Learning from Light

July 19, 2010 at 12:19 am | Posted in Film Review | Leave a comment
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I went to see Learning from Light: the vision of I M Pei at the 2010 Wellington International Film Festival the other morning at Te Papa.

This was a documentary of, what is likely to be, I M Pei’s last architectureal project; he is now 92. The Emir of Qatar had commissioned him to build the Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha. Bo Landin’s documentary follows the build and commissioning phases.

The film focuses on the last few months, and follows master (how else to label an architectural genius of oriental origins) Pei around the building site.

How much effort is it prudent to spend on the asthetics of the building without compromising on the museum’s functions of conservation and education? Well if you have access to oil revenues, compromise is not required! The building is big: it is built on a man made island at one end of a man made crescent-shaped bay!! The museum rises out of the water, and is reached by a massive palm tree lined ramp/concourse – as long as the nuseum is wide.

Master Pei, by his own admission, spent six months researching islamic architecture – searching for the base themes. He, appears to have, focused on two buildings: Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo and the Alhambra in Grenada, in Spain. If one accepts that buildings reflect the people and times when they were built, then the Cairo mosque, built during the rise of Islam is a better exemplar, than the Alhambra built during the peak of Islam’s expansion. Pei settles for the elegant simplicity of the Cairo mosque; I also think that its simplicity also apealled more to Pei than the more lavish features and finishing of the richer Alhambra. Pei’s other building projects shown in the documentary are characterised by clean lines and simple planes and surfaces. Islam’s strictures against depicting likenesses of people and animals mean that Islamic architecture appears dominated by geometry.

Pei decides that Islamic Architecture at its roots is influenced by the dessert and simple geometry.

So the museum is designed around a series of squares, octogons and circles (and triangles). The museum is slightly reminiscent of a fortress – it is surrounded by water reached only by a single (massive) ramp. It faced on the outside with limestone – it blends in well with its dessert surrounds. The inside is also limestone, smooth poured concreate and yellow woods. The grounds and man made bay means that it can never be crowded by highrise buildings – as Qatar expands.

I do not like the building – though it may grown on me. I find it a bit too stark, too clean. But never-the-less a magnificant building – I am moved to blog about it. It is a building that future generations will consider a classic.

I found the documentary a bit contrived. All of the footage of site visits showed very clean work sites and everyone in freshly pressed shirts and ties. The candid conversations seemed staged. I really enjoyed the monologues with Pei – he is a very energetic man, with an air of immense calm. But even these seemed staged, he is always seen immaculately dressed, with drawings and other work products of the museum.

Also, one subject that is not touched on: why a chinese-american architect? Are there no moslem architects? The interior fitout is designed by a top Paris interiors firm. And what was the final cost of the musem?

Definitely worth seeing if you are a fan of architecture or interested in Islam.


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