Earlier this month, Abu Dhabi’s much-awaited “universal museum,” the Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Jean Nouvel, was opened to the public. After several years of delays and problems including accusations of worker rights violations, revisions in economic strategies, and regional turmoil, the completion of the museum is a feat in itself. Critics, supporters, naysayers, artists, economists, and human rights agencies, have all closely followed its shaky progress, but now that it’s finally open, reviews of the building are steadily pouring in.
Read on to find out how critics have responded to Nouvel’s work so far.
“Architects are fond of talking of painting with light, but here it rings true. The combined effect is mesmerizing.”
– Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian
While the critic deems the museum only “somewhat modest” compared to the glitzy skyline of Abu Dhabi, he admires Nouvel’s clever orchestration of light through the patterned dome which covers the scatter of galleries and pathways below:
[…] with rays of light piercing through its layers of star-shaped latticework, casting dapples across the facades of the white concrete buildings, you feel transported to another realm.
However, he also writes about how certain features or finishes are quick to betray the billion-dollar investment that drove the whole project—which in turn indicates careless indulgence on part of both the client and architect:
There is an air of sheikh chic to it all and, in places, it feels like they had too much money to spend. Nouvel had the rare luxury of designing everything in sight, from the leather furniture to the light fittings, and some of the finishes betray his penchant for a touch of bling.
During its construction, the project came under scrutiny for its treatment of migrant construction workers—an issue that, in spite of assurances from Nouvel himself, still sparks discomfort and anger, perhaps more so with the recent opening. With his conclusion, Wainwright emphasizes that in some ways, what has been built is forever inextricable from how it has been built:
Like many of the priceless objects on show, commissioned by despots and dictators throughout the ages, the nature of how the building was made is all part of the story, a troubling facet to this spectacular cultural artefact of our time.
“The effect is almost otherworldly, an amalgam of memories from Venice to Marrakesh, from sci-fi to Spanish villas, yet it creates from those vaguely familiar images something utterly original.”
– Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times
Heathcote, like most critics, praises the Louvre Abu Dhabi for its spatial, technical and formal qualities, especially the dome, as well as the architect’s ability to effectively harness what the site offers: abundant light and water. When Nouvel was hired to design the museum, he struggled with the idea of "context" since the island was essentially a bare stretch of land. Using references from Islamic architecture and the region’s traditional vernacular architecture, he reinterpreted them in his design for the museum. But this is precisely what is a bit too forced, according to Heathcote:
Nouvel, perhaps inevitably, overstates the contextuality. It is demanded from a contemporary global architect but it is reductive. The white blocks and the dome work fine without the metaphors […]
But while the critic chooses to question the relevance of the references and metaphors, he also recognizes the incredible challenge posed by the scorching heat of the desert, and how Nouvel conquered it through his design:
Any visit to Abu Dhabi is characterized by the default, air-conditioned modernity of the mall […] The museum, with its fastidious demands for cooling, climate control and security could have made such a major institution a continuation of that generic realm. But in breaking the Louvre down into 55 separate buildings and creating shaded alleys, streets and squares between them, Nouvel has made this into a very particular place indeed.
“[…]it’s hard not to be thrilled by what Nouvel has achieved—a reiteration of a north African medina composed of 55 separate pavilions, some sitting beneath that dazzlingly engineered dome, where eight layers of latticed metal create 7,800 perforations that filter the hot Arabic sun into brilliant spots of light that dapple their bright white walls.”
– Caroline Roux, The Telegraph
The metallic dome and the light-filled interior is perhaps the highlight of every user’s experience of the building. It doesn’t fail to impress, as Roux also describes. Similarly, like Wainwright, Roux compares the museum’s architecture to the tall, flashy buildings in the main city, and is immediately recognizes the new work as an aesthetic feat. But interestingly, Roux also imbues the building with a sense of foreboding, and reads it as a symbol of power, politics, and violence:
On subsequent days, I saw the building from a number of different vantage points. Its low-lying nature – its rises no more than 30 ft. in most parts – has real charm, especially in the UAE, where the vertiginousness of skyscrapers is at a scale gone mad. But often the dome changed from silver to a gunmetal grey: the color of weaponry and war.
Abu Dhabi and its neighboring regions have often come under fire for creating whole cities and buildings that rely solely on instant success or effect through the clever commissioning of world-famous architects. The plan for the Saadiyat Island, too, was referred to as a “supercharged architectural petting zoo,” by Wainwright. But for Langton, who writes for the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, the "instagrammable" quality of the museum is exactly what makes it so appealing:
At times it seems as if there has been a collective order to raise your camera towards the lattice of stars above and grimace or pout. The building plays along with this game, the puddles of Nouvel’s rain of light creating the perfect spotlight, which is constantly shifting with the arc of the Sun.
At the same time, he also recognizes the museum’s worth in being able to create a new kind of space for Abu Dhabi’s citizenry. Unlike other critics, he does not compare the museum’s architecture with existing building trends, but rather, the existing trends of using space and how the museum might change them:
“In your head you might suspect that you have entered a Venice-meets-Las Vegas world, but in your heart this calm, air-conditioned realm of cool blues and pale greys, bright whites and deep shadows, simple patterns and stark geometries feels deceptively spiritual. Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful building.”
– Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times
Once again, like many critics, Johnston is initially “underwhelmed” by the building from afar, calling it “a mushroom in the grass”, but gives in to praise upon entering the museum complex. At the same time, she’s perhaps the first one to point out how the design process cannot be divorced from the curatorial model and the art and artifacts to be housed inside:
The building came before the contents. How can curators turn it into an exhibition space that feels somehow coherent?
And that, in turn, reveals an architectural flaw too:
The most significant problem is the scale of the building. It dwarfs many of the works.
Architecture, of course, is forever bound to social, financial and political issues, among others. While Wainwright touched upon the worker rights controversy, Heathcote talked about the “injection of cash,” and Roux briefly alluded to the political realities of the region, Johnston’s fiery criticism extends to the disappearing natural life on the island:
Abu Dhabi takes Saadiyat, a ten square mile patch of sand once largely the haunt of nesting seabirds and turtles (I am worried about those turtles) and turns it over to aesthetics.
Interestingly, the museum’s own motto—“See humanity in a new light”—lends itself to three different readings: the first, quite literally, is Nouvel’s ingenious “rain of light” loved by all. The second is the museum’s curatorial model offering a grand timeline of humankind through the clever selection or omission of art and artifacts on display. And the third, as Wainwright also suggests in his concluding remarks, is about reading the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the light of worker exploitation, the commoditization of art and architecture, and the lofty aspirations of the UAE.
Completed in 2017 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Images by Roland Halbe, Mohamed Somji, Fatima Al Shamsi, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. "All climates like exceptions. Warmer when it is cold. Cooler in the tropics. People do not resist thermal shock well. Nor do works of art. Such...
Following ten years of multinational collaboration between France and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Jean Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi opens this week to the public. Located on Saadiyat Island and surrounded by the sea, twenty three permanent galleries and exhibition spaces, a Children's Museum, an auditorium, and a research center are connected by waterfront promenades which weave beneath the building's iconic dome.