A light rain predicted for Saadiyat Island

TDIC tests out Louvre Abu Dhabi dome

Jean Nouvel tests out the Louvre Abu Dhabi's dome
Jean Nouvel tests out the Louvre Abu Dhabi's dome

Saadiyat Island recently played host to Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of TDIC, Pritzker Prize-winner Jean Nouvel, support staff from Ateliers Jean Nouvel, directors from Buro Happold and Agence France-Museums and climate engineers TransSolar at the future site of Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The collection of distinguished officials, architects and engineers were on site to conduct lighting tests to determine the exact way in which beams of light will filter through the building’s signature perforated aluminium dome.

“The dome is the largest element in the project and we want to test its functionality and manageability,” explained Felix Reinberg, project director of The Cultural District at TDIC.

To that end, a six-metre prototype of the dome has been installed on Saadiyat Island for the sole purpose of testing the play of light and shadow on the site—or, the “Rain of Light” concept—prior to fabrication of the final structure.

According to Nouvel’s design statement, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was designed as a complex of pavilions, plazas, alleyways and canals, evoking the image of a city floating on the sea.

“Hovering over the complex will be a form inspired by traditional Arabic architecture—a vast, shallow dome or cupola—180 metres (590 feet) in diameter—perforated with interlaced patterns so that a magical, diffused light will filter through,” explained Nouvel. "The cupola will create the effect of the light in the souk, when you play with different superposition of different images and enrich the interiors.”

Engineering the dome

While the finished dome will undoubtedly convey the elegance and weightlessness being sought, as Tim Page, project engineer and associate director of Buro Happold UK explains, the final product will belie the complexity of its realisation.

“What people don’t realise is that the dome represents a web of interlaced aluminium panels, tubes and bars, which is five and a half metres deep and 180 metres in diameter,” explained Page. “To achieve the design intent, we began with overlapping rectilinear patterns or, essentially, the structural version of a tartan cloth. We then began to remove the non-critical patterns to achieve the correct filtering of light.”

To achieve the finishing touches, Page and his team called upon mathematical formulae to ensure that everything was perfect. “Each layer has been mathematically matched up with those above and below it to achieve an exact size and shape for each dapple of light. It’s been a hugely collaborative effort—especially in terms of patternization.”

A protective dome

While the UAE enjoys sunny, dry weather for 90% of the year (320 days), the risk of endangering any of the priceless artworks within the Louvre galleries was simply unacceptable. To that end, Matthias Schuler, adjunct professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and managing director of climate engineering firm TransSolar, has accounted for everything.

“We began with nine different dome designs,” explained Schuler. “[Jean Nouvel] wanted the feeling of the connection between inside and outside.”

For the rare rainy day in Abu Dhabi, Schuler is prepared. “The rain will not affect the museum,” he explained. “To ensure that people won't get wet in the walking spaces between the galleries, there will be a transparent film between the layers of the dome to ensure that it does not rain in these areas. There will also be a drainage system hidden at the edge of the dome.”

After stalking back and forth through the prototype with light metre in hand, Schuler also made an important discovery. “Initially we thought the interior walls should be marble. After testing, we realised that because of its properties, marble walls refract an enormous amount of light onto the floor,” he explained.

He continued: “That amount of light creates a reflection that is harsh on the eyes and detracts from the artwork. The walls will be white, but white matte. We’ll probably use a high-density ductile concrete for the interior walls.”

Not only is Schuler unfazed by the elements of sun and rain, but in terms of accentuating the ‘Rain of Light’, he actually welcomes the wind. “We hope to have wind and dust sometimes. We didn’t realise it at first but when the air is dusty, the beams of light are almost more powerful,” he said.

A rare moment of candor

With consultants busy flittering and fluttering throughout the Saadiyat Island site, Nouvel was free to wax intellectual about his approach to architecture and the future of architecture in the Gulf.

“Every building has its own DNA,” said Nouvel. “You have to find the character of the building…. Hence, my buildings are different each time and more related to the cultural, economical and social context…. [For this site] I wanted to play with the specific conditions present here. I am an architect of specifics.”

As far as Nouvel is concerned, the architectural boom witnessed by the Gulf or the collection of iconic building on Saadiyat Island isn’t excessive, it’s progressive. “[This site] is not a sporting match. It’s not a competition to see which building will be the best.”

He continued: “When the country is at its apogee, architects always create buildings that make strong testaments…. Now, its time for the Middle East to make its own testaments; I hope the cultural district of Saadiyat Island will do that for this region.

When finally asked about the complexity and intricacy of his signature dome, Nouvel, as always, remained humble. “It’s a dome. It’s the simplest roof and shelter structure I could design.”


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