Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the museum complex for Louvre Abu Dhabi is created to embody a ‘museum city’ in the desert, featuring a promenade of white cubic volumes that make up its gallery spaces, and almost entirely covered by a geometric dome which spans 180m. Purposely surrounded by water, the architectural elements are a conversation between the various forms of nature — sky, land, sea. Nouvel explains that the “everything [in the museum] is organised in such a way that you feel like you are in a grand palace. The palace of the Louvre.”
The contrasting series of white buildings take inspiration from the traditional ‘medina’ and low-lying Arab settlements. In total, the complex features 55 individual buildings, including 23 galleries that house the museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. The facades are made up of 3,900 panels of ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC) that allows for various elements, such as wiring, to be concealed within its walls.
Specially commissioned installations are displayed in the semi-outdoor areas of this museum city, shaded by the vast dome, which Nouvel cites as a “symbol of Arabian architecture”. The dome itself consists of eight different layers — four outer layers that are clad in stainless steel and four inner ones in aluminium, separated by a 5m-high steel frame. The frame is made of 10,000 structural components pre-assembled into 85 super-sized elements, each weighing up to 50 tonnes. Additionally, the dome is supported by only four permanent piers, each 110m apart, that are hidden within the museum buildings to give the impression that the dome is floating.
Featuring a complex geometric design, the star-shaped pattern is repeated at various sizes and angles in the eight superimposed layers. Each ray of light must penetrate the eight layers before appearing and then disappearing. The result is a cinematic effect called the ‘rain of light’, as the sun’s path progresses through the day. At night, it forms 7,850 stars visible from both inside and out, creating a ‘sky within a sky’. “The dome becomes a link that determines public territory,” Nouvel explains. “It is a place where we can stay and enjoy and it is also a place that protects us from the sun.” He adds, “I knew that I had to create something that will play with geometry and light. It is a cosmic object.”
Nouvel also speaks about the importance context played in informing the architectural language of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “I am a contextual architect,” he says. “I cannot imagine that a programme like this exists if it does not belong to the local culture. A lot of architecture today has no roots but that is not irreversible. This museum had to have roots.” He adds that the complex is designed to resonate more with a neighbourhood than a building; one that reflects a traditional Arab city. “Some might think it is a way of copying what exists but it is not. It is using elements from a time. I am not here to reproduce a medina,” he says. “You cannot reproduce what already exists.”
The interior exhibition spaces, comprising museum galleries, temporary exhibition spaces and the Children’s Museum, make up 8,600sqm. Also designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, the floors, walls and ceiling surfaces of the museum galleries reinforce the palatial dimensions of Louvre Abu Dhabi. The floor paving is made of stone modules framed in bronze. Throughout the galleries, the choice of stone responds to the period of the artworks on show. The walls provide hanging flexibility: while all subsidiary equipment can be concealed within special slots on the walls.
Filtered natural light can be present in all galleries, either from lateral windows with views onto the surrounding environment or through zenithal lighting. This involves the use of glass mirrors to capture sunlight and direct it into the gallery spaces while also scattering rays to avoid glare.
The display cases incorporate state-of-the-art materials and have been designed to adapt flexibly to the rotation artworks on display — these were specifically designed by Meyvaert in Ghent, Belgium, for Louvre Abu Dhabi.
In addition to the museum, Nouvel was also involved in the museum’s programme. The idea of “being on a journey” is present throughout the interior spaces of the galleries, where names of countries and cities adorn the floor in native languages, indicative of visitors arriving on the shore of Abu Dhabi to begin a path of discovery into various civilisations. The idea is that visitors arrive at the beginning of the gallery space like sailors arriving on the shores of Abu Dhabi, explains Jean-Francios Charnier, the scientific director of Agence France-Museums.
“The geometrical lines on the walls and the floor of the galleries reference maritime charts that helped sailors navigate their journey across seas. Visually, the lines also connect with the structure of the dome as well as being a reflection of geometry, which references mathematics in Islamic art and connects with the symbolism of location,” he adds.
Designed by Nouvel, the restaurant is made up of modular compartments. The intricate interior design takes inspiration from Arabic patterns, which have been engraved into Corian panels. The furniture complements the light-filled interiors as well as the panoramic sea view. Seven bespoke chandeliers hang over the seven VIP tables. For the museum cafe, Nouvel’s design is inspired by the Op Art (optical art) movement of the 1960s. From certain positions, the cafe seems entirely monochromatic (white), while from others, full of colour, like an abstracted reflection of the local maritime environment and port, opposite the museum. The floors, walls, ceilings and furniture have been designed specifically for the site by Ateliers Jean Nouvel.
Commenting on the role of architecture in inventing as well as exploring history and context (where buildings are designed specifically for a site), he says, “Architecture is a way to enlarge the world, to make the world more complex. If you do the same thing everywhere, everywhere in the world will be the same. You have to preserve the pleasure of travelling, the pleasure of history, the threads of stories, the attitudes, traditions towards nature, and history which has marked cities with the monuments that are already present. All places have the right to artistic exploration that allows them to build and evolve. It should be forbidden to build a place if there are no proposals at the level of invention and exploration.”