Architecture can shape national identity

Architecture and monuments can influence the way the world thinks of a nation or of a people. The Pyramids and the Sphinx have given Egypt’s its identity as an ancient civilization, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City give China its inscrutability, India’s Taj Mahal invokes the exotic orient and exquisite beauty, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe grace France with iconic style, the towering and shiny skyscrapers in American cities embodied the strength and industry of the US.

When you happen to meet a person from a country you know little of, things that you have seen in movies, in magazines about his country may drift through your mind. Ever since 9/11,  the images associated with the Middle East and Islam have become distorted to mean terrorism, bomb blasts and violence.

Two oil-rich counties in the Middle East are hoping to change that image association and identity in the world through architecture and art. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is building three colossal museums. The first is a branch of the Guggenheim, 12 times larger than the original in New York, designed by Frank Gehry. The second is going to be a branch of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel. The third museum is going to showcase national history and is being designed by Foster & Partners.

200 miles across the Persian Gulf, Qatar has already completed its first dazzling museum. In 2008 it opened its bone-white Museum of Islamic Art designed by I.M. Pei. Another one will open in December to showcase modern Arab art starting from the mid-19th century to the present. A third museum on Qatari history is being designed by Jean Nouvel and fourth on Oriental Art is being designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron.

By building new architectural landmarks the Middle East hopes to start a new narrative about the region. They hope to give a new identity to Arabs and to Islam, to try to change the way the world sees the region at the same time not alienating significant parts of the Arab world.

It’s an audacious and lavish experiment that just might work.

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