A universal art museum rises in the desert sands
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
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