Abu Dhabi's Louvre: how far has it come and how far will it go?

Published January 22nd, 2015 - 04:55 GMT

Mounds of sand fringe the road leading to the construction site on Saadiyat Island. As you drive along, the giant edifice of an interlaced steel dome suddenly comes into view.

Rising from the sands on partly reclaimed land and jutting into the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf, this is Abu Dhabi’s cultural masterpiece in the making.

Born out of an agreement between the UAE and France, Louvre Abu Dhabi is touted as an architectural marvel.

When complete by year end, the 260,000 square foot ‘universal’ museum will offer a global vision of the history of world art, one that will inevitably evolve over time.

This evolution will be shaped by the different loans and the gradual enrichment of the collection, and above all by the acquisition of new knowledge and the adoption of fresh approaches.

Designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be part of the Saadiyat Cultural District which will also house the world’s largest Guggenheim Museum and the Zayed National Museum.

“It is going to be incredible – three major museums within walking distance,” Stuart Keane, Senior Owners Representative Delivery at the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), told XPRESS.

The world’s first museum to get its name from the 18th century Parisian complex, Louvre Abu Dhabi is, however, more than a doppelganger of the French museum. “It is very Arabic in its design and concept. The structure resembles a cluster of small buildings that simulates an Arabian village,” said Keane.

Rain of light

The standout feature of the museum is its giant 180-metre steel dome that sits on four piers. The geometric lace dome looks like interlaced palm leaves creating a ‘rain of light’ effect,” said Keane.

Even the cladding on the roof has been meticulously engineered in specific sizes and orientations to achieve the intricate effect.

Each cladding is made of 4,000 unique pieces ranging from 2 to 15 metres and weighing from a few kilograms to several tonnes.

“It was a huge challenge to fit the pieces as each cladding is unique,” explained Keane, who has worked with five major museums in Europe.

Recently, a huge milestone was achieved when the 7,000 tonne dome was lifted and placed atop the four piers.

During construction the dome was made up of 85 supersized elements ranging from 15 to 75 tomnes.

With 21 million man hours logged so far and 5,000 men on the job, it still is a race against time to complete the project. “The mechanical, engineering and plumping work (MEP) is the next biggest challenge because it is the energy centre and the heart of the building,” said Keane.

“We need many backup systems. If one fails, there has to be an immediate backup. Redundancy is a lot in a museum because once a piece of art is lost, it is lost forever,” he explained.

Next step

“Once the construction is over, all steel structure clustering beneath the dome will be removed and we will start what we call flooding the site,” said Keane.

Currently the museum is protected by a hydraulic control wall that keeps the seawater out and keeps the museum dry.

“We switch on the pumps and the water rises up to the sea level and then we take off the wall in a slow controlled manner. That is when we get to see what is in the picture,” he explained.

The dome and galleries will float above the water while house services such as the kitchen will remain two floors beneath the water level.

Louvre Abu Dhabi has a built up area of approximately 87,000 square metres, with 9,200 square metres of galleries.

Around 6,000 square metres will be devoted to permanent displays, while 2,000 square metres will be be reserved for temporary exhibitions. The museum will also have a children’s gallery, café and restaurant.

Keane said every bit of the design including the walls, roofs, windows, lighting, and painting is tested at a mock up site built a few metres from the museum.

“A lot of work is done here. We try the panels, paint and repaint the walls, ceilings and even the window panels till we achieve the accurate design,” he said.

“We are armed with centuries of knowledge drawn from what did and what did not work in the first Louvre,” said Keane.

According to him, the aim is to make the Louvre Abu Dhabi a worldclass masterpiece with no rivals.

In Numbers:

  • 20 million man hours till December
  • 5000 workers on the site
  • 180 diametres for the dome
  • 7000 tons - weight of dome
  • 5000 tons - weight of aluminium cladding of the dome
  • 145,000 cubic metre of concrete
  • 9,200 sq metres of gallery space

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