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

To China With Love

Showstopping UK design company Stufish Entertainment Architects is strutting its stuff in central China. East greets west...

BY DEE IVA

If you’re going to stage a theatrical, dramatic and spectacular show these days you’ll need a theatrical, dramatic and spectacular building. This was obviously the thinking behind the newly opened Han Show Theatre in Wuhan, China. Purpose-built to house The Han Show, a visually stunning extravaganza of acrobatics, dance, music and light by Franco Dragone, this futuristic theatre brings New World technology to the heart of a rapidly changing Old World.

It’s the handiwork of UK-based Stufish Entertainment Architects, which has made its name by creating eye-catching environments, sets and theatres for Lady Gaga, Pink Floyd, the Beijing Olympics and the UK Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Perched on the edge of Donghu Lake, the theatre resembles a giant Chinese paper lantern, bathing the western end of Wuhan’s Central Cultural District in a seductive red glow each evening. Thousands of suspended red aluminium discs form the skin of the building, each lit by a circular array of LEDs. Once inside, there’s a cavernous 2,000-seat auditorium with moveable seating, a 10-metre-deep performance pool and three larger than life moveable LED screens that make sure no detail of the show is missed.

ABOVE: The Han Show Theatre lights up the sky at night
BELOW: Slender support columns resemble the fringing on Chinese lanterns; Seating in the auditorium slides back to reveal a 10-metre-deep pool. Enormous LED screens hover behind the performers on stage.

 

Stufish has been busy on the other side of town too. To the east, overlooking Shahu Lake, another lyrical building sits waiting expectantly for cinema buffs to wander into the world’s first indoor movie theme park. Showcasing interactive performances, 4D and 5D cinema screens, and film-themed rides, the Wanda Movie Park is a state-of-the-art entertainment complex, spread over 80,000 square metres. The sinuous outline of this beautiful building is inspired by the 2,000-year-old Bianzhong Bells on display in the Hubei Provincial Museum. Each section is covered in self-cleaning golden aluminium panels echoing the grandeur of the Bianzhong in their heyday. Once again, LED lighting is wrapped around the exterior to provide a hypnotic display at night, while the glittering inner sanctum is a dazzling 21st-century Metropolis of light awash with animated LEDs across three floors. Both projects were commissioned by Beijing-based developers Dalian Wanda Group, aimed at creating waterway connections between Wuhan's six lakes.

BELOW: Glow in the dark... the amorphous Wanda Movie Park gives good silhouette; The future's so bright, Fritz Lang should be happy

 
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If these landmark additions to the Eastern skyline are anything to go by, we'll be booking our ticket on the E&O pronto...
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