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Arab World Institute is a curious, architectural fusion of traditional Middle East and contemporary Europe.
Facade of Arab World Institute against cloudy background
– image © Julian Elliott photography

Architects: Jean Nouvel, Architecture-Studio, Pierre Soria and Gilbert Lezenes

Location: Paris, France

Project Year: 1987

Type: Cultural

Institut du Monde Arabe, or IMA, was created through the collaboration between France and 18 Arab countries, to research and promote the culture of the Arab world.

The foundation and the building it currently resides in contribute to the cultural, political, economic and social collaboration and understanding between the Arab world and Europe for the last 30 years.

The facade of the Arab World Institute seen from the public square
The Arab World Institute seen from the public square. – image © IMA

The commission for the design of the IMA was given to Architecture-Studio and Jean Nouvel, as the winners of the competition announced for this project in 1981. The winning design responds to its unique context in both plan and elevation.

Consisting of a museum, a library, an auditorium, a restaurant, offices and meeting rooms, the institute aims to communicate and display the extensive contributions of the Arab world in terms of technology, art, knowledge and aesthetics.

A Curiosity at the Banks of the Seine

Located along the Seine River in the area known as the Latin quarter of Paris, the Arab World Institute is an architectural curiosity. As a result of its impressive location, the building offers stunning views of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Seine River, and the Saint-Louis Island from its rooftop.

The site that the building currently sits on also has a historical significance: it is where the Saint-Bernard gate, the Saint-Victor Abbey and the Paris wine market once stood.

Black and white plan drawing of the IMA in relation to the Seine river
IMA sits at a very close proximity to the Seine, at the Latin quarter. – image © Atelier Jean Nouvel / Architecture-Studio

The Mechanics of Light

The northern façade, which follows the curve of the Seine River, consists of a glazed curtain wall divided up by an aluminium frame. The effect is a nod to the historic city, mimicking old brick structures with a contemporary twist.

Northern facade of the IMA, seen as 2 separate blocks of buildings made of glass and steel
Approaching the northern façade from Quai Saint-Bernard. – image © IMA

The southwest façade, facing the large public square that acts as a buffer between IMA and the Pierre and Marie Curie University, shows off perhaps the most memorable and impressive element of the structure: a façade exhibiting a mosaic of delicate, industrial-looking, steel planes punctured with geometric motifs.

The southwestern façade of IMA
The southwestern façade. – image © Bruce Yuanyue Bi

The intricate grid is actually a reference to the mashrabiya; an archetypal element in Islamic architecture that allows privacy, efficient ventilation and control of light in households.

A traditional mashrabiya in Cairo, made of intricate wood carvings
A traditional mashrabiya in Cairo. – image © Innovian SB-onemilegrads

However, the building incorporates this traditional detail in a more technical manner.

Because, upon closer look, it can be seen that the IMA’s mashrabiya is made up of various sized mechanical apertures. These apertures, connected to a central system, automatically adjust the size of their openings according to the time of day, and the amount of light and heat that stream into the building. The “smart” façade as a whole consists of 240 photosensitive, motor-controlled shutters set up to perform up to 18 adjustments a day.

Upclose view of a single mechanical panel of the IMA facade
Each panel consists of a combination of mechanical apertures. – image © IMA, Fabrice Cateloy

Middle-Eastern architectural elements are also present inside the building. The interiors are in light tones. A forest of columns lead the visitors trough the building, which are reminiscent of Iraqi ziggurats, Arabian palaces and the minarets commonly seen in mosques.

Interior of IMA
The interior view. – image © IMA, Delagarde

The Fusion of Traditional and Contemporary

Named the winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architectural Excellence in 1989, The Arab World Institute is a perfect manifestation of what it aims to reflect: an understanding of a vast, complex history in the light of Western advancements.

It is for this reason that the building plays with light, with voids, and with geometry.

Elements commonly seen in Islamic architecture, like the mashrabiya, or the use geometric design, are fused with technology and modernism.

The result is a unique, calm, deeply resonating sense of space with a touch of exoticism, like a playful breeze drifting in from a warm, faraway land.

Don’t miss it the next time you find yourself in the City of Lights.

Evening view of the IMA facade
– image © IMA

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