Site visit: The Louvre Abu Dhabi

New museum is helping to transform the oil-rich Emirate of Abu Dhabi

A lattice of steel was built to support the roof structure.
A lattice of steel was built to support the roof structure.

A new Louvre museum is emerging on reclaimed land on the edge of the Arabian Gulf. Dean Irvine of CNN says this is one of a number of architectural mega-projects transforming countries in the Middle East.

On an early summer morning, downtown Abu Dhabi doesn’t so much shimmer in the desert heat as swelter. In near-100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), skyscrapers set back from the city’s corniche loom over the edge of the Persian Gulf, modern monuments to the Emirate’s oil-fuelled wealth.

If the gleaming buildings represent the transformation of the United Arab Emirates over the last 50 years, what’s emerging just a ten-minute drive away on Saadiyat Island is a vision of what the Gulf state hopes will be a marker for its future.

Today, it’s mostly a vast construction site – nothing new for this booming country – but covering 27 square miles, the island is steadily being transformed into a cultural hub with high-end resorts and homes that the government hopes will make the world sit up and take notice.

Home already to a campus for New York University, it will soon be joined by three major international museums, including what will be the world’s largest Guggenheim museum (designed by Frank Gehry), and, opening next year, a new Louvre.

Designs by architects Ateliers Jean Nouvel suggest the Louvre structure will look every bit as eye-catching as anything displayed inside it.

Yet the setting couldn’t be more different from the heart of Paris, where the world’s most-visited museum has stood for centuries.

On partly reclaimed-land jutting into emerald waters, eight cranes tower over the main structure, where each day thousands of construction workers and 250 managers and architects are racing to complete the building for a December 2015 opening.

Amer Kharbush, the project manager from Turner Construction, is responsible for marshalling the effort to keep the construction on track.

Stepping out of an air-conditioned SUV onto the site, the UAE resident by way of Florida takes stock of what they’ve achieved since work began in January 2013.

“This is unique,” he says, proudly surveying the half-completed structure.

“The teamwork, from the contractors to the engineers: People really want this job to be built. I mean, how many Louvres do you get to build in a lifetime?”

One every 800 years or so seems the average, with the new Abu Dhabi Louvre the result of an intergovernmental deal made between France and the UAE in 2007.

For a reported $520mn, the venerable Louvre agreed to attach its name to a new museum in the UAE, as well as agreeing the loan of artwork and special exhibitions, and offering management advice from Paris. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, will also have its own permanent collection, which is being purchased by the government at great expense.

The museum’s authorities are tight-lipped about budgets and what is being bought, but the collection will span the globe and ages, from the birth of civilisation all the way to contemporary art. So far, major acquisitions include Paul Gauguin’s “Breton Boys Wrestling,” a 3,000-year-old Middle Eastern gold bracelet and contemporary works by American painter Cy Twombly.

Adding to the permanent collection will be loans from the Louvre in Paris as well as eleven other French cultural heavyweights, including the Musée d’Orsay, which houses the world’s largest collection of impressionist paintings, and the Pompidou Centre’s Musée National d’Art Moderne, second only to New York’s MOMA for its number of pieces of
modern art.

At the time, the intergovernmental deal (part of a larger $1.3bn agreement with France’s cultural authority, Agence France-Museums) whipped up plenty of controversy in France. Opponents to it complained that the country’s unique culture was being diminished, sold and exploited for economic and political gain.

Seven years later, any remaining complaints would be drowned out by the almost-constant sound of bolting and welding coming from inside the super-sized structure.

Back in Kharbush’s office in the nearby nerve centre for the project, a sign behind his desk reveals his attitude and approach to its construction.

It reads: “Except in the middle of a battlefield, nowhere must men coordinate the movement of other men and all materials in the midst of such chaos, with such limited certainty of present facts and future occurrences, as a huge construction project.”

Those creating the first Louvre museum for centuries might feel the weight of history upon them, but the modern challenges are just as sizeable for Kharbush and co.

The finished museum will really be 47 buildings made to look like one, with no two walls the same. Its most striking feature will be a vast steel dome that will create a “rain of light” effect on the visitors walking below. Through a latticework, the roof will be pierced by sunlight, illuminating areas below, reminiscent of the dappled light of semi-covered traditional Arab souks.

Building the roof takes 85 unique substantial elements, each weighing up to 75 tons and covered by eight layers
of cladding.

The steel content of the dome alone weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower, while the cladding on the 180-metre-diameter structure will help tip the scales at 12,000 tons.

“When we lifted the first piece of the dome, it was like a celebration,” says Kharbush.

“Of course it was a milestone, but it took a couple of weeks to take that first piece and place it. The first piece is the most important.”

While a forest of steel supporting structures had filled the space under the dome, they have been removed as the roof has completed. The enormous flying-saucer-shaped dome has become airborne: lifted up as one piece by giant cranes to be placed on just four huge concrete piers.

The one-off nature of the project is reflected elsewhere in the structure: No two of the 4,000 concrete panels covering the building are the same.

Each has to be made individually and “cured” with enhancing chemicals for 28 days.

“You can’t have any of them out by a millimetre,” says Kharbush.

“You’ve got 145,000m3 of concrete, over 7,000 tons of steel, 5,000 tons of cladding…. you look at this thing and it’s massive; it’s beautiful.”

If the beauty for the engineering team often lies in the unseen details, ten architects from Jean Nouvel’s firm are on site to ensure the building stays exactly to the specified design.

Pritzker Prize-winner Nouvel initially designed the building simply as a classical art museum.

“I found it to be a wonderful coincidence that it was to be the Louvre and not any other international museum,” says Nouvel.

“I was proud to be, in a way, ‘the architect of the Louvre’.”

“Above all, I wanted to ensure that this museum belongs to local, Arab, Islamic cultural heritage by employing symbols such as the domes or other archetypes. I also took into account the local climate.”

The daily routine for architects involves morning meetings with the contractors who are in charge of each element of the structure. The architects are presented with drawings of what is being done to ensure there are no mistakes or deviations from the client-approved plans.

From paint and light bulbs to concrete panels, nearly every part of the museum is carefully tested, much of it in a specially built onsite test centre, a mini version of the finished building, itself seven stories tall and located just a few hundred metres from the main construction site.

“The site work is extremely dense,” says Paris-based Hala Warde, the lead architect from Ateliers Jean Nouvel, who heads the team. As well as the structure, she and her team have designed many of the features within the museum, including furniture and fixtures.

That includes the window blinds, skirting boards and different wall finishes.

“What’s taking so much of our time is working on a mock-up that captures every little detail that we have within the building,” she said.

When the museum is complete, a large part of the land surrounding the site will be flooded, leaving the structure seemingly floating in the sparkling waters of the Gulf, while a number of tidal pools will be created “inside” the building, under cover of the vast dome.

Visitors will be able to stroll through the gallery and enjoy a view from the café across the water towards the other museums that will take shape on the island, yet few will have an inkling of what will be below their feet.

“This is really just the tip of the iceberg,” says Kharbush of the gallery space. “There’s a city under here, of tunnels, bathrooms, kitchens; that’s what’ll keep it alive.”

While out of sight, this subterranean labyrinth, nine metres below sea level, is getting just as much careful attention from the builders as the eye-popping architectural elements above.

“Water is even worse than fire in a museum,” says Kharbush. “No water is coming into this building, ever!”
To ensure the building is watertight, two layers of high-tech waterproofing have been tested to the limits.

There are failsafes in place, too, should a leak appear. Two layers of rubber that expand on contact with water have been built in, while between the two outer waterproof membranes there is a miniscule chamber that can be injected with grout via a system of pipes and electronically controlled hoses. The whole system is wired up so a leak can be located and fixed as soon as it springs.

The green covering, just millimetres thick, will clad the 760 underwater panels of the building, while test panels were submerged for months to ensure that they were fit for purpose.

Engineers have also constructed off-shore breakwaters to lessen the power of the waves that will lap against the building and bring water into the museum’s series of channels, inspired by traditional Arab “falaj” water systems.
If avoiding damage to the pieces of irreplaceable art is essential, so too is security.

Before more high-tech measures are wired in to protect the art from any attempted heists, security starts with the design of the underground tunnels.

Yet the secrecy surrounding the security measures is so tight that only a handful of people working on the project know anything about it.

“The tunnels will link all the museums. It’s a security strategy and there’s only two or three on the site who know about (the security set-up) and they’ve each signed a non-disclosure agreement.”

Which means Al Hammadi can’t say any more about it, although others working on the project suggest that even he is probably only party to some, not all, of the security measures, from the tunnels to the surveillance cameras and alarms, being worked into the building.

If the anti-theft measures will be unseen, currently most of the construction workers are, too. The majority of the work is going on inside the structure.

During summer months, work outside stops during the hottest hours from 11am to 3pm, when temperatures soar above 118 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius).

Aside from the break, construction continues around the clock, with shift work the norm, seven days a week aside from Friday afternoons to accommodate the Muslim observance of Friday prayers.

When the “finishing” part of the Louvre’s construction begins, around 7,000 labourers will work on site.

Hailing mainly from countries across south Asia, the working conditions of the men who physically create the big and bold markers of the 21st century have long been in the spotlight.

The reports earlier in 2014 of labour abuses during the construction of the nearby campus for New York University (NYU) are being investigated by the UAE government via an independent investigation firm.

In a statement to the NYU community after the New York Times report about working conditions, university president, John Sexton, called workers’ treatment “if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable,” and “out of line with the labour standards we deliberately set for those constructing the ‘turn-key’ campus being built for us on Saadiyat Island and inconsistent with what we understood to be happening on the ground for those workers.”

The statement goes on to say: “We will be working with our Abu Dhabi partners to investigate these reports vigorously.”

There have not been any allegations of labour abuses made against the Louvre.

When asked about the treatment of workers, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the government-backed master planner and developer of all the projects on Saadiyat Island, said it takes worker welfare
very seriously.

It’s keen to point out that an Employment Practices Policy that goes beyond those mandated by UAE law and applies to all projects on Saadiyat Island has been in place since 2009, while it commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to run an independent audit on working and living conditions on Saadiyat Island.

The report in 2013 highlighted improvements, but still found cases of workers paying recruitment fees and of some having their passports confiscated for months, in contravention of the UAE’s labour laws.

There are hundreds of companies across the Middle East involved in the supply and hiring of migrant workers. From fixers in migrant workers’ home countries who assist them in finding jobs, to contractors and sub-contractors at their destination, the process can be complex and involve numerous parties.

Welfare groups like Human Rights Watch often highlight the potential for abuse where “kafala” – a system of employment whereby a foreign worker must be sponsored by a local citizen or employer – is used. The system places legal responsibility for employees with the employer.

It has been criticised for instilling employers with a sense of “ownership” and leaving workers with little chance to change jobs or return home. There have been cases where some employers ignore the law, withhold wages and confiscate workers’ passports.

For Kharbush, safety on the site is always the most important factor. As well as ensuring best practice in that regard, every hour to 90 minutes the workers take a ten-minute water break.

During the punishing heat of summer, many take refuge from the scorching sun and humidity at rest areas and sit among the freshly dried concrete, where in 15 months, priceless art works will take their place.

Kharbush remains focused on the all-consuming job that will keep him occupied until the end of 2015. The recently-delivered fleet of “crawler cranes” – each able to lift 1,600 tons and which take 70 trucks to move – are the latest thing to excite him about the project. To add another superlative, they’re the largest of their kind in the world and have been used to lift the dome as a single piece.

But even among the ceaseless activity, Kharbush can find a few moments for reflection and absorb the enormity of this once-in-a-lifetime project

“This is one of the favourite parts of the project for me,” he says, standing on the bare concrete of what will become the museum’s café.

“People when they come are going to look at the view from here, but you’ll be nearest to the dome when it’s finished. For us engineers who are actually part of the project, we know what it took to construct this and we get a special feeling”.

“The entire world is looking at this job when it’s done, it’s going to be everywhere. So everything about it just has to be immaculate.”

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