Xanadu reborn: new Museum of Islamic Art

Dubai may have Atlantis, but Doha's got Xanadu. Designed by IM Pei, the new Museum of Islamic Art is in a differentleague – and Jay Merrick is spellbound

A new Xanadu was born on Saturday night, the stark geometry of its form backlit in the soft, warm air by hundreds of fireworks whose seething pointillism lit the faces of more than 200 people ensconced in velveteen divans to witness the moment. Two hundred metres away, at the end of a causeway jutting into the bay of Doha on the Arabian Gulf, Citizen Kane has become Citizen World, and Kane's mystical "Rosebud" has been replaced by the monumental architecture of the Museum of Islamic Art, the biggest since New York's Moma was massively recast in 2004.

The significance of this building, and its architecture, is considerable. It signals that the royal family of Qatar, of which Doha is the capital, wants very little to do with the Dubai effect: Gulf state as sybaritic paradise. Their plan is to make Doha a cultural bridge between the Middle East and the rest of the world – a new art and educational reactor core fuelled by billions of dollars a year, glowing with the beautifully lit art works in the new museum, and ringing out with the imported college songs of the American universities that have set up satellite faculties on Doha's stupendous "multiversity" campus, featuring deliberately stunning architecture by, among others, Arata Isozaki. Indeed, Doha will contain 17 new museums within a few years, making it an art and cultural epicentre.

This new beginning, decreed less than a decade ago by the Emir of Qatar, and carried through by Sheikha Al-Mayassa and the Qatar Foundation, is also an ending. By his own charmingly wry admission this weekend, the museum's architect I M Pei will never design another major building; next up, and perhaps last up, will be a small chapel in the countryside near Kyoto. The first building he ever designed and completed was a chapel. Pei has always been spellbound by geometry. "I think that geometry is the fundamental element of architecture," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's Islamic or Renaissance. Geometry is the framework. But if the geometry is obvious, then I've failed," he says.

In his big architectural finale in Doha, Pei has fused the formal language of Modernist geometry with the decorative, and sometimes scintillating, geometries found in Muslim art. The museum is a fortress of ambition whose stark outline and mass stops admirably short of imposing a physical or material hauteur. There's no glint of gold and, despite the building's size and purpose, the architecture – even strobed with the pyrotechnical light that bathed watching A-listers including Robert De Niro, Ronnie Wood and Damien Hirst – seems positively modest.

The geometry is certainly complex but, externally, the building rises in relatively simple twists of plane and elevation. Seen from its two approaches – three, if you count the bay – the museum's form can be taken in quite rapidly. It looks archetypal, innocent, something that might have been created by a compulsively precise child playing with chalky geometric blocks.

Two days earlier, in Dubai, the £1bn, 1,539-room Vegas-style Atlantis hotel opened in Dubai with a £13.5m party. The contrast between the Doha and Dubai events is salutary. Doha's forthcoming Pearl mixed-use development may aim to create a potentially surreal Venetian experience on the Gulf, but the architecture of the museum has set a very different kind of benchmark – one that will survive a slick PR exercise that saw journalists walking across bobbing pontoons covered in Persian carpets to dhows that transported them to the Emir's landing stage, and thence to the revolving, marble-clad lift that elevated those daunted by the two staircases a good 12 feet up to the museum's royal terrace.

The architecture and art were considerably more resonant experiences. Pei's building is remarkable for its variations of formal emphasis: its long elevation seems perfectly Modernist at one end, with simple shifts of cubic shapes, and almost artistically Cubist at the other, where the museum's main mass rises in steps and facets. Pei says that he designed the building's outer form so that it would hide the more obviously dramatic internal geometry. But there's no architecture without light and shadow; and though the exterior isn't overly abstruse, the shadows it casts are a beautiful riddle of abstracted geometry and texture. Pei has been undone, delightfully, by his own fastidious desire to control the way the |building is perceived.

Inside, the key public space is the atrium, and it manages to be both striking and droll. Were it not for the huge triangular facets that rise asymmetrically to sculpt the inner edges of the towering volume, one might almost be in a supersized hotel lobby in Dubai. This impression is, of course, deceitful. We are used to grand atria. We experience them in malls and corporate offices, as well as hotels. They are ubiquitous in these contexts; they reek of branding and superficial gloss; they infect our perception of their more serious architectural use.

Apart from two steel bridges, which seem oddly industrial, Pei's atrium gets better as it goes up. His disguise of the administrative segment of the building is masterly, and when the triangular planes reach the metal-clad dome, an impression of perfect architectural order is restored.

It is only in the galleries, which follow the perimeter of the first two floors above the entrance area, that satirical reactions – Apocalobby Now! – begin to evaporate. These spaces are of the highest quality. Proportion, narrative spatial rhythm, lighting, materiality – it's hard to find any significant reservations. If Jean Nouvel's polemical Quai Branly ethnological museum in Paris was a viciously brilliant exercise in atmospheric complexity designed to stick two fingers up at post-colonial orientalists, the Doha museum has steered an almost perfectly balanced course between academic and popular viewing conditions. The programming of these spaces – themed on one level, chronological on the other – sets out one of the world's greatest Islamic art collections in a way that presents the pieces with unusual clarity. The cases and glazed insets are not overwhelmingly large, and the number of exhibits in any one room is relatively modest. Within walls of striated, bush-hammered porphyry, and gold and silver treated tropical lacewood, it is easy to become engrossed in exhibits that, in more crowded presentation, would seem overwhelmingly mysterious. In the perfectly weighted ambience of these galleries, it's a pleasure to examine, say, Kufic script so square it resembles a maze; or an 18th-century sundial; or an 11th-century lustre-painted bowl; or the Mameluke pattern of the book cover whose interlocked geometric complexity seems to appear on the vast circular chandelier that hangs in the atrium.

The museum's other key feature is water: water in an internal courtyard, and water all around it. "I didn't choose the location," says Pei. "I made it. I found it very tempting to do this! I've never had the opportunity to work with water, so I made the most of it." Pei also reveals that, in essence, his design was inspired by historic fortresses. Citizen Kane's Xanadu was a fortress to ambition and bad taste. Pei has ensured that Doha's Museum of Islamic Art is not a lurid postmodern version of Coleridge's caves of ice, but a remarkable series of caverns measurable to man, to the royal family of Qatar – and to culturally minded travellers who may well come to regard Doha as a long-haul stopover of choice.