Louvre Abu Dhabi: memories of Venice?

On 8 November 2017, the new Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors. Its huge domed roof covers a medina of white cubes surrounded by the water, making the most of the poetry of its situation: the advantage of being on the edge of the sea. Architect Antonio Alejandro muses on Jean Nouvel’s motivations

Museums are dedicated to the recollection, admiration and veneration of the past art. That is their point. They have become a cult symbol and a contemporary destination, much like the ancient cathedrals and mosques.

The cupola of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a new icon for the Abu Dhabi skyline, both by day and even more at night. It’s an icon without stridency, though; the dome is a form that transmits calm. That calmness is a necessary element of museums today, just as it was for the temples of the past.

Institut du Monde Arabe (1981 – 1987)

This cupola is the reinterpretation of a traditional one, built in eight steel layers superimposed to form a silvery lattice. It’s an Arabic pattern that replays a geometric motif Nouvel used 30 years ago in his Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

There his mechanical lattices exhibit one of his main interests: filtering of light. He has justified its use with cultural and historic references: “The great Arab architecture is always geometry and light. I looked for a singularity with respect to that inheritance. I remembered the light of the souks and the sun filtered by the palm groves, which draw shapes on the desert sand”.

As for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Nouvel explains his thinking with these words: “In the 21st century, a museum can not be a locked box. I am inspired by the Greek concept of the agora, understood as a place where an exchange of ideas takes place”.

And he adds that his architecture is not referential: “My philosophy is contextual. This museum is inseparable from the place where it has been built. It aspires to belong to a country, to a specific geography and history, but without being a flat translation of its cultural heritage”. Nouvel wanted a project to belong to its country, its history and its time – “Projects like the Louvre make possible a change that will not happen overnight. But we are heading towards a situation in which it will be admitted that the other, the one who thinks differently, is not automatically an infidel or an unbeliever”.

A matter of roof

The first time I saw a Jean Nouvel project covered by a ‘one roof’ solution was at the 1991 exhibition for the Nouvo Palazzo del Cinema al Lido di Venezia – the reworking of the festival centre for the Venice Film Festival, the world’s first when it opened in 1932. The original Festival Hall was designed in 1937 and extended in 1952 with a new façade, but by 1991 the Lido needed new facilities and an international competition was won by Rafael Moneo. His was an insubstantial project that fortunately was consigned to oblivion; but two of the non-winning proposals were much more interesting – those by Steven Hall and Jean Nouvel.

In my opinion, the Steven Hall proposal is still one of the most captivating projects that his office has produced. In their own words, “the complexity of the project attempted to a phenomenological link between architecture and cinema”. Collapsed and Extended time, Diaphanous time and Absolute time are embodied in the space, the reflections and shades, following Melo Ponti’s phenomenology of perception principles.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s proposal for the Palazzo del Cinema of the Venice Film Festival (1991)

The Ateliers Jean Nouvel proposal was based on a sort of situationism. A survey among Venice festival-goers led Nouvel’s team to the conclusion that the Palazzo’s site didn’t give the impression of being in Venice at all – it existed more as a base for the Festival itself than an organic part of the city. So they produced a design that would allow the building to be part of Venice: the reflections in the water, the ‘aroma’ of the city and its gardens, arrival by boat …

Hans Hollein, Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape detail)

Venice, last year

The project had a flat roof that looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier covering the whole building. Inevitably, it reminds me of the 1960s Hans Hollein project Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, an ironic, politicised, iconoclastic comment on architecture with no identifiable architectonic style. That could appear as a premonition, when you see huge cruise ships today looming over Venice’s canals and palazzos, bigger than the city itself.

Both the Steven Hall and Jean Nouvel projects reached the desired objective albeit by different routes, phenomenological and situationist. The intellectual underpinning was not as important as the fact that the two designs worked in their own referential world —away from the historic references and the Classicist postmodernist style that was prevailing at that time.

Nouvel has continued using the same solution – a big roof covering the whole project – in many different locations, configurations, times and contexts. For instance:

Centre International de Congrés Vinci, Tours: 1989
Site-Musée gallo-romain Vesunna, Periguéux: 1993
Centro de Culture et des Congrés: Lucerne. 1993
Musée du Quai Branly, Paris: 1999
Extension to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid: 1999

… and of course:

Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum: 2017

The theory

Going over Jean Nouvel’s writings, manifestos and interviews, we can find several references to situationism and phenomenology, influenced by the years shared with Parent and Paul (Nouvel worked for the architectural firm formed by the Modernist architect Claude Parent and the “urbanist” and cultural theorist Paul Virilio while he was completing his studies).

“I believe in a situation architecture,” said Nouvel. “The situation does not mean only the place. It means the parameters of a meeting, of an appearance. In that aspect, I am a situationist … Architecture is always a response to a social, economic and political problem”.

Later, Nouvel defined his approach as a philosophy that links concept and context: “For me, being modern means making the best use of our memory and taking the risk of invention. I would say that architecture is above all an attitude of the mind that favours the contextual on the one hand, the conceptual on the other”. And, in a wider sense: “Architecture is the testimony of the culture of the moment. It is the crystallisation of contemporary culture.”

And again: “It is not at all a matter of repeating what happened in the 20th century, in which there has been a reduction in the formal language that is repeated anywhere, it is the opposite of the phenomenon that began in the 90s and lasts until today.

“With all those buildings that are like parachutes, which are the same all over the planet, they do not have roots, and you do not know why they are there, or who they are, it is a phenomenon that can destroy all the cultural variety, the landscape. I’m on the opposite side. It’s not that we have to go in search of hyper specificity, but rather to the essence of identity, we must accentuate the identification of each place.”

In conclusion

Leave aside the motivations and consider the results: recurring images and the repetitions of elements, the single-roof solution, latticework, glass reflections, and so on. It seems Nouvel has been chasing some fixations and obsessions.

He says he’s a hedonist – “I want to give pleasure to other people” – but maybe something more interesting is happening. Nouvel could be trying to refine a ‘type’, as a metaphorical entity. This is not so strange; the repetition of a type – against the iconic form that is now the absolutely dominant trend – has been the most common way of work in architecture throughout history. The ancient temples, the cathedrals, mosques, palaces, town halls, airports, stations or houses: nearly all of them were built following a type.

The Parthenon in the Athenian Acropolis was neither the first nor the last of the Doric temples; but by its proportions, design and construction, it is considered the zenith of this type. In the same way, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the latest stop on a long intellectual journey that Nouvel has made. It represents the peak of a typology on which he has been working for more than 25 years – and here the results are better than he has previously achieved.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is also a contemporary version of the project for the Lido. It is a transposition of those aims to the UAE that revives the concept of the roof, the relationship with water, the play of reflections … In essence, Nouvel is updating his nostalgia for not being in Venice by bringing us the idea of Arabic traditional culture.

Perhaps he finally has the project that wanted to build 25 years ago. But in Borges’ words: “When we miss a place, what we really miss is the time that corresponds to that place. We don’t miss the sites, but the times.”

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