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Icons in the Desert: Nouvel and the Louvre Arrive in Abu Dhabi

Jean Nouvel’s penultimate building in the Middle East can be described as a gigantic surbased dome made up of eight thin parallel layers that create an infinite, star-decked heavenly vault, a canopy that filters incoming light like an Arab mashrabiya.  Beneath the dome, a series of rectangular pavilions occupy an orthogonal grid. They’ve been inserted and positioned to create intermediate connecting spaces similar to streets and squares, or even, in the architect’s mind, like a souk or a Greek agora. The agora seems a little far-fetched, a wish more than a reality (and not only in the question of form), but the souk idea clearly works in terms of both form and historical context.

But I don’t want to dwell too much on the building. Having been open since 2017, it’s been covered in ample detail in numerous articles and is therefore no longer news. What I would like to do is talk about my experience as a visitor and discuss the possibility that this building may conceivably be yet another icon of contemporary Middle Eastern architecture.

In a region like this, where a hundred-metre-tall tower attracts no attention and any of Madrid’s four towers would go completely unnoticed amid the dense vertical cityscapes of Dubai, Qatar and, as in this case (although to a slightly lesser extent), Abu Dhabi, it would be difficult to suggest Nouvel’s Louvre is an icon were it not for the fact that its status as a franchise of the Paris original, together with the French architect’s own reputation and the investment made by the local government, have made the project a national affair of international transcendence. The technological, economic and cultural components expected of an “iconic” building are certainly easy to find in this design.

The structural audacity required to build the multilayer dome placed the Abu Dhabi Louvre quite close to the forefront in contemporary architectural challenges. Naturally, that difficulty led to the budget shortfalls that all icons worthy of the name seem to justify. And finally, the content guaranteed by an institution like the Louvre (I’ll go into the details of that later) turned the construction aspect of the project into a cultural event; the only important thing was that the building had to be easily recognisable. Nouvel met all these prerequisites and, if we accept the rough three-point definition of the term given above, the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi simply has to be considered an icon: that was precisely the intention right from the start.

With regard to the museum’s content, it’s difficult to understand such a heterogenous collection covering such wide chronological and geographical spectrums. The exhibits vary greatly in size and origin – from ancient Mesopotamia to the contemporary world, brazenly mixing together paintings, sculpture, gold and silverwork and video art.  Visitors experience a certain sense of chaos, as if the museum were a book presenting an abridged history of art, although the tour itself is upbeat and offers the opportunity to enjoy many well-known – and several unexpected – works. Without presuming to correct Monsieur Nouvel’s design, it would have been nice to have some short cuts to be able to stop for a moment and then continue the tour after resting in one of the spaces under the dome, or in the restaurant overlooking the sea, with its tables laid out in rows on a kind of grandstand (by the beginning of April the bar terrace was already empty due to the unbearable heat).

Photo: Brijuni arquitectos

This is arguably the most disputable point about the project. The whole building, with all the architectural and economic effort it involved, is commended to the protection of a permeable dome which can in no way guarantee environmental comfort in the huge spaces beneath it for more than six months each year, even with the help of misting systems and other AC solutions. The problem is not a new one: in the stadiums for neighbouring Qatar’s football World Cup, ways of overcoming the extremely difficult architectural challenge of cooling intermediate spaces under such extreme climate conditions as this are still being tried out. Some partial success has been achieved, but in the end the answer will once again be to incur huge energy expenses, while architects continue to chase a pipe dream that has thus far proven impossible to realise.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Beatriz Villanueva es Doctora en Proyectos Arquitectónicos Avanzados, MArch y MPAA (ETSAM). Francisco J. Casas es Doctor en Comunicación Arquitectónica, MArch y Master en Análisis, Teoría e Historia de la Arquitectura (ETSAM). Fueron comisarios de “Menáge a Trois”, “F. A. Q.”, “Portfolio Speed Dating”, “Al Borde de la Crítica” y de la exposición "Couples & Co.: 22 Mirror Stories of Spanish Architecture" en Berlín, Hamburgo, Sevilla y Granada.  Han sido profesores en IED, UEM, UCJC, ETSA Zaragoza, Summer School AA (Londres) y ahora en Riad desde 2014.

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