Work (of art) in progress at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Work (of art) in progress at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Laurent Carpentier

ABU DHABI — The indefatigable Jean Nouvel, 69, can be proud of his project. For that matter, he is. The star French architect shakes hands, hugs, takes in all the praise with a stoic pride.

The construction site is massive in scale. In the sand, under the searing sun, 5,000 people are hard at work to ensure that in a year’s time, in December 2015, the building — the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the new museum built under the aegis of the world renowned French museum — is ready to house acclaimed art and open its doors to visitors.

Up at the very top of the cupola, the steel structure of which has just been completed, a small man under a parasol is directing the movements of seven cranes. This huge mashrabiya of 7,000 tons will subsequently be equipped with nine layers of metallic panels that will make it possible to modulate the light at will.

"An architect is mainly there to give meaning, to give a signal, to imagine what the museum will contain and make people want to enter it," says Nouvel in his deep murmuring voice.

Change of scene, far from the cacophony of the construction. For several months, the team from Paris has been on site and is now fleshing out. Those from the Emirates are starting to take the measure of their role, and communication is good. The project, criticized at first when it was only virtual, is now real and increasingly praised.

"It was badly understood at the outset," says Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez. "It’s about a transfer of competence. It's not that the Louvre is setting up in Abu Dhabi; it's that the Louvre is offering its know-how to the construction of a large universal museum."

No limit

The walls are going up, the collection — Mondrian, Caillebotte, Monet, Gauguin, Magritte — is growing at the rate of 40 million euros a year spent on acquisitions since 2008. That’s more than any French museum spends, but a lot less than the 191 million euros the Qataris paid two years ago for just one painting, Paul Cézanne’s Les Joueurs de cartes ("The Card Players").

Experts who attended the Nov. 5 acquisition meeting left the room with a gleam in their eye, mouths watering. "We’re currently discussing an extra-budgetary increase in investment for the opening," one confides.

"We’re not placing any particular limit," says the Louvre boss evasively and enigmatically.

But just what goes into establishing a universal museum? And how to design it? Is it even possible in view of the diversification of the arts today — painting, cinema, video, and so on?

"When we started out, the scientific team was working with categories of works," says Martinez. "It led nowhere. We rethought the whole thing and decided to tell a story — that of the image as seen from a global point of view. It’s a way of addressing a double tension: on the one hand that of being both an art museum and a museum of anthropology and civilization, and on the other bridging the demand for cultural identity and a universal will. This more or less corresponds to the tension of today’s world."

The result is an organization of the material that doesn’t try to be exhaustive but rather chronological: Antiquity, Middle Ages, Modern era, Contemporary era — all conceived like "neighborhoods."

A changing nation

It is happening here, in Abu Dhabi, where in two generations, a society has risen up out of the desert sands thanks to oil. In 1960, this was a fishing village by the sea. Fifty years later it has become a megalopolis where from one year to the next you may have a hard time finding your own house — even with a GPS. Far from the rigidity of the Saudi Wahhabists or the spendthrift Qataris, the emirs of Abu Dhabi are prudent and savvy students. That at least is what a certain Western optimism would hope. An autocratic monarchy, moderate by tradition, liberal in its economic approach.

A stone's throw away from Iraq, Pakistan or Yemen, Abu Dhabi is less concerned by war than by the end of its oil reserves: fifty years of economic miracle, and then what?

The emirs' strategy is to make the city an international hub at the crossroads of East and West, like the old incense or spice routes. Core targets are culture and its counterpart, education. The emirs, focused on brands, have signed partnerships with the Sorbonne and New York University, and have started building three huge museums devoted to the arts on the little island of Saadiyat .

Besides Jean Nouvel’s Louvre there is the Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster, which the British Museum is helping launch. Focused on the Emirates, it should open in late 2016. And there is the very American Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, scheduled to open in 2017, which will be devoted to contemporary art.

"The British by heritage, the American by necessity, the French by choice," says jokingly Manuel Rabaté who manages the Louvre teams on site.

One can’t help but think that in this country where 80% of the population are immigrants that the Louvre is sitting on a time-bomb. Mostly Pakistani and Indian, the cheap workforce is for the time content to have found peace and a paycheck. But what will happen when today’s immigrants have children of university age? Already the Emirates have opened public primary schools for them.

But won’t these ethnic groups want a bigger piece of the economic pie? As a philosophy professor puts it: "Just exactly how far do they think they can maintain the contradiction without its exploding?" Tradition put to the test of modernity. Universities are where revolutions burgeon. Art gives birth to the identity of a people. And the memory of a nation is built in museums.

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