A marvel of engineering and architecture, the Middle East’s new Louvre museum boldly draws connections across Eastern and Western cultures.
As scorching sunlight strikes the Louvre’s gigantic dome, the sprawling museum is sprinkled by a ‘rain of light’. It is much like sunlight filtering through a dense forest. Nearly 8000 star-shaped metal panels form this thickly layered roof, lending Abu Dhabi its new design icon. The Louvre additionally offers a rare occasion to see connections between Eastern and Western art sourced from around the world, all housed under a single roof.
The largest museum in the Middle East, Louvre Abu Dhabi is spread out across 24,000 sq metres. Commissioned in 2007, when the world was heading towards global financial crisis, the “museum city” has taken more than a decade to come into existence. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, its gates were finally opened on November 11, 2017.
55 heterogeneous buildings are sheltered under one gargantuan dome at the Louvre. Described as ‘Arabic-Galactic’ by the New York Times, the dome is a reinterpretation of the traditional Arab dome. 180metres in span, the dome purportedly weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower, despite its seeming ‘floating’ appearance. Nouvel’s architecture seems to converse with nature. As air currents from the sea pass under the dome, and across the entire museum, a comfortable atmosphere of 21° Celsius is maintained constantly.
Under the dome, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect’s “museum city” is formed like a cluster of man-made islands. Spread out across the sea, its marble-clad walls sparkle as sunlight is reflected off the water. Not wanting to merely mimic traditional Arabic architecture, Nouvel reinterpreted the traditional settlements of the region through his “modern proposal”. Meandering streets, covered piazzas and inlets for water, echo the mysterious feeling of an Arabic village, where the atmosphere brims with the possibility of chance encounters at every turn.
With a construction cost of more than €600 million, Abu Dhabi has paid a fat amount of €446 million to France to rent the label of Louvre for 30 years. Out of its 620 artworks,300 are rented from the Louvre in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay and the Palace of Versailles, costing more than $747 million.
The project is not a facsimile of Louvre France, however, which tends to demarcate boundaries between European Art and other art. The Department of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi, along with 13 museums and cultural bodies of France, has embarked on a collaborative initiative that turns on its head many of the conventional approaches adopted by museums world-over. The Louvre Abu Dhabichooses to boldly house Roman figurines alongside Chinese Dragons, Renaissance master-artworks alongside wooden objets d’art from Egypt, and pop art alongside indigenous Islamic artefacts. Pointing out connections between various cultures, such juxtapositions mystify viewers, taking them on a retrospective spanning much of human creativity. The museum’s aim? To express what is ‘universal’ about humanity.
The highlight of the collection includes Leonardo Da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronniere, which is a portrait of an unknown woman; a six-century-old Grecian sphinx; and Tatlin’s Tower, a poetic work in metal by Ai Weiwei. These are accompanied by Henri Matisse’s art, Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps of Jacques, and Claude Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare. An anthology of Daguerreotype photography, clicked by the 19th century French lensman Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, who was active in the Middle East, also has its place in the exhibit.
The Louvre Museum is part of Abu Dhabi’s grand vision to establish itself as a cultural tourist destination. Lending fierce competition to its lavishly incandescent neighbourhood city of Dubai, Abu Dhabi currently receives more than 4.4 million tourists annually. The Saadiyat Cultural District has been proposed by the UAE as a way to transform the way its people experience culture, art and architecture. It envisions a series of dreamlike artificial islands, budgeted at a staggering €18 billion.
The Louvre Museum is the first completed project out of a line-up that draws upon a slew of architectural stalwarts. This includesFoster’s feather-shaped Zayed National Museum, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which reminds one of a heap of cones, Zaha Hadid’s sleek Performing Arts Centre and Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum.
Though the Louvre’s tagline today is “See Humanity in a New Light”, the city authorities have come under tremendous scrutiny in the past. In the 2015 Human Rights Watch Report, they were criticised for fostering conditions that amounted to forced labour. Workers, the report pointed out, were kept in conditions akin to indentured servitude, often being deprived of pay for months. The museum authorities countered this report with a burly and strategic statement. But according to reports by various media domains, workers giving the final touch in the inaugural weeks were also seen to be laboriously struggling under the scorching sun of the Gulf. This lent further fuel to the controversy that has trailed the project since its outset.
Despite these controversies, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is intensively establishing its position on the cultural map of the world to make Abu Dhabi its modern edifying destination for art. And it seems like it’s sure going to make it to every art-lover’s bucket list.
Image source: Louvre Abu Dhabi
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