The Louvre Abu Dhabi was conceived and constructed amid controversy, but star architect Jean Nouvel sees the institution as an opportunity for cultural understanding.
“The Arab world’s first universal museum,” is how the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been billed, and it is that philosophy to which the Pritzker prize-winning Nouvel gave form when designing the structure.
Where many saw the Louvre’s move to rent its name and coveted artworks to the Emiratis as the selling of its very soul, Nouvel saw cultural exchange and the embrace of values that the French consider universal.
The Louvre museum in Paris was born out of the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely the rejection of monarchical and religious authority. When creating it in May 1791 as a public place open to all, the French National Assembly said the Louvre would be “a place for bringing together monuments to all the sciences and arts”.
Napoléon expanded the collection during his reign, adding a new wing and filling it with treasures seized from around the world during his military campaigns. Today the museum contains works spanning thousands of years and originating from across the globe. These works are divided among eight departments: painting; Egyptian antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities; Near Eastern antiquities; sculpture; decorative arts; Islamic arts; and graphic arts.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi not only furthers the idea of universalism, both in idea and in form, but redefines it. Its collection will also span ages and continents, but will be presented in a manner that allows viewers to appreciate cultural and artistic similarities as well as differences across space and time.
Nouvel says he had all of this in mind when he set about designing the new building. He explained to a group of journalists gathered in the office of his partner, Hala Wardé, that the new museum would facilitate a “dialogue between all these artworks of the collections coming from different civilisations”.
The museum will, for example, display three objects together: one from South America, one from China and one from the Mediterranean. “Immediately you have this comparison between the same epoch and the different styles and the different attitudes that you see in these objects,” Nouvel said.
The French architect aimed to devise a structure that would reflect both the place and time in which it was created. He wanted to move away from the 19th-century conception of a building with a front door that provided protection and security.
“I think now a museum is more than that,” he said. “I am more in the big conception of the museum like an agora, a place where you discuss a lot of things, a meeting place, so for this reason I proposed more of a neighbourhood.”
Nouvel refers to himself as a situational architect, so the location and surroundings of the site were essential elements in his vision for the museum. He considered both its island location next to the water and indigenous architectural styles.
The design Nouvel came up with consists of 55 small buildings connected by walkways and alleys, half on land and half on water, which surrounds some of the buildings and creeps into the diminutive village via canals. All this is topped by a massive dome that provides relief from the punishing desert sun and creates its own microclimate.
“The museum, in the end, is a metaphor of the city, and of the anchorage of this city,” Nouvel said. “The museum also belongs to the sea. It belongs to the desert, and it belongs to the sea.”
A capital of culture
The dome is the pièce de résistance of the museum, a structure 180 metres (591 feet) in diameter consisting of eight layers and weighing 7.5 tonnes (roughly the same weight as the Eiffel Tower). It controls the inflow of sunlight and, therefore, heat.
After extensive computer simulations, Nouvel and his team built a mockup of the dome in the Abu Dhabi desert to see how the light would move through it under real-life conditions. Inspired both by the local mashrabiya – intricately carved oriel windows typical of the region – and the geometric shapes made by light trickling through palm fronds, the dome filters the sun’s rays to create a rainfall of light. The light moves slowly and subtly, changing its angle throughout the day and over the seasons, giving viewers a subconscious sense of the passage of time.
The museum is just one element in Abu Dhabi’s push to become the region’s preeminent cultural centre. Saadiyat Island, where the Louvre is situated, is also home to the Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster’s architectural firm, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry, the Maritime Museum designed by Tadao Ando and the Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid.
The import of the project was on Nouvel’s mind when designing the museum, as was the marking of this era in the history of Abu Dhabi.
“This project is fantastic,” Nouvel said. “You have the desire to create a testimony of this golden age, as was done in every city of the world in the past.”
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is scheduled to open on November 11.