Louvre connection

Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel is bringing the first offshoot of France's famous museum to the Gulf.

Masterplan of the Louvre project.
Masterplan of the Louvre project.

Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel is bringing the first offshoot of France's most famous museum to the Gulf. James Boley investigates the art of designing the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Louvre in Paris, France, is probably the most frequently name-dropped museum in the world.

It's the home of the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and for those more schooled in pop culture than high culture, it's also the setting for some of the dramatic events in Dan Brown's popular novel The Da Vinci Code.

Small wonder then, that when Abu Dhabi's ambitious plans for a cultural district on Saadiyat Island were floated, establishing an art museum of the Louvre's pedigree was high on the list.

Helping realise the dream is Jean Nouvel, who might be considered by some to be the perfect choice for a project that blends both Arabic and French culture.

The French Pritzker Prize winner first appeared on the global stage in 1981 with his blocky rationalist design for Paris's Arab World Institute.

Combining his understanding of Islamic architecture with his French background, Jean Nouvel has developed a striking design for an Arabian version of this most iconic of French museums.

Creating the dome

Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of the building for the visitor is its distinctive 183m diameter dome.

The exterior appearance seems almost reminiscent of a futuristic spacecraft, a visible impression ironically supported by the dome's invisible support.

It has been designed to appear as if floating above the building itself. This has proved to be one of the major challenges for the team and indeed presents probably the great challenge of the entire project, admits Hala Wardé, partner at Ateliers Jean Nouvel (AJN).

"The dome is the major challenge of the design. It is exceptionally large and shallow," she says.

Currently, the dome is planned to be placed atop four or five support pillars-the final number has yet to be decided.

According to Tim Page, project director at project engineers Buro Happold, even on a five-point scheme, the largest span between pillars will be 130 metres.

Apparently, the biggest challenge is to limit deflection by creating stiffness in the dome structure, which normally requires depth of structure.

"We are now at a stage where we can be sure that we can achieve the architectural profile of the dome and are now looking further into detail."

The structure's other-worldly sensation is perpetuated by the role the dome plays in creating emotions inside the building. "This micro-city requires a micro-climate that will give the visitor a feeling of entering a different world," explains Jean Nouvel.

Despite the seemingly different world created by the massive structure, it is inspired by the cultural traditions of the region and helps firmly plant the Louvre Abu Dhabi within the Arabian cultural context.

"It is a modern interpretation of one of the major symbols of Arabic architecture," explains Wardé.

The Arabian sensation continues beneath the dome as well.

"[The dome] is made of a web of different patterns interlaced into a translucent ceiling which lets a diffuse, magical light come through in the best tradition of great Arabian architecture," says Nouvel.

The early plan for the new museum consists of a collection of exhibition buildings, all of which wind and recess beneath the dome.

"The layout of the buildings is that of a collection of cubic and rectangular buildings, modelled on the traditional Arab souks," says Page.

Nouvel's design makes the external areas of the museum more pleasant for visitors, since souk design has always been based around creating cool pockets of shade and offering refuge from the sun.

It also means that spaces between buildings can be used to exhibit the slightly more durable artworks such as statues and sculptures.

Shading also reduces overall solar gain-and thus, the cooling load demanded by the buildings beneath the dome-which reduces the project's carbon footprint and boosts its overall sustainability.

Although the project was not designed to achieve a specific environmental certification, according to Page: "the design will be carried out to the spirit of the US Green Building Council's LEED rating system."

Exact details are still being finalised but photovoltaic panels, wind power and a possible seawater cooling system are all being considered.

Protecting paintings

Central to the Louvre's design is how it balances form with function. The Louvre's artistic form has to deal with the practicalities of its function of a museum.

While the most famous of the Louvre's exhibitions, the Mona Lisa, will never leave its Paris home, part of the lending agreement with the museum includes access to much of the French museum's priceless collection of paintings, sculptures and sketches.

Which raises a vital question: How do you design a home for priceless, fragile canvases that will protect them from the scorching temperatures, dust and searing humidity of the GCC?

As is appropriate for a project which will ultimately provide education and enlightenment to millions, the team from AJN has learnt from experts how best to create a protective museum.

"We work very closely with preventive conservation experts to help us define and propose the best conditions for artworks," explains Wardé. "We work together with them on the layout for delivery, transport, workshops, storage, including the galleries and art display."

Initial artwork for the Abu Dhabi museum will be provided by the Agence France-Muséums (AFM), an organisation that represents 12 of the most famous museums in France, including the Louvre and the Quai Branly Museum-also designed by Jean Nouvel.

As a cultural heavyweight in France, it should come as no surprise that AFM provided very specific details about what facilities must be included in a Louvre-branded project.

"AFM has defined very strict conditions for the storage and maintenance of artwork. They must be maintained at all times," explains Page.

The strict conditions have meant that preliminary designs for the new museum have had to be re-evaluated. The original intention was to store off-display art in underground vaults.

However, the Louvre Abu Dhabi occupies a spot on the shores of Saadiyat Island, meaning that underground storage would result in works being held below the water table.

AFM's policy is that all artwork must be stored above the high water mark. "We have been through a process with the agency team and described to them how we could store art in carefully controlled, moisture free and flood-free conditions below water level," says Page.

"But their policy has been to lift such storage areas above flood level. They have accepted our technical presentation but stand by the policy of storage above flood level-and this is accepted by the team."

As a result, artwork will now be located at a higher level, and will be connected to the rest of the museum through a series of subterranean tunnels.

"We provide dedicated access, and air conditioned tunnels connecting safely the galleries to all the back of house. These spaces are totally protected from the water, being all above sea level," says Wardé.

Cultural ambitions

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is an extremely ambitious project.

The term 'icon' is bandied about almost carelessly throughout the region, but Jean Nouvel's design is one of the select few buildings in the region where the term could be legitimately applied.

"It will contribute to making this place a real cultural destination in the world," enthuses Wardé.

"The architecture must contribute to this major event. It is therefore particularly interesting to inscribe our project in what will become the architecture at the beginning of the 21st century."

The Louvre is regarded as one of the greatest art museums in the world. Its new home in Abu Dhabi is more than just an exhibition space-it's an exhibit in its own right.

Project factfile

Architects: Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Client: TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company)

Engineers: Buro Happold

Partner Architect: Hala Wardé

Usable Floor Area: 17,000m2

Gross Floor Area: 26,000m2

Architectural Design Competition: 2007

Design Commencement: Jan 2008

Concept Stage complete: May 2008 - validation of conceptual design

Schematic Design complete: Oct 2008 - resolution of outline design

Construction (shell and core) Completion: 2012

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