With her background as an architect, Mahra AlShaya, from Sharjah, is benefiting from professional experience that most young designers can only dream of coordinating many of the key design stages in the creation of the stunning new Louvre Abu Dhabi.
From architect’s vision to reality
Mahra AlShaya has a very special bond with her work, and she needs it. The 27-year-old architect commutes from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi every day.
“I feel like I’ve become part of Louvre Abu Dhabi. You can’t imagine how close the relationship is,” says Ms AlShaya, the senior development officer in the museum team from TDIC, the capital’s Tourism Development and Investments Company .
She is responsible for coordinating many of the key stages in the design process that is helping to take the Louvre Abu Dhabi from a vision to reality.
“I’m responsible for monitoring the design very closely and for seeing how the design is being delivered. It’s like watching a small baby growing, you become so attached to it.”
Put simply, Ms AlShaya is responsible for ensuring that the drawings that leave her office contain agreed and finalised designs that can actually be built.
“As the development team, we are responsible for coordinating the design. The delivery team are responsible for overseeing the construction,” she says.
“All of the coordination within the design process falls to us. We coordinate the design workshops, we obtain approvals from the authorities and we present the design to the project’s stakeholders.
“After we get full design approval, the responsibility for the project passes to our delivery team.”
Ms AlShaya visits the museum site once a week and attends monthly workshops where all of the project’s design consultants – including the architects and structural and mechanical engineers – meet representatives from the TDIC, Tourism and Culture Authority and Agence France-Museums.
She has to ensure the design phase is proceeding on budget and on time, and that any changes to the design, and comments by the project’s many stakeholders, are addressed in the latest set of drawings.
“We are dealing with a bespoke design,” Ms AlShaya says. “Everything about the construction process is very specific to the project. There aren’t existing techniques that can be applied.
“[Architect] Jean Nouvel might present a new design submission. We go through the drawings, we send back comments and then they resubmit the final design.
“Once this is approved, this goes to the project manager and they supply the drawings to the contractor.”
In liaising with local authorities, such as Abu Dhabi Municipality and Civil Defence, Ms AlShaya also ensures the museum’s design corresponds with the emirate’s international building and safety codes.
“You deal with a lot of people and communication becomes a very important aspect of your job. Different nationalities and different authorities each need a different approach,” she says.
“Louvre Abu Dhabi has a lot of stakeholders, and the biggest challenge for me is to get approvals from all of them and to meet the milestones that enable us to realise the project.
“We have to get approvals from TCA Abu Dhabi, from our executive directors, our board members, from our chairman, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, and from our own development team as well.”
When it comes to discussing the Louvre, Ms AlShaya has had plenty of practice. Although she started working for TDIC in 2012, she first came into contact with the project in 2009 while volunteering as an intern for the UAE national pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
“It was my first time ever in Venice,” she says. “I was responsible for introducing visitors to the artwork displayed in the national pavilion and to Abu Dhabi.
“There were also models of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim, so I was talking about them even before I joined TDIC.
“There were people from different cultures and different backgrounds and they had a lot of questions about Abu Dhabi and the museums. They wanted to know how it was possible to join all of the architects and the museums in one place.”
When Ms AlShaya looks back on her Venice experience, she sees parallels between the city and the Louvre Abu Dhabi that is scheduled to open in December next year.
“Venice reminds me of the Louvre somehow. The whole city floats on the water and this is how the Louvre is. It is a city surrounded by water.”
At the time of her Venice internship, Ms AlShaya was studying architecture at the American University of Sharjah. Even though she doesn’t get to practise her architectural skills in her current role, she still dreams of becoming a designer.
“One of my first aims is to accomplish the design of the Louvre and help deliver it for the opening, but I am learning from the design of the museum and in the future I hope to practise architecture and work on my own designs,” she says.
“In this job you learn how consultants work, you learn about the actual process of building and when I work on my own designs, I will be able to draw on this experience.
“I’ve also been able to look closely and review the drawings of one of the world’s most famous architects, that’s bound to impact the way I look at my own designs.”
In the meantime, one of the things that Ms AlShaya is looking forward to most is the day when she can bring her family to the museum.
“I’m bringing everyone I know when the museum opens so they can see all of our hard work,” she says.
“I’m excited to see the effect of the rain of light, how the shadows will move on the buildings and how the shadows will change from early morning to evening.
“As an architect, I always imagine myself walking in those spaces and I’m really looking forward to seeing that live.”
The other is witnessing the effect that the first of Abu Dhabi’s grand projects will have, not only on her colleagues but on the public, the country and the wider region.
“I think it will help people to know more about the country. This is the first universal museum that will be open in the region and it’s the first that will open in Abu Dhabi.
“Everybody else learns from what we are doing. All of the challenges, all of the obstacles that we meet and overcome are lessons learned for the future.”
Ultimately, however, Ms AlShaya’s pride in her work, and the stamina she needs to make her 360-kilometre daily commute, stems from the fact that her job provides her with the opportunity to give something back.
“I’m very proud to be working on this project. Honestly. It’s a significant project and I’m contributing something back to my country. This is a very important thing that makes me really proud.”