar. It was only once Sheikh Hamad bin Kalifa al-Thani had promised the architect an exquisite building plot selected by Pei himself – an artificial island covering 35,000 square metres – that the latter agreed and set off on his journey. Pei later explained that the ultimate aim was one of his most diffi­cult jobs ever. It was very difficult to dilute the essence of Islamic architecture when there were so many different national and usage-related interpretations and variations.

I. M. Pei finally achieved his aim at the Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo (876 to 879). The ablution fountain added to the complex in the 13th century really captivated the architect with its cubist expression of geometric progression. A smaller square rises up from a square at the base before continuing in three different octagonal shapes with a dome on top. »This strict architecture comes alive in the sunlight, with its shadows and colour tones,« Pei later explained to author Philip Jodidio. Pei had discovered the essence of Islam for him in the universal quality of the proportions and the interaction with the light of the desert.

Taking his inspiration from the fountain, Pei layered various geometric shapes to form a strictly cubic structure. In an interview for a film documentary released in late 2011, the architect confessed that »Some people say I’m obsessed with geometry.« »Maybe they’re right. I believe that architecture is nothing more than geometry made real« Pei continues and then sums up: »It is a simple fact that Islamic architecture is based on geometry. Which is why I am drawn to it, as it is something I love.« The Museum of Islamic Art has a square basis, with an octagon introducing more com­plex forms and ending in a cross shape. These facets add a feeling of lightness to the heavy construction and the building begins to come alive in the sunlight of the Arabian Gulf which transforms the architecture into a game of light and shadows. »The building is a cube,« ­Pei explains in the film »Learning from the Light – Architect I. M. Pei«. »Without the sunlight, it would be boring.«

Surprising: decorative patterns and shapes.
With all this understatement and the fact that the architecture of this fragmented »cube« has already been described in detail in a range of different articles, the focus below ­is on the central interior space, where the visitor comes across surprising decorative patterns and shapes. Visitors first enter the atrium, with its magnificent ringlike staircase and a circular lighting structure encompassing the whole room floating above it. The design of this stair­case, which goes as far as the first gallery level, is simply based on the idea of using a ­45 metre window to give visitors a spectacular view over the Arabian Gulf. The floor of the hall has a decorative pattern inspired by Islamic arabesque but with a strict geometric and modern feel. On the third step, visitors are exactly beneath the central point of the round window of the domed roof, the highest point of the hall. A geometric matrix slowly transforms the dome downwards from a circle to an octagon then a square and finally four triang­ular components based on columns of different heights; a design which is also reminiscent of the ablution fountain at Ibn Tulun, which has a dome based on similar principles. Because it has so many facets, the stainless steel dome in Doha creates a wonderful interaction of light patterns which magically draw the eye in and act almost as ornamental adornments.

In a central position below the dome, which I. M. Pei consciously placed within the museum to avoid associations with Renaissance architecture, is a twelve-metre diameter chandelier which provides another ornamental design feature. »I really wanted to see a chandelier floating in the atrium,« explains the architect, adding with a wink: »But not one from Vienna, of course.« When Pei’s design began to take shape as a ring of metallic lights perforated with geometric patterns, the Emir of Qatar set up an invitation to tender for the extravagant specialist luminaire which was then designed and produced in St. Augustin. The statics represented the biggest challenge during the year it took to plan the project, du­ring which period employees from I. M. Pei’s team regularly travelled to the little town in Germany. At each of the intersection points, the construction has to sustain a tension of around thirty tons. Temperature fluctuations between the ambient temperature at the time of the installation and the subsequent air-con­ditioned temperature also represented a critical point, as this meant huge expansion coefficients for the metal design.

Inside the luminaire is a static structural twenty metre long, two centimetres wide steel tube filled with sand shaped across the whole diameter of 1190 centimetres with a tolerance of less then one centimetre. The external glass-bead blasted shell of the light struct­ure is formed from a sandwich construction made of several layers of stainless steel with an overall laser cut length of approx. three kilometres. The patterns designed by I. M. Pei through which the light enters the room are cut using ultra-fine lasers.

»The ornamental art of Islam – the complexity of the geometry – is just staggering and I never knew,« explains I. M. Pei. »I would have designed more decorative patterns if I had had the guts.« Philip Jodidio is convinced that the chandelier from Sankt Augustin is a nod by the architect to the decorative art of Islam.


Much of the information and the quotes for this article were taken from the following sources, with thanks:
»Museum of Islamic Art Doha, Qatar«, Philip Jodidio/Sabiha Al Khemir, Prestel, 2008
»Learning from Light, the Vision of I.M.Pei«,
Directed by: Bo Landin/Sterling van Wagenen, Screenplay: Bo Landin, USA 2009