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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Louvre Abu Dhabi: an architectural gem

Poised on the northwest corner of Saadiyat Island at the intersection of land, sea and sky, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been designed as a very different type of institution, a universal museum for the 21st century built at one of the historic crossroads of humanity.

Thanks to a collection of interconnected galleries that will take visitors on a chronological journey through the history of art, the museum complex is said to echo the design of a traditional Islamic town, complete with small plazas and alleyways, sheltered in the shade and the micro-climate created by its overarching roof.

180 metres wide and rising to a height of 30 metres at is apex, this 7,000 tonne steel and aluminium canopy appears to float, miraculously, like some giant flying saucer above Jean Nouvel’s serene archipelago, which is permeated by neon tides like some miniature Venice on the Arabian Gulf.

Every effort has been made to create the impression of a building that is serene and effortless but that is to misunderstand the colossal forces that the museum has to contend with, which confront it from either end of the environmental scale.

In its interiors, the museum has to deliver the very highest standards in terms of the control of light and atmospheric conditions in order to keep its collection safe, while on its outside it has to be perfectly watertight.

At a subterranean level, this means that the museum’s basements are held in a constant state of readiness against the intrusion of ground and seawater, the pressure of which is enough to make the whole building, which is relatively light, float. To prevent this, the whole complex has 4500 foundations that descend to Saadiyat’s soft bedrock, effectively anchoring the museum in place.

Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, right, speaks with Jean Nouvel, the architect of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. Galen Clarke / The National
Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of TCA Abu Dhabi, right, speaks with Jean Nouvel. Galen Clarke / The National

Much has already been written about the thinking behind Nouvel’s design, but as much as the Louvre Abu Dhabi represents a feat of engineering composed of many thousands of tonnes of concrete and aluminium, stone, steel and glass it is also the latest expression of a career-long obsession for the architect, the subtle control of light and its ephemeral effects.

But at its heart the project is predicated on what Jean Nouvel has described as the “correspondence of sensations”, which are most visibly created by gentle lapping of water and the effect that promises to be its visual signature, the architect’s gently hypnotic Rain of Light.

Created by nothing more than the reflection of sunlight as it passes through the 8 layers of the museum’s complex canopy, the Rain of Light produces subtly shifting drops of sunlight that emerge, move, morph and then disappear as they make their way across the campus, adding a degree of transitory poetry to the museum city’s muted palette.

Nouvel has described the effect as shade that is perforated by small holes.

“These holes aren’t what you see through a strainer; they’re not just random holes that allow the light in, it passes through a total of 8 filters,” he told me in 2013.

“Sunlight may pass through 2 holes, but may then be blocked by a third, but this soon changes as the rays move and we get spots of light that appear and disappear, enlarge and shrink … it’s a kinetic effect that is visible to the naked eye because in 30 to 40 seconds you’ll see that one spot gets bigger while another disappears.”

It has been said that the Rain of Light was inspired by the sight of sunlight shining down through the palm fronds in the Al Ain oasis, but there are more direct links to be drawn with Nouvel’s earlier projects, such as L’Institut du Monde Arabe, the building that effectively announced his arrival in architecture’s major league in 1987.

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Read more:

Louvre Abu Dhabi opening date: Museum will open its doors on November 11

Louvre Abu Dhabi: The museum of then, now and the future

Louvre Abu Dhabi's collection: art from every corner of the globe

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Built as a venue for cultural exchange and as a showcase for the scientific and technological achievements of the Arab world, the institute features motorised and solar-responsive apertures in its facades that open and close like the lens of a camera or a movable mashrabiya, creating changing shadows and filtering the Parisian light.

If L’Institut allows us to trace Nouvel’s light fixation back to at least to the 80s, the architect is on record as stating that his obsession with the interplay between light and architecture started far earlier, in the 60s, and to the time when he first visited the Sainte-Chapelle, a Gothic royal chapel inside the Palais de la Cité, a medieval royal residence in the heart of Paris.

Commissioned in the 1230s by the French King Louis IX, Sainte-Chapelle was conceived as a building-sized reliquary for the display of the monarch’s collection of prized artefacts, which included one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom, an object that was believed to be the Crown of Thorns of Jesus’s Passion.

As fanciful as it may sound, there is more than a passing similarity between Nouvel’s latest achievement and the structure that inspired him as a teenager, both of which, coincidentally, were completed in around 7 years.

Although they may be separated by more than 700 years, both the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Saint-Chapelle are exquisite display cases designed to house the most precious artefacts known to humankind. Both are also projects that pushed their builders to new heights of aesthetic and technical achievement achieved in pursuit of beauty at its most immaterial and ephemeral, the mastery of the play and transcendent effects of light.