It was nine years ago to the day that I first visited Abu Dhabi. I was there for the launch party of the island of Nurai, a tadpole-shaped sand mass about 20km off the coast of Abu Dhabi, which local developer Zaya and luxury real estate marketer Michael Shvo were planning to turn into an off-shore paradise. New York based industrial designer Dror Benshetrit, who was tasked with creating the overall scheme, drew up plans for 36,500 sq m of over-water villas and 31 meticulously landscaped beachfront estates. Nurai would be the height of luxury but the developers’ commitment to innovative architecture and design would set it apart from previous Emirati developments aimed at the extremely well-heeled.

Curator Jean-Luc Martinez opens up about the Louvre Abu Dhabi in our April issue – see a preview here

These were the heady days before the financial crisis hit, and Shvo was a swashbuckling figure with a flair for theatrics. He constructed a multi-million dollar sales centre replete with an elevated boardwalk above actual water and virtual reality fly-throughs on floor-to-ceiling screens. He ferried in 300 potential buyers by helicopter, orchestrated a fireworks display, and enlisted Lionel Ritchie for a private performance. Over $750m worth of real estate was bought within the next two days, prompting Shvo to declare that he’d ‘made gold from sand’. But just a few weeks later, markets plunged. Construction on Nurai continued, though its plans had to be scaled down. Other less fortunate projects never left the drawing board.

On the same trip, I also visited Saadiyat Island and saw the ambitious plans to make Abu Dhabi a cultural capital, a highbrow rival to noisy neighbour Dubai’s flashier developments such as The Palm and The World. It would be the largest new artistic cluster on the planet, with monumental contributions from architectural titans Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando and Norman Foster. Beset with inevitable post-crash complications, only one of the five grand projects is now close to completion – Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, a 600ft-wide dome raised above waterways, plazas and galleries. Read John Arlidge’s exclusive interview with Louvre president director Jean-Luc Martinez, the man charged with making a success of the project, who admits he’s ‘just a little bit terrified’. We’ll be back there later in the year and be the first to reveal the interiors of a remarkable monument to Abu Dhabi’s ambitions, architectural and otherwise. It’s been a long time coming, but some things are worth waiting for.

As originally featured in the April 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*217)

RELATED TOPICS: ZAHA HADID, FRANK GEHRY, TONY CHAMBERS, MUSEUM ARCHITECTURE