Beyond the Spectacle: An Urban Assessment of Louvre Abu Dhabi
On November 11, Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors to the public after a long and arduous construction process that survived an economic crisis, a financial downturn, post-Arab Spring turmoil, and all sorts of technical delays. Initially announced in 2006 following a competition won by French architect Jean Nouvel, the contract with the Louvre was awarded a year later. At a cost of nearly $1.2 billion the French institution would lend its name (for 30 years) to the Abu Dhabi museum in addition to curatorial expertise, management, and technical training. Moreover, the building’s construction reportedly cost around $700 million.
During the opening festivities, lasting several days, a series of media articles hailed the arrival of “a huge milestone,” a building conceived as “a bridge between East and West,” and one astute commentator declared that it will “end orientalism.” It did not end there. A journalist for the Abu Dhabi-based, English language The National argued in all seriousness that the open space under the dome is comparable to New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus. In some ways such statements are understandable. The museum is an architectural masterpiece, its spectacular qualities thoroughly dissected and analyzed in numerous publications. It is easy to get caught up in all the hype that surrounds such events and be seduced by the speckles of light emanating from the arabesque dome. Yet moving beyond the spectacle, it is necessary to understand the museum’s relationship with the city in which it is located. If the building is to transcend its function as a container of precious artefacts, and become a truly transformative institution, it needs to integrate with its surroundings and establish a dialogue with the city.
Many museums have served as an essential part of the city in which they are located. Some have transcended their curatorial function to become public spaces. Consider for example Tate Modern in London whose monumental entrance lobby, the Turbine Hall, is open to anyone – a seamless integration of indoor and outdoor space. Moreover, the entire surrounding area – the Southbank district – has transformed into a vibrant outdoor public setting. In Paris, Centre Pompidou’s main central public lobby represents a continuum of its gently downward sloping plaza: a place where Parisians from varying backgrounds meet friends and have coffee, as one travel review noted. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened a newly renovated plaza in 2010 running across the length of its building and leading to the great staircase. There, visitors and passersby can sit and watch entertainers and pedestrians along Fifth Avenue. Nearby, the Museum of Modern Art is undergoing a renovation that will add 25 percent more public space, including access to its famed sculpture garden. A project similar in scale and ambition to Louvre Abu Dhabi is Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, built in a derelict part of the Spanish city in 1999. Its mere presence transformed the neighborhood, hence the term “Bilbao Effect” connoting the positive and transformative influence of cultural institutions on their city. Indeed, on any given Sunday the public spaces surrounding the building become a place for people to walk and enjoy themselves, with the museum acting as a backdrop to their activities.
Louvre Abu Dhabi does not rank very high in terms of accessibility or provision of public space. It is in a curious locale extending from Saadiyat Island into the water – an island on an island. Saadiyat itself is not far from Abu Dhabi city center, about 15 minutes by car. A public bus line has been introduced taking visitors straight to the entrance. Who will take advantage of this opportunity and is willing to pay the 60 United Arab Emirates dirhams (about $16) entrance ticket is yet to be seen, however. On top of that, the massive security operation put in place as people enter into the museum proper further exacerbates its sense of isolation. Walking to the museum from the city is not an option as visitors would have to navigate multilane highways, industrial areas with no pedestrian crossings, and an imposing bridge connecting the city to Saadiyat, all the while dodging heavy truck and fast vehicular traffic. All this makes the building inaccessible in the sense that it is not part of people’s everyday encounters.
Yet this was never the intention to begin with. Indeed, the project in its very early phases of development was envisioned to be part of a masterplan comprised of cultural centers and a world class university –NYU Abu Dhabi. This included the Guggenheim, the Zayed National Museum, an Opera House, and a cultural district traversed by a canal thus mimicking the Venice Biennale. As of now the Guggenheim has yet to start. The Zayed National Museum, supposedly next in line, is on hold with the British Museum, brought on board as advisors, halting their cooperation. The cultural district has been scrapped in favor a retail center – dubbed The District – that will link these cultural institutions thus integrating leisurely and intellectual pursuits. NYU Abu Dhabi has been completed and is located nearby, although a large multilane highway acts as a barrier preventing any kind of pedestrian flow with Louvre Abu Dhabi. Moreover, the university’s location on a hill and its citadel-like architecture imbues it with a disconcerting Kafkaesque quality.
Accordingly, with all of these plans still in development and in a constant state of flux, Louvre Abu Dhabi stands isolated, a precious and beautiful object, surrounded by the desert, water, and parking. One could conceivably argue that this in and of itself does not distract from the museum’s value, considering the sublime beauty of its architecture, the delightful exhibits, and the tantalizing curatorial premise of universalism.
Leaving things as is, however, may have repercussions that could intensify patterns of segregation, inequality, and artificiality, which many critics of Gulf cities are keen to highlight. Such an approach runs the danger of leading to what some scholars have described as cultural quartering – in other words, an enclave for the artistically enlightened, disconnected from the rest of the city: an ode to an institution promised by art critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss in her premonitory 1990 essay “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum.”
In order for the Saadiyat Cultural District to avoid the dreaded fate of an isolated cultural quarter, strategies need to be developed that would enable a closer integration with the city. For instance The District retail project may be reconfigured to become a more inclusive setting catering to a broad segment of the population rather than the high-end mix currently envisioned (a proposal from 2013 outlines the involvement of a Louis Vuitton-linked developer). Public spaces, closely integrated with public transport can be created in and around these museums. Pedestrian pathways and trails could link the city center to Saadiyat and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Such strategies can spur further developments and lead to densification of the island thus enabling a more vibrant public realm. Louvre Abu Dhabi has great potential for bridging the gap between East and West, bringing enlightenment to the world, and even “ending orientalism.” But for that to happen a substantive strategic shift at the urban scale needs to occur or the project may ultimately descend into a precious relic to be admired from a distance.
Yasser Elsheshtawy is a former professor of architecture at UAE University and is currently an independent writer and researcher.