The use of light and geometry in the design of The Louvre, Abu Dhabi

The Museum’s spectacular steel dome hovers over the waters of the Persian Gulf. - The Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Architecture by Jean Nouvel. Engineering by BuroHappold. Steel construction by Waagner Biro.

The Museum’s spectacular steel dome hovers over the waters of the Persian Gulf.
The Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Architecture by Jean Nouvel. Engineering by BuroHappold. Steel construction by Waagner Biro.

Sitting pretty on the edge of the Persian Gulf

The Dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is probably one of the most complex steel structures to be built in recent times. Although this vast construction spans 180 meters in diameter, its shimmering curved surface seems to hover over the surface of the sea. And yet the structure weighs 7,500 tonnes which is heavier than the structure of the Eiffel Tower!

“People do not resist thermal shock well. Nor do works of art.” With this cryptic remark, Pritzker prize winner Jean Nouvel summarizes one of the key challenges behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi project. Anybody who has travelled on the Arabian coast will know that the blinding light and searing heat is so intense that you instinctively seek respite in the shade. Temperatures range from C18° in winter to C°36 in the summer season which is long, sweltering, oppressive and arid. That didn’t spell any good for the Louvre curators who were about to lend some 300 works of art to the new Museum.

Palm trees and medinas

Nouvel says he drew his inspiration from two key elements in Arabic architecture: light and geometry. These two elements already featured in the Paris World Arab Institute which he designed in 1986. One of its distinctive features was the motorized diaphragm openings on the South side of the building whose polygons of varying shapes and sizes create a geometric effect recalling the traditional wooden lattice screens of the Alhambra.

Here Nouvel compares the carefully contrived “rain of light” that comes through the complex canopy of the dome to the way light filters through the roof of a souk or the leaves of a palm tree. Below the dome 55 white pavilions are clustered together, higgledy-piggledy, in an artful muddle, like the white washed houses of a medina. With a total thickness of 7 meters and an overall perforation percentage of only 1.8%, the massive steel canopy forms a protective layer which softens the micro-climate under the dome by a few degrees. The sun’s rays “must infiltrate through its different strata. “Many will be blocked, others will find their way” explains Nouvel. “Bright spots will appear here and there and then disappear”.

Light from the canopy above reflects into the pools of water to create a mesmerizing effect. The Louvre,Abu Dhabi. © Photography by Luc Boegly & Sergio Grazia. Architecture by Jean Nouvel. Engineering by BuroHappold. Steel construction by Waagner Biro.

Light from the canopy above reflects into the pools of water to create a mesmerizing effect. The Louvre,Abu Dhabi. © Photography by Luc Boegly & Sergio Grazia. Architecture by Jean Nouvel. Engineering by BuroHappold. Steel construction by Waagner Biro.

Anchoring this massive structure to the shoreline

“The building lives on the strengths of inertia, shade, wind and water that penetrates between buildings and brings freshness. ” comments Nouvel. Inertia firstly through the building’s formidable concrete base. Basically, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a man-made archipelago extending into the sea from Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. Marine engineers from BuroHappold carried out extensive turbidity studies in the marine simulation laboratories at HR Wallingford (UK). Some 4,500 concrete pillars were buried in the sand to build the foundations including four massive 5 x 5 m concrete piers on which the dome rests. Around the edges of the structure another 280 underwater pillars, concrete breakwaters, tidal pools were added. A “wearing wall” was specially designed to shield the museum from the effects boundary is made up of precast units of ultra-high-performance concrete. Each unit is four metres high and weighs about 10 tonnes. This shelters the museum from the effects of waves and enables the units to resist outward bending forces, including the suction effect of receding tides. The pedestrian plaza is set at four metres above mean sea level. Beneath the plaza there are two basement levels constructed from cast in-situ concrete, up to one metre thick in places. All this makes up and extensive thermal mass that stores the heat during the daytime and releases it at night. Meanwhile sea water circulates through the building in the different water channels and pools bringing welcome fresh air and moisture.

The Louvre, Abu Dhabi as seen from the sea. - © Photography by Roland Halbe - Architecture by Jean Nouvel. Engineering by BuroHappold. Steel construction by Waagner Biro.

The Louvre, Abu Dhabi as seen from the sea.
© Photography by Roland Halbe
Architecture by Jean Nouvel. Engineering by BuroHappold. Steel construction by Waagner Biro.

Project information

Client: Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC).
Architect: Ateliers Jean Nouvel (AJN); Hala Wardé (HW architecture), partner architect; Engineering: Arup (sketches); BuroHappold
Gross floor area: 97 000 m2
Contractors: Joint venture Arabtec Construction LLC/San Jose SA/Oger Abu Dhabi LLC.


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