Oman Across Ages Museum, Oman

20th December 2023

One of the strongest statement pieces of architecture in the Middle East, the Oman Across Ages Museum launched earlier this year – designed by Cox Architecture, with lighting design by Lighting Design Partnership International.

Situated in Manah, near Nizwa, the crossroads of Oman, the Oman Across Ages Museum is a cultural and educational hallmark both for Omanis and visitors to the country.

Commissioned by the Royal Court Affairs, Sultanate of Oman and designed by Australian firm Cox Architecture, the legacy project of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said has delivered one of the strongest statement pieces of architecture in the Middle East.

Inspired by the extraordinary landscape and geometric profiles of the Al Hajar Mountains and its canyons, the museum was designed to showcase the unique characteristics and historical significance of the Sultanate of Oman, and comprises a knowledge centre, an auditorium, permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, a vast garden, and several dining venues.

The museum’s design uses the full array of architecture’s potential for expression and communication, including scale, geometry, form, light, and vistas both as purely expressive devices, and to offer a wide range of possibilities for installations, displays, and performances across its varied spaces.

As a cultural landmark, the museum transports visitors across the nation’s 800-million-year history through a series of immersive, high-tech experiences. The building emerges from the landscape as a series of angular, geometric forms that sit in dialogue with the backdrop of the peaks and ridges of the Al Hajar Mountain range. In harmony with the architecture, the exhibition design celebrates Oman’s rich heritage, dating from prehistory to modern day through the latest immersive technologies.

Lighting Design Partnership International (LDPi) was appointed at the outset by Cox Architecture, curating and crafting a lighting story and journey that is embedded in the grain of the architectural philosophy. The teams from Cox and LDPi worked alongside each other in a united narrative to deliver a holistic solution to an outstanding piece of architecture and form.

Lawrie Nisbet, Managing Director at LDPi, tells arc how the museum’s unique architecture guided the design: “The architecture design has such a strong narrative that as “architects with light”, our duty was to enhance that narrative and develop our own lighting story. The story that we developed was a journey based upon visitor experience, both from approach and through the building and its form.

“The journey commences at the outset as that of a typical visitor; departing from Muscat and travelling through the Al Hajar mountains to the plain of Manah, where the site is located. On appointment, the first thing that LDPi did was to physically travel that journey. The whole approach and the illuminated experience were developed from that original journey experience.”

Nisbet explains further how, once this concept was developed, the design team brought it to life: “By immersing ourselves with the architecture and form; integrating nearly every lighting solution within its physicality; by defining the lit condition through limited fully integrated solutions; by minimising visual disturbance, visibility of source and crafting the effect of light and form sinuously.

“Much work was done by hand drawing and sketch. Renders were simple Photoshops and have proved to be the exact embodiment of the reality. This project was all about the true understanding of form and material and the interaction of light in all its forms. The results are beyond calculative and prove the point that only the ‘design eye’ can create such synergy with built form and materiality.”

The idea of taking visitors on a journey continues inside the museum – from the outset, the experience is one of stepping into a place of holistic drama and sensory stimulus. Visitors journey through a series of unfolding spatial sequences that progress from the raw naturalistic beauty of the soil and rocks to spaces of increasing volume, refinement, and lightness.

Throughout this journey, LDPi worked in close harmony with the architects, designing a lighting scheme that sat in sync with the building’s form, highlighting its scale and architecture. Nisbet adds: “Our design alignment was there from day one with the total understanding of the building and its own design journey, and this was fully understood and appreciated by the architects.

“LDPi had a complete free hand and the architect and client agreed with every step made through the design process. Through workshops in Perth, Oman, and Edinburgh, the seniors of both practices closely worked through all elements, speaking the same language.

“By understanding the architecture, and the architectural story, the lighting follows the architectural order, wording, and punctuation in absolute harmony.”

This harmony meant that the lighting designers did not experience any structural constraints or issues on the project, although Nisbet adds that the biggest challenge came in illuminating the 150-metre-long timeline gallery with a single source solution. “A custom-made solution by iGuzzini, using stretch fabric, was ultimately used to ensure visual continuity and stability. The single linear narrative adds to the strong architectural geometry and enhances perspective, irrespective of an excellent downward illumination provision.”

LDPi worked with iGuzzini and Louis Poulsen on the lighting for the museum, and Nisbet adds that “performance and the ability to support the highly motivated design teams of LDPi and Cox” were the main decisions behind working with these brands.

“We invited both iGuzzini and Louis Poulsen to be part of the process and allowed full engagement with ourselves and the architects,” he adds. “The level of detail was extensive with, for example, the special engraved patternation designed by LDPi applied onto the glass of all in-ground luminaires. In daytime, the luminaires morph into beautiful architectural details themselves. Such attention to detail sets the scene of care and quality throughout.”

Following the opening of the museum earlier this year, Nisbet is effusive in his praise of the project, “This is a statement piece of legacy architecture, our view and that of the architects is that the space and form is timeless and intended to be meaningful over generations,” he says.

Despite a lengthy timeline of nearly 10 years to complete, with work beginning in 2014, he adds that the project was “an absolute pleasure from start to finish, as all parties believed in the strength of the design and the legacy aspect of such a work”.

He concludes: “It was a joy to work with some of the best architects in the world who care so much; a joy to work with people within lighting manufacturers that hold the same design integrity and who similarly care.

“This was an amazing design experience, design education, and design journey for all involved at LDPi. This was about much more than a commercial project. We are privileged to have worked on this project with amazing people in an amazing country. All involved have become firm friends throughout this journey; surely what great collaboration and great design is all about.”

Image: Philip Handforth