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Louvre Abu Dhabi – Utopia realized

A couple of weeks back, one of the most anticipated architectural projects in recent times – the Louvre Abu Dhabi (LAD)- opened to much fanfare after a 10-year-long journey. Designed by Pritzker prize winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the museum’s design is almost the literal translation of the idea of Utopia and the ideal Museum as imagined during the Renaissance period of European history.

During the Renaissance, both utopia and museum(s) were imagined as circular, set apart, and ordered: utopia was an ideally governed island, the ideal museum was a domed rotunda on a mountaintop.”*

The LAD is an almost actual realization of the above description; it is designed as an archipelago set just off the main body of Saadiyat island; which in itself is unique, in that it is set to host some of the most ambitious cultural buildings in the world. The most notable element in it’s design is a theatrical dome that hovers over the galleries and other facilities; filtering the harsh Arabian sun into a dance of light and shadow. Here the eight layered dome behaves quite similarly to the geometrically-patterned screen façade that was used in the Aga Khan Award winning Institu du Monde Arab in Paris also designed by Nouvel.

The main gallery spaces of the complex are laid out as a set of low-lying blocks almost like a middle eastern medina (a slightly ambitious reference as these kind of white minimalist buildings are more common along the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East and not in the Gulf region); partly under and partly beyond the dome floating above the sea. This strategy creates many interesting spaces, courtyards and terraces in between the museum elements both below and outside the dome.

Beyond the brilliant design the museum houses an enviable collection of around 600 works of art – 300 of which are on loan from 13 French museums, including the Louvre in Paris – curated in an unusual manner as ‘chapters’ to explain how art simultaneously developed across civilizations rather than the conventional galleries dedicated to each civilization or art movement making this collection and it’s presentation truly a bridge between the east and west.

Going by the enthusiasm leading up to its opening and the response so far, this facility is poised to become the main cultural attraction in a country that is increasingly looking towards tourism as a key economic driver.

If you are planning to visit this iconic museum here’s a few practical tips: 

  • The museum has an amazing collection of artworks/artifacts and some really interesting architectural experiences so do plan to spend as many hours as possible.

  • Try to avoid visiting during weekends (i.e. Fridays & Saturdays) or bank holidays and the museum is closed on all Mondays.

  • There are free tours every half an hour or so from the main entrance of the permanent galleries where they explain the highlights of the collection: these 45 min long tours can be crowded but are a good introduction to the extensive collection. They also have a dedicated architecture tour of the complex (but that’s additionally chargeable).

  • If you start the day with the tour do go through all the galleries again on your own as there are many small rooms (with some real gems) attached to the bigger galleries that are not included in the highlights tour. 

  • Also at the end of the tour, if it seems to be particularly busy day, you probably shouldn’t exit the museum building into the domed common plaza (if you exit the building you may have to wait in queue to get back in as they have a restriction on the number of people inside). But once you’re inside they won’t ask you to leave till it’s closing time, so you can work your way back to the start from within the galleries itself. 

  • The LAD is a large complex and if you want to cover everything be prepared to walk a lot!

  • The internal spaces of the museum can get really cold to help preserve most of the delicate artwork, especially if you happen to get some galleries relatively empty, so don’t forget a cardigan or a light sweater. 

  • There is a sea-facing café below the dome and proper meals are a bit expensive, but there are slightly more reasonably priced ready made sandwiches available. The restaurant is not yet open! 

  • If you’re looking for something lighter – there are a few small mobile kiosks selling water, drinks and chips below the dome that moves around the central plaza space. 

  • There are many interesting spaces, courtyards and terraces outside the museum – it’s easy to miss them if you don’t go looking for them, check on the museum map for areas you may have missed. 

  • The toilets (at least the ones in the basement) are worth visiting from a design perspective even if you don’t want to use them. 

  • The museum periodically hosts interesting performances and light shows (late in the evening), if there’s one happening on the day you’re visiting – it’s probably worth staying back for it!

Some drawings of the LAD © Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

* – Marcin Fabianksi, “Iconography of the Architecture of the Ideal Musea in the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of the History of Collections 2, no. 2 (1990): 95-134.

All photos © Sahil Latheef  | A shorter version of this write up by Sahil Latheef was published in the travel section of the DNA newspaper (Mumbai edition) on 29th Nov 2017



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