The Louvre in France is one of the most distinctive and well-known buildings in the world, both for the jaw-dropping, breath-taking collection of art inside its walls, and for the walls itself. A 13th century palace, the Louvre is a masterpiece of classic architecture, with its sprawling and elegant length pushed hard against the graceful banks of the Seine, the museum is as much an attraction as the Mona Lisa. It is both a testament to an a reflection of the long history of France- like Paris itself, it has stood the test of time, and contains multitudes of centuries inside its hallowed walls.
Abu Dhabi does not have that kind of history. A generation ago it was a collection of tents on the barren eastern coast of a desolate peninsula, barely more than a collection of subsistence-level camel traders eking out a life in one of the world’s most inhospitable deserts. The region was north of the famed Rub al-Khali, the imposing “Empty Quarter” that broke even Lawrence, but one could be forgiven for assuming it a part. Oil changed that- the culture was wrenched from a difficult but tradition-rich past into a wealthy but disassociated present (for a great barely-fictionalized look at this, check out Abdulrahman Munif’s magnificent “Cities of Salt” quintet).
This is a well-known story. Abu Dhabi may be less well-known for its wealth-based architecture than Dubai, with its underwater hotels and incredible global archipelago of man-made islands, but it is no less wealthy, and indeed may be more economically-sound than its better-known neighboring city-state. Like Dubai, Abu Dhabi wants to be part of the world, both Western and Eastern, and, as such, has in conjunction with the government of France commissioned an amazing modern extension of the Louvre, with a gorgeous water-based design.
The Louvre in Abu Dhabi will be featuring art work from the original, as well as more art from the region, both contemporary and classic. The art itself, and the location of the museum, is meant to be a bridge between cultures. It is a way for Abu Dhabi to say that they are part of the world, not just a neauve-riche bunch of Bedouin, as they often are portrayed, but it is also meant to be a reflection of their culture. The ceiling will be an intricate web-patterned dome, letting the light stream in like sunshine through the fronds of palm tree in a much-needed oasis. This mix of nature and man-made objects is an increasingly-common one, particularly in museums.
So, it is clear that water plays a huge role in the museum, as it is slated to be in the sea (construction, delayed by the market collapse, is scheduled to be completed by Drake and Scull in 2015). This is not surprising. The museum is intended to be a bridge between worlds, East and West, and the sea has always facilitated that. It has brought warships and oil tankers, yes, but before the rise of planes and the internet, the vast seas were the way cultures communicated. For Abu Dhabi, with the Gulf to its North and nothing but desert in every other direction, it is a lifeline to the broader world.
Museums are a way to link cultures, and this is no different. The Louvre is quintessentially French, but in a very realistic way it belongs to the world. By becoming a part of that tradition, and by positioning its museum on its beautiful gulf, Abu Dhabi is staking its place as a global citizen, much like the waves that eventually will lap every shore.