The island of happiness looks forward to its upcoming role as the region’s major cultural hub.
The coastline of the emirate of Abu Dhabi brings to mind a handful of large puzzle pieces flung out across the waters of the shore. The capital city is located on a large triangular piece of land detached from the coast and is surrounded by numerous natural islands in a variety of shapes and sizes. The waters that flow in between these disjointed parcels of land are warm and shallow, and in the bright midday sun they shimmer in shades of turquoise and aquamarine. Driving along the empty causeway that connects the biggest of the islands, one can see low-lying gray mangroves hugging the shorelines, shuddering in the ripples on the surface of the water caused by a breeze, a solitary motorboat, or a lone kite surfer making his way through the breathtaking lagoons.
Saadiyat Island is the English translation of Jazira As-saʿdiyyat, or Island of Happiness, located just 500 m from the shore of Abu Dhabi and connected to it, since 2006, by a causeway. The island was originally covered completely by the pale sands characteristic of the area and framed by 9 km of pristine white beaches. It was in 2004 that a master plan for the development was introduced. Seven districts offering residential, education, tourism, leisure, and cultural facilities presented a plan for the future of a thriving, environmentally low-impact community and destination that would eventually accommodate 145,000 people. In 2010, New York University opened the doors to its permanent campus on Saadiyat Island as the first of several prestigious educational institutions to launch in Abu Dhabi. As the Saadiyat master plan unfurls, facilities such as the St. Regis Resort, Monte Carlo Beach Club, Manarat Al Saadiyat visitor center, and Saadiyat Beach Golf Course (designed by Gary Player) are up and running and serving the community’s first residents and visitors.
The central pillar around which the development of the island has been intended to expand is the Cultural District, designed to showcase the world’s leading architectural talents through a series of monumental boundary-defining museums. The Saadiyat Cultural District, like the Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong and the town of Bilbao, Spain, where Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum draws immense crowds annually, has been intended to function as an internationally renowned architecture and art pilgrimage site in the future.
A microclimate is created by drawing on sensations that have been explored countless times in great Arab architecture, which is based on the mastery of light and geometry.
Jean Nouvel, Architect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island.
The Cultural District, which has engaged an exceptional group of Pritzker Architectural Prize winners, will be made up of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Jean Nouvel; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, by Frank Gehry and the Zayed National Museum, by Norman Foster.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, with much local and international anticipation, is scheduled to open later this year. A magnificent lattice dome from which a “rain of light” will pour, measuring 180 m in diameter and weighing 7,500 tons, caps the low-lying stone, steel, and glass museum compound. This emblematic feature references the dome as a traditional element in regional architecture as well as the specific woven-palm thatch rooftops in particular, historically to the UAE. This is the first time the French institution has entered into a partnership of this kind, committing to a 30-year agreement during which time 200 to 300 artworks from Paris will be on loan and display alongside the permanent collection acquired.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, will be 12 times the size of its New York equivalent, at 30,000 square feet the largest Guggenheim building in the world. Eleven stacked conelike structures appearing to have been frozen mid-tumble were devised by the architect as an aesthetic and cooling feature referencing the role of wind towers, or barjeel, in local architecture historically. The collection will feature works by leading contemporary artists, site-specific work and installations, and educational programs, all assembled through a transnational prism in which narratives relevant to the site’s geographic location and regional history will be promoted.