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Prof. Andrea Lauria is an Italian museologist graduated from Rome’s Accademy of fine arts. He also holds a History of Art degree from University di Roma Tre in Rome. Andrea Lauria lectures a Masters course in museology at Rome’s Universities Tor Vergata and American Temple University (Rome Campus). In 2020 he has become a published author of the book: “From the Renaissance studiolo to the contemporary museum” which is also his course manual. Lauria’s field of research is the phenomenon of hypermuseums with special attention to the Arabian countries in comparison with the western world.
In my previous article in my new column ‘From across Italy to the world’ I have explained how in recent years several Arab countries embraced the hyper-museums, thanks to the media power, and then decided to build these edifices on their territories. One of the first Gulf countries that invested a lot of money to build these huge museum centers to compete with the prestigious westerner hyper-museums, like the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (1997) or the L.V. foundation (2014) in Paris, France, is the United Arab Emirates that built the beautiful Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Also known as the Museum of Civilizations, the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Louvre A.D.) was inaugurated in November 2017 on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. Its name is derived from the 30 years agreement, signed in March 2007, between France and the Emirates which allowed it to use the Louvre trademark by Louvre Abu Dhabi, together with artworks on loan from the Louvre in Paris and 12 other prestigious French museums. However during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the UAE, the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum’s license was extended until 2047.
The Louvre A.D. is an extraordinary example of a hyper-museum having all the standards of Western hyper-museums. The formal and aesthetic choices of Louvre A.D. resembles works of sculpture more than a building. The impressive and spectacular volumes of the museum are meant to amaze the visitors. The museum was designed by the famous international Archi star Jean Nouvel (Fumel, 1945), winner of several important awards such as the Pritzker Prize in 2008. Nouvel has designed many famous architectural projects such as La Torre Glòries (2005) in Barcelona, Spain, the National Museum of Qatar (2019), Doha, Qatar and many others. Built on an area of approximately 24,000 m2 (260,000 sq ft), with 8,000 m2 (86,000 sq ft) of galleries, Louvre A. D has the honor of being the largest art museum in the Arabian peninsula.
The new National Museum of Qatar is a 40,000 m2 building and 350 m. long but is a natural history museum so this keeps the Louvre A.D. the largest Art museum on the Arabian Peninsula. What is unique and unthinkable about the museum in the western world is its location which was a plain desert, like most of the territory prior to the real estate development which changed the face of the Emirate to transform it into a modern city.
Nouvel’s interventions have been very intrusive as the goal was to change the face of the territory with spectacular urban constructions. The museum is located on an artificial peninsula, designed and created specifically to host it. This intervention appears very invasive on the surrounding territory. Indeed, this peninsula modified the profile of Saadiyat Island, the natural coasts of which have been enlarged by the peninsula.
The choice to build this artificial peninsula to host the Louvre A.D. was not only an aesthetic choice, but a practical one too. Set on a peninsula, the museum is surrounded by the sea and it benefits from the fresh sea breeze, helping the museum to mitigate the typically high temperatures of the location.
The peninsula looks like a suspended platform floating on water. The architect wanted the museum to be an open space connected with the city, without barriers or obstacles. In order to facilitate this link with the city, an evocative garden with native and foreign plants was created in front of the museum peninsula. This garden makes access to the peninsula more charming and it tempers the noise of the city, making the area quiet and all the more pleasant to visit.
Jean Nouvel showed his great ability in understanding this territory and the entire country when he built this spectacular hypermuseum. The architect perfectly reinterpreted not only the local architecture and all its aesthetic features, but also the desert landscape which is this country’s true identity.
The Louvre A.D. has three access points: from the south by the pedestrian bridge, from the north east via a bridge used to unload goods and finally by sea, from the Gulf and from Khor Laffan, a sort of Grand Canal which will be used in a future project to transform Saadiyat Island into a Middle Eastern Venice. Once on the peninsula and through security, there is the ticket office, cloak-room, information point and other service areas that one finds in all hyper-museums like the children’s museum, the galleries for temporary exhibitions, the cafeteria and the restaurant, and the auditorium.
If for the external spaces and gardens Nouvel seeks dialogue with the desert territory for the inside design of the museum building the architect drew inspiration from local traditional architecture. The museum is composed of more than 50 white buildings, which are inspired by Arab medinas: typical Arab old-city quarters where houses, markets and squares are all blended together into a unique and charming effect.
The separate buildings are all located around a large body of water and connected to each other by a large internal atrium. The galleries are linked by glass passages connected one to another and with the pools of water. The sun shines and reflects on the water, creating an almost dreamlike atmosphere in the museum. The enormous dome that covers the museum is its most original and symbolic feature. The dome has a diameter of about 180m and is 120m long.
The Exhibition Hall has a surface area of 67x47x13m. Every part within the museum boasts of intentional gargantuan dimensions, in perfect Emirati style. The large dome which covers the entire museum has a dual function: it formally groups together all the different buildings that make up the museum and it mitigates the high temperatures. The dome filters the rays of sunshine, which are very hot in this territory, reducing their energy and the heat within the museum.
Seen from above, the dome resembles a perforated shell. However, despite its colossal dimensions, it is not particularly striking from an aesthetic point of view. What is surprising in the dome designed by Jean Nouvel is its internal effect which reveals a unique charm and a remarkable and particularly refined aesthetic effect. The dome generates an atmospheric internal light effect which is inspired by the palms of the Arabian Desert. Once within the museum, if you look at the ceiling, you really have the sensation that you are looking at the sun filtered by the palms.
Called “a rain of light” by its creator, the sun’s beams filter through the dome resembling rain in the large room below, creating a powerful effect and seducing those who are struck by them or who watch them rain from the top of the dome. Jean Nouvel’s project, the intention of which is to reestablish contact and dialogue with local traditions and culture through his contemporary re-interpretation, generates an extraordinary building with great charm by creating a dreamlike space. Rather than a building, the Louvre A.D. resembles an Arab city or village immersed in an oasis with rich vegetation that conceals its architecture, and which is slowly discovered by entering and traversing it.
Its position on the peninsula, stretching towards the sea, not only increases its splendour but also its exposure to light and reflections from the sea, making the Louvre A.D. complex not only a building but also a unique place. The ambitious architectural project reflects the goal of the Louvre A.D., namely to become a link between the West, the Middle East and the East, by offering a place in the form of a museum, where all the world’s art can be reunited. Based on the assumption that the history of human creativity has neither limits nor time, but that it has the same origin and foundations, the museum reunites Western, Middle-Eastern and Eastern masterpieces.
The works of art are mixed within the museum, divided in the galleries in chronological order, instead of being divided according to their place of origin. The aim is to encourage and stimulate a comparison and a dialogue between the different cultures. Obviously no one really visits the Louvre Abu Dhabi to see the loans from the Louvre in Paris which makes sense to visit in France not only because it is their original location but also because the collection is more complete there.
What matters here is the museological concept behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi exhibition which offers a comparison of works of art from different cultures, continents and artistic traditions including the Western one represented by the loans from the original Louvre in Paris and other French museums. The Louvre A.D. is part of an ambitious project which aims to transform Saadiyat Island into the largest museum center of the world.
The goal of the museum, or better still the goal of the Middle Eastern State administration is not only to become a bridge between West and East but also to achieve a leading role in the cultural and artistic world within the Arabian Peninsula. The U.A.E. ambition is to insert itself into the global art system, becoming an active and authoritative player, and to rework the image of the country, from exporter of oil to exporter and pro-motor of art and culture. In order to show their ambition, Abu Dhabi cleverly chose to focus on the attractive strength of the hyper-museum and its substantial media coverage. A museum like the Louvre A.D. can guarantee this result by attracting a different type of visitor from all over the world who is responsive to art and culture.
The Louvre A.D. is just the first museums of an impressive cultural project, where there are plans to create several spectacular museums on Saadiyat Island. The project includes the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry, which will be the largest Guggenheim of the world, exhibiting contemporary works together with masterpieces from the Guggenheim Foundation, the museum is still under construction. The other planned museum are the Sheikh il Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster, dedicated to the history of the country, and especially to Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The other museums which are still under development are the Visual Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid and the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando.
Project of the Cultural island, Louvre A.D. the other planed museums, Guggheineim A.D. on the left, Visual Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid on the right behind the Lovre A.D. and in the center of the photo at the bottom the Sheikh il Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster. With the quality and fame of the architects involved and with the likely beauty and spectacular nature of the museums that will be built by them on Saadiyat Island, they will not only be in competition with all the Western hyper-museums but will surpass them with authority. This is the reason why a famous international Archistar have been chosen. Jean Nouvel has achieved a spectacular museum center, his iconic Louvre Abu Dhabi influences aesthetically and conceptually not only the architecture of the entire Middle East but will influence also the architecture of future museums all over the world.
By Andrea Lauria