A palace for art in Abu Dhabi
BY ANJA FAHS
Like a mirage, white buildings float on the sea – in the desert of Abu Dhabi. Under the glare of the sun, shadows dance on the water, and to compensate for the merciless desert heat, we find cooling shade beneath the gigantic vault of the ‘Dome’. With the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a world has been created that harmonises light and shadow, reflection and rest. The design of this innovative building intends to belong to this desert land, its history, its geography, but without being a simple translation, a pleonasm that leads to boredom and convention. The aim here is to underscore the fascination of rare encounters, which was the aspiration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a structure that ranks as one of the most challenging museum projects in recent years.
Ten years after France and the United Arab Emirates agreed on an utterly unprecedented kind of cultural cooperation and signed what at the time was a historic contract to this effect, this is ‘the first universal museum in the Arab world, the first of the 21st century’, as Jean-Luc Martinez, President-Director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, described the partnership.
Jean Nouvel, French architect and winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, drew his inspiration for the concept of the Louvre Abu Dhabi from the culture of traditional Arabic architecture. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is conceived as a context-sensitive ‘museum city’ in the sea and features a series of 55 white structures, including 23 galleries, that are shaped by the medina and the traditional layout of Arabic settlements. An impressive vault 180 metres wide, the Dome, covers most of the museum. With its iconic structure, it is visible from the sea, the surrounding areas and the city of Abu Dhabi.
We spoke with Jean Nouvel about the innovative museum that was opened in November. He told us how to build an archipelago into the sea and engineer a ‘rain of light’.
What came to mind when you visited the desert island of Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi, the future site of the museum?
Geometry and light. I saw a perforated vault that opened the museum to the sky, creating light effects and enabling a microclimate that was four to five degrees Celsius cooler than outdoors. Basically, creating a sensation akin to what you feel when strolling beneath a shady palm tree.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an architectural masterpiece. What was your concept?
I wanted to work with water, sand and the sky; those are the fundamentals of this project. This is a museum that lies between these three elements, that plays with them, responds to them. The play of light, its intensity, its changes, its density – that is what is distinctive about the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Every hour, every season creates a different light. This is very well-suited to a museum, as this is a spiritual place. It is a structure dedicated to works of the spirit. I wanted the Louvre Abu Dhabi to have an immediate poetic dimension. I was familiar with the city and its history, so I quickly arrived at this idea, inspired by the architecture of Arabic cities.
How was it possible to realise your idea of a floating island for the museum?
When the process of construction began, the museum was erected in a dry dock. This produced a new and temporary coastline at the southwestern corner of Saadiyat Island that was later filled in with sand from the seabed. Then, piles were inserted into the bedrock of the island in an interlacing pattern. Together, they form a hydraulic partition that protects the structure from the sea. Approximately 503,000 cubic metres of sand were excavated. Then, 4,500 piles were sunk, creating the foundation for the museum. This task was completed in 2010, after which the museum was erected. Last year, the grounds of the museum were carefully flooded with sea water in three phases.
As an architect, does it make a difference to you whether you design a museum – a cultural building – or, say, a shopping mall?
I’m a contextual architect, a situational architect. For me, the purpose of architecture is not simply to exist on paper or to be preserved in museums. The purpose of architecture is to exist in a particular place at a particular time; it must be lived. If one takes this vision of architecture as the point of departure, then naturally, no project can resemble another. In a certain fashion, architecture is the petrification of a moment in civilisation, in culture, in technology and in technological progress. We must ask ourselves whether we have the ambition to pursue an expression, an invention, through to its conclusion, to generate sensations, to imagine a building that will fully testify to what our history was at this particular point in time and in this specific place.
What did you personally find fascinating about designing a museum?
A museum is a gift for generations to come, so it always presents an incredible opportunity. What influenced me most of all was the type of collections and the notion of what a museum of civilisations should be today. It must be a sophisticated place, a place with steadfastness and a presence.
What, to you, is unique about the Louvre Abu Dhabi?
There is something palace-like about the Louvre Abu Dhabi that not only relates to the museum itself, but also makes perfect sense here in Abu Dhabi. I sought endurance in the value of the location and in the materials used. And to me, it was important for the architecture not to occupy the entire space; instead, everything should be in service of the collections. I also wanted to create a museum that is not just visited by people, but in which the works themselves would essentially reside. These objects and works come from all over the world; this is where they will see one another, meet one another for the first time. The perspectives and openings in the design serve to open the museum so that it can interact with the direct surroundings of Abu Dhabi. It’s very important for the works to truly live in their surroundings, and not simply be brought in, placed on display and classified.
Tell us more about the imposing Dome, the architectural centrepiece of the museum.
The majority of the museum city is covered by the Dome. This is an enormous vault, 180 metres in diameter, with a total weight equal to that of the Eiffel Tower. This incredible structure can be seen from the sea, from the surroundings and from Abu Dhabi City. The vault consists of eight different layers: four outer layers of stainless steel and four inner layers of aluminium, separated by a steel frame five metres high. The frame consists of 10,000 components pre-assembled to create 85 outsized elements, each weighing up to 50 tonnes. The Dome serves primarily as a sun canopy to protect the outdoor courts and the underlying building from the heat of the sun while reducing the energy consumption of the building. Thanks to this roof structure, visitors can now walk around comfortably outdoors the way they would if walking in the shade of palm trees. They can visit the museum galleries, exhibitions, children’s museum, open plaza, café and restaurant.
The Dome exhibits a complicated pattern. What is the idea behind it?
The complex pattern on the vaulted roof is the result of a highly developed geometric design. We worked closely with the structural engineer at BuroHappold Engineering on this. The pattern repeats itself in different sizes and at different angles throughout the eight overlapping layers. Each beam of light must penetrate through the eight layers before surfacing and then disappearing. The result is the kind of cinematic effect we get when filming the path of the sun. At night, the pattern creates 7,850 stars that can be seen from within and outside. We describe this effect as a ‘rain of light’.
You have designed a great many different buildings and realised projects of stunning beauty. Is there still something left that you’d like to design some day?
As a contextual architect, I’m fascinated by all of the questions I put to myself. But I’d be delighted to design an airport!
The French architect is considered to be one of the most imaginative and ingenious planners alive today. His versatile architectural style is characterised by a bold vocabulary of design and select materials. His outstanding projects include the Nemausus residential complex in the French city of Nîmes, or the Culture and Convention Center in Lucerne, Switzerland, among others. A suitable term with which to describe his concept of architecture is the notion of transparency, which plays a central role.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q4 2017. Picture credit © Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority