From a small fishing and pearling community to a thriving economic powerhouse, Qatar’s unparalleled transformation has sparked global fascination and intrigue. Stepping foot on Qatari soil for the first time (or desert, one should say!) it truly feels like you have leapt forward in time. Masquerading as a dystopian future, with an ever-changing glistening skyline, it’s a nation with a rich cultural tapestry fused with cosmopolitan sophistication, where luxury is the norm.
Amidst this sea of towering skyscrapers, lie two other architectural wonders. Both equal in spectacle, steeped in grandeur and theatre; one elusive and seemingly organic in form; the other supremely opulent and luxurious. Both destinations of discovery: one of education and insight; the other of goods and indulgences. One telling a story of the past and where the nation has come from; the other where it is now and its vision for the future.
A rose blooming on the horizon
A colossal project of the last decade, the newly renovated National Museum of Qatar aims to trace the nation’s journey from a trading village to today’s wealth capital. To fuse together the stories which will be told within, the architect of the structure, Jean Nouvel, sought symbolic inspiration from one of nature’s phenomena, unique to the Gulf region. The desert rose, a flower-shaped natural cluster formed from minerals and sand grains, has long bloomed in barren landscapes under the Qatari sun. Emerging from the ground by the work of the wind, sand and salt water, these micro crystalline ornaments are a symbol of majestic beauty, rarity, and fragility. Intersecting at unpredictable angles, its petals create one-of-a-kind formations and a miniature architecture which can’t be replicated. The National Museum of Qatar pays tribute to this nature’s marvel by posing as a physical manifestation of it. The building is comprised of 539 curved discs, colliding at cantilevered angles to create the exterior structure, walls, roof, and façade. An exhibition in itself, you are led through the building’s courtyards by gaping tunnels and cavities in the structure. The exploratory form guides visitors around each corner, prompting discovery of more unexplored terrain.
A fusion of Parisian and Persian architecture
Located just 20km away on the water’s edge, is a second striking structure. Lusail’s Place Vendome Mall is the newest addition to Qatar’s grand portfolio of luxury shopping malls. Seeking inspiration from Europe’s ‘City of Love’, Place Vendome Mall echoes the renowned Parisian shopping street, Rue de la Paix, from its name (taken from the neoclassical square in the city’s centre) to the extravagance and splendour of its architecture. Proudly now the largest mall in the country, its palatial exterior has become a real point of conversation. Feeling almost regal with its symmetrical lines, vast stone columns, gold-plated fixtures and details and tunnelled arches with elaborate engraved ceilings; the architecture combines traditional and cultural elements to create a contemporary art piece. A sweeping promenade overlooking a grand central plaza allows visitors to walk around the perimeter of the mall; romanticised with the dancing water fountain which occupies most of the space.
Having recently visited both amazing buildings, it was hard not to be mesmerised by the charm and glamourous veil of their impressive façades. Whilst the exterior of the National Museum of Qatar is a complex, seemingly random, configuration of disc-like geometries, the Place Vendome is intricate details on familiar forms. Where the mall exudes elegance with its reflective polished surfaces, the museum feels like an extension of nature in its sandy tones. One’s architecture symbolic of a nation and its heritage, the other taking Western influence but with local finesse.
Unsurprisingly, both destinations were peppered with visitors capturing the irresistible insta-moment. But with it being so easy to marvel from the outside, this prompted the question – what lies within these spaces? And how could it possibly compare?
Well, *spoiler alert* it’s fair to say that where one space exceeded expectation, the second somewhat underwhelmed…
Bringing the outside in
The spatially dramatic exterior of the National Museum of Qatar continues to impress when stepping foot inside. With 11 permanent galleries, the vision for the museum was to move away from the static narrative which has come to be expected, and adopt a more energetic space, in line with the nation’s new status. With 1.5km of galleries, each room provides a 360-degree immersive experience, celebrating the Qatari identity by delving into the lives of the nation’s people, across land and sea. Floor-to-ceiling mapped projections fill the rooms, turning the sloping walls of the structure into living canvases. With 114 4K projectors and over 308 speakers throughout the space, the films (which were created in collaboration with the Doha Film Institute) are viewed at a vast scale and in hypnotic clarity. Renowned as the world’s largest permanent video installation, the films map from the pre-historic era to coastal life to oil discovery, taking visitors on a chronological journey as they navigate the space. Assisted by the undulating ceilings and interior composition of the rose petals, these create windows into the next space giving teasers of what is to come. With the surfaces becoming spectacles of light and sound, it’s multi-sensory experience at its greatest, as even faint aromas fill the rooms.
Upon entering the Place Vendome Mall, the initial ‘WOW’ factor is not lost. The sheer extravagance of the interior is awe-worthy, spanning four floors, customers walk over gleaming tiles and under stone archways, whilst marvelling at the grand ceiling domes, complete with concentric circular patterns. These glass atriums are home to some of the world’s leading brands, and the real experience comes from the overwhelming scale and beauty of some of the store’s fascia. Occupying its own dome, the glazed black and white 3D stripes of the Sephora store wrap around the space and the suspended walkway which leads you inside; elaborate Sephorized palm trees are scattered along the terrace which, under the dome above, gives a globe-like illusion. Under another large dome in the mall, the neighbouring fasciae of Louis Vuitton and Dior tower above. Inspired by the fashion houses tubular fragrance packaging, 14000 gold cylinders with diamond cut-outs cover the front of the LV store to create a mesmerising ripple effect. Glistening from every angle, visitors can even walk behind the design on the surrounding walkways. Meanwhile beside it, cascading ribbons frame the backlit Dior store and the all-white garments in the gallery-style windows. All three structural wonders are iconic and memorable in their execution, encouraging visitors to photograph them from the balconies – or even be photographed as tourists in front of them!
But as exploration continued, this surface-level extravagance was a commonality across the stores. Compared with the museum which completes the narrative of the space by bringing visitors to a central courtyard where the monument of the Sheiks Palace is preserved at the centre, the stores are very much style over substance. As the culminating exhibition in the museum, seeing the official residence of the Royal Family creates a full circle moment by once again marrying together old and new age Qatar. The retail stores, on the other hand, whilst beautiful, lacked in any immersive or experiential elements. The potential exists in the design and architecture of the surrounding space, but in terms of the overall journey, you find yourself wanting more. Gravitating back to the outside of the stores and temporarily forgetting why you visited the mall in the first place – to shop. A space intended as a destination for shopping has in fact become something else entirely; where the destination isn’t the retail stores, but the mall they are housed in. To compete with the other luxury malls in the region, the Place Vendome Mall stores need a point of difference to attract visitors and keep them coming back. And with the foundations already in place, additions of in-store experiential elements will solidify the mall as a must-visit location.
Lessons from two magnificent monuments
Whilst we can learn a lot from both structural wonders, they can learn lot from one another too. Where one is famous for being the most beautiful façade, the other is famous for what lies beyond the façade. The National Museum of Qatar brings the outside in, elevating the architecture with experiential-wow and ensuring no element is overlooked. The Place Vendome is rich in intricate detail, but concentrates on the outside as the attraction, leaving the mall and the stores feeling distinctly separate from one another. In the battle of style vs. substance, the Museum comes up roses.