Is Qatar bidding for regional cultural leadership?

It looks as though Qatar is keen to rival Abu Dhabi as the region’s de facto leader in high-end arts and culture, at least in terms of infrastructure – it has announced plans for three more museums in Doha. All are being designed by big-name architects for extra soft-power oomph.

The new Lusail Museum is the headliner. This is designed by starchitects Herzog & de Meuron (responsible for the original Tate Modern conversion and then its 2016 extension, among numerous other projects) and will be dedicated to the influence of Middle Eastern and Islamic art on the wider world. The aim is to provide a home for “the world’s most extensive collection of Orientalist paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures, rare texts, and applied arts.”

There’s no word on when it’s expected to open, or indeed when or whether ground has been broken, and surpisingly no visuals have been revealed yet. Jacques Herzog has described the interior as having a “complex topography, a clash of fragments of different places and functions”.

We do known that the Lusail Museum will house galleries plus an auditorium, library and educational facilities in a total of 52,000m2 spread over four stories. That’s quite substantial; by comparison the Louvre Abu Dhabi is around 24,000m2 in total, the the Zayed National Museum will be around 66,000m2.

Also announced was the Qatar Auto Museum, a 40,000m2 design from Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture. OMA was responsible for Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete, though most of its projects are considerably larger and more complex; the Qatar Auto Museum will show “the evolution of the automobile from its invention through today and how it has influenced culture in Qatar”, which presumably means more than a parade of pimped-up Land Cruisers.

Qatar Auto Museum will be located on the site of a former exhibition centre that hosted the first Qatar Motor Show in 2011, along the Lusail Express Way between the 5/6 Park and Katara Cultural Village. This too does not have visual or a target opening date yet, but in any case work won’t start until after the World Cup.

The third project is perhaps the most exciting in terms of current practitioners. The Art Mill, to be developed from a disused flour mill on Doha’s waterfront promenade (top), will be a creative campus with between 60,000 and 80,000m2 of exhibition and performance space plus studios for creatives as well as conservation and storage facilities. It was actually trailed in 2015, with the hip Chilean architecture group Elemental announced in 2017 as the winner of the competition for the design of the renovation. At the time the design was praised by the international jury as “a serene artwork, where the structure is the architecture … Elemental’s assured handling of space and scale in its treatment of the silos creates a memorable and original scheme that evokes a strong sense of calm. The team showed a love of simplicity in the use of humble materials, which will acquire a patina with age.”

We understand at least part of the Art Mill will be open to the public this October, according to Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, chair of the body that runs Qatar Museums, speaking at the 2022 Doha Forum at the end of March.

Also there was Alejandro Aravena, Elemental’s executive director and winner of the 2016 Pritzker Prize. He said “The Art Mill will not just be a perfectly finished object but an opportunity for young designers, artisans, craftspeople in Qatar to come together to deliver the knowledge they have accumulated and contribute to the building, so that it not only houses a great collection but expands to more popular audiences.”

On top of those projects, Qatar Museums has just opened the more modest Liwan Design Studios and Labs (below), a space for design professionals that is part of Qatar Museums’ newly created Creative Hub. It’s in a repurposed school, is signing up designers as ‘members’, and is providing them with state-of-the-art labs for pottery, leatherworking, digital photography, and prototyping alongside rentable space in private and shared studios.

Liwan is located within Msheireb Downtown, the ambitious city-within-a-city regeneration project, in in the putative Doha Design District launched last June. That’s presented as an alternative to Dubai’s d3 or Abu Dhabi’s Yas Creative Hub, though it has a long way to go to match those for facilities. According to the bumf, “the vision of Doha Design District is to position Doha as a regional design hub by collaborating with established international brands and designers from around the world while promoting local designers in Qatar. Their mission is to create a cultural design ethos and create an environment where designers and the general public can gather, create and be inspired …” Doha Design District’s key partners include the locally based VCUarts Qatar), Milan’s Brera Design District and Miami Design District, and a clutch of designery brands.

Qatar is keen to diversify away from petrochemicals – the current boom in the market price of its natural gas will definitely be helping to provide funds for that – and has ambitions to be a regional leader alongside (or in place of) the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The imminence of the FIFA football World Cup is one example of that, though Qatar wouldn’t want to be seen solely as a sports hub (especially given the ongoing criticism of labour practices there).

It has been investing heavily in culture, notably in the form of the handsome ‘desert rose’ design for the National Museum of Qatar (below); opened in 2019, that was designed by the studio of Jean Nouvel, who of course did Louvre Abu Dhabi. The Qatar Museums portfolio also includes the Museum of Islamic Art (by IM Pei, 2010 – currently closed for renovation) and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (converted from an original school building by French architect Jean-François Bodin in 2010), which houses one of the area’s best collections of Arabic art.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply