PRINT Summer 2010

Julian Rose

THE CENTRAL PROPOSITION behind architect Jean Nouvel’s design for the new National Museum of Qatar seems to be that good metaphors make good architecture. The first thing that everyone—the architect, the developer, the museum’s director—wants you to know is that the building looks like a “desert rose,” a small crystalline structure (so named because its shape is an aggregation of thin, bladelike petals) formed by salinated sand just below the desert’s surface. When the design was unveiled at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past spring, Nouvel began his presentation with a photograph of a desert rose crystal, ensuring that the metaphor was already in his audience’s mind before they saw a single image of his building. Peggy Loar, the National Museum’s director, outdid Nouvel by waving an actual crystal above her head as she began her speech. For both, the crystal was as much a “fact” of the building as its square footage was.

It is undeniably poetic that this museum, to be sited in the desert and devoted to preserving the history and culture of a desert people, should look like a desert crystal. Desert roses are formed by the confluence of wind, water, and sand; the Bedouin culture of the region was shaped in part by interaction with these same natural forces. And indeed, the building is charged with crystallizing a national identity, an identity ideally as dynamic and responsive to processes of natural growth as the crystal itself. But though the refinement of the metaphor suggests that the following association is unintended, Nouvel’s design also calls to mind architect Robert Venturi’s celebration of the hot-dog stand that looked like a monstrous hot dog—or, most famously, the roadside stand selling fresh Long Island duck that was shaped like a giant duck. Almost forty years ago, Venturi’s now-canonical Learning from Las Vegas introduced the idea of a “symbol-building” into contemporary architectural discourse. His book set the tone for an entire generation of architects who abandoned the modernist emphasis on space and form, instead understanding architecture primarily as a system of signs and symbols. Nouvel hasn’t written a book, but his building is representative of an equally important trend: contemporary architects’ increasing reliance on naturalistic metaphors to justify their designs. (We need only look back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with its “Bird’s Nest” stadium and “Water Cube” aquatic center, to realize the pervasiveness of this tendency.) In the distance between Venturi’s symbol and Nouvel’s metaphor lie significant changes in both architecture and its place in a global cultural landscape.

Venturi’s theory was based on the belief that symbolism (architecture’s meaning) and space or structure (its substance) were fundamentally at odds. His “duck”—in which space and structure were irrationally “submerged and distorted” into one symbolic form—was ultimately only a foil for the more efficient and logical “decorated shed,” as he called it, a structurally simple building to which symbols were applied (such as the casinos he studied in Las Vegas). In a decorated shed, the contradictory elements of symbolism and architecture are peeled apart, ensuring that they do not interfere with each other. Venturi was inspired by the American commercial vernacular, where symbolic meaning was essentially literal advertising. Likewise, the decorated shed emphasized a developer-friendly economics of straightforward, cheaply constructed buildings with design relegated to the facade.

Far more is asked of Nouvel’s building. First, it must help establish Doha, Qatar’s capital, as an international cultural destination. In a post-Bilbao world, there is nothing particularly new about the expectation that a museum can put a city on the map. But while Gehry’s abstracted design drew crowds by offering architecture as pure spectacle, Nouvel’s museum must also construct an identity for Qatar. The country’s oil-funded modernization has been particularly sudden, occurring mostly within the past few decades, as its citizens have watched much of their traditional culture melt away in the face of a rapid rise to globalized, first-world status. Nouvel’s museum, then, should showcase Qatar’s standing as an advanced society without sacrificing its specific cultural identity. The museum should also foster international cultural dialogue amid increasing tension between Western and Middle Eastern nations, all the while preserving the nation’s disappearing Bedouin heritage. Its task, as summarized by the Qatar Museums Authority, is thus simple but herculean: “bridging East and West, as well as past and present.”

Clients realize that such extravagant meaning comes at a price. With Venturi’s economic logic no longer operative, the duck or symbol-building again becomes a viable option. But Nouvel and others no longer see meaning and architecture as opposed. Instead, they collapse the two, using a type of metaphor that not only offers a symbolic shape but drives the entire design. Space and structure are not “submerged and distorted.” Nouvel does not intend to squeeze a museum into the shape of a crystal; he intends to build a crystal as a museum.

This profound belief in architecture’s ability to establish meaning is potentially empowering. But there is something unnerving about the idea that an architect’s design process should be entirely subsumed within a single metaphor. In retrospect, Venturi may have rejected the duck not only because it was inefficient but because it was too close to the found object. (Claes Oldenburg’s proposal for a colossal “hot dog” monument on Ellis Island, after all, dates from the same period.) Ironically, the decorated shed might result from Venturi’s struggle to protect his role as a designer in the face of a growing demand for architectural symbolism by keeping that symbolism at arm’s length. Today, is there a danger that architecture will be lost, buried under the increasing weight of its cultural significance, and that the architect’s role will be limited to choosing a metaphor?

Perhaps only partially. Nouvel’s desert rose is effective not only as metaphor but as structure. Crystals, after all, tend to be architectonic. And they have long held fascination for architects. Here the disklike petals, overlapping, intersecting, and tilting in every direction, produce floor plans with no clearly delineated rooms. Instead, they are sprinkled with partition “walls” formed by the more or less vertical disks that protrude from the floor and intersect with the ceiling, which is itself a layer of overlapping disks. The resulting spaces are paradoxically continuous yet differentiated, free of any hierarchical order of galleries but offering loose and flexible divisions for curatorial design. They would thus seem well suited to the museum’s goal of providing visitors with an array of interwoven narratives on subjects ranging from regional natural history to Bedouin culture and the modern history of Qatar. Where entrances, exits, or windows are required, the cavelike gaps between disks are glassed in. The resulting glazing is conveniently protected from the sun by the overhanging horizontal disks, together forming a kind of built-in brisesoleil ideal for the desert climate.

There are a few false moments in the design. The inevitable absurdity of scaling up a two-inch crystal into a 430,000-square-foot building is exacerbated by the juxtaposition between the new museum and the historic palace building it encircles. The plausibility of the naturalistic metaphor, and its effectiveness as an architectural system, both hinge on an aesthetic of disorder; even if carefully scripted, it is the apparently haphazard overlaps, protrusions, and intersections that suggest the desert rose and give the building its most striking qualities. Though this effect is convincingly achieved in single-story spaces where the only truly horizontal surface is the ground, in the building’s multistory sections the need to produce usable floor space forces some disks to be perfectly level, undermining the otherwise consistent sense of studied disarray.

Remarkably, however, by designing almost entirely within the logic of the crystal, Nouvel has produced spaces that subvert our expectations of what a building should look like. “You cannot see columns,” he points out, and boasts of creating a kind of space without architecture. The most exciting implication of Nouvel’s design may be that, at least for the highest echelon of major international commissions, buildings no longer need look like architecture. At the same time, though, the project reminds us that neither the public, architects, nor clients are ready to accept the full implications of this development. Instead, the vertiginous quality of an architecture unmotivated by resemblance seems to have strengthened the conviction that buildings should look like something familiar, and natural structures are an obvious choice. Nouvel certainly deserves credit for the canny choice of an apt architectural metaphor, but today, for better or for worse, this seems to be the best an architect can do.