Shedding light on the Louvre Abu Dhabi

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Major new global art gallery the Louvre Abu Dhabi offers a dazzling modern take on the region's traditional architecture. The Fizz takes an in-depth look at this inspiring space. Let there be light!

BY MELISSA VAN MAASDYK

After a 10-year wait, the US$650 million Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened its doors in November 2017, becoming arguably the world’s first universal museum and a game changer for art curation.

‘I wanted this building to mirror a protected territory that belongs to the Arab world and this geography,’ says French architect Jean Nouvel of his design. A self-described ‘contextual’ architect, the Pritzker Prize winner believes that every space should be inspired by the environment in which it’s built and connected to its spirit, rather than reflecting a personal aesthetic vision.

The dome that crowns his latest masterpiece was therefore a natural choice, being a common sight in Middle Eastern cities, perched atop mosques and palaces. But this is no ordinary dome. Measuring 180 metres in diameter, it weighs an impressive 7,500 tonnes (almost as much as the Eiffel Tower) and is made up of eight layers of perforated stainless steel and aluminium cladding, which create a latticework of star-shaped patterns, through which light and air filter into the space below.

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TOP: The new Louvre Abu Dhabi's exterior with the city skyline at night
ABOVE: The Louvre Abu Dhabi's exterior, surrounded by sea and topped with Jean Nouvel's contemporary take on a classic dome

This feat of modern engineering was inspired by another traditional Middle Eastern design element, the mashrabiya, a screen with decorative arabesque holes cut out of it that offers shade and privacy, while allowing cool air to flow between the exterior and the interior – essential in the days before air conditioning. This also influenced Nouvel’s design for Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe, which shot him to acclaim 30 years ago for ingeniously incorporating photo-electrically sensitive apertures to moderate the sunlight penetrating its façade.

For the Louvre, Nouvel has changed things up again, using the device horizontally rather than vertically, which, apart from constituting sustainable climate control, creates one of the most spectacular features of the space: what Nouvel refers to as a ‘rain of light’. Basically, light is refracted by the latticework, producing a dappled effect similar to sunlight passing through traditional woven palm-leaf rooves, which on this grand scale is utterly mesmerising – witness upturned gazes wherever you look.

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ABOVE: The view from the Louvre Abu Dhabi, overlooking the sea
BELOW: Filtering the sunlight, the 'rain of light' effect transforms the museum's interior

Balancing on hidden supports, the dome appears to hover like a spaceship above the man-made island of Saadiyat that houses the museum – at once traditional and futuristic. Below this, sheltered from the harsh desert sun, are 55 white flat-roofed buildings inspired by an Arabian medina (city), which include 23 interconnected galleries, a cafe, restaurant, auditorium, children’s museum and temporary exhibition spaces, all punctuated by courtyards, terraces and water channels, reminiscent of ancient irrigation systems. Navigating the labyrinthine alleyways in between is like exploring a seaside town with glimpses of the turquoise-green Arabian Gulf through intriguing gaps, but once you enter the galleries, you find yourself navigating the world.

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Artworks and artefacts from all corners of the globe are grouped according to theme and era, taking the visitor on a journey from prehistory to the present day, demonstrating commonalities between different civilisations. In one of the first galleries, three gold funereal masks dating from 300 to 100 BC are remarkably similar yet come from China, Syria and Peru. In the final contemporary gallery, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ‘Fountain of Light’, made from repurposed chandeliers (referencing the Tower of Babel), is exhibited alongside Saudi Arabian artist Maha Mulluh’s ‘Food for Thought’, a striking tableau of black and grey circles, which, on closer inspection, are saucepans in which goat stew has been cooked. These are part of the permanent collection, joined by 300 loans from French institutions, including key works by Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Monet, part of the multi-million-dollar agreement that also granted Abu Dhabi the use of the Louvre’s name for 30 years.

ABOVE: Giuseppe Penone's 'Leaves of Light' bronze tree installation in the plaza, dappled with light. BELOW: Artefacts from diverse continents cheek by jowl in the museum's Grand Vestibule

Art spills into the outdoor space too, home to a site-specific installation by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone entitled ‘Leaves of Light’, a towering bronze tree with mirrors in its branches that catch and multiply the ‘rain of light’. This cohabits with a commission by American Jenny Holzer incorporating three stone walls engraved with excerpts from historical texts in Cuneiform, Arabic and French, and an 18th-century fountain and pavement from Damascus.

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ABOVE: The dreamy plaza at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

It is this constant dialogue and interplay between artworks from different regions that has earned Louvre Abu Dhabi the title of the world’s ‘first universal museum’. Described by French president Emmanuel Macron as the ‘Louvre of the desert and of light’, a bridge between east and west and between continents and generations, it's living up to its aim to show humanity in a new light.
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Louvre Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Cultural District, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Pictures: Mohamed Somji, Marc Domage, Roland Halbe