"It's a madhouse in here," remarked a young American with a look of disbelief, as he observed a line that had formed alongside the main auditorium for the public opening of Abu Dhabi Art 2012.
The evening's headline attraction, a panel discussion entitled Architecture Visionaries, was not due to start for another hour, and yet a visibly and audibly excited queue, packed four people deep, had already snaked down one side of the hall, through the restaurant and into a garden before spilling out into the car park beyond.
As opening nights go, it might have seemed strange to give top billing at an international art fair to a discussion about architecture, but this was no ordinary opening night on Wednesday. Not only did Architecture Visionaries gather the architects responsible for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum - institutions designed to secure Saadiyat Island and Abu Dhabi's future cultural legacy - it also represented the coming together of three of the world's most celebrated cultural creators on a single stage, a feat of social engineering in itself.
For one hour only, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster talked about their very different perspectives on architecture, creativity, the relationship between modernity and tradition and the role of culture in generating social change. It was a heady mix that well over 500 members of the cultured and the curious found impossible to resist.
The evening had been tipped by some as an attempt by Abu Dhabi's new Tourism and Culture Authority to reassure the world that the Saadiyat Island project was still on track. At last year's Abu Dhabi Art there had been speculation that the Guggenheim project was under threat and the wider development had been beset by delays. It had even taken three years just to get Gehry, Nouvel and Foster together on the same platform. However, the excited chatter in the assembled throng and the international audience of sheikhs, VIPs, artists, art dealers, curators and passionate members of the general public proved that the event was more than just a PR stunt, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Of the three Pritzker prize-winning luminaries - each is the architectural equivalent of a Nobel laureate - Nouvel, the widely respected 67-year-old responsible for Abu Dhabi's new Louvre, arrived first with the least fuss. Despite his trademark shaved head and all black attire, Nouvel is still unburdened by the kind of wider public recognition associated with Gehry and Foster. Gehry's buildings, such as his career-changing Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and now a Guggenheim for Abu Dhabi, may be the most recognisable, but it was Foster's arrival that caused the biggest stir. The designer of the Zayed National Museum arrived in a pair of green suede shoes and a flamboyant pink shirt and tie. Lord Foster of Thames Bank - to give him his full title - struggled to make his way to the auditorium through a press of camera flashes and requests for photographs.
Thanks to his architecture practice, Foster + Partners, Lord Foster has done more to shape Abu Dhabi's skyline than any other, designing both Masdar City and Abu Dhabi's new Central Market, whose soaring towers are due to open early next year. Foster + Partners were also responsible for the dune-inspired UAE Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, which now sits in permanent residence outside Manarat Al Saadiyat. Lord Foster is also one of the main patrons of Abu Dhabi Art.
"We've been coming here for over 10 years," he said in a private conversation before the panel discussion. "Things take time to get established, but I think Abu Dhabi is very progressive. We're very appreciative of the sympathetic cultural environment that we find here." He went on to cite concepts that recurred later that evening: curiosity, sustainability, and innovation. "I think Masdar is probably the most radical environmental experiment that's taking place in the world today. Even our more mainstream projects are exploratory in their own way. Central Market seeks to rediscover lots of the qualities of a traditional souq. If you take the venue for half of Abu Dhabi Art, it's in a building that's been recycled from Shanghai. I guess that's the ultimate sustainable building, one that can be reused and not thrown away."
Nouvel, who spoke in French throughout the evening in translation, agreed that there was something special about working in Abu Dhabi. "The capital is on the brink of a golden age. Everything is happening here [and] I'm very proud to participate in the materialisation of this golden age, and this pushes us to go higher and beyond and further because we are doing something that the whole world is looking at."
Relatively unknown outside France until the mid-1980s, Nouvel found international fame when he won a competition to design one of Francois Mitterand's Grands Projets, L'Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) on Paris's Left Bank. The IMA was one of Nouvel's first architectural encounters with the culture of the Islamic world, and in it he explored themes that have resurfaced in his design for the new Louvre.
Nouvel clothed the IMA - a library, museum and cultural centre - in a facade with 30,000 light-sensitive metal diaphragms that opened and closed like the shutter of a camera. Designed to control the penetration of light into the building, the diaphragms echoed the perforations of traditional Islamic mashrabiya, a concept the architect has returned to in the 180-metre-wide perforated dome that will cast a poetic "Rain of Light" on the buildings and the public spaces of the campus of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.
For Gehry, the treatment of the public spaces surrounding the new Guggenheim is one of the project's key components. "The whole idea is to have public spaces around the museum that are habitable. When I first came here, I saw people sat outside in cafes and it seemed friendlier and more human, so creating public spaces that are 15 degrees cooler than the outside seemed relevant. The idea comes from the region and from the climate. I don't think you would do a museum like that anywhere else; well, maybe in Palm Springs, but nobody's going to build a museum like that there!"
Later, the evening's agenda steered the conversation away from the specific Saadiyat projects, but the idea that architecture needs to consider more than just buildings is a theme to which Foster repeatedly returns.
"If you think of any place that you visit, your memory of it, the quality of your life in a place, is more determined by the infrastructure. In other words, your experience of how you move through a city, the public spaces, the streets, the squares, the public transport, the ports, your arrival, your departure. It's more than just the experience of an individual building. It is the interaction between the infrastructure and the individual building that determines the quality of your life."
If Foster emphasised the importance of physical connections in establishing a sense of place, for Gehry, the key connections are emotional. "Feelings are what I am interested in. What I am interested in [the] Guggenheim is the potential it has, because of the art that is going to be shown here, and the mandate from the leadership here to collect artists from all over this region and artists from all over the world, and talk to each other through the arts. Art has a truth to it that is impossible to refute and I'm looking to that for your future and for ours."
Gehry's final comment may have seemed rather lofty, but for the hundreds of people who had been lucky enough to come together for the event, even those who had huddled around the back of TV screens just to hear what was being said, the truth of the transcendent and communicative power of art and architecture was there to be seen.
Beyond the artworks, Abu Dhabi Art has a range of events on this weekend, many of them involving high-profile artists who are here for it and, for the first time, a concert and a beach party. Here are some highlights:
11am-1pm A hands-on workshop using talli (traditional embroidery) with UAE artisans and the British designer Stuart Haygarth; ArtZone.
3pm-4pm A talk by Marina Abramovic, referred to as the "grandmother of performance art", who has said she is planning a "surprise performance" while she's here; Manarat Al Saadiyat Auditorium.
5pm-6pm A panel featuring the Emirati artists Alia Lootah, Dana Al Mazrouei, Hamdan Al Shamsi and Maitha Demithan, who participated in the touring exhibition Between Private and Public. Presented by the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation; Manarat Al Saadiyat Auditorium.
6.30pm-7.30pm A moderated discussion with the Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem and the New York-based Egyptian artist Ghada Amer; Manarat Al Saadiyat Auditorium.
8.30pm-10pm The London-based electronic music collective Noise of Art takes the stage; Manarat Al Saadiyat Plaza.
10pm-late A beachfront party at the new restaurant Turqoiz. St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort.
11am-1pm A hands-on workshop on the art of palm-frond weaving with UAE artisans and the Dubai-based artist Ubik.
3pm-4pm A panel called The Future Is Handmade, focusing on the aesthetics of UAE craft and design, featuring the British designer Stuart Haygarth and the Emirati designer Khalid Shafar.
5pm-6pm A conversation between the curator Reem Fadda and Mohammed Kazem, the artist and curator appointed to represent the UAE at the Venice Bienniale next year.
6.30pm-8.30pm A workshop by the UAE artist Fatima Ghazal on how to create your own contemporary artist's book. Dh50 per person; for information, visit abudhabiartfair.ae
A film of Saadiyat Cultural District: Architecture Visionaries can be found on the Abu Dhabi Art website, and a screening will be shown on the Plaza at Manarat Al Saadiyat tomorrow. For more information, visit www.abudhabiartfair.ae/en