Site visit: Louvre Abu Dhabi

Gavin Gibbon visits the cultural icon being built in Abu Dhabi

The total canopy weight of the dome is 12,000 tonnes.
The total canopy weight of the dome is 12,000 tonnes.

“The architect’s vision is for the museum to be floating in the water and it’s the engineer’s job to make sure it doesn’t float out to sea,” says Peter Armstrong, a project manager at US construction management firm Turner Construction.

This is just one of the many challenges surrounding the masterpiece that is The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which has been designed as a “seemingly floating dome structure” on the Emirate’s Saadiyat Island.

And Armstrong makes a good point. Some 15 months after the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) awarded a $653mn (AED2.4bn) contract to an Arabtec-led joint venture with Spanish giant Constructora San Jose and the Abu Dhabi arm of Saudi Oger – and around 12 months after work started on site – it would be a shame to see it drift out into the Arabian Gulf.

Armstrong told Construction Week: “He (the engineer) has to install tension piles that hold the structure down below the sea level, and then the perimeter walls constructed deep below the sea level that create this island which will be in place for many years.

“This is a significant challenge. There’s a lot of detail on constructing the concrete works and foundations.”

And so the 120,000m3 of concrete poured so far, the intricately assembled steel segments – weighing between 30 to 70 tonnes each – which make up the museum’s prominent dome, the double membrane of waterproofing painstakingly laid on the basement levels and the 10mn dedicated man hours so far, have not been in vain.

Armstrong added: “A temporary platform was created so the museum could be built on dry ground and in the future that will be excavated to allow the sea to come up.

“Right now, it doesn’t look like an island, but a year from now, the contractor will start digging away the temporary shoreline to reveal the island.”

It is no wonder Armstrong describes this as a “once-in-a-lifetime development”. And this from a man who has spent 16 years in the Middle East, working on projects such as the Burj Khalifa and UAE’s Central Bank.

His career has been all about embracing challenges, ever since graduating as a structural engineer from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

“When I graduated from university, I had an interest in working on very large projects and one of the first projects I worked on was a very large car plant in Canada,” he said.

“At that same time, the company I was working for in Toronto, purchased a local architect in Abu Dhabi and they announced over the PA that if anyone was interested in going to work in the new office in Abu Dhabi, come to the front and sign up. I rushed to the front of the line but when I looked around out of the 300 staff I was the only one standing there.

“Right away I was on the plane with my backpack and I came to the UAE. Sixteen years later, the last time I moved, I had three truckloads of things; I have a wife and three children, two of them were born over here in Abu Dhabi, and I’ve really made it my home.”

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, scheduled for completion in 2015, is earmarked to become one of three premier cultural institutions in the heart of the Saadiyat Cultural District.

Designed by Pritzker-Prize winning architect Jean Nouvel, it will encompass 9,200m2 of art galleries. The 6,681m2 Permanent Gallery will house the museum’s permanent collection, taking the visitor through a universal journey from the most ancient to contemporary through art works from different civilisations.

The Temporary Gallery will be a dedicated space of 2,364m2 presenting temporary exhibitions.

Just a year after mobilisation on the ground, TDIC announced last month that the largest of the permanent galleries was complete and 90% of work on the galleries is finished.

The majority of the concrete work for the museum’s basement levels has been completed, including underground buildings, such as the energy centre that houses pumps, generators, transformers, and similar building elements, and the security screening facility – a highly secure, seven metre-deep basement through which authorised vehicles will transport the artwork for the museum.

Armstrong said: “This isn’t a typical construction project where we would see a lot of repetition. Everything that the contractor is doing, at least from the concrete works, is unique.

“Every time he moves, the formwork changes and he has to start over again. He’s doing this in a very tight construction programme so he’s got a large crew of people working on formwork and reinforced steel, and every single day it’s a unique activity.

“He has progressed extremely well, doing over 120,000m3 of concrete in 11 months.

“The waterproofing membrane has also posed challenges because there’s a lot of intricacies with the footprint of the building and a lot of corners that need to have special details on waterproofing.

“We have a double water-proofing membrane on here, which is fairly unique, and that offers multiple layers of additional protection.”

An added reason for the extraordinary emphasis on absolute water tightness on the Louvre project is that its basement levels will be used to store the artwork under conditions with precisely-controlled temperatures and levels of humidity.

These details are under the strict surveillance of the Agence France-Muséums, which was appointed by the French Government to ensure the suitability of the facility for the artwork.

But if the basement is impressive, then the roof of this extraordinary structure – or the iconic dome – is mind-blowing.

The geometric lace dome reflects the interlaced palm leaves traditionally used as roofing material in the Emirates, resulting in an enchanting ‘rain of light’.

Its complex pattern is the result of the same geometric design, repeated at various sizes and angles in eight different layers, four external and four internal – an arrangement that gives the dome a lattice-like and delicate form.

Nouvel said: “I wanted this building to mirror a protected territory that belongs to the Arab world and this geography.”

 

The first segment of the dome was placed into position on site in December last year.

In total, the dome is 180-metres long (the length of two football pitches). It will have a total weight of 12,000 tonnes – broken down into the steel structure, weighing 7,000 tonnes (almost as much as the Eiffel Tower), and a further 5,000 tonnes of aluminium cladding.

Its 85 segments are assembled on the museum’s construction site prior to being lifted into place on top of 120 temporary support towers by a specially-commissioned crane. Once complete, that number will reduce to just four permanent piers, each 125m apart.

A 600-tonne capacity crane is being used to construct the sections of the dome closest to the outside edge. However, once construction on the centre of the dome starts, a 1,600-tonne plus capacity crane – which stands 230m tall and needed 90 trucks to bring it to site – will be used to allow for assembly.

The dome is currently 20% complete, but with a maximum of 800 workers involved in its construction, the structure is on schedule to be in place by September this year. The museum is pencilled to open its doors in 19 months’ time.

“A year from now the project will look like it’s finished, but there’s a significant amount of work to be done inside. We need to do the finishes, testing and commissioning. That is a very complex activity, but for a project like a museum, this is extremely important,” said Armstrong.

Louvre Abu Dhabi will receive exhibits from French museums, including: Musee d’Orsay, Musee du Quai Branly, Centre Pompidou, as well as six other French institutions and the world-famous Musee du Louvre, founded in 1793.

Following on from construction of The Louvre is the Zayed National Museum, which is due to open in 2016; and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi due to open in 2017. These have been designed respectively by fellow Pritzker-prize winning architects Sir Norman Foster and Frank Gehry.

HE Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi, director general, TCA Abu Dhabi, said: “I even hesitate to describe this initiative as a ‘project’ or ‘development’, as the long-term goals of the cultural district will be limitless and ongoing.

“The most essential aspect is what will occur inside the museums once the doors are open to the public.

“If we are successful in laying this groundwork, these new cultural entities will take on organic lives of their own as current and future generations interact with and build upon their educational assets. In this sense, our work will never be finished.”

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