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The Louvre Abu Dhabi exterior. Courtesy of Mohamed Somji/Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Louvre Abu Dhabi, a silver-domed archipelago of buildings on the coast of the United Arab Emirates’ capital city, opened in November 2017 to international acclaim. This innovative museum was developed to bring the fruits of a cultural collaboration between Abu Dhabi and the French government to a new audience of art lovers. Global engineering firm BuroHappold helped architect Jean Nouvel realize his unique architectural vision for an institution designed to celebrate the history of humanity and reinvent the museum experience.
Located in a new cultural district just outside the historic city center on Saadiyat Island, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s goal is to become the first “universal” museum, one that tells the story of global civilization. “It presents an opportunity for world-class regional and international art to be displayed for the benefit of the Abu Dhabi citizens and visitors from across the globe, in a series of spaces that have dynamically reimagined the traditional museum experience,” says Neil Billett, global design director at BuroHappold Engineering, the firm retained by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) to provide all engineering services for the project. The artwork ranges from the ancient to the modern: Visitors can view works by Gauguin, Picasso, and Bellini on loan from the Louvre in Paris and other international institutions, as well as artifacts and paintings from the Middle East acquired for the museum’s collection.
According to Andy Pottinger, a structural engineer and associate director at BuroHappold, the museum is the first realized project of a district of cultural institutions envisioned by the TDIC for Saadiyat (translation: Happiness) Island, including the Zayed National Museum and a Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim contemporary art museum.
Louvre Abu Dhabi’s unique vision is embodied in the massive steel dome that appears to float over the institution’s array of galleries, exhibit halls, and other buildings. With a diameter of around 180 meters, or 600 feet, it’s roughly the size of five soccer fields. The dome’s tapestry of 7,850 “stars,” based on scaled and rotated versions of its steelwork, creates the perception of randomness from geometrically logical patterns. The structure itself creates a “rain-of-light” effect, in which shafts of light seem to fall from the sky. The light manifests in a soft radiance above the galleries and brighter luminescence in the open plaza, café, and restaurant.
Pottinger says realizing architect Jean Nouvel’s dream for Louvre Abu Dhabi—particularly the celestial profusion of light radiating through its dome—required shrewd, instinctive engineering and creative use of iterative BIM (building information management) to revise and refine the design. An initial leap forward, he says, was changing the support for the dome from five perimeter pillars to four, and then the “eureka moment” came when changing the steel pattern to merge with the complex, eight-layered cladding pattern in tune with the architect’s vision.
“We started out with orthogonal grids that might be associated with a stadium or arena roof, with clear visible lines of strength,” Pottinger says. “None of these were acceptable to us or to the architects. We wanted it to look like an artificial sky, a sort of randomness, with no clear lines of strength. What you see today on-site is part artwork, part lighting device, part climate modifier, and part structure.”
Ensuring the strength of the 7,500-ton dome required imposing a clear rule set, along with a bit of software wizardry. After running strength-optimization tests using Autodesk Robot Structural Analysis Professional and other tools, Pottinger’s team linked the dome’s final geometry to Revit to generate drawings showing the size of each individual component—all 11,000 of them. The Austrian company Waagner-Biro managed a complex construction sequence, which spanned five years and required the installation of 120 temporary towers.
“When I walked around the building, in advance of it opening, I could remember going around the model in the same location. It’s like computer gaming, a virtual world, until you walk into it and it becomes real,” Pottinger says.
If the dome stands as an engineering feat of the highest order, the galleries and exhibition halls are impressive in their own right, laid out in an arrangement recalling a traditional Arabian souk, or marketplace. The village-like superstructure of more than 40 detached buildings appear to float, but in truth are supported by some 4,500 concrete and steel piles founded in bedrock 11 meters beneath the waterline.
Pottinger says the BIM design model was used to create a scale model for physical wave testing. This informed the geometry of the perimeter and the position of inlets and concrete breakwaters. Infinity pools are used to ensure the water extends right into the heart of the museum under the dome. “Water is coming in through channels in many different areas. It creates a Venetian effect,” Pottinger says. “VIPs can come in by boat.”
Climate control was another important consideration. In Abu Dhabi, daytime temperatures can exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and airborne dust and salt pose threats to the artwork—and visitors’ comfort. The shading of the dome, along with a discreet, tightly integrated and efficient close-control system, Billett says, keeps the humidity at 50 percent, plus or minus 5 percent, and the indoor temperature remains within a half-degree of 70 degrees Fahrenheit within the gallery pavilions.
“You can really feel it—under the dome, the temperature drops five to six degrees, and it’s an enormous relief. Environmental conditions, light exposure, security aspects, the fact that we couldn’t use sprinkler systems for fire suppression, all sorts of requirements had to be accounted in the model,” Billett says. “These works are basically uninsurable because of their value. If there was ever any doubt about the design, no artwork would have been admitted.”
Ultimately, the project’s chief achievement is not a technical one, Billett says, but something more consequential: a translation of Nouvel’s vision, one poised to change the way visitors experience art. “It breaks free of the idea that you arrive at the door of an art gallery, enter a refrigerated lobby, and get locked inside. Here you perambulate through a series of pavilions, designed to international standards of gallery tolerance, and move freely in a modeled, understood microclimate under the dome, while water enters from the outside in a moderating space. We don’t know of anywhere else treating visitors and international art in the same way, and we’re extremely proud of it.”
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