It cost millions, glitters in the sunlight and has its own island. Caroline Roux visits the new Louvre Abu Dhabi and sees the world in a new light.
Last Tuesday, on a newly constructed island in Abu Dhabi, the French architect Jean Nouvel was not an entirely happy man. “Those lights,” he sighed. “They’ve turned my work into a birthday cake.” Nouvel, a tall and tired-looking 72-year-old, had a point. The crowning glory of his just-completed chef d’oeuvre in the Emirate state – a floating dome with a 180-diameter span – had been retrofitted with some rather ugly luminaires. Though only in place for the duration of an elaborate opening ceremony the following day, they did indeed slightly dent the highly crafted beauty of this project, rumoured to have cost €600m.
The building in question was the Emirati outpost of the Parisian Louvre, and Wednesday’s celebrations were intended to be very grand indeed. Emmanuel Macron was the guest of honour and attendees were to be wowed by the fact that, here in Abu Dhabi – a state that’s only 46 years old – 600 exceptional artefacts, from Chinese bronzes to key works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Edouard Manet and Jackson Pollock were going on show in a palace to rival its namesake in France. Of these, 300 have been lent by French museums, including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou; and 300 acquired by Louvre Abu Dhabi, whose annual acquisition budget is a mind-boggling €400m.
Louvre Abu Dhabi CREDIT: MOHAMDE SOMJI
The story of this building goes back over 10 years, when the proposal of a brand new island of culture was first embraced by Sheik Mohammed, the head of Abu Dhabi. It would be called Saadiyat Island (meaning island of happiness) and bring together a cluster of world-class museums. The Guggenheim, then about to open its successful franchise in Bilbao, would be represented by yet another flamboyant structure by the American architect Frank Gehry.
Foster Associates would build a national museum, dedicated to the founder of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheik Zayed. Zaha Hadid was asked to provide a performing arts centre, and the Japanese Tadao Ando a maritime museum. At its heart would be a museum of civilisation by Jean Nouvel, a project to which the Emiratis eventually persuaded the Louvre to give its name (for 30 years) and loans and curatorial leadership (for 15) and continued assistance (for 10).
Louvre Abu Dhabi CREDIT: MOHAMED SOMJI
Louvre Abu Dhabi, which hangs at the island’s edge, is the first of the five to appear, and might even be the last. There is little evidence that work on any of the others is forging ahead. If that is the case, one wonders if even a project as dramatic as this can ultimately hold its own surrounded by precisely nothing. (A golf course and luxury housing has been developed elsewhere on the 500 sqm site.)
Still, it’s hard not to be thrilled by what Nouvel has achieved – a reiteration of a north African medina composed of 55 separate pavilions, some sitting beneath that dazzlingly engineered dome, where eight layers of latticed metal create 7,800 perforations that filter the hot Arabic sun into brilliant spots of light that dapple their bright white walls.
“A museum,” said Nouvel, as we wove our way through alleyways and courtyards, past reflective canals of water that lend a Venetian air, “should be part of the town and of life [or of La ville et la vie, in French wordplay].” Here it is a town of its own making, with something of the air of a rediscovered village, once deserted, now being revived.
Before the galleries, there are outdoor site-specific sculptures: three limestone walls by the American artist Jenny Holzer, chiselled with seminal texts, include a Mesopotamian creation myth in cuneiform symbols, and an excerpt from an essay by Michel Montaigne, the French renaissance philosopher known for his self-referential wanderings.
“Oh Monsieur Montaigne,” exclaimed Ms Holzer when we met. “He’s so full of himself. My favourite is the text in Arabic by Ibn Kahldun. It’s more tucked away, and the content is more outward looking.” Indeed, Kahlbun often considered how societies should understand their pasts – apposite at a museum which seeks to demonstrate the passage of human development through objets and art. A huge bronze tree by Giuseppe Penone, an Italian artist who is finding great success in his 80th decade, is one of the less good works he has produced for a while.
Louvre Abu Dhabi CREDIT: MOHAMED SOMJI
Inside the grand galleries, Nouvel’s carefully calibrated vitrines draw chrome lines around the exhibits within – mini narratives on maternity, for example, where an Egyptian BC bronze of Isis nursing her son, a 13th-century Virgin and child, and a 19th-century fecund wooden figure from the Congo sit in a row. Visitors are meant to question the connections and differences expressed by these artefacts made in different parts of the world and across the centuries.
In later rooms, painting, and western culture, prevails. Big loans include Jean Louis David’s explosive Napoleon Crossing the Alps (borrowed from Versailles) and Manet’s Fife Player (from the Musee d’Orsay). A fabulous red, blue and yellow abstract by Piet Mondrian from 1922 is one of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s early acquisitions, bought from the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sale in 2009 for €21m.
Nouvel, who’s never been one to shy away from a bit of bling (remember the glossy red reflective walls of his Serpentine Pavillion in 2010?), has laid floors in stone relevant to the periods of the display, and from all over the region, and bound the material together with strips of bronze. Interim spaces are laid with rich brown leather squares and long stiffly elegant sofas invite visitors to stop and reflect. He describes himself as a contextual architect and believes that everything, from these floor details to the dome – that refers to Islamic patterning and the local interest in cosmology and mathematics – give the building its roots.
Such a whistle-stop tour of civilisation’s greatest hits is high energy and enervating in equal measure, and it’s hard to know who will benefit from it most – those with or without knowledge? At the press conference before the media opening, the French, who included the Louvre’s director Jean-Luc Martinez, spoke of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s mission as creating a new “universality” of culture. The Emiratis preferred to refer to the project as one in support of tolerance and knowledge.
On subsequent days, I saw the building from a number of different vantage points. Its low-lying nature – its rises no more than 30 ft in most parts – has real charm, especially in the UAE, where the vertiginousness of skyscrapers is at a scale gone mad. But often the dome changed from silver to a gunmetal grey: the colour of weaponry and war. Let’s hope, though, that it is the home of any number of cultural ententes cordiales.