Abu Dhabi’s UAE Pavilion

An environmentally friendly architectural marvel. The Foster + Partners structure is home to the capital's art fair and holds the promise of a nation

When they catch the sunlight, the undulating curves of the UAE Pavilion glimmer like a desert mirage. Situated in the centre of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island and the first building to be completed in the capital’s much lauded cultural district, the Pavilion represents in many ways the beginning of a dream. Its golden colours too, evoke the desert climate of its home.

Gerard Evenden, Senior Partner at Foster + Partners and a key facilitator behind the project elaborates further: ‘The landscape of the UAE is integral to the culture and, as a sand dune’s shape is honed by the country’s climate, moulded by the wind, this became the inspiration. There are varying shades of sand within each of the Emirates, which is why we chose a coloured stainless steel for the exterior – its hue changes at different times of the day.’

Evenden explains that a natural dune appears smooth on the side that bears the full force of the wind and rough on the side that collects the sand after it has been tipped over the ridge. The UAE Pavilion’s design replicates this. ‘The curve of the dune responds to the arc of the sun and is orientated towards the north. The solid shell forms protect against the direct glare from the south and allow indirect light to enter the habitable areas via a complex series of louvres,’ he says.



But more than just looking pretty, the design ensures a large reduction in external heat gain. It is one of the few buildings in the UAE to have a two pearl rating under the Estidama sustainable design programme implemented by Abu Dhabi to encourage more environmentally friendly development.

It is also a construction marvel. More than 20 metres tall with its intricate, computer-generated geometry and a roof measuring 6,000 square metres, the Pavilion consists of 4,880 structural steel parts, 9,750 cladding sheets and more than 20,000 cladding support components, that were designed as a kind of giant jigsaw puzzle so that the entire structure could be dismantled and reformed.




This was because the Pavilion’s first resting place was the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. It was erected over the course of 18 months for the six-month show in the Chinese metropolis during which it attracted nearly two million visitors. Then it was taken apart piece by piece, catalogued, numbered and labelled before beginning the 6500 kilometre journey over sea to the UAE. Reconstruction took about seven months and in an unprecedented logistical challenge, it was ready in time for Abu Dhabi Art Fair in November 2011.

‘As the design was so rooted in the landscape and culture of the Emirates, it seems fitting that it is now the venue for the national art fair,’ says Evenden.

The story behind the building goes a little further however, than even the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai. In order for it to make its home in the UAE at the Manarat Al Saadiyat, the Pavilion had to be raised on a concrete podium to allow room for a new mezzanine level that increased the available exhibition space by an extra 600 square metres. This meant that two new staircases and an elevator had to be included and the building’s mechanical, electrical and air-conditioning systems had to be modified to accommodate the changes in its size and use.



This was no small engineering feat but Foster + Partners was eventually credited with having the first fully functional structure on the island. ‘That was an honour,’ says Evenden. ‘We are also particularly pleased that the first functional building on the island is an inherently sustainable, recycled structure.’

Now the capital’s expanding art fair uses the purpose-built gallery space, ideal for the placing of contemporary art, every year. This is only the first step in the island’s journey to becoming a hub for cultural, architectural and educational excellence.

‘The Pavilion is just one of the many cultural highlights planned for Saadiyat Island,’ says Evenden. ‘Each building is distinct, but shares a common theme in showcasing the heritage of the UAE and its transformation. Like the pavilion, the new, emerging architecture will reflect both traditional 01 values and an awareness of today’s environmental issues.’