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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Welcome to the neighbourhood – a catalyst for Abu Dhabi’s urban renaissance

Jean Nouvel's ambition has not just been to create a spectacular new building, but to develop a new neighbourhood that could only exist in Abu Dhabi and, what is more, one that people will want to return to time and again

Christopher Pike / The National
Christopher Pike / The National

Not far from the milling crowds of satisfied art enthusiasts inside Louvre Abu Dhabi, a different scene was unfolding. In a move straight out of the toddler playbook, the woman jumping the line for taxis outside the museum, momentarily checked herself and smiled, before deciding to ignore the mounting outrage of the queue in front of her and steal a ride anyway.

“Don’t they have Uber here?” wailed an elderly New Yorker, affronted by the lack of cars and shade beyond the orbit of the museum’s immediate precincts.

“How about Didi?” offered her visor and sneaker-wearing companion, whose choice of velour sportswear was becoming visibly more ill-advised by the minute. “They have Careem,” said an upright French woman, undiminished by the heat, whose thick accent made the UAE’s ride-hailing service sound like a dairy product. “If you are going to the city, you may share with me if you like.”

Despite the best placatory efforts of a young Emirati volunteer, the crowd was in no mood to be assuaged and began to form a miniature Van Allen belt of disquiet, marking the momentary limit of the museum’s civilising influence.

As my taxi eventually made its way across the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge and I looked back towards the new landmark, the episode reminded me of a frequently repeated comment made by its architect, Jean Nouvel. In designing the museum, the septuagenarian has said on many occasions, his ambition has not just been to create a spectacular new building, but to develop a new neighbourhood that could only exist in Abu Dhabi and, what is more, one that people will want to return to time and again.

Having visited the museum five times in the past week – three times for work and twice for pleasure – I can say that on several of those counts, Louvre Abu Dhabi is an undoubted success.

Handcrafted, rather than designed, the building is an exquisite artefact that could only have been produced in a situation where the client was willing, and sufficiently endowed, to allow an architect the scope to achieve such a vision.

But if the building operates at an urban level, it does so in a way that is peculiar to its context, and not in the way that is so often expressed.

Louvre Abu Dhabi is already an Abu Dhabi neighbourhood par excellence, not because of its allusions to Islamic geometry or to a traditional medina, but because it is gated, self-enclosed and car-reliant, qualities that define the city’s existing urban fabric.

Much of this might still change, but only if the city changes around Louvre Abu Dhabi. Now is the time to embrace Jean Nouvel’s masterpiece in a wider cultural district, defined by fully-functional public open space and properly serviced by public transport. The project has shown the world what Abu Dhabi is capable of, and now it should act as a catalyst, not just for the transformation of its corner of Saadiyat Island, but for the whole of the city.

Addressing the needs of residents in this way could be the museum’s great urban legacy and a fitting way to build upon Nouvel’s architectural ambition.

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Read more from Nick:

Abu Dhabi’s busiest month of art will have lasting impact

Louvre Abu Dhabi: the long-awaited first look inside

Watch: First look at one of the Louvre Abu Dhabi's contemporary commissions

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