I CAN’T seem to get the Museum of Islamic Art out of my mind. There’s nothing revolutionary about the building. But its clean, chiseled forms have a tranquillity that distinguishes it in an age that often seems trapped somewhere between gimmickry and a cloying nostalgia. Part of the allure may have to do with I. M. Pei, the museum’s architect. Mr. Pei reached the height of his popularity decades ago with projects like the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Louvre pyramid in Paris. Since then he has been an enigmatic figure at the periphery of the profession. His best work has admirers, but it has largely been ignored within architecture’s intellectual circles. Now, at 91 and near the end of a long career, Mr. Pei seems to be enjoying the kind of revival accorded to most serious architects if they have the luck to live long enough. But the museum is also notable for its place within a broader effort to reshape the region’s cultural identity. The myriad large-scale civic projects, from a Guggenheim museum that is planned for Abu Dhabi to Education City in Doha — a vast area of new buildings that house outposts of foreign universities — are often dismissed in Western circles as superficial fantasies. As the first to reach completion, the Museum of Islamic Art is proof that the boom is not a mirage. The building’s austere, almost primitive forms and the dazzling collections it houses underscore the seriousness of the country’s cultural ambition.
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