jean nouvel
Jacques Brinon/AP
French architect Jean Nouvel is seen at
his office in Paris, Friday, March 28,

Nouvel Promotes Cultural Exchange Through Design

March 24, 2010 12:20 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
French architect Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar is meant to bridge East and West, and promote fading Bedouin culture, demonstrating the power of design.

Preserving a Fading Culture

The New York Times reports on a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that features Nouvel’s design for the National Museum of Qatar. Described by the Times as “sprawling,” the museum sheds light on the roots of modern day Qatar, “the fading world of the Bedouins.”

In addition, the museum’s design is meant to promote cultural exchange between the West and the Middle East, and draws inspiration from features of the Bedouins’ dessert environment. Crystallized sand roses that form “just below the desert’s surface ... invisible to those who have not spent time there” figure prominently.

The Times suggests that Nouvel’s ability to incorporate history into his designs, “while remaining firmly pointed toward the future,” could be crucial to the preservation of Bedouin culture, facets of which are becoming lost in the Middle East’s rapid urbanization.

Nouvel’s work also emphasizes the power of design, whether to preserve culture or promote a way of life. In June 2009, Tallinn, Estonia, held a design competition for a new city hall. The winning design was intended to be a “democratic space for citizens to see their city at work,” Dwell reported. Conceived by Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group, the building has a reflective, mirror-like finish, suggesting that most coveted quality of democratic government: transparency.

In Scandinavia and Northern Europe, it is not unusual for building design to promote democracy. Other architects and designers have attempted to shape or improve quality of life in their region with innovative works. 

Key Players: Jean Nouvel

Nouvel was born in Fumel, France, in 1945. The Guardian interviewed the architect about his work, dealing with criticism, his preference for controversy over the status quo, his regrets and how he balances personal with professional life. Nouvel studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Two of his most impressive designs are the Arab World Institute and the Foundation Cartier in Paris.

Nouvel’s Web site has a timeline of his life, and information about his awards and exhibitions.

In 2008, Nouvel was awarded the Pritzker Prize, which “is something like the knighthood of architecture,” Time magazine reported. But unlike architects whose work is easily discernable and has a distinct style, Nouvel stands out for being “playful, contradictory and devoted to the idea of context—designs that grow out of their surroundings and are bracingly different.” Nouvel is also interested in bringing the outside world inside, and his buildings seem to “play hide and seek as you approach them.”

Time has a slideshow of images of Nouvel’s designs around the world, including a public housing apartment complex vaguely resembling a spaceship in Nimes, France.

Related Topic: Bedouin culture

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Bedouin are “Arabic-speaking nomadic peoples of the Middle Eastern deserts, especially of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.” They comprise a small portion of the Middle East’s total population, but “utilize a large part of the land area.” This chapter describes the Bedouin caste system and preference for animal herding, as well as post-World War II developments that impacted Bedouin culture. 

In a travel piece for The Observer, Ed Douglas makes sense of a tour through Bedouin villages in Egypt’s Sinai desert, including the “secret” gardens cultivated by Bedouin peoples “for hundreds of years.” The gardens reveal how Jebeliya people learned “how to grow food in a dry climate,” Douglas explains.

Discovery Education has a “Desert Dwellers” lesson plan for ecology students in grades 9-12. The lesson helps students gain a better understanding of desert weather and geography. Students will examine the trend of desertification, and discover potential ways to prevent loss of dessert and “promote rehabilitation” of desert land.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines