Mattar Bin Lahej on designing the calligraphy that wraps around the Museum of the Future

The experimental calligrapher talks about the inspiration and the process of developing the museum's facade

Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej is the calligrapher behind the idiosyncratic facade of the Museum of the Future. Photo: Loro Piana
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The Museum of the Future marked its opening this week in a celebration that concluded with the illumination of the calligraphy on the structure’s facade.

The arched strokes of the thuluth script is one of the most idiosyncratic features of the museum’s exterior. It serves as the museum's windows and provides a visual balance with the structure’s oval design.

When it came to choosing the script to wrap around the curved facade, Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej says thuluth was an obvious choice as much for the lilt in its form as its dignified resonance.

Museum of the Future opened in Dubai on February 22. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“Thuluth is, in my opinion, the most majestic of the scripts,” he says. “Even for non-Arabs, the thuluth script is striking. You don’t need to speak Arabic to appreciate it. It instils awe.”

But for those who do speak the language, Bin Lahej says the calligraphy on the museum’s facade is perfectly legible, although it might take some effort.

Quote
The Arabic language is our legacy ... Our language is the jewel we take from our history on to the future
Mattar Bin Lahej

“When I was tasked to create something that was both attractive and had a historical significance, I knew it had to be centred around the Arabic language,” he says.

“The Arabic language is our legacy. There is nothing more precious than it. Our language is the jewel we take from our history on to the future.”

Deciding on what the calligraphy would read was a gradual process as well. Bin Lahej says a poem would have been an obvious choice, but “poems speak to an individual. A hikma, a maxim, speaks to many”.

Every dot and stroke of the calligraphic windows was considerably planned and studied by artist Mattar Bin Lahej. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Bin Lahej began by selecting 14 quotes by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and after corresponding with the Dubai Future Foundation pared down his options. The final say came from Sheikh Mohammed himself.

The quotes that wrap around the building read: “We may not live for hundreds of years, but the products of our creativity can leave a legacy long after we are gone.”

“The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it.”

“The future does not wait. The future can be designed and built today.”

Bin Lahej says he was fond of the final pick as he felt strongly about the quotes that alluded to the future, because it reflected both the museum’s mission as well as Dubai’s innovative spirit.

“The word future repeating often gives it this visual cadence,” he says. “We had to be careful which quotes to use because there are certain words that when put side by side in calligraphy come together in a scrawl. Others, of course, merge beautifully.”

Mattar Bin Lahej is known for challenging the conventions of Arabic calligraphy, pushing the art form into the avant-garde. Photo: Loro Piana

The script, though adhering to the principles of the thuluth, is also a break from convention, Bin Lahej says.

“We had to take the structural shape into consideration, as the museum is larger on one side than the other. The project was quite challenging. Every dot and stroke was considerably planned and studied.”

Besides aesthetic considerations, Bin Lahej and the engineering team had to take into account production limitations. The designing aspect of the calligraphy began, Bin Lahej says, sometime in 2016, and took four months and numerous revisions to finalise.

“I conceptualised the design by hand but we used computers to ensure precision,” he says. “The hand shakes and though the calligraphy may seem beautiful on paper, when enlarging the letters many, many times over, every deviation becomes apparent.”

The building's calligraphy and unconventional shape made it one of the most complex construction projects ever attempted, with its exterior made up of 1,024 pieces that were manufactured by automated robotic arms and installed over the course of 18 months. The museum’s framework, comprising 2,400 diagonally intersecting steel members, was completed in November 2018.

Bin Lahej says he was heavily involved in every stage of the construction. Yet, whenever he’d drive by the landmark, he'd "try not to look at it".

Known for his avant-garde approach to calligraphy, Bin Lahej says he has always preferred exhibiting his work in public spaces as opposed to museums and galleries. Museum of the Future, he says, is the pinnacle of his attempt at integrating Arabic calligraphy into daily life.

“I feel proud of the project,” he says. “It will be a symbol for generations to come. Artists often talk about exhibiting their work on an international stage by going abroad. I’ve done so from right here at home.”

Bin Lahej says he is excited to see how the museum develops over the years. It isn’t intended to be a static space, but rather a platform from which to look towards the future.

“In a few years, the museum will be something else. It will always keep looking forward. At every point in time, it will reflect upon what is to come.”

Updated: February 25, 2022, 4:35 PM