Castles in the
RISD’s outgoing president prepares to
build a new breed of cultural institutions in Qatar.
Posted June 18,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
master plan would determine programs for buildings, sites, sequencing—all those
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
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
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.
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.