Tourist Attraction without Guggenheim Effect: Louvre Abu Dhabi
Photo: Vartan Kelechian
In contrast to previous examples from the art realm, which have succeeded, like spectacular enfants terribles, in bewitching a run-down industrial district, a banal new development area or a green field, the effect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is at first sight only vaguely evident. On the 27 square kilometres of Saadiyat Island (the Isle of the Blissful), which is only seven minutes from central Abu Dhabi and only 20 minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport, this largest Guggenheim annex is to be developed — once more to plans by Frank Gehry. Originally, the opening was foreseen for 2012, but because of the political disturbances of the Arab Spring, the financial crisis and growing hostility towards Israel and the USA, the construction of an American museum with a Jewish name on Arab territory has receded further and further into the distance. The completion of the neighbouring Zayed National Museum seems much more likely, but even that has been delayed by years. The contract concluded in 2009, in which the British Museum pledged itself to place objects of art for a period of 10 years at the disposal of the Zayed National Museum — in return for a considerable lending fee — will in all likelihood run out before Foster and Partners have begun the building.
All that has been completed so far is the connecting tunnel 1.2 km long, 12 m wide and 6 m high for deliveries to the Louvre, the future Guggenheim and Zayed National Museum.
The Louvre in Abu Dhabi is not the first involvement Jean Nouvel has had with Arab culture. In 1987, with the Institut du Monde d'Arabe on the Seine in Paris, the French architect succeeded jointly with Architecture Studio in creating a first masterpiece. Almost exactly 30 years before the opening of the Louvre by François Macron on 11 November 2017, it was Minister President François Mitterand who opened a structure on which Jean Nouvel's atelier had worked. With its 240 electrically controlled stainless-steel iris diaphragms, which can be opened and closed like the shutters of analogue cameras to the required degree of shading, a glazed south face was created that became equally an icon of high-tech architecture and a modern interpretation of Arab ornamentation in a Western context. On the curved glazing to the north face, the architects had the silhouette of Paris printed — also an innovative piece of technology for the time. The €230 million sum for the construction was put up by the Arab League together with the French government.
The Louvre in Abu Dhabi is also a synthesis of Arab and French culture, but using different architectural means. The Arab element is represented by the dome, (which, with a diameter of 180 metres, assumes gigantic proportions), and by the protected medina beneath, consisting of 55 white structures. In view of its dimensions, however, the building extends beyond the scale of Islamic dome structures, awakening memories of Buckminster Fuller's design from 1960 for a translucent dome over Manhattan, which was meant to cover a number of building blocks in the city. In his Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, Nouvel deliberately avoided showing all the technology that the architectural concept made possible. The French element of the building lies in the noble materialization with references, for example, to the marble flooring in the Louvre, Paris.
Whether the Louvre Abu Dhabi develops a similar appeal to that of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao will perhaps reveal itself in 2020, when the Expo takes place in neighbouring Dubai, or maybe in 2022 with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the country to the north. By that time, the second large-scale structure by Jean Nouvel in the Near East will have been completed, sections of which it has already been possible to visit: the National Museum Qatar in Doha. Here, Nouvel has dispensed with Arab ornamentation and has turned to nature as his reference. The razor-sharp concrete slabs look like gigantic desert roses, bizarre crystal images made up of grains of sand embedded in gypsum or barite.