Billboard for the Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi next to Manarat Al Saadiyat. Photo NeilvdL.

The name Abu Dhabi has become almost synonymous with a range of prestigious museums, none of which exists yet. The reputations of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Museum and, to a lesser extent, the Maritime Museum as well as the performing arts centre designed by Zaha Hadid, have gained almost mythical status before even the first stone of any of them has been laid. The first plans for the museums were drawn already a few years ago and, according to the original scheme, the Louvre Abu Dhabi should have opened in 2012 while the others should have been on their way. In September 2012, the Tourism Development Investment Company TDIC, announced that the start of construction for the Louvre Abu Dhabi is imminent, mentioning the year 2015 for completion. In that period, Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, came to Art Abu Dhabi for a talk. Meanwhile, the Saadiyat Cultural District website is announcing a series of lectures and presentations in regard to each venue. Officially, the openings of the major museums have been rescheduled as follows: 2015 would see the Louvre Abu Dhabi opening, 2016 the Sheikh Zayed National Museum and 2017 the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. It is uncertain whether the Maritime Museum and the Center for Performing Arts are still on the books.

However, some have suggested to put the idea for the Guggenheim further on hold and first work on a smaller museum that would cater to more local needs. One of those is Ramin Salsali, founder of the Salsali Private Museum in Dubai. “Unlike the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao,” Salsali is quoted to say, “the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi would not stimulate the local economy and cultural development.” In this way, the alternative Abu Dhabi museum might parallel plans in Dubai for the DMOCA, the Dubai Museum of Contemporary Art, as announced by Sheikh Maktoum at the closure of the Dubai Art Fair 2012. Ramin Salsali is active in the debate on the DMOCA too.

But, with a big welcome during Abu Dhabi Art to Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster  and Frank Gehry, the architects of the first three museums that are to be built, the responsible authorities seemed to want to state to the world that plans were going ahead as planned, at least according to the latest and apparently final change of plans.

The plans for each of the buildings indeed are impressive.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is not set up as an outpost of the Paris Louvre. There will be close collaborations, but the Louvre Abu Dhabi will build its own collection, which will reach further into the 20th Century than that of her French sibling.

Jean Nouvel’s design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi owes much to Arabic architectural traditions. Its seemingly ‘floating’ 180-m-diameter dome is supposed to echo the great domes of Islamic architectural design, while its filigree structure resembles that of traditional Arabic mashrabiya woodwork window panes. The latter may bear reminiscence to Nouvel’s design for the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, with its Arabesque latticework, a principle that he then developed further in a famed tower office building in Doha. Like in the original mashrabiya windowpanes, it helps in climate control, letting cool breezes in and keeping the heat out. In a different way, by applying the model of a tent, Nouvel is trying to use natural air-conditioning in his design for Qatar’s National Museum that is being built almost simultaneously. The dome will cover two-thirds of the museum city, which will transmit a “diffuse” light illuminating the gallery interior, while the water below will be reflecting the building’s structure, which will probably have a dazzling effect on the visitor.

The Zayed National Museum is named after Sheikh Zayed, the founding president of the UAE, and will be dedicated to the heritage and the traditions of the UAE. It was designed by Foster + Partners, who, as a sort of prelude, had designed the UAE pavilion for the 2011 Shanghai world expo that has now been transferred to Saadiyat Island as a smaller exposition venue. About the Zayed National Museum not much more is known as yet.

With approximately 13,000 square meters of permanent and temporary exhibition space, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum will be the largest museum in the Cultural District.
It will be the pre-eminent museum of modern and contemporary art.

As architect Frank Gehry explained to the New York Times in an interview as part of a video documentary on the museum projects in the region, the museum is going to be built in the sea, hence the references to a breakwater in its appearance, and actually the museum, or at least its foundation structure, will be a breakwater as well, to protect the rest of the Saadiyat Island from sea currents. Meanwhile, the overall design is a modern twist on the region’s ancient wind-towers. There are covered courtyards in between, which are supposed to resemble small open spaces in a traditional souk. Through airflow, the construction will provide natural air-conditioning, in line with Abu Dhabi’s plans to build in a manner that is as sustainable as the environment allows for.

The Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid should become the Emirates’ largest stage. Iraqi/British architect Hadid´s design was inspired by organic structures. Indeed, the opaque ‘see-through’ walls and roofs look like a translucent skin structure containing veins and nerves, or they might be leaves and branches. The whole structure may resemble an embryo, but it could also be a bird’s skull, which would be aptly chosen for a venue that that should reverberate sound like a bird’s skull does. Large windows will capture daylight to the orientation of listeners, who might otherwise get lost in music, while lobbies will have spectacular sea views, in order to ensure continuous contact with the surrounding world.

In Abu Dhabi, she already designed the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, which experienced considerable delay due to experimentation with new construction principles, and the ADMAF festival had her temporary Pavilion auditorium for smaller concerts, but that was a small-scale project. She loves challenging generally accepted technical fundamentals of architecture. Her ‘Dancing Towers’ in Dubai have been canceled.

The Maritime Museum, designed by architect Tadao Ando, will be the last to be built, as it seems now.

These plans have, until now, been under the guidance of the TDIC, the Tourism Development and Investment Company. During 2012, it was announced that Cultural Department of the TDIC was going to be transferred into a new body, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the ADTCA, together with remaining sections of the by 2012 mostly defunct ADACH. The cultural district will be but one of several developments on the island, including a business district, residential areas, touristic developments and a wildlife sanctuary.





Written by: Neil Last modified: 18th Nov 2012