On a hard-packed patch of ground overlooking the building site of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Super-Sized Element 63 waits for its date with destiny.
A large, oddly-shaped rectangular frame of battleship-grey steel, SSE63 rests on blocks of wood and concrete, attended by gangs of workmen and the bobbing booms of mobile cranes and lifting platforms.
Towering above is the other star of the show. A 600-tonne capacity, 87-metre tall behemoth resting on twin crawler tracks that has been given the nickname “Decepticon”, after the robots in the Transformers series.
The mobile crane, more properly known as a Demag CC2800, has one task – to lift SSE63 across 90 metres of unfinished steel and concrete and deposit it gently on a row of temporary, tower-like structures, where it will become the first element in the museum’s vast dome-like roof.
For such a historic moment, it all sounds so simple. But this is the world of supersized construction – and here, nothing is ever simple.
On this momentous day, everyone is here. All the bigwigs from the companies that make up the Abu Dhabi Louvre builders’ consortium, representatives of Tourism Development and Investment Corporation, who are the project’s client, and dozens of engineers, all hoping everything goes to plan.
Two hours after the official start, it is clear that it is not going to be easy. Along with the atmosphere of controlled tension on the site, there is an expectation that this will be a long day.
SSE63 must eventually be joined to 85 similar structures and literally hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces to complete the 180-metre-wide dome.
As the first element to be put in place, every precaution is being taken. Must be taken.
For future lifts, hopefully things will go quicker. But today is not a day to rush things, for many reasons.
One of the main challenges is the crane. Astonishingly, it is actually too small. The original plan was to use what the engineers now call Megatron, after another Transformers character, which has a capacity of 1,600 tonnes, more than twice that of Decepticon.
But Megatron had unfinished business in Al Ruwais, and is only now arriving on site, and in large pieces that are still scattered around. So Decepticon must do the job, at least for the next few weeks.
Decepticon is a mobile crane, albeit with a top speed of only 1kph. Such is its weight that it must sit on a temporary path of heavy steel plates, which spread the load and prevent it sinking into the ground.
But there is a complication. The crane’s owner only has 96 plates, not nearly enough to form a path to allow it to move sufficiently forward to carry the dome element to its lifting point.
So the crane must inch forward a few metres at a time, with fork-lift trucks carrying the plates from the back to the front of the advancing tracks. It is a technique for moving heavy objects that harks back to the building of the Pyramids and the dolmens of Stonehenge. Effective, in its way, but not quick.
Two hours after the start of lifting operations, the crew are still rigging the piece on the ground, adjusting the chains so that when it is lifted, the curvature of the SSE will match that of the roof it will form a part of.
The first task, though, is to weigh it. For a lift of this height and distance, Decepticon can carry a maximum weight of 41 tonnes.
The engineers have already calculated that the element, as first built, weighs 43 tonnes. So a chunk weighing two tonnes has been unbolted, to be attached later.
If the piece is still too heavy, the crane will automatically send a warning message by a satellite link to the manufacturer in Germany, and the operator in Dubai. And the lift will be stopped.
So it is tense moment as at 2.30pm, more than five hours after work started, the cables stretch and tense and slowly begin to lift SSE63.
Against a backdrop of incessant beeping and the growl of the crane’s engines, the huge frame rises a few centimetres, then metres and stops. The crane operator, his voice barely audible against the din, calls down to the anxious team gathered below his cab. “Forty-one tonnes.” Everyone breaths out.
Now the crane can be moved forward towards the rim of the lifting area, a reinforced platform overlooking the main building site.
From here, the roof frame will be lifted clear more than 90 metres to the temporary towers and locked into place.
This is the closest Decepticon can be safely moved to the site. Any closer would risk caving in the newly-built basement floors.
It is now nearly late afternoon. Fork-lift trucks move the heavy plates forward from the rear of the crane’s crawler tracks, but it is a slow and painstaking process. Eventually enough are in place for it to advance a few metres. The steel path gasps and groans under the weight, but holds firm.
Time is now the enemy. Off the site, a debate is taking place. One camp of those involved in the lift want the piece in place by the end of the day. Others, concerned that dusk is less than two hours away and that the men are getting tired, would like to wait until the next morning.
A compromise is reached. The crane will be moved to the lifting point, but the operation will start at 9am the following day.
Eight hours have now passed and SSE63 has barely moved 10 metres.
In the end, though, it is a decision that is fully vindicated by events. On the second day, all the stresses and difficulties seem to vanish in the clean, cool morning air of Sadiyaat Island.
The crane’s huge boom nods towards the waiting towers, swinging SSE63 across the void and almost imperceptibly drops it into place.
The four lifting cables on the crane slacken slightly, a sign that the towers have taken the weight – and that the operation is all but over.
Back where it all started, new workers have already begun to assemble a second supersized element.
There are still 83 more, varying in size and weight from 30 to 70 tonnes to be put in place over the next 10 months.
But Super-sized Element 63 has already earned its place in history.