From the highway that passes Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island there’s little more to see than dunes, dust and diggers. But the soon-to-be cultural hub of the Middle East has now started welcoming its first visitors.
Saadiyat Island (the name translates as “happiness”) is destined to house a number of new cultural megastructures by stellar architects over the next decade, among them Abu-Dhabi’s new Louvre and Guggenheim Museums by Jean Nouvel and Frank Ghery respectively. Zaha Hadid is responsible for a new Performing Arts Centre, and Tadao Ando is working on a stunning maritime museum. Scheduled to open at roughly two year intervals, the planners and the tourist board are keen to get things rolling a soon as possible – and the first space to open, inaugurated during Abu Dhabi Art with a vast and fascinating exhibition of Arab contemporary art, is the Manarat al Saadiyat.
In this vast and simple space, Disorientations II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities, has been curated by Jack Perkesan, artistic director of the Sharjah Bienale, and will run until 20 Feb 2010. This is a hardhitting and substantial show, unflinchingly documenting the Arab world of the last four decades. The exhibition is undoubtedly an important part of Abu Dhabi’s cultural programme, giving context and exposure to Middle Eastern artists in the region like never before.
Elsewhere on the island, meanwhile, signs of what the international community could expect to see of this district in the years to come are also becoming visible. Most notable, perhaps is the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Although still a long way from opening its doors – the building is expected to be completed in 2013, it is now possible to get a sense of what’s to come thanks to the Light Lab – a temporary building constructed on the site as a test ground for Jean Nouvel’s ambitious roof design. The domed structure is designed as a complex layered lace-like pattern through which light can penetrate, as if through a forest canopy, into the galleries, waterways and floors of the museum.
For the Light Lab, a section of the structure – around 1/110th the size of the final roof which will be 180m diameter – has been built to demonstrate and perfect the way that the architecture will work in reality in its location beside the Persian Gulf. The section can rotate around to mimic different conditions and angles of the roof as the light changes through the day, and season to season. It is fascinating to witness, not least because it’s not often an architect is afforded the luxury of building a multi-storey space the size of an aircraft hanger to test out his ideas prior to breaking ground.