The Louvre Abu Dhabi will open its doors to visitors in 2015, but one of the most crucial phases of construction is well under way. James Langton visits the site to see the foundations laid for a building that will stand poised between sea and sky.
Driving along a barren sandy track that runs across the western tip of Saadiyat Island, the eye is pulled back and forth by the promise of two competing but compelling visions of the future.
Farthest away on the right, a hoarding announces the site of the Zayed National Museum. But looming much larger through the left windows of our small convoy of SUVs, is a fence hung with a series of images of light-speckled spaces shimmering with the dual reflections of sun and water.
Suddenly the lead vehicle stops at a break in the fence, where a small viewing platform for visitors has been erected, shaded against the fast-climbing heat of the midmorning May sun. Here, to a backdrop of the city's haze-shrouded skyline, we can at last see how the vision of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is giving way to reality.
Below us is a vast depression framed by man-made sand dunes and filled with such activity that it takes more than a moment for the mind to focus. In the centre are five canary-yellow tower cranes. A sixth is in the process of being assembled, its bright steel bones laid across the ground. To the right, a dark monolith rises, shrouded in scaffolding. In the distance, another identical tower reaches skyward.
Moving among them, in a pattern that clearly has meaning but cannot easily be unravelled by the untutored, is a small army of blue-suited workers. They are matched by dozens - no hundreds, actually thousands - of much smaller pillars emerging from a concrete platform that in places has turned a vivid green. Many of the pillars are now buried to their necks, topped with a circular spray of metal bars like fantastic surrealist house plants. Watching from a distance, there is a sense of order and surprising quiet. But to properly make sense of this, you need a man like Peter Armstrong. A laconic Canadian who has spent a decade and a half on UAE construction sites, Armstrong is the project manager for Turner Construction, whose curriculum vitae includes the Burj Khalifa and the Emirates Palace.
Here, Armstrong explains, are the deepest foundations of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, seven metres below sea level, the Arabian Gulf held at bay by walls of concrete while powerful pumps that ensure the groundwater table is always below the site. In the end they can be removed, but turn off the pumps right now and eventually the museum could risk becoming a lake.
Keeping the site watertight both now and in the future is one of the great challenges of building the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Yet it is one that few visitors will observe or appreciate. When Jean Nouvel's stunning design is made real, the sea will be allowed back to lap around the museum's walls. Anything more and it will be a very unwelcome guest in the galleries.
When it is completed, two years from now, from afar the museum will resemble a vast floating disk pierced with light. It is a design that will balance two colossal forces - the weight of gravity bearing down from the 180-metre-wide dome against the pressure of the water as it pushes against the building's foundations.
Armstrong describes this process as similar to "taking an empty bottle and pulling it under the water". To keep everything in place, the Louvre Abu Dhabi must sit solidly on its foundations, while retaining the illusion of weightlessness. Otherwise, says Armstrong only half-joking, "it would float out to sea".
So these early stages, mostly unseen by the curious passer-by and lacking the visual drama that is to come, are among the most critical. More than 4,000 piles have been driven through what was once seabed - the sand on the site is littered with tens of thousands of tiny shells - through to the soft rock that lies beneath.
The current phase of construction began back in January, when Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company awarded the Dh2.4 billion contract to a joint venture headed by Arabtec, with Constructora San Josť and Oger Abu Dhabi. Overseeing the building work is Armstrong and Turner Construction, effectively TDIC's eyes and ears on the ground.
This stage represents - literally - the low point of building the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Two basements will be built once the foundations are finished, both below sea-level. Twin underwater tunnels will follow, one for visitors, who will enter after parking in a still-to-be constructed shopping mall. The other tunnel will be the entrance for works of art, where the security must be as watertight as the structure.
All this is driven by a relentless construction timetable in which every day counts. Several stages must be passed before the basement structure is completed and the museum proper can begin to rise above ground.
Each of the approximately 4,500 pillars must be wired to something called a cathodic protection system, which provides an electric charge that prevents concrete corrosion. On top of this is laid a double layer of close-fitting green waterproof sheeting, subdivided into heat-sealed compartments that are then vacuum-tested to ensure there are no leaks.
Making the building waterproof is, Armstrong says, "a significant challenge" on such a tight timescale. "There is no allowance for a leak in this project. It has to be 100 per cent watertight."
By December, the building work should have reached the ground floor and the first galleries. The pace now picks up, so that three months later, in February 2014, all the building above ground should be finished.
Now comes the dome. About 120,000 prefabricated pieces of steel in a series of criss-crossing layers that, as currently planned, will mostly be manufactured abroad but assembled in Abu Dhabi. Nothing like it has been seen architecturally since the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
No human hand alone can create such a precision piece of engineering, just as a structure of such mind-boggling complexity as the Louvre Abu Dhabi cannot be contained in a single human mind. No matter how brilliant the designers, however dedicated the engineers, none of this would be possible without computer technology and modern materials.
"This could not have been done 100 years ago," Armstrong says of the dome's design. "You couldn't have done it even 20 years ago due to the complex geometry and the requirement for computer aided fabrication." Completing the dome will take just over a year but when it is done, the silhouette will be physical proof to the city that the Louvre Abu Dhabi has arrived.
Less obvious are what will be holding up the dome. Right now, though, they dominate the construction site: four towers or piers in various stages of completion. When the first concrete of the east pier was poured last month, it was rightly hailed as the first milestone in this stage of the construction.
The vast weight of the dome - that its 7,000 tonnes are almost equal to the weight of the Eiffel Tower is currently TDIC's favourite statistic - will rest on just these four points. The structure, which rises to around 30 metres on the inside, will provide shade for the galleries underneath as well as being energy efficient. In concept, the design is said to mimic the palm frond roofs once common in ordinary arish homes across the Gulf. The promised effect is described as a "rain of light".
Less romantically, but of more practical concern, are the four huge bearings that will be mounted on each pier to take the weight of the dome. These allow movement caused by the dome contracting and expanding with seasonal changes in temperature but would also ensure that even if the building was hit by a major earthquake - something experts say is virtually impossible - it would remain standing.
Designing load supports for such an unusual structure is just one the challenges in building the Louvre Abu Dhabi. So is creating galleries for a collection of artefacts still being assembled. Some spaces are designed for specific works - such as the installation being planned for the entrance by the Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming.
How some of these construction challenges will be solved is still a work in progress. Elements of the structure and design are so specific to the site that they will have to be tailor-made; problems solved on the go. "There are going to be a lot of people on this project," says Armstrong, "who are going to learn a lot."
"Closer than you think. Louvre Abu Dhabi. Opening 2015" promises the giant billboard that now greets visitors arriving on Saadiyat Island. Such is the pace of construction that the scenes described in this article, from barely a week ago, already belong to history. This is a learning curve set against an invisible clock. Less than three years to go, and the world is waiting. Tick tock.
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