Making a masterpiece

The inside story of how
the Louvre Abu Dhabi was built

To build a museum is no small endeavour. Like the precious objects it shelters and conserves, a museum must endure for centuries, educating and enlightening each new generation.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has been nearly 10 years in the making, a time of great change and upheaval in the Arab world and beyond. Yet set against a 3,000-year-old Egyptian statue or a Quranic manuscript from just a century after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, this is the merest blink of an eye.

In an age threatened by conflict and intolerance, the museum was conceived as a celebration of our common heritage and values; a bridge between East and West in a time when we need it more than ever. It is a handshake rather than a closed fist.

This spirit is embedded in the building’s DNA. Its construction is a collaboration by men and women from all faiths and cultures, drawing expertise and skills from across the world. How they built this modern masterpiece is a story worth telling and worth celebrating.

Culture at the crossroads

It was February 2006, and under conditions of absolute secrecy, when a high-powered delegation from France arrived in the United Arab Emirates. Led by the culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the group included senior officials from the French national museums and advisors. All wanted the same thing.

They had flown 3,000 kilometres to set out a framework for an agreement raised in initial contacts with the UAE that were still only a few months old: to create a world class museum in Abu Dhabi with the support and guidance of one the world’s most famous institutions. It would be called the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The proposed location was a sandy island called Saadiyat, whose northern tip lay just a few hundred metres from the port of Abu Dhabi. Its Arabic name could be translated, as the marketing and public relations teams loved to endlessly repeat, as “the island of happiness”.

Until that point, the island’s population consisted largely of seabirds and nesting turtles. Archeological evidence suggests Saadiyat had been once inhabited for centuries, but that the population had long since decamped for the comforts of the mainland.

In the 1970s, it had been the location for greenhouses intended to supply the city with tomatoes and cucumbers in an experiment in hydroponics with the University of Arizona. Its most notable visitor was the heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali.

Now it had been decided that Saadiyat would become the keystone in an ambitious project to make Abu Dhabi one of the world’s great cultural destinations, connected to the city by a new bridge and highway named in honour of Sheikh Khalifa, the UAE President. Five-star hotels, luxury villas, shopping malls, a marina and a huge performing arts centre would be built. At its heart would be a triumvirate of museums. The first of these would be the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

It took another year for the news to become public. March 6, 2007, saw the official signing of an agreement between the two countries and the release of the first artist’s impression, along with the name of the architect; Jean Nouvel, first noted for his Institut du Monde Arabe, constructed in Paris in the late 1980s.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, called it “an important step towards achieving Abu Dhabi's vision in placing itself as a cultural hub in the region and a bridge of communication between different global cultures and civilisations".

'This is a museum for here. It cannot be transferred elsewhere;
this museum in Paris, New York or London will not work'
Jean Nouvel, architect

Work began. A huge revetment, or sand barricade, was built out into the sea. Millions of tonnes of sand were pumped into the enclosed space to create the museum’s foundations along with concrete columns and steel rods thrust deep below the surface. The museum, it was confidently forecast, would open in 2012. The entire Saadiyat cultural project would be ready in 2018.

Life, as the song goes, is what happens when you are busy making other plans. A global financial downturn that began in 2008, and the Arab Spring that swept through the region in 2010, meant that the UAE suddenly had other priorities and other calls on its financial resources. In 2011, it was announced that the opening date of 2014 had been postponed to an unspecified date. For almost two years, the site literally gathered dust.

There were some who doubted the museum would ever exist as more than an architect’s drawing. They were wrong. In January 2012, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company, the Government body charged with building, announced that construction would recommence, under a Dh2.4 billion consortium led by Arabtec, a Dubai-based company whose previous achievements included the Burj Khalifa and the Emirates Palace hotel. Within months, the Louvre Abu Dhabi began to rise again.

Between the sand and the sea

If construction was paused for nearly two years on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it did not mean the site was abandoned.

Running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, huge pumps held back the sea that otherwise would have seeped through the dam walls protecting the site and returned it to its natural state.

The museum's unique design meant that when completed, the water would lap against its walls, replacing much of the land created by the temporary revetment. To the observer from afar, it would seem as if the Louvre Abu Dhabi floated on the water.

Water, though, and especially salt water, is the enemy of museums and the precious objects they conserve. So as construction resumed in the spring of 2013, one of the first tasks was the installation of a waterproof membrane to enclose and protect the entire building.

With the lowest areas of the building around 10 metres below sea level, the structure would be, in essence, a colossal balancing act between the upward forces of the water and the downward pressure of Jean Nouvel's immense domed roof.

At the time, Peter Armstrong was the project manager for Turner Construction, who had oversight of the project for the developers, the Tourism Development and Investment Company. The design, he explained, was "like taking an empty bottle, and pulling it under the water".

To protect against possible water intrusion, each of the 4,500 pillars was wired to a cathodic protection system, which provided an electric charge that prevented concrete corrosion. In this first stage of construction, the double layer of close-fitting green waterproof sheeting was laid across the entire site. The layer was subdivided into heat-sealed compartments and then vacuum-tested to ensure there were no leaks.

While some workers toiled to complete the basement levels, other parts of the site began to rise upwards. The first of these were four nine-metre-high concrete towers or piers each to be topped by a single huge steel bearing that would be the only support for the 7,000-tonne dome – equivalent almost to the weight of the Eiffel Tower.

The bearing would allow movement caused by the dome contracting and expanding with seasonal changes in temperature but would also ensure that even if the building was hit by a major earthquake – something experts say is virtually impossible – it would remain standing.

An aerial view of the site in late 2013, with a backdrop of the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge and the residential towers of Reem Island. The four completed piers to support the dome can be clearly seen, along with six tower cranes and the green waterproof sheeting

It was the second week in December 2013 and even the cool of early morning could not disguise the rising tension at the site of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

All eyes were focused on a large, oddly-shaped rectangular frame of battleship-grey steel, resting on blocks of wood and concrete.

Above it dangled the hook of a monstrous, 87-metre-tall mobile crane, so massive it had to travel on its own road of steel plates to avoid the risk of collapse on the temporary platform that had been built nearly 100 metres from the main construction area. The engineers in charge had nicknamed this behemoth Decepticon, after the robot antagonists in the Transformers films.

The role of Decepticon this morning was more benevolent. Its task was to lift the steel piece, then inch forward at its top speed of one kilometre per hour and deposit it gently on a row of temporary, tower-like structures, where it would become the first element in the museum's vast dome-like roof.

This was a moment of truth for the builders. The metal frame was one of 85 similar pieces that, connected together, would form the underlying structure of the museum's domed roof.

The operation was fraught with potential disaster. The steel frame, known as a supersized element and weighing 41 tonnes, was unnervingly close to the crane's maximum lifting capacity, running the risk that it might topple forward as the boom swung forward. To move the crane closer, though, created the possibility that its weight could collapse the newly built basement floors.

After eight hours, with the crane's safety constantly monitored by a satellite link to its German manufacturer, the supersized element had moved just 10 metres and the gathering darkness called a halt to the operation.

Yet it had been a success. On the following day it took less than an hour to complete the lift, the slackening of the crane's four lifting cables a sign that the towers had taken the weight – and that the operation had been a complete success.

Building the impossible

With the first supersized element locked in position on its temporary support tower, work on the dome began to accelerate during 2014.

By October, all 85 supersized elements had been locked in place, supported by 120 temporary towers, filling the underside of the structure with a steel forest rising out of the newly constructed gallery walls.

On December 14, one of the most complex operations in the construction of the museum was successfully completed. Over eight days, the entire dome was lifted nearly 40 centimetres above its current resting place on the temporary towers using 32 hydraulic jacks each with a lifting capacity of 310 tonnes, about the take-off weight of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Finally the shell of the dome was lowered onto the four six-tonne bearings that would be its permanent support. The operation had to allow for the fact that the dome would settle to a different profile in its new position, with the movement of parts of the structure correctly estimated to a tolerance of plus or minus one millimetre.

Early in 2014, Jean Nouvel, the French architect who conceived the design of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, visited the site and spoke exclusively to The National.

Seen from a distance, in December 2014, the Louvre Abu Dhabi seemed almost complete. The reality was another three years of hard work

The lowering of the dome was one example of the unprecedented challenges in constructing the Louvre Abu Dhabi. At one point consideration had been given to building the entire structure next to the museum, then raising it to its full height and effectively sliding it across.

The eventual plan greatly sped the construction timetable but required the museum's main buildings to be built at the same time as the roof, with the result that many of the temporary supports rose through what would eventually be the skylights of galleries.

Such was the complexity of the design and the engineering challenges it posed, that the museum could only be built using advanced computer software and newly developed materials. Even so, some of the knottier construction problems were still being worked out as the building progressed.

In this sense, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was in many ways an impossible building. The verdict of one senior project manager? "You couldn't have done it even 20 years ago."

A rain of light

Viewed from the city, the arrival of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was heralded by the profile of the dome on the skyline of Saadiyat Island.

On site, though, and hidden from public view, progress was advancing on many other fronts. To provide access to the museum, and to the future Guggenheim and Zayed National museums, a 1.2-kilometre access tunnel was built; in itself another monumental task that first required the excavation of 200,000 tonnes of sand and rock, then 6,000 tonnes of steel reinforcement and a metre-thick concrete floor along with a heat-sealed waterproof layer.

In the shadow of the dome, many of the galleries were already taking shape. Where construction permitted, the first skylights were installed, using up to 40 different types of glass, each in a unique combination.

To simulate the often harsh climate of the Arabian Gulf, a mock gallery complex was built on-site, complete in detail down to the Arabic signs for prayer rooms, the lift buttons and a waste bin with an extra slot for recycling.

On the external walls, the task was to attach the external cladding , a giant three-dimensional jigsaw composed of more than 4,680 pieces, 3,821 of which are unique.

Using ultra-high-performance, fibre-reinforced concrete, the panels create the impression of an ancient stone building from antiquity, but are impervious to the sea water that will submerge parts of the structure, and will retain their pristine appearance regardless of the environmental conditions.

High above, teams of workers were attaching the eight layers of aluminum stars; 7,500 in total, and all precisely aligned to break up the beams of light that would pour through them into a constantly changing kaleidoscope dubbed "the rain of light".

But before this could be completed there were the internal temporary structures to be first dismantled: the small matter of 30,000 metres of beams and 17,000 square metres of platforms and scaffolding. To progress to the next stage of construction, all this would have to be removed.

Let the waters flow

It was January 7, 2016 when Shehab Taha saw the Louvre Abu Dhabi properly for the first time.

This was not his first encounter with the museum. Taha, the construction manager for Turner Construction, had been involved in the project almost from the beginning.

But this day was different. Over several days, the massive rusted steel temporary towers, once essential to building the dome, had been removed.

In their place was nothing but light. It streamed through the spaces in the complex web of the roof above, but also in a great crescent of light that illuminated a space that was both familiar but utterly changed.

It was, he recalled later, “as if a big load had been lifted from my chest and I could breathe”.

The demands of a structure like the Louvre Abu Dhabi place an immense responsibility on those who have to find a way to build it.

By 2015, it was clear that the initial projected opening date for the museum of later that year would not be met. That there were delays was hardly surprising.

As Taha points out, in the world of engineering construction, there are the "big five" of challenges in terms of complexity; concrete works, marine works, steel structure, complicated finishes and electromechanical works.

Most projects incorporate a maximum of two of these. “Here on the Louvre", says Taha, "we have all of them combined.”

The removal of the towers was a slow, difficult and labour-intensive task that involved cutting up several thousands of tonnes of steel by hand. But the spaces this process liberated were also crucial to the next stage of construction; one of the most dramatic phases of all. It was time to flood the museum.

For the first three years of its construction, the Louvre Abu Dhabi sat on a man-made promontory of sand. This artificial platform was essential to allow the movement of heavy machinery and provide easy access to the external construction areas. One way of describing the process is to think of the museum as sitting in a giant dry dock.

The design for the museum, though, was intended to create the impression that it was floating on the sea. Water would almost completely surround it; in some areas even flow under the dome itself.

To fully launch Atelier Jean Nouvel's vision for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the final major stage of construction meant that the waters must return.

In preparation for the flooding, a layered system of 278 ­marine piles, concrete breakwaters, ­tidal pools and a specially ­designed "wearing wall" was built to protect the museum from the effects of maritime traffic, the vicissitudes of the Gulf’s weather and any potential security threats that might come from the sea.

Some of this was aesthetic, designed to trap water as the tide receded and maintaining the sense that the museum was surrounded by sea at all times.

Perhaps the biggest ally in the process were the laws of physics. Water was constantly forcing its way into the site, which in parts was 10 meters below sea level. To remove it, 18 pumps had run continuously for six years, removing a total of 13 million cubic metres of water, or enough to fill around 5,200 Olympic swimming pools. Simply turning off 15 of the pumps allowed the water to flood the site at a controlled rate of 15 centimetres a day.

This, of course, is a simplification. As the water returned, it produced an upward pressure on the structure, which is protected by an impermeable waterproof membrane. The 25-metre foundation piles, which first supported the building during construction, now acted as anchors. But as the water and light shimmered together in harmony, the turning of the new year meant the long dream of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was almost a reality. The world waited for the doors to open.

A museum for all the world

There is a reason for the exacting standards applied in the building of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

It is a building designed for the 22nd century and even longer. It will outlive us all; its specifications, in all their complexity, have a minimum lifespan of 100 years.

Those visitors who arrive in the first weeks of opening will be followed by countless thousands. Children will, in time, return as parents, and down the decades, perhaps again as grandparents.

This is what the best museums become with the passing of time: a place of fond memories as well as learning.

For those who built the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the opening will be a moment of pride as well as perhaps relief, tinged with regret.
It has been a long, sometimes hard, struggle, but few people have the opportunity to leave something so enduring as a legacy of their work.

Attention will now switch from what the building is, to what it says. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is audacious in its concept: to tell the common story of humanity in all its brilliance, over millennia. Its collection includes a 4,000-year-old statue of a Bactrian princess, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and a 20th-century abstract by Piet Mondrian that in turn inspired a 1960s mini dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

The most spectacular exhibit, though, may well be the building itself. Walking under the great dome will be an unforgettable sensory explosion of water and light.
Those visitors should then also remember who made this museum. That they came from Bangladesh and the Philippines, from Canada and India, from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Americas. And, of course, from the seven Emirates of the UAE, the stewards of this amazing cultural experiment.
This is their achievement; a museum from, and for, all the world.

Below: Satellite images from Google Earth reveal the construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi from 2007 to the present

'This museum will showcase the dialogue between civilisations. We are pleased that we are moving towards a new perspective of knowledge, culture and humanity'
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Words: James Langton, Nick Leech
Photographs: Christopher Pike, Silvia Razgova, Ravindranath K, Tourism Development and Investment Company
Video: Deepthi Unnikrishnan
Editors: Mo Gannon, Dan Owen

Copyright: The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017