Abu Dhabi Museum Project: A Desert Louvre?

By Heiko Klaas

Everyone's heard of the Louvre and the MOMA, but not everyone knows Abu Dhabi is aspiring to become one of the world's new culture capitals. Star architects have been commissioned to build the world's most spectacular museums on an island just off the Arab metropolis.

In 1791, two events occured that don't seem to have much to do with one another -- at least at first sight. The Bani Yas, a Bedouin tribe, discovered a freshwater spring by the Persian Gulf and founded a small settlement that eventually became the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Several thousand kilometers away, in Paris, the constituent assembly of post-revolutionary France issued a decree nationalizing the royal art collection and announced the opening of a public museum in the Louvre. Now, 216 years later, the Louvre and Abu Dhabi suddenly have a lot in common.

"Abu Dhabi Is to Gain a Louvre of Its Own," the New York Times announced last month. Abu Dhabi's royal family plans to buy a $650 million (€500 million) share of the Louvre. This will allow them to transfer several hundred artworks to the Arab metropolis for an initial term of 20 years. The art is to be exhibited in a planned new museum.

The news caused a wave of indignation in France. The "Desert Louvre" isn't particularly popular in the grande nation. Critics even fear the country's national legacy may be sold off. But it seems negotiations are still ongoing. Rumor has it the French are now demanding at least $1 billion.

"A cultural asset for the world"

Whether it will be called the "Louvre Abu Dhabi" or something similarly intriguing, what will be built in the desert is far more than just a museum for classical art. Abu Dhabi's national Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) promises "a cultural asset for the world" and a "beacon for cultural experience and exchange," in the words of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi. The first tourist attractions will be available for viewing in 2012, and the entire project is scheduled for completion in 2018.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan has commissioned no less than four of the world's most famous architects to create what promises to become one of the world's most important cultural destinations: Frank O. Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid.

Just off Abu Dhabi lies Saadiyat Island -- the name means "Island of Happiness" in Arabic -- a 27 square kilometer (10.4 square mile) piece of land where Frank O. Gehry, who was born in 1929, is to build another Guggenheim Museum. Gehry's sensational plans for a new Guggenheim on the southern tip of Manhattan were put on ice indefinitely after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But there's justice: Now the computer-generated, abstract shapes of his architectural imagination have made it all the way to the Persian Gulf.

New possibilities

With its spectacular architecture of compressed and intricately interconnected cuboids, prisms, cones and cylinders, and with a total area of almost 30,000 square meters (323,000 square feet), the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim will probably far outshine its New York City predecessor. Gehry is satisfied: "Approaching the design of the museum for Abu Dhabi made it possible to consider options for design of a building that would not be possible in the United States or in Europe," he says, adding that, "It was clear from the beginning that this had to be a new invention."

Fifty-seven-year-old Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who lives in London, also has bombastic plans. Her Performing Arts Center, a building complex 62 meters (203 feet) tall, will include two concert halls, an opera and two theaters. The total number of seats will be 6,300 -- about as many as the Lincoln Center in New York has. Like the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the theater complex will also offer spectacular views of the Persian Gulf and the skyline of the city.

Hadid is living up to her reputation as the high priestess of deconstruction in architecture. You'll search in vain for a right angle anywhere in her model. Like the bow of a ship, the four-storey construction rises dynamically towards the sea. A network of fluidly shaped windows covers an amoeba-like structure. The auditoriums are completely white. The finespun, branchlike structure is reminiscent of the interior of a bone.

Microcity with big ideas

Frenchman Jean Nouvel, who was born in 1945, has adapted his metaphorically charged architectural model for the "desert Louvre" to the topographical conditions of the location -- the immediate proximity of desert and sea. He's not planning to build a single gargantuan building, but rather a "microcity" -- a cluster-like collection of differently sized building types directly by the sea. The ensemble will be dominated by a great, light-flooded dome, conceived of as a symbolic link between world cultures.

The dome is "made of a web of different patterns interlaced into a translucent ceiling which lets a diffuse, magical light come through in the best tradition of great Arabian architecture," Nouvel says. That he, of all people, was commissioned to design this building was kept secret until the last moment. Nouvel already crafted an architectural bond between the East and the West 20 years ago, in the form of the Institut du Monde Arabe (1981-1987) in Paris.

Tadao Ando's Maritime Museum promises to be another highlight. Born in 1941, the minimalist architect is known for his austere style, which combines the Japanese Zen tradition with the modernist penchant for bare concrete. Inspired by dhows, the traditional sailing vessels of Arab merchants, Ando has designed a fragile-looking building in the shape of an abstract sail curved by the wind. Embedded in an oasis-like natural scenario dominated by a subterranean aquarium, Ando's restrained architecture promises to become a popular haven of contemplative peace within the planned architectural overkill.

The Biennale Park -- inspired by Venice

The so-called Biennale Park, another development project planned for Saadiyat Island, openly acknowledges its Venetian inspiration with 19 pavilions designed by 19 younger architects. Hani Rashid is one of them. He's an Egyptian architect who lives in New York and is considered one of the most important contemporary architectural theorists. The park will be criss-crossed by a 1.5 kilometer (0.9 mile) navigable canal. As the country with the highest per capita income in the world, the United Arab Emirates certainly have no inhibitions about competing with the traditional cultural capitals of the world.

Of course, all these cultural highlights also require a tourist infrastructure that can cope with the masses of people expected to arrive from all over the world. Two 10-lane highways will connect Saadayat Island to the city and the airport. The completion of 29 hotels -- including a seven-star luxury hotel that is presumably Abu Dhabi's reply to to the legendary Burj Al Arab in Dubai -- is planned for 2018. There will also be a marina for cruise ships and moneyed yacht-owners, expected to provide mooring for about 1,000 vessels.

Saadayat Island promises to far outdo Las Vegas and Bilbao -- the traditional red rags for cultural pessimists and critics of tourism -- in terms of its capacity to provoke. And yet many culture fans may end up in Abu Dhabi sooner or later -- whether to admire the city or just to rant.

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