The museum is a 45,000 square meter compound (484,000 sq. ft.) that includes a library, restaurants, gift shops and other usual fare of large western museums.
According to the museum, when the great architect I.M. Pei was asked to design the building, he went on a cultural journey across the Middle East to feed his inspiration. "This was one of the most difficult jobs I ever undertook," he said, according to the museum. "It seemed to me that I had to grasp the essence of Islamic architecture. The difficulty of my task is that Islamic culture is so diverse, ranging from Iberia to Mughal India, to the gates of China and beyond."
By most accounts, Pei pulled it off.
As Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in The Times, "The museum’s hard, chiseled forms take their inspiration from the ablution fountain of Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, as well as from fortresses built in Tunisia in the eighth and ninth centuries — simple stone structures strong enough to hold their own in the barrenness of the desert landscape. In order to create a similar sense of withdrawal from the world, Mr. Pei located his museum on a small man-made island, approachable from a short bridge. Seen from a distance, its blocklike forms are a powerful contrast to the half-finished towers and swiveling construction cranes that line the waterfront. Stepped on both sides, the apex of the main building is punctuated by a short tower with an eye-shaped opening that masks an interior dome."
Ouroussoff went on:
From certain angles the structure has a flat, chimeric quality, like a stage set. From others it seems to be floating on the surface of the water — an effect that recalls Santa Maria della Salute, the imposing Baroque church that guards the entry to the Grand Canal in Venice.
As one approaches the building, the full weight of the structure begins to bear down, and the forms become more imposing. The bridge, flanked by rows of tall palm trees, is set diagonally to the entry, which makes the stacked geometric forms appear more angular and the contrast between light and shadow more extreme.
Soon a few traditional details begin to appear: the two small arched windows over the entry; a covered arcade that links the museum to an education center. These touches seem minor, but they provide a sense of scale, so that the size of the building can be understood according to the size of the human body.
The blend of modern and Islamic themes continues inside, where Mr. Pei draws most directly from religious precedents. The hemispherical dome, an intricate pattern of stainless steel plates pierced by a single small oculus, brings to mind the geometric patterns used in Baroque churches as well as in ancient mosques.
The weight of the interior’s chiseled stone forms, with the dome resting on a faceted drum and square base, evokes both classical precedents and the late works of Louis Kahn, whose fusion of modern structure with a timeless monumentality was a turning point in Modernist history.
Qatar's foray into art as a means of re-defining the country's image in the Middle East and the world was largely begun by Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani who, until his dismissal as the country's art-acquisition chief in 2005, spent $1.5 billion for five museums being planned at the time. One of those was the Museum of Islamic Art. His dismissal was the result of fears among the reigning al-Thani family that Saud was buying more art for his personal collection than for the nation's museums.
By 2010, the Museum of Islamic Art was just one among a resurgence of cultural institutions on the more liberal, eastern side of the Arab Peninsula, as Abu Dhabi was planning a new branch of the Guggenheim Museum, a new branch of the Louvre, and a national history museum.