The acclaimed Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, perhaps best known for his pyramid at the Louvre, was almost 90 years old when he was commissioned by the Emir of Qatar to design the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. In spite of his advanced age, the remarkably youthful Pei embraced the project as an opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the region. Learning from Light: The Vision of I.M. Pei, a documentary by Bo Landin and Sterling Van Wagenen, follows Pei on his quest to design a structure that captures the essence of Islamic architecture.
While documenting Pei’s search for inspiration, the film takes viewers across the Islamic world, traveling from the Alhambra in Spain to fortresses in the Tunisian desert and ultimately to Egypt. In Cairo, the geometric forms in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun captivate Pei.
Awe-inspiring shots of desert landscapes and architectural wonders, all set to a score by acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project, could easily be used as part of a tourism campaign for the region which unfortunately works to the documentary’s disadvantage at times.
However, watching Pei reconcile his vision with reality is reason enough to see the film. One immediately gets the impression that they are witnessing a master at work. Pei is an innovator who challenges those around him to think outside the box, while remaining true to his design philosophy.
Contractors, designers and even engineers who had previously worked on the space station participated in the massive undertaking that was completed in 2008. Pei’s sand-colored structure is brought to life by light in a way that is reminiscent of the fortresses and mosques he visited throughout Africa and the Middle East. Observers have compared the geometric-inspired design, which incorporates form, space, light and movement, to the face of a veiled woman floating on water and have drawn comparisons to the works of the Ottoman architect Sinan.
The documentary captures both a first and a last in a career that has spanned well over half a century: Pei’s first major work in the Islamic World, and what he acknowledges is, at the age of 92, most likely his last large commission. Even those with little interest in design will find themselves inspired by his contribution to modern architecture.