Under the Dome: The Louvre Abu Dhabi
French architect Jean Nouvel has reinterpreted his home country’s most famous museum as a floating dome filigreed with shade and light.
My taxi driver doesn’t have a clue where he’s going. Three times we exit the desert highway only to merge back into the lane we came from. The Abu Dhabi Louvre opened in November 2017 and the museum has since appeared in the news headlines around the world, but for many local Emiratis, Jean Nouvel’s lowslung pavilion remains an enigma.
Technically the new Louvre is located in the city, but not in the sense that one might accidentally stumble on it. The structure stands on a reclaimed outcropping named Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness), a new cultural district largely comprising empty sand lots that will soon house a National Museum designed by Norman Foster and a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry. The government’s goal is to make Abu Dhabi, currently known primarily for its luxury tower blocks and Grand Prix circuit, culturally relevant.
The new Louvre is testament to the city’s grand ambitions. Built at an estimated cost of US$108 million, a fraction of the $525 million Abu Dhabi is reported to have paid France to use the Louvre name, the structure contrasts with the city’s preponderance of glass and steel towers. Its sparkling dome – part spacecraft, part modern mosque – appears to float over a cluster of white, cuboid buildings that meets a lapping turquoise sea.
From a distance the dome’s dense layers of aluminium and stainless steel glitter like the silver gears of a clock. From within, its many apertures become apparent as the porous roof filters the sunshine into random shafts of light, speckling the courtyard walls and collecting in bright white pools on the pavement. The building’s interior courtyard is remarkably cool – a combination of shade and air currents reduces the temperature by at least five degrees – and in the late afternoon when the sun drops beneath the lip of the dome the gallery walls burn orange.
Nouvel calls himself a contextual architect. “I take my inspiration from the locality,” he says. “Here, I looked at the way light filters through the roof of a souk or the leaves of a palm tree.” The low-slung building also references medinas, low-lying Arab settlements, as well as the dome, central to much of the region’s Islamic architecture. “With its evident shift from tradition, the dome is a modern proposal: a double dome 180m in diameter offering horizontal radiating geometry,” says Nouvel.
Unlike a true dome, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s does not push down around its circumference, but rests on just four supports, a feat of engineering delivered by French company BuroHappold Engineering. To earthquake-proof the dome, each of the supports features curved spherical bearings that allow the structure to shift beneath the dome as the earth shakes while the isolated dome structure remains still. The sliding bearings also allow the dome’s steelwork to tolerate the shift in temperature from hot days under the desert sun to cooler nights.
Nouvel describes the building’s location as the “final destination of an urban promenade, a garden on the coast”. At present this characterisation is a bit of a stretch – a promenade implies that one can serendipitously arrive on foot. Essentially Nouvel has created something where there was nothing. And this highlights the museum’s primary challenges: how do you create a major world museum in a desert state that until recently was little more than a scattering of fishing villages, and what on Earth do you put in it?
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s answer appears to be: a little bit of everything. Through an inaugural display of some 600 objects, including 300 from French museums, two dozen from Middle Eastern collections and 230 sourced by the Louvre Abu Dhabi itself, the museum has chosen to tell humanity’s history through a textbook-like progression where works from different cultures are placed side by side.
Figures of nursing mothers from 19th-century Congo, for example, appear alongside others from 14th-century France and ancient Egypt, and the label entreats us to ponder the “secret of the universal gesture of love”. In another gallery, three gold funeral masks from ancient Peru, Syria and China suggest a universal association of precious metals with mortality.
“With the traditional partitioning of museum departments removed, we can see what the artefacts have to say in a different – and more universal – light,” says Jean-François Charnier, scientific and cultural director of Agence France-Muséums, who was responsible for selecting and presenting the displays.
As part of its agreement with France, the new Louvre will use the Louvre name for 30 years and during its first decade will be supplied with loans from 13 leading French museums, including the Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles. Current works on loan include Jacques-Louis David’s heroic portrait of Napoleon, a Grecian sphinx from the 6th century BC and a bronze Oba head from the Kingdom of Benin, as well as impressionist and contemporary pieces such as Claude Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare and Jackson Pollock’s Number 26A.
To house the art, Jean Nouvel designed 23 galleries to resemble the whitewashed houses of an Arab village and connected them in a zigzag, replete with light wells and leather sofas for rest and reflection. “The cluster of structures and seawater canals are a deliberate nod to the Arab medina with the sense of discovery its smaller streets and squares offer,” says Nouvel.
On their own the galleries are fairly small, and this works reasonably well with a collection that prizes breadth over depth, but take a few heedless steps across the polished floors and you could bypass an entire century. Lest visitors get lost, information plaques in French, Arabic and English repeatedly define the contents of each gallery in sweeping categories like ‘world religion’, ‘cosmography’ or ‘modernity’.
At a time when tribalism seems to be taking hold across much of the world, pointing to our collective humanity seems a worthy and refreshing pursuit. But any grand narrative will include telling omissions and the story fashioned here is largely bereft of blemishes. Ideological repression, whether political or religious, is glossed over, as are colonialism, war and slavery. (It would be remiss not to mention that the Abu Dhabi Louvre has itself been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups for its mistreatment of immigrant laborers who built it).
And at times, curatorial choices seem ripe with political irony. The decision, for example, to display heroic images of Napoleon, a colonialist invader of Islamic North Africa known for pilfering non-Western art.
But such perceived shortcoming can also be seen as strengths. Abu Dhabi is only at the beginning of its story, and a unique perspective, unconstrained by the complex cultural histories of museums in the West, gives it the status of an outside observer. No one anticipated the UAE could create booming cities that are emerging as hubs between Asia and the West, and a museum like the Louvre functions as a new cultural imaginary - the repositioning of wealth and power eventually includes cultural capital too.
This story appears in the July/August print issue of Perspective magazine