A uni­ver­sal art mu­seum rises in the desert sands

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shafts of light – a sort of star-span­gled fir­ma­ment that rains down into bright white pools on the gran­ite paving be­neath our feet.

“I am a con­tex­tual ar­chi­tect,” says its cre­ator, Jean Nouvel who is stand­ing next to me. Mu­se­ums are one of Nouvel’s pas­sions. His work in­cludes the Quai Branly in Paris, the Reina Sofía Mu­seum in Madrid, and the ex­ten­sion to MoMA in New York that’s cur­rently un­der way. Nouvel’s great­est gift is his amaz­ing, chameleon-like re­fusal to be pinned down to a recog­nis­able per­sonal style. “I take my in­spi­ra­tion from the lo­cal­ity. Here, I looked at the way that light fil­ters through the roof of a souk or the leaves of a palm tree.” He spreads his fin­gers and over­laps them to make the point.

“And these?” I ask, point­ing to the clus­ter of low, in­ter-con­nected, box­like build­ings that are shaded by the dome and house the gal­leries of the mu­seum, “are the white­washed houses of an Arab vil­lage?”

“If you like,” he says as he leads me through the main “streets” that form the pub­lic ar­eas around the mu­seum, ex­plain­ing how the sea breeze is nat­u­rally fun­nelled un­der the dome: the com­bi­na­tion of shade and the air cur­rents re­duce the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture by at least five de­grees. We duck down a side al­ley, through a small square and to­wards some steps lead­ing to the roof of one of the white build­ings right on the dome’s perime­ter. Nouvel en­cour­ages me up so that I can see the struc­ture in pro­file. I can just make out the top of one of the four hid­den piers – that solves the mys­tery of how the dome is sup­ported.

“Now I will leave you to ex­plore the gal­leries,” he says, as we end our ex­plo­ration of a quiet court­yard of re­flect­ing pools where one wall is in­scribed with a text by Mon­taigne. “You will love them.” I did. But first you need to know what the new mu­seum is all about and what it means for vis­i­tors to the UAE gen­er­ally – af­ter all, it is not only hol­i­day­mak­ers in Abu Dhabi who will be drawn here, the tourist hon­ey­pot of Dubai is only about an hour’s drive to the north.

The Lou­vre Abu Dhabi joins a branch of New York Uni­ver­sity (which has its own art gallery) on Saadiyat Is­land – still mostly com­pris­ing desert sand – on the pe­riph­ery of the city. The plan is to trans­form it into a new cul­tural heart, with the ad­di­tion of a Na­tional Mu­seum (de­signed by Lord Foster) and a new Guggen­heim (by Frank Gehry) cre­at­ing an is­land of mu­se­ums and gal­leries. To­gether they will form a crit­i­cal mass which – it is hoped – will put Abu Dhabi, cur­rently bet­ter known for its tower-block ho­tels, grand prix cir­cuit and Fer­rari World – firmly on the cul­tural map. The aim is to make it some­where per­ma­nently rel­e­vant to world cul­ture – and thus, to world tourism (as well as its own pop­u­la­tion, of course).

Abu Dhabi isn’t alone in the re­gion in putting a new em­pha­sis on cul­tural at­trac­tions. Both Mus­cat and Dubai have re­cently opened opera houses, and Nouvel him­self has de­signed a new Na­tional Mu­seum for Qatar. But what marks out Saadiyat Is­land and the Lou­vre in par­tic­u­lar is the scale of its am­bi­tion in the face of what is, let’s be clear, a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge. Af­ter all, how do you cre­ate a ma­jor world mu­seum in a desert state that, 50 years ago, was lit­tle more than a scat­ter­ing of fish­ing vil­lages? What on earth do you put in it? You cer­tainly wouldn’t want to build a showpiece dome The mu­seum fea­tures a 16th cen­tury Nether­lan­dish tapestry, above, a bronze of Shiva, right; and ‘Un­ti­tled’ by Cy Twombly, left with­out think­ing thin that one through, would you Michael M He­sel­tine? The so­lu­tion? so­luti Think big, find a pow­er­ful power ally and play to your strengths. stren Af­ter all in some ways Abu Dhabi is at an ad­van­tage ad­van­tag here. It is un­con­strained un­con­str by the com­plex cul­tural his­to­ries hist of the mu­se­ums of the West, and an its lo­ca­tion – be­tween Europe, Asia and Africa – could be seen as that of an out­side ob­server. And it couldn’t could have a bet­ter ally. Ten years ago, the UAE signed an agree­ment with France with the aim of de­vel­op­ing de­velop a “uni­ver­sal mu­seum”, one that would use art, sculp­ture and other arte­facts to tell a vis­ual story of world his­tory since the ear­li­est civil­i­sa­tions.

Even the enor­mous sov­er­eign wealth of the UEA isn’t enough to ac­quire the ex­hibits it needs for such an am­bi­tious project – even as­sum­ing they could all be bought – so the French would help. The new mu­seum would be an in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tion, and it would de­velop its own per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. But it would also use the musée du Lou­vre’s name for 30 years and it would be sup­plied with some 300 loans from 13 lead­ing French mu­se­ums dur­ing its first decade. The Lou­vre will be the dom­i­nant source of ma­te­rial, but the col­lec­tions at the Pom­pi­dou, the

ures ury her­lan­dish stry, ve, ze a, Un­ti­tled’ y

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