by Alainna Liloia
The National Museum of Qatar, designed in the shape of a desert rose, is an example of starchitecture. Source: ACME, Flickr
The National Museum of Qatar, aimed at ‘bringing to life the unique story of Qatar and its people’, offers Qatar’s residents and tourists a look into the nation’s history and cultural traditions. One of many recent heritage projects in Qatar, the museum contributes to larger state agendas focused on creating a distinct national brand for domestic and international consumption and solidifying the power of ruling elites.
Opened in 2019, the museum was designed by Jean Nouvel, an internationally-renowned French architect. Often referred to as ‘starchitects’, high-profile architects like Nouvel are being recruited throughout the Gulf to design flashy and eye-catching architectural projects. This phenomenon speaks to the hunger of rulers for global recognition and the use of architecture to invent a marketable form of cultural authenticity.
While these projects often claim to draw inspiration from culture, a question worth asking is whose ‘culture’? Despite lofty claims of cultural representation, the projects of starchitects often serve to reinforce Western cultural stereotypes, while erasing the histories and cultures of the diverse communities inhabiting the region. Analysing Nouvel’s vision for the National Museum of Qatar and its reception by Western architectural reviewers, this article provides a case study of how starchitecture in Qatar serves to reproduce the Western gaze.
The architectural design of Qatar’s National Museum is characterised by the only thing that seems to exist in Western perceptions of Qatar and the broader Gulf before oil – the desert. Shaped in the form of a desert rose, a formation of crystallised minerals that can be found in the deserts of Qatar, the museum is intended to reference the country’s landscape. Now, tourists can even purchase their own desert rose as a souvenir in the museum’s gift shops and skip the trip to the desert.
Jean Nouvel writes about his design and vision for the museum: ‘Symbolically, its architecture evokes the desert, its silent and eternal dimension, but also the spirit of modernity and daring that have come along and shaken up what seemed unshakeable.’ Nouvel references Qatar’s ‘native fauna and flora’ and its ‘nomadic peoples and their long-held traditions’, before going on to describe the ‘economic miracles’ which ‘occurred to shake up this overwhelming tranquility’. The depiction of a silent and tranquil desert is a direct reproduction of romanticised and exoticised portrayals of the Gulf region prior to the ‘dawn of oil wealth’. Moreover, Qatar’s diverse history is erased in favour of a one-dimensional portrayal of desert life, and the lives of all who resided in Qatar prior to urbanisation are portrayed as a mere pre-cursor to modernity.
Nouvel describes Qatar’s development into a nation worthy of international attention, writing of the period after the discovery of natural gas in the 1970s: ‘The desert peninsula of Qatar and its people suddenly saw enormous, dazzling change and the country turned into a real crossroads, alluring and open, and attracting visitors from far and wide.’ There is a startling implication that Qatar was not ‘real’ until it became politically and economically valuable to the Western world. Nouvel seems to portray Qatar as either a blank and tranquil space before the dawn of oil or as a barren desert containing tribal peoples in need of ‘modernity’.
Architectural reviews of the National Museum of Qatar offer further insight into the extent to which global recognition seems to come at the cost of orientalist reproductions of culture. In The Architect’s Newspaper, Matthew Messner describes the museum: ‘[E]xhibitions reach back tens of thousands of years through the discovery of oil and natural gas off the coast in the mid-20th century to explore what it means to be Qatari.’ As the Western cultural stereotype goes, oil is at the core of Qatari identity, and the only narrative of Qatari history worth telling is one that culminates in the discovery of oil.
A review by Charu Suri in Architectural Digest echoes this sentiment, ‘The desert itself is the bedrock of Qatar – the nation’s very foundation and image. Only relatively recently, when oil was first discovered in Qatar, in 1940, did its capital, Doha, form itself into a glittering constellation of towers.’ These narratives simplify and essentialise Qatar’s history and heritage, portraying Qatar’s pre-oil past as near nothingness leading up to the period of history that really matters – that of oil wealth and development.
A review by Beth Broome in the Architectural Record similarly describes the museum, ‘As an institution, it aims to address the contradiction between Qatar’s past and present. It is also striving to become an emblem for this country as it searches for a new identity and works to prove itself as a cultural force.’ This narrative of Qatar is one of a nation that must find a new identity, while the identities and cultures that existed long before the Western world took note of the region are erased. The implied ‘contradiction between Qatar’s past and present’ is of course that constructed by the Western mind between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’, with modernity symbolising the Western world and ‘tradition’ symbolising the so-called backward cultures of the non-Western world. Broome’s review ends with the statement, ‘Here, this fantastical, impossible-rendering-come-to-life feels right at home.’ What makes such a ‘fantasy’ feel at home in Qatar is left unsaid. Perhaps the museum feels at home to the Western reviewer because it mirrors the exotic image of the Middle East Western audiences already have.
The architectural design of the National Museum of Qatar, and the way that it is received by a Western audience, highlights how the production of cultural heritage by ‘starchitects’ in service of ruling elites reproduces the Western gaze and orientalist depictions of the Gulf. Descriptions of the museum’s architectural design by Western reviewers and Jean Nouvel himself offer essentialist and one-dimensional representations of Qatari culture. Yet, underlying these portrayals is something darker – the idea that Qatar did not fully exist until it existed in the Western mind and that it only became worthy of attention or even acknowledgement when its lucrative natural resources surfaced for Western consumption.