The Louvre, Abu Dhabi : What is so special about it?

Amal (Hope)

Good things take time. And for something of the scale of The Louvre, Abu Dhabi, it takes a little more than that! The building was open to the public in November 2017, after 10 years of delay in planning and execution since 2007.

The Louvre, Paris is a world-famous building. It is the largest museum in the entire world. It is so vast that it is said that if you went in at the time the museum doors opened and spent 30 seconds on every art piece in the museum, it would still take you about 100 days to completely see the museum! Having a sister site of SUCH an ambitious monument was a huge challenge since it’s inception. The Louvre, Abu Dhabi is a direct extension of The Louvre, France and the first universal museum in the Arab world. It all started with a deal between Abu Dhabi and France, where Abu Dhabi paid France 525 million USD for just using the brand name ‘Louvre’ for a period of 30 years. This makes us realise the brand value of the name ‘Louvre’.

Out of the odd 600 works of art, 300 have been loaned to Abu Dhabi by France for a whopping sum of 750 million USD. These also include original paintings by Matisse, Monet and Van Gogh. Something that begins with such a grandeur has to be grand enough to live up to its name! Amal means ‘hope’ and this is the one reason everyone held on to, facing challenges right from the design, matching the cultural context, in executing the site to even managing a few controversies!

The world’s most expensive painting ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci is housed at The Louvre, Abu Dhabi (Image Courtesy: Times Live)

The inception: Aleazma (Grandness)

Open to the public on November 11, 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is one of the 3 museums on Saadiyat Island. The natural choice for the Architect was Jean Nouvel, who had won the prestigious Pritzker award in 2008. He is well known and respected for his work in designing cultural hubs. Saadiyat means ‘happiness’ and on this island of happiness, the Louvre stands tall and wide, epitomising the happiness of an Architect’s dream come true. 503000 cubic metres of sand was removed from the site to construct this dome. The building comprises an area of 97000 square metre, which is close to 1200 badminton courts!

So what exactly does this building house? It houses 55 buildings, 23 art galleries and 1 auditorium having 1200 seating capacity. Apart from this, there is also a temporary exhibit space and a 2 storeyed children’s play area.

Plan of The Louvre, designed by Architect Jean Nouvel (Image Courtesy: Archdaily)

The concept: Tawazun (Balance and moderation)

It is amazing how every word you say in Arabic sounds like a poem. Similarly, the concept of the Louvre is poetic. What exactly inspired the design of this masterpiece? The shadow’s play in the sun, using the Islamic- architecturally significant dome with a modern twist, having built archipelago in the landless sea and architectural design going hand in hand with structural design (on which few Architects’ smiles may turn into frowns). Every design aspect in the Louvre, be it the vast dome, the Arabic souks or the long passageways; everything is borrowed from the rich culture of the land. It weaves in with modernity, creating a canvas where you can’t identify where both ends merge together. In Arabic, this is called Tawazun or balance. You have to balance all aspects of your life because they are all intertwined and affect one another.

Water bodies, an important feature in Islamic Architecture take a modern twist, maintaining balance with the cultural context (Image Courtesy: Gulf News)
Interiors of the Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Image Courtesy: archdaily.com

The dome: Inara (Ray of Light)

Anyone who has seen or read about this building knows that the dome forms the crux of the design. The dome is huge, having a span of 180 metres diameter. The idea behind the perforated dome was to mimic the shadows passing through the date palms in an oasis. The dome looks like it has a random geometric perforation. The dome is built in 8 layers on top of one another; the outer 4 layers are of stainless steel and the inner layers are of aluminium.

Work for the dome in full swing (Image Courtesy: Straits Times)

The architects and the structural designers worked together to create a random geometric pattern which is repeated in intervals. The pattern is worked out in such a way that every ray of light penetrates through each of the 8 layers. As the sun moves in the sky, you see a dramatic pattern in the shadows due to this design strategy. At night, this same dome lights up as 7850 stars are formed. This beautiful sight is also called as the ‘rain of light’. The largest star on the dome has a diameter of 13 metres!

Inara translates to ‘ray of light’, and only a master architect like Jean Nouvel could have played with it the way he has.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.
The starry dome at night (Image Courtesy: Architectural Record)

Structural design: Muejaza (wonder)

To start with, the Saadiyat Island is a man-made island with a hot climate and an earthquake-prone zone. To make the dome earthquake-proof, each of the four supports has curved surface spherical bearings that allow the structure to shift beneath the dome as the earth shakes whilst the isolated structure remains still.

The entire dome is made of 10000 pre-assembled components. The dome weighs 7500 tonnes, which is as heavy as the Eiffel tower! This heavy structure sits on 4 piers placed at 110 metres from each other. They are hidden in plain sight so the dome appears to be floating. The topmost point of the dome is at 40 metres from the sea level which is as tall as a 13 storeyed building, and this is a marvel of the structural design! The design of the dome was more complex and challenging. They tried working with geodesic domes and domes with orthogonal approaches, but nothing was matching to the concept which Jean Nouvel was trying to express. After 22 failed attempts of digital modelling of the dome, they cracked the dome structure by restarting the design with a blank canvas!

Click to enlarge.

The museum houses some of the world’s best art pieces and there had to be a secure way to bring this art in. The island has a system of tunnels to bring the art in. This tunnel system is very discreet with a non-disclosure agreement being signed between the related authorities.

The Arabs have always been a step ahead in every creation on their land but this structure takes the cake, rightfully claiming the adjective of Muejaza or wonder.

In spite of being a sister site of a world-famous structure on a land with a different cultural context, the Louvre at Abu Dhabi stand firm on the originality of its identity and matches the bar set by the Louvre in France. Within a span of barely 2 months, the structure has seen a massive footfall of tourists from all over the world, making it one of the most famous structures of the world already.

About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

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