Louvre Abu Dhabi
Opened November 2017
It is occasionally said that the age of the blockbuster museum is over. Then along comes the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Here, the French architect Jean Nouvel has conjured a stunning spectacle – a fine museum and a modern medina.
The theatrics are supplied by a colossal filigree parasol, a shallow saucer that appears to float above the buildings. Its lattice-work roof shades the streetlike passages below, creating a projection of bright sunlight in a complex pattern on the floors and the walls and a sparkling mirage in the pools that punctuate the shaded streetscape.
The museum is distributed through a series of discrete, cuboid structures nestled beneath the dome, which are arranged with shady alleys between them, alluding to the souk or the traditional Arab city. If architecture with such a self-consciously spectacular aesthetic tends to overwhelm exhibits, then Nouvel has managed to reduce the interiors to an almost domestic scale so that the artefacts are allowed to shine. Also unusual here is that the architect has taken on the galleries themselves, designing the entire display right down to the minimal vitrines.
Any architect building in Abu Dhabi needs to consider the scale of the city, its fast-evolving future, the fierceness of the sun, the flatness of the land and level of the sea. Nouvel has managed to create something that is loaded with references to local culture – the mashrabiya (pierced screens) that shade windows, the relationship of the port city to the sea, the brilliant white of the blocky streetscape – but he has avoided cliché and obvious symbolism, always reinterpreting and creating something new, futuristic and surprising.
An Emirati mega-museum seems fated to attract some controversy – be that concerns about labour conditions, potential audience, or the eye-watering cost of such buildings. But there is no denying that this is a stunning architectural spectacle, a very fine museum, and a building that has radically reshaped this coastline and the city’s image – through culture.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the Financial Times.
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