The striking and innovative Louvre Abu Dhabi building was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel: ‘I wanted this building to mirror a protected territory that belongs to the Arab world and this geography.’ Combining modern architecture and inspiration drawn from the region’s traditions, the design reflects the desire to create a universal museum in which all cultures are brought together.
Situated on the Saadiyat Island, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is poised between sand and sea. Providing a haven of coolness, the building forms a place of shade during the day and ‘an oasis of light under a spangled dome’ at night.
Two thirds of the museum is covered by a white dome 180 metres in diameter, which is an emblematic feature of Arabian architecture, evoking the mosque, the mausoleum and the madrasa. The dome’s seemingly random but carefully designed arrangement of geometric openings was inspired by the interlaced palm leaves traditionally used as roofing material. The apertures will make it possible to control the light and temperature inside.
The interior will be illuminated by an enchanting, shifting ‘rain of light’, reminiscent of the mashrabiya and the beams of light that illuminate souks.
Extending out over the water, the dome’s reflection cast in turn a shimmering light on the underside of the building’s ‘skin’, recalling the importance of water in Islamic architecture. ‘A microclimate is created by drawing on sensations that have been explored countless times in great Arab architecture, which is based on the mastery of light and geometry . . . a structure made up of shadows, of movement and discovery.’ - Jean Nouvel.
Underneath the dome, the outer volumes of the museum, with their simple geometric forms haphazardly arranged, recall the Arab city and its medina. A promenade passes through clusters of low-rise buildings with diverse facades, creating a shifting, varied, poetic experience for visitors. In contrast, inside the buildings, the sequence of large galleries, with their strict geometry and high ceilings, offer exceptional spaces for the displays of works.
‘Architecture is about harnessing the will, desire and skills of a handful of people in order to modify a place at a given point in time. Architecture is never something you create alone. You always create it somewhere in particular, at the request of one person or several people, but always for everyone to enjoy.’ - Jean Nouvel
The Museum and the Sea
All climates like exceptions. Warmer when it is cold. Cooler in the tropics. People do not resist thermal shock well. Nor do works of art. Such elementary observations have influenced the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It wishes to create a welcoming world serenely combining light and shadow, reflection and calm. It wishes to belong to a country, to its history, to its geography without becoming a flat translation, the pleonasm that results in boredom and convention. It would like to intensify the fascination of exceptional encounters.
Discovering an archipelago constructed on the sea is unusual. As is the fact that it is protected by a parasol creating a shower of lights. The possibility of going ashore or of finding a pontoon to access the shore on foot is equally extraordinary, as is being welcomed there as a visitor wanting to browse unique collections, linger in tempting bookstores, or taste local teas, coffees, and delicacies.
It is a calm and complex place. A contrast of a series of museums cultivating their differences and their authenticities.
It is a project founded on a major symbol of Arab architecture: the dome. But here, with its evident shift from tradition, the dome is a modern proposal.
A double dome 590 feet (180 meters) in diameter, flat, perfect radiating geometry, randomly perforated woven material, creating a shadow punctuated by bursts of sun. The dome gleams in the Abu Dhabi sunshine. At night, this protected landscape is an oasis of light under a starry dome.
Louvre Abu Dhabi thus becomes the end of an urban promenade, a garden on the coast, a cool haven, shelter from the light of day and evening, its aesthetic consistent with its role as a sanctuary for the most precious works of art.
Museography: From the Archetypes of the Arab City to Those of Palaces
At all times the architectural elements characteristic of the Louvre Abu Dhabi are before the eyes of the visitor: the succession of views of the dome, the sea, and the garden, as well as the definition of architectural components such as floors, walls, and ceilings.
These three elements ensure calmness and nobility, and are continuations of the materials and colors of the exterior architecture, underneath and around the dome. They express themselves through three materials: stone, steel, and glass. This is an exploration of elementarity, of tension.
Depending on the space, the floor is pavement or boards. In the exterior spaces, the floor is pavement, large modules, slightly veined, light for the most part, occasionally dark. In the interior exhibition spaces, the floor will be made of long, narrow modules, evoking boards, an undetectable manner of incorporating the total flexibility required by the museography.
The strictly continuous walls are primarily mineral (reconstituted stone, stucco, plaster), occasionally glass (the immense extra-clear module), rarely metal (evoked by the color of the bronze from the depths of history). All is smooth, no unevenness. Only a few expressionless horizontal slits, about half an inch, allow the contingencies to be resolved without expressing them.
The ceilings will always be, in one way or another, the signs of the institution, its artificial sky, and in the museum they are the support and the source of most of the light directed toward the picture rails and the plinths. Here, they are orthogonal geometry, precise and precious, both translucent and textured glass; sometimes they are also sky on sky, central glass roofs surrounded by mirrors to frame the complex geometry of the dome.
These three archetypes, revisited as walls, floors, and ceilings, are the basis of a museography of dialogues, of revelations through the bringing together of works and objects from different civilizations. The architecture produces groups of large galleries. The sum of these rhythmic groupings of patios, thresholds, transparencies, and low angles creates an urban space protected by the dome, which is traversed by the rays of the sun. The better to experience, here, in Abu Dhabi, the permanence of ephemeral emotions that come from different horizons.
All building images © TDIC, Design: Ateliers Jean Nouvel