Architect Jean Nouvel puffed out his chest and gestured at his latest masterpiece—the Louvre Abu Dhabi, or at least a scale model of it. The Pritzker Prize-winning French builder was giving a tour of the construction site where, three years from now, a Louvre satellite art museum five football fields long will sit beside the Persian Gulf. Nouvel’s sleek dream of an art museum, looking much like a low-slung flying saucer floating on water, is slated to open to the public in 2013. When it’s completed, he boasts, its unusual open latticework roof will create a “rain of light” that changes hourly as the sun moves across the sky.
The architect was hosting the tour as part of Abu Dhabi Art, the United Arab Emirates’ first-ever homegrown art fair, which opened yesterday at the lush Emirates Palace. It speaks to both the ambition and expense of Abu Dhabi’s plans for an expanded cultural district that Nouvel has been able to build a facility several stories high in the desert just to test out the more experimental elements in his design. Dubbed the “Light Lab,” the airplane-hanger-sized building features a mock-up of part of the open dome that will cover several museum buildings. There, he and a team of 30 to 40 people are testing out various materials, weights, designs and colors for the building.
The Louvre satellite will be built on Saadiyat Island, a spate of sand linked to Abu Dhabi by a just-completed highway. Now a hot, deserted expanse of dust and palm trees, it will eventually be home to at least three museums including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a golf course and several hotels, according to the nation’s tourist department.
Construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, likely the first of the major projects to open, is running just slightly behind schedule. But “the financial crisis has been a blessing in disguise because contractors are extremely interested” in working on the projects at rates favorable to Abu Dhabi, says Felix Reinberg, project director.
In a somewhat controversial decision within France, the Louvre in March of 2007 agreed to loan its art, expertise and name to Abu Dhabi in exchange for nearly $1.3 billion. Abu Dhabi will have the use of the Louvre name for 30 years. Louvre director Henri Loyrette visited Mr. Nouvel’s Light Lab and museum site earlier today. What did he think of it? “You’ll have to ask him,” says Nouvel. “But he told me he was very happy.”