Castles in the Sand

RISD’s outgoing president prepares to build a new breed of cultural institutions in Qatar.

In late February, Roger Mandle became one of the most important architectural patrons in the world: the outgoing president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) was named executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority. At the end of the school year, after 15 successful years in Providence, Mandle will move to Doha, the capital of Qatar, and embark on a wildly ambitious undertaking: the planning and construction of as many as a dozen museums. He will work under the direction of Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, the young American-educated monarch who has taken an active role in the creation of a twenty-first-century Qatar, placing culture at the forefront of that effort.

Mandle seems particularly well suited to the job. Prior to RISD he served as deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C.; director of the Toledo Museum of Art; and associate director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The authority’s first building, the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei, opens in November. Its second project, the National Museum of Qatar, will be designed by Jean Nouvel. Recently, executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked to Mandle in New York about the new job, identifying young architects, and the role of museums.

This is quite a third act. Tell us about your new job.
Is it my third act? I think it’s about my fourth or fifth act. Anyway, it’s a wide-ranging assignment, to build as many as a dozen museums, in addition to a school of art and a high school of visual art, and to create an arts curriculum for the Qatar school systems that will capitalize on the museums we’re building. It is like building the Smithsonian from the sand up.

The scale of it is pretty astounding.
It is astounding. Of course, twelve museums are going to take a long time. A number of them they’d like to have built by 2016, at which time they hope to host the Olympics in Qatar. So this will be a big capitalized Moment for the country. There’s an awful lot of building going on right now, and they’d like to have a lot of these museums completed, but how many we can actually put in place—with strategic plans, organization, priorities, sequencing—that’s some­thing I’m going to be working on with Her Excellency Sheikha al-Mayassa and the board.

Is there a master plan for this?
There may be sketches of one that I will learn about, but basically there isn’t one at the moment. It’s something we’re urgently going to begin when I get there full-time.

Will you hire a planning firm to figure out phasing, sites, and programs?
We’ll talk to a variety of people. The exciting thing about this project is I’ve been able to convince everyone that we shouldn’t just go after all these signature architects who are beginning to populate the Middle East and the world, but rather identify new architects, younger architects, who haven’t had a chance at this scale, both from the Middle East and around the world, whose reputations could be made by working on these projects.

Identifying the next generation would be more exciting than commissioning more buildings by OMA or Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid.
We’re not going to do that. Frankly, we don’t want to become another franchise. We want to be seen as developing a kind of Arab cultural renaissance. That can only be done by beginning to identify new pathways, and not just adopting those that have already been made. I’ve also been able to sell the notion that we don’t want to continue with the ideas of museums from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We’re going to try to find the technologies, ideas, and people for redefining museums in the twenty-first century. There’s a real chance here to do something unique.

What are they hoping to accomplish here?
It’s clear to me that Her Excellency—she’s in her mid-twenties and has a Duke University degree—sees museums in a new way. One of the most important issues is the whole question of context, particularly when you think about the Middle East, with its strong Islamic traditions. What do objects mean? How do they help stimulate people to think in new ways about their place in the world? It could be that we’re not talking about buildings so much as experiences. And from those experiences we might figure out that those buildings need to be quite different, or even be located in different places.

Are there programs for the first five or six museums?
By bringing the best minds of the world together, I see it as part of my job to discover and invent what those programs ought to be. First of all, we’ve got to develop a good master plan that has some legs and will stand on its own, because there have been a lot of discussions and a number of false starts.

And this master plan would determine programs for buildings, sites, sequencing—all those issues?
Very much so. It will also be defined by Qatar’s place in its own history and within the Islamic and Arab cultures. This is not going to be people importing culture from elsewhere. I did not want to be part of a project that was simply reincorporating culture from some other part of the world. That’s so…that’s so twentieth century.

It seems as if you’re at least a couple years away from hiring an architect for a building.
We could hire someone who could become part of early conversations if we felt that architect had the kind of sensibility we need. But each project will be different. Maybe in some cases it’ll be some time before we can identify an architect because we don’t know what the project wants to be. On the other hand, there might be a project wherein the architect, because of his or her unique experience, knows exactly what the program could be and can help us define it. The process of finding architects is going to be revealed on an almost project-by-project basis.

If you want to build five or six museums by 2016, you’re going to be on an extremely accelerated timetable.
Yes, they move fast. And I like that. They are, I think, happily about five years behind Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and some of the other Middle Eastern states in their development, and because of that they’ve been deliberate about how to learn from what’s been done before, both the good things and the bad.

You talk about creating a Smithsonian from the sand up. That institution evolved over decades. How do you create all this on an insane timeline?
I don’t think we’ll get it all done, goodness gracious, but we’ll get the blueprint for the overall project, and we’ll be able to get a number of them under way. And each one of them will have its own integrity but will have to relate to the others and teach us something about the next ones we do.

It’s almost as if your job is to create a cultural infrastructure for the country.
Right. And the thing I’m very keen about is the fact that I’m able to apply all the experience I’ve gained over my professional career on the big-picture items, really to focus on those. That’s what I’m being brought there to do. I’m not being brought there to actually run the institutions. I’m there to conceive of how they relate to each other, how they’re born, how they work conceptually, and how they connect to the nation of Qatar, the Middle East, and the world.

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