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The Un-Review and the Review: Ouroussoff Merely Describes I.M. Pei’s Qatar Museum, Lauds Ito’s Unbuilt Berkeley Museum

I.M. Pei’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

In one of the more puzzling turns by an architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff in yesterday’s NY Times published a 640-word dispatch from Qatar, in which he described but never really evaluated the much anticipated new Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, opening to the public next Monday. According to Ouroussoff, architect I.M. Pei “has described it as his last major cultural building.”

So how was it? Ouroussoff describes it but never really tells us if he likes it. His most judgmental words about the new museum were “imposing simplicity” and “powerful Cubist composition.” The critic did give I.M. Pei an opportunity to favorably review his own building.

The architect informed Ouroussoff:

The architecture is very strong and simple. There is nothing superfluous….The museum is an object. It should be treated as a piece of sculpture.

Does the critic agree? We don’t really know. Was he trying to be kind? Was he censored? Perhaps time (and a subsequent full critique) will tell.

This sparse commentary seems all the more inexplicable in light of the same critic’s detailed rave review, published just a day later, of the proposed new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, designed by Toyo Ito.

In today’s Times, Ouroussoff opines:

The three-story structure suggests an intoxicating architectural dance in which the push and pull between solitude and intimacy, stillness and motion, art and viewer never ends. Its contoured galleries, whose honeycomb pattern seems to be straining to contain an untamed world, would make it a magical place to view art.

That’s more like it (although it’s always a bit dicey to review the unbuilt, which is subject to substantial revision, especially in today’s challenging economic environment).

Speaking of iconic architecture for cultural institutions, the definitive word comes from the indispensible Witold Rybczynski, in his piece for Saturday’s Wall Street JournalWhen Buildings Try Too Hard.

Rybczynski writes:

Perhaps the Bilbao effect should be called the Bilbao anomaly, for the iconic chemistry between the design of building, its image and the public turns out to be rather rare—and somewhat mysterious.

Meanwhile, for the titilating backstory about “the billion-pound shopping spree” of the “Sheikh who shopped” for the collection now at the Qatar museum, scroll down to the bottom of this article by Riazat Butt in today’s Guardian.

an ArtsJournal blog