The Universal and the Specific

Abu Dhabi

16 April 2018

“Nous allons ensembles essuyer les plâtres [Together we will wipe the plaster],” says the architect Jean Nouvel ahead of a guided tour of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a newly completed museum in the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In French “essuyer les plâtres” means to experience something that is not quite polished or finished yet. This may be the case for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where workers are still filling the gaps in the concrete flooring with mortar and conservation specialists are setting up displays ahead of the museum’s official opening on 11 November. But the completed work, which comprises 55 individual buildings encompassed by a 180m-diameter dome – itself made of eight layers of stainless steel and aluminium and rising to a height of 40m above sea level – also highlights the unfinished state of its surroundings.

Nouvel’s is a fitting pun on construction: this new building is the first piece in the wider masterplan for Saadiyat, an island in the Abu Dhabi archipelago that is connected to the mainland by Zaha Hadid’s Sheikh Zayed Bridge. Announced in 2006 and overseen by the publicly funded Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the development project – which in 2009 was expected to attract US$27.22bn in investment – will transform a deserted 27sqkm island into a cultural district with five major institutions, a number of universities and schools, and two districts dedicated to residential buildings, retail, hotels, golf clubs, resorts and a marina. The UAE-led initiative will be developed through partnerships with international cultural institutions and global architectural firms. In addition to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the district’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has been designed by Frank Gehry, the Zayed National Museum by Foster and Partners, a performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid and the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando. While the Guggenheim already has an existing franchise in Bilbao, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has emerged out of a diplomatic agreement between two countries, France and the UAE. “The original concept was to create a story,” says Hissa Al Dhaheri, the museum’s deputy director. “The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collections take us from the beginning of time to the present day. Where this ends, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi begins with its collection of contemporary art. Our national story will be told at the Zayed National Museum.” As such, the architects, cultural institutions and government bodies involved in the project face a momentous challenge: how can a museum create a city and its legacy?

The recent histories of Abu Dhabi and other Gulf cities, such as Doha in Qatar and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, are well-known. The British and American discovery of oil in these countries between the 1930s and 60s led to one of the most spectacular building booms of the 20th century. Desert settlements, ports and seaside villages were turned into hypermodern global metropolises in just a few decades. Petrol transformed a local economy that had, until then, been led by the export of dates and pearl fishing. Yet with the knowledge that these resources will one day be depleted, Abu Dhabi has sought to diversify its revenue streams by developing sectors such as tourism, education and media. The Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, developed by the government and based on the policy agenda published in 2007, outlines a 22-year roadmap to “build a sustainable and diversified, high value-added economy that is well integrated into the global economy and that provides [...] opportunities for all its citizens and residents”. “World cities are urban areas that are global in character and orientation [...] they help to build the ‘business brands’ of nations and provide them with reputational advantages,” write Greg Clark and Tim Moonen in their 2016 book World Cities and Nation States. “Established and emerging world cities all compete for investors, entrepreneurs and start-ups focusing on liveability, culture and urban regeneration.” Saadiyat’s cultural programme hopes to achieve this. “Abu Dhabi should be a place that everybody wants to live in or visit, whether they are Emirati, expatriate residents or tourists,” says Saif Saeed Ghobash, director general of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT). As part of its efforts to make the UAE a desirable place to live, the government collects no personal income tax. However, according to the Financial Times, the recent slump in oil prices led to a 30 per cent increase in the cost of electricity for expats in 2016. The rating agency Fitch states that Abu Dhabi reduced its government spending by 18 per cent in 2015 and a further 10 per cent in 2016. A 3 per cent municipality tax for foreign residents was introduced and backdated to 2016, and VAT at 5 per cent will be introduced UAE-wide in 2018. “Our increased spend in marketing and promotion over the last few years will continue to create demand, so I don’t think that VAT will result in a decrease in tourism,” says Ghobash. Many European and GCC citizens (apart from Qataris) may enter the country without a visa for 90 days, and others, such as citizens of the UK, US and China can obtain a free 30‑day visa on arrival. The country’s eight million migrant workers – most of them from South Asia and the Philippines – make up more than 80 per cent of its population, according to the International Labor Organization. As a result of these internationalist policies, Emiratis today constitute only 11 per cent of the population.

Yet Abu Dhabi juggles ambitions to be a world city with its status as the capital of the UAE. Abu Dhabi immediately appears more sober and less ostentatious than Dubai, an Emirate-city just one hour’s drive away. Dubai boasts the tallest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa – as well as a host of glitzy resorts and beach clubs. “Abu Dhabi’s urbanism is more conservative [...] the emirate invokes gravitas and tradition, playing the role of the more responsible sister,” writes the architect and academic Keller Easterling in her essay ‘Extrastatecraft’ (2007), in which she explores the identities of these two cities. The vast majority of the UAE’s oil reserves are located in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, while Dubai borrows money to fund its development and therefore relies on consumer hype to generate revenue.

IMAGE Mohamed Somji.

This difference plays out clearly in the cultural sectors. While Abu Dhabi builds public museums and collections, and imports expertise and state-of-the-art conservation technology, Dubai is home to a host of contemporary art galleries, as well as the annual art and design fairs Art Dubai and Design Days Dubai. Dubai Design District (D3), a purpose-built hub with offices, studios and retail spaces which partially opened in 2015, recently announced that 7,000 people were employed in the district. Art Dubai has become an important platform for contemporary art from emerging markets, including the Middle East and South Asia. The Saadiyat cultural district will have to position itself in relation to this. “The two cities complement each other,” says Al Dhaheri, “Dubai has created a scene and an audience who are eagerly waiting to visit the Louvre.”

Abu Dhabi is not alone in its heavy investment in museums and the franchising of Western brands. Qatar built its Museum of Islamic Arts in the 2000s, which was designed by Ieoh Ming Pei, the Chinese-American architect best known for having designed the Louvre’s courtyard pyramid in Paris. Yet Saadiyat stands out for its scale and ambition. The UAE is said to have paid France €1bn for its services, which includes €400m for the 30-year Louvre franchise, €195m to develop its holdings over the next 15 years and €190m for loans of pieces from French collections over the next decade. In his article ‘Musées et soft power dans le Golfe persique’ (2015), the political scientist Alexandre Kazerouni argues that such cultural development projects are a soft-power strategy to change negative perceptions of a region better known for two Gulf wars, religious extremism and political instability. Specifically, Kazerouni has described such institutions in the Gulf as “mirror museums”, whose “aim is to enhance the image of an ideal muslim and Arab prince that is palatable to Western expectations”.

Certainly, the legacy of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi and founding father of the UAE, plays an important role. Saadiyat’s projects involving heritage, culture and wildlife are often attributed to his vision. “Sheikh Zayed saw culture and heritage as something that could turn the country into what it is now. His sons share the same genuine interest in archaeology,” says Peter Hellyer, an author, historian and wildlife conservationist who came to the UAE in 1975 to film the ruler’s overseas state visits. Hellyer eventually became project manager for the island archaeological site of Sir Bani Yas, where his team discovered the remains of a Christian monastery. “People said he wouldn’t like it, but Sheikh Zayed was fascinated by the monastery and what it said about Abu Dhabi’s diversity,” says Hellyer.

Legacy and heritage are also important for managing internal perceptions within the country. “Emiratis will be proud that the country can showcase its culture at an international platform,” says the DCT’s Ghobash. “They will also experience artworks from other cultures and see their differences and their similarities.” Meanwhile, crackdowns on dissent in the UAE are well-documented. In 2011, prominent Emirati citizens signed a petition calling for democratic reform and greater power sharing between the ruling families and their populations. An Amnesty International report published in 2014 states that many of the signatories were detained, harassed and sometimes even expelled from the country.

Art handlers installing Auguste Rodin's sculpture, 'Walking Man, On a Column'. IMAGE Mohamed Somji.

Abu Dhabi portrays its internationalism as historically and geographically rooted. “As Emiratis we are always connected with the world,” says Al Dhaheri, whom I meet in one of the museum’s offices. “The UAE has always been at the crossroads of different cultures.” The Gulf region was a trading post along the Silk Road and maritime routes for millennia. Its connections to East Africa and the Indian subcontinent are unique and have been proven through archaeological findings, as well as evidenced by vernacular buildings and oral traditions. It is part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s remit to reflect this. Although they are franchising Western institutions, neither Abu Dhabi nor the Emirates look exclusively to the West for diplomatic, economic and political opportunities. India and the UAE are each other’s main trading partners. According to figures published by the Government of India, trade between the two nations generated upwards of US$49bn in 2015-2016; the Chinese Embassy in the UAE has announced an expected increase in Chinese tourism with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The architects and museum professionals involved in Saadiyat are tasked with developing museums that reflect this vision of the city. Nouvel explains that the designs for the museum were inspired by “Arab architecture”, while also referencing the climate and geography of the deserted island. “The dome is a symbol of the cosmography around the site. The sun is a giant projector and the dome a receptacle of light.” Equally, the architect’s own self-fashioning comes into play. “I design for the context. I am a contextual architect,” he says. It is a statement that Nouvel repeats throughout the visit like a manifesto: “I have always worked like this. You will find this in my writings.” Nouvel’s insistence on the matter is puzzling. After all, surely all design is embedded in a context? The question is what that context is and who defines it.

In the museum’s main lobby, the flat concrete surfaces of the floor and walls let off silvery prism-like glows as daylight and refracted light from the sea pass through. A group of journalists, press officers, museum staff and quality-assurance surveyors are gathered for the visit, dressed in high-visibility jackets and helmets as part of the security protocol. Nouvel, however, wears nothing over his black suit, black polo neck and black shoes. “I beg you, dear journalists, visit all my buildings. Then tell me: am I not an architect who loves to use colour?” he says, walking us across to the dome. In the wide connecting corridors, ceiling-length windows look onto the museum’s exterior, the encroaching sea and the sandy flatlands of deserted Saadiyat island. We exit into a central courtyard that leads to the museum’s buildings, all sheltered by the dome. The structure’s layers are inspired by mashrabiya, the latticework windows that are a common feature in the historic architecture of the Levant. It is a technique that Nouvel adopted in earlier buildings such as the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. “The light penetrating from the dome creates an almost metaphysical dimension, as if we were entering a dream,” says Nouvel, who talks about his building in poetic terms. “Points of light appear then disappear. Some rays are obstructed, others refracted, others penetrate directly to the bottom. The variations create singularities of light and shadow.” Equally, the exterior of the dome is known to change hue as it catches sand in the wind. “From the outside, the dome appears a sandy yellow. When it rains and the sand washes off, its silver colour is restored.”

The limitations of the UAE’s vernacular architectural tradition complicate the notion of context. “The Emirati traditions are mostly oral. The materials in the desert were limited as was the built environment,” says Hellyer. “As such, their sense of identity does not stem from their buildings, but in their songs, their customs and their knowledge of the sea.”

A press visit to Fort Al Jahili in Al Ain, the oasis city that is Sheikh Zayed’s birthplace, highlights this. Built in the 1890s by Sheikh Zayed the First, the building is made of mud, clay and timber from the nearby oasis. “The closer you are to palm trees, the more wood you can afford to use,” explains a museum guide at the fort. “The clay is dried in the sun rather than baked – there’s not enough wood to make fire.” On Saadiyat, the absence of a built environment also challenges the notion of context. “We were starting from scratch. There was no construction when we first visited the island,” says Hala Wardé, Jean Nouvel’s partner architect and founding director of HW Architects in Paris. “How do you design something that looks like it was meant to be there; like it had always been there?” In addition, Wardé explains, the designs were eventually shaped by the Saadiyat masterplan. “By 2007, we knew roughly what the other architects were doing. The idea of having something almost horizontal, on the water, is also in composition with the two other giant structures by Hadid and Gehry.”

IMAGE Mohamed Somji.

In her essay ‘The Arab City’ (2016), Amale Andraos, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in New York, points to the “metaphorical strategies in which entire buildings are conceptualized to refer to some aspect of life in the desert or on the Gulf.” The Burj Al Arab in Dubai, for example, is shaped like a sail. Whereas Nouvel likens the Louvre dome’s “rain of light” to an Arab Souk or the sunlight flooding a mosque, other stakeholders discuss the effect in terms of light piercing the leaves of a palm tree in a desert oasis. More specifically, it is a reference to the oasis of Sheikh Zayed’s birthplace, Al Ain. “Nouvel has never been to Al Ain,” confirms Al Dhaheri, “but he managed to capture such an essential part of the experience.” Andraos also points to the “essentialising of Islamic architecture”. Indeed, Nouvel’s reference to an “Arab architecture” often goes unquestioned in coverage of the building. Who are the Arabs? Did he mean the mud huts of the pearl divers? The wooden oriel windows of southern Iraq? Ottoman palaces designed by Venetian architects? The architecture is both historically and geographically vast. The strategy of essentialising, Andraos argues, “is promoted in an effort to unify a region that extends from Turkey to Syria to Iraq to the Emirates – to advance the strange concept of a cohesive Islamic people, nation, empire.” I ask Nouvel to qualify what he means by “Arab architecture”. “The principles of Arab architecture, in my opinion, are the interplay between light and geometry,” he says.

Nouvel’s achievement lies in the complex physical experience he creates for the visitor. “The building is like a neighbourhood, a mini-city with its own micro-climate,” he says. “Not the hermetic notion of a museum.” The open courtyard gives out to views of the sea and access to several of the buildings. Nouvel hopes this will encourage visitors to spend hours at the museum, wandering in the courtyard, visiting the galleries, and other facilities like the café, auditorium and children’s museum. In the courtyard, the shade of the dome and the sea breeze that runs through the corridors protect visitors from high temperatures while maintaining the connection with the natural environment. The extreme heat of the desert has led to a regime of sealed, air-conditioned buildings in the Gulf – something the dome is able to bypass. This effect is achieved partly because the buildings are so embedded in the natural elements of the island. The structure extends to 15m below sea level and the wearing walls of the building are made with ultra-high-performance concrete in order to protect them from constant contact with water. A dry dock on the island’s southwest corner was built as a base for the initial construction and subsequently flooded. Marine engineers at BuroHappold, a construction partner on the site, carried out hydrological studies in collaboration with wave simulation laboratories at Wallingford in the UK.

While Nouvel states that the building is designed to fit the context of Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi describes itself as a “universal museum”. Yet both architect and museum staff insist that the design of the building fits with this remit. “The dialogue between the building and its content was part of our initial discussions with Jean Nouvel. How do we connect this microcosm of the collection with the macrocosm of the museum?” says Jean-François Charnier, scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, who oversaw the development of the collection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The dome will be present as a semiotic bath, where the artworks are protected and shown. Yet this semiotic bath itself is contextual. It could be a metaphor for the oasis in the desert, where caravans from different parts of the world meet.”

In espousing universalism, the founders hope the Louvre Abu Dhabi will join the ranks of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London and the Louvre itself in Paris. Universal museums are the product of Western Enlightenment philosophy and Romanticism. They attempt to bring in artefacts and artworks from all civilisations across time. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection will include a Central Asian bactrian princess figurine dating from around the beginning of the second millennium BCE, a sixth-century BCE Graecian archaic sphinx, and the head of a Buddha from the Eastern Wei dynasty (534-550 CE) or Northern Qi dynasty (550-577 CE) in northern China. Among its modern works, the collection includes paintings by Paul Gauguin, Piet Mondrian and Cy Twombly.

A visitor looks at Cy Twombly's 'Untitled I-IX', a series of nine panels commissioned by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. IMAGE Mohamed Somji.

The concept of a “universal” museum is today the subject of a wider debate. The collections of many of these museums were amassed during periods of Western colonial rule. The Louvre in Paris’s Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, for instance, contains 37 monumental bas-reliefs discovered by Paul-Émile Botta, the French consul in Mosul, at the site of Khorsabad. Many European artworks were looted during the Napoleonic war. Such acquisitions would not be permissible today, and debates about their ownership persist. Equally, the concept of universal histories is itself limited. “Universal does not mean encyclopaedic,” says Charnier. “We can’t include everything. We have made a selection of objects which we hope are reflective of the universal story of humankind.”

Louvre Abu Dhabi states that its approach to displaying its collections is unique. At the British Museum or the Met, for example, the rooms are divided by regions or civilisations. The 23 galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, will be organised into 12 chronological themes running from pre‑history to the present day. While the Louvre in Paris houses some 35,000 artworks, the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection contains some 600 pieces, including around 300 loaned from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN). These will rotate regularly and on an at least yearly basis. The white gallery rooms were designed by Atelier Jean Nouvel to accommodate the collection and meet environmental control requirements. “We’re in the middle of installing so you are standing in a real workshop,” says Charnier, as museum staff unwrap glass display boxes, also designed by Nouvel. Artefacts from various civilisations will be displayed alongside each other according to theme. “By bringing different cultures and civilisations together, we’re showing that globalisation has existed since pre-history. It was not just a product of the 20th century and it is part of the UAE’s own history,” says Charnier. This comparative approach mirrors the UAE’s concept of itself as a historic and contemporary hub for different cultures. “The Louvre Abu Dhabi complements Abu Dhabi’s identity as a city, the Emirates as a nation and how we define our national identity,” says Al Dhaheri, who also argues that the approach can bridge gaps in the Western perspectives of art history. “The history of art is studied in silos – specialists tend to focus on one field. Yet periods like the Middle Ages, for example, mean different things to different civilisations,” she says. But does this really bring us closer to achieving a universal perspective? A room in one of the galleries, for example, represents “The Magnificence of the Court”. Given the UAE’s own absolute monarchy, how will these courts be portrayed?

Despite attempts to create a universal story, the diplomatic partnership between France and the UAE forms a prevalent part of the museum’s narrative. This is after all, a museological concept developed by experts from France’s RMN who were granted €165m for their expertise. In addition to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the UAE has an agreement with the Sorbonne, which opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2006. In 2016, the then-French president François Hollande announced the creation of a $100m fund made up of public and private money for the protection of cultural heritage as a joint partnership between the UAE and France. A site-specific commission for the museum by the American artist Jenny Holzer reflects this relationship. Responding to a brief, Holzer selected three texts to be carved into the exterior facades of the museum, some of which can be seen from the windows as we walk through the galleries. These comprise an extract from a Sumerian creation myth tablet, both one of the earliest known creation myths and one of the oldest examples of writing originating from Mesopotamia or modern-day Iraq; an extract from the Muqaddimah by the North African Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun; and a citation from the French philosopher Montaigne’s Essais (1588). “Of course we had to include Montaigne, to represent French humanism,” says Charnier, revealing some involvement from the patron institution in the artist’s work. Yet France’s relationship with the Arab world extends far beyond Ibn Khaldun and Montaigne. French colonial rule in North Africa only ended in 1962, and its mandate in Lebanon and Syria terminated in 1943. This legacy persists in France and the Middle East. I point this out to Charnier, who, in his enthusiasm for the collection, is unperturbed by my question. He asks me where I’m from and assures me that some of the artefacts excavated in Lebanon will be on display at the museum. This amnesia, which is registered in Holzer’s work, suggests that these two histories of French-Arab relations – of colonialism and cultural diplomacy – cannot co-exist.

Back out in the courtyard, construction workers take a break along the large steps that lead to the sea, and where visitors will be able to arrive at the museum by boat. The workers are a reminder of another major challenge for Saadiyat. A series of reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW) published since 2006 highlighted “wage exploitation, indebtedness to unscrupulous recruiters, and working conditions that are hazardous to the point of being deadly.” The UAE’s visa-sponsorship system ties workers to their employers, leading to abuse by construction companies and recruiters. “All workers interviewed said they were afraid to demand better treatment by filing complaints to the UAE Ministry of Labor or to the courts: they believed that they risked being fired and deported if they did so,” states a 2009 report. Amid an international outcry, the UAE undertook reforms to its labour laws and the TDIC contracted PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the world’s largest professional-services firms, to monitor labour conditions on the site. HRW acknowledges these reforms in its 2015 progress report, but states that “there remain serious concerns about the violations of worker’s rights on the island[...] some of the same abuses documented in our previous reports continue”. Speaking to The Guardian, Nouvel recently described the conditions of migrant workers on the island as an “old question” and concluded from a visit to the workers’ camp that “they have the same conditions, even better conditions, than those I see in other countries”.

A staff member at the museum, guiding visiting press on the museum's preview day. IMAGE Mohamed Somji.

Labour camps exist elsewhere in the Emirates and in the Gulf, but the international and cultural nature of the Saadiyat project has placed partner museums and architects under scrutiny both in the global media and in their home countries. The artist-led group Gulf Labor has published several open letters and petitions, including a response in October to Nouvel’s recent comments, which it argued “simply take the PR talking points of Abu Dhabi authorities as facts”. Furthermore, the group’s letter “reiterates that its boycott of cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island remains in place, and our collective advocacy campaign continues”. Three of Gulf Labor’s members, including the artist Walid Raad, whose recent work has focused on the development of cultural infrastructure in the Arab world, were recently banned from entering the UAE. In open letters, the artists have stated they were barred entry for “security” reasons.

Such issues were often difficult to raise during the press tour of the museum. Despite the UAE’s commitment to culture and internationalism, freedom of expression is limited. Driving out of the museum and through the deserted island of Saadiyat, it is clear that other challenges are taking their toll on the project. There is not much to see apart from empty sand plots and the sea on the horizon. The tips of the Zayed National Museum’s golden wings, designed by Foster & Partners to evoke the Emirati pastime of hunting with falcons, are visible on the way out. Beyond this, the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, which boasts an arts centre with an active programme and production studios, ekes out an almost sleepy existence, surrounded by vast empty plots and a residential complex. The Louvre Abu Dhabi was originally scheduled to open in 2012. “Buildings take time,” says Nouvel when I ask him about the delays. “By now I know this museum well, but I’m still struck by the singular variations of light from the dome.” The plans for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are at present unclear. When the UAE announced the Saadiyat masterplan in 2006, its economy and politics were relatively stable. The financial crisis of 2008 slowed Abu Dhabi down, but today the emirate struggles with the slump in oil prices – a result of the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. A year ago, a sculpture by the British artist Idris Khan, commemorating the UAE’s lost soldiers in Yemen, was erected outside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The UAE and three other Arab nations cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade in June this year, claiming that its regional policies fuel terrorism.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat and Abu Dhabi tell a different story to the reality on the ground. For those engaged in the long-term vision, this story is what matters first and foremost. It roots the global aspirations of Abu Dhabi the city in the history and geographical location of the emirate and the UAE. Abu Dhabi seeks to balance its internationalism with an Emirati identity, as a world city and capital of the UAE. This struggle plays itself out in the designs for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its concept as a museum. The notion of “context” here is not only historical, geographical and political – it is viewed through the idiosyncratic prism of a master architect who designs iconic buildings. Likewise, the museum’s universal story appears to multiply itself from every angle. It may be, after all, that there are as many universes and contexts as there are singularities of light and shadow encompassed by the dome.