New York has Times Square. In London, there is Piccadilly Circus. Venice attracts throngs to the Piazza San Marco. Is it too soon to say that under the great dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the city has its first iconic gathering space?
The crowds attending the museum’s opening day certainly made it feel so. Here, in what is being called a universal museum, was, if not the universe, then certainly much of humanity.
The expressions of wonder came in a multitude of tongues. Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, English in all its variants from India to the Antipodes, and, of course, French: “C'est une grande composition!”
Until now, the city’s sense of community has tended to migrate to its shopping malls. Louvre Abu Dhabi could have a similar function, but guided here by art rather than commerce.
It makes for a gentler, more contemplative experience, even with the large crowds on opening day. A young couple use a wall overlooking the broad steps that lead down to the water, to feed their baby. On a low granite table, a Filipino family unpack their picnic; sandwiches, packets of crisps and a flask of coffee.
Louvre Abu Dhabi also seems to have the capacity to absorb great numbers without feeling overcrowded. But it also has its private spaces; quiet alleyways that reflect architect Jean Nouvel’s vision of the building as an Arabian madinat.
In a courtyard, whose sole inhabitant for several minutes is a lone security guard, the only sound is the water splashing down a marble, granite and slate fountain made in Damascus more than 300 years ago.
Walk a little further, and a pair of doves splash in the reflecting pools that surround Jenny Holzer’s massive carved installation, cooing joyously in their new home.
Round the corner the crowds return, with a collective intuition for discovering their favourite spots. Rodin’s Walking Man on a Column is a natural rendezvous, with the backdrop another of Holzer’s tactile carved walls.
Many of those visiting the museum for the first time have dressed up for the occasion. So, of course, a photograph is called for. Louvre Abu Dhabi is a building for the age of the smartphone and the selfie, its startling architecture and angles perfectly designed for Twitter and Instagram.
At times it seems as if there has been a collective order to raise your camera towards the lattice of stars above and grimace or pout. The building plays along with this game, the puddles of Nouvel’s rain of light creating the perfect spotlight, which is constantly shifting with the arc of the Sun.
Inside the galleries there is a different atmosphere; quiet but not subdued. The power of the collection requires another level of concentration. An Emirati father quietly explains to his daughter of about seven, the description of a 3,000 year old carving of Nebmerutef, the royal scribe, then hoists her on his shoulders to better see the bust of a pharaoh.
In the gallery devoted to 20th century art, a laughing teenage girl mimics the pose of Degas’ tiny Arabesque dancer. At the exit, two American accented woman ask politely for a photograph together in front of Ai Wei Wei’s luminous Fountain of Light.
It is not all high culture, of course. Some of the biggest queues were for the museum cafe, both self and table service, with a choice that includes a wagyu burger with homemade ketchup (Dh79), lamb chop mulwarra (Dh179), or a risotto of wild mushrooms with artichokes and a poached egg (Dh79).
In the museum shop, business was also brisk, even if the temporary inability to process credit card payments probably cramped sales of the Dh5,000 glass and bronze designer vases, or a Dh1,270 copy of a 16th century Rojas astrolabe.
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Actually, the cashier explains, the best sellers so far are the official guidebook, a Dh50 reproduction of a blue ceramic ancient Egyptian hippo and the Dh5 postcard of Leonardo Da Vinci's La Belle Ferronnière, one of the stars of the collection.
Those who came for the first day will never forget the experience. Louvre Abu Dhabi has changed the city in many ways. It seems a more serious, more mature place, but one which also wears a smile on its face.