Because you won’t believe your eyes
The UAE is certainly not short of belief-beggaring architecture, but the Louvre Abu Dhabi will up the ante further still. French architect Jean Nouvel’s cultural mini-city consists of some 55 buildings, many of which sit beneath an intricately layered 180m-wide dome. Weighing almost as much as the Eiffel Tower, this roof hovers incongruously over the shoreline of the Arabian Sea like a giant, flying saucer. Nouvel’s design riffs on the aesthetics of traditional Arab settlements, but uses the latest construction materials and methods. It is also perfectly attuned to the UAE’s extreme climate, maximising energy and water efficiency through a variety of features. While white exteriors reflect sunlight, traditional falaj water canals run among the museum’s open plazas to provide natural cooling.
Because it’s not just one museum…
It’s actually an island of museums. The multi-billion dollar venture was first announced in 2007 and the Louvre Abu Dhabi is one of four star architect-designed museums that will open on Saadiyat Island, a 27km² peninsula off the coast of Abu Dhabi. Frank Gehry’s striking design for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Pritzker prize-winning architectural firm Foster + Partners’ Zayed National Museum are also readying themselves, alongside a number of high-end retail, hotel and residential developments. By any standards, it’s an unprecedented cultural-tourism megaproject.
Because this place makes it rain in the desert
OK, not actual rain. The museum’s dome is made up of 7,800 geometrical shapes of varying sizes and angles that filter sunshine in a manner that Jean Nouvel describes as a ‘rain of light’. It’s the star feature of the architectural design and commentators have been swooning over its cool cinematic quality. In Nouvel’s own characteristically low-key words, “It is rather unusual to find a built archipelago in the sea. It is even more uncommon to see that it is protected by a parasol creating a rain of light.”
Because art is the best appetiser
It’s often tricky to get a satisfying bite at a museum. Luckily, Saadiyat Island has some cracking dining spots, many of them beachside. Sontaya, a sophisticated South-East Asian restaurant at the St Regis Saadiyat Island, is close enough to the museum for you to marvel at its illuminated dome on a post-dinner walk along the beach and, as you can see from the dishes above, the food isn’t bad either. Only a short yacht ride from the museum’s marina (come on, it’s Abu Dhabi!) is The Smokin’ Pineapple, a boho-chic beach club on a private island, where a giant oven in the shape of a pineapple spits out what can only be described as perfect pizza. Quirky? Sure. Worth the trip? You bet.
Because you can stroll through space and time
“We put artefacts of beauty from all different civilisations in the same room, sometimes in the same showcase; putting them in dialogue, creating echoes.” So says Manuel Rabaté, the French director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, of the museum’s novel approach to curation. So, for example, Children Wrestling (1888) by French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin can be viewed together with No. 8 Tôto Asukayama (1858) by Japanese Edo master Utagawa Hiroshige. The idea, according to Jean-François Charnier, scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, is that by grouping exhibits from across the globe chronologically and beyond boundaries, visitors can travel from the beginning of humanity to the modern age: “It is very exciting to have a synthesis of the long journey of humankind.”
Because you can meet the locals
“I believe that art is a cultural identity that expresses the past, records the present and informs the future,” explains assistant curator Mohamed Al Mansoori. After studying art history in London and writing his dissertation on Near-Eastern carpets in Renaissance paintings, he’s back home as part of a large contingent of Emiratis keen to play their part in their nation’s cultural development. Alia Zaal Lootah worked as an artist and lecturer and helped to set up Dubai’s Women’s Museum before joining the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “Studying and practising art led me to so many questions as to why art is so essential. I came to realise that art is a window to the world,” she says. “I do not want to assume what visitors will learn about local culture. Each visitor will have a different perception of the space and a different overall experience, and I hope it will be a memorable one.”
Because it can inspire your kids to dig art
Museum visits tend not to be among our most exciting childhood memories, but the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Children’s Museum is hoping to change that. Designed for aspiring art aficionados between the ages of six and 12, the opening exhibition will explore the theme of travel. A charming touch: displays, including vibrant artefacts such as Oriental Bliss (1938) by Paul Klee, will be presented at a lower eye level. “It is going to be a proper exhibition, featuring about a dozen artworks. And it’ll be changing, with more than one exhibition per year,” says assistant curator Khalid Abdulkhaliq Abdulla.
Because there’s a first time for everything
The curators have pulled together a collection that justifies the hype – including some notable firsts. La belle ferronnière (above), on loan from the Louvre Paris, is the first painting by Leonardo Da Vinci to come to the Middle East, and Ayoucha (1843), by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, the first known photo of a veiled woman. The museum’s permanent galleries will present alongside the museum’s own collection of some 300 works from 13 key French institutions. Our pick? Henri Matisse’s Still Life with Magnolia (1941), on loan from the Centre Pompidou.
Because this is only five minutes away
Alongside the Cultural District, Saadiyat boasts pristine stretches of golden sand. Home to rare hawksbill sea turtles which nest in its soft white sands, the beach is a wonderland for nature lovers, while plush venues, such as Saadiyat Beach Club, will attract a different type of visitor.
Because you can touch (some of) the artwork
Throughout the museum, ‘tactile stations’, which are near-exact replicas of key pieces in the collection, will give visitors with limited vision the full experience. It’s also an opportunity for all visitors, says assistant curator Mohammed Al Mansoori, to “interact with our masterpieces and physically explore their cross-cultural influences”.
Because it’s already inspiring art
Two greats of the contemporary art world, Jenny Holzer and Giuseppe Penone, will unveil major permanent installations at the opening, all inspired by the architecture, location and philosophy of the region. Holzer, an American neo-conceptual artist known for her text-based works, has created three marble walls inscribed with passages from significant historical texts, including medieval Islamic polymath Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah. Works by Penone, a pioneering Italian sculptor and leading member of the Arte Povera movement, often ruminate on the intersection between humanity, art and nature. His creations for the Louvre Abu Dhabi are no exception. The central element of Germination, a group of four sculptures, is a bronze cherry tree whose reflective leaves diffract Jean Nouvel’s ‘rain of light’.
Because it’s a dream come true
The Louvre Abu Dhabi would probably not exist if it weren’t for the legacy of one man: the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former ruler of Abu Dhabi and first president of the UAE. Sheikh Zayed dreamed of a future where Abu Dhabi would not just embrace economic development but also culture and multiculturalism. “A focus on cultural projects is something the late Sheikh Zayed had a strong belief in,” explains deputy director Hissa Al Dhaheri. “This idea of contact between cultures represents the essence of Emirati identity, of the UAE as a place of harmony, peace and tolerance. This is what the visitor will experience.”