Saadiyat Island tour, Abu Dhabi

A model showing how Saadiyat Island will look after the ambitious
A model showing how Saadiyat Island will look after the ambitious cultural development plans of the next few years
(Image credit: press)

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.

the Louvre’s scheduled opening in 2013

After the Louvre’s scheduled opening in 2013, Abu Dhabi is looking forward to Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim in 2015

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The entrance to Gehry's Guggenheim

The entrance to Gehry's Guggenheim

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Zaha Hadid’s National Centre for the Performing Arts

Zaha Hadid’s National Centre for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open in 2017

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Tadao Ando’s wave-like Maritime Museum

Tadao Ando’s wave-like Maritime Museum promises to be another highlight

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Ando's Maritime Museum in Saadiyat

Detail of Ando's Maritime Museum in Saadiyat

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A bold statement fitting for such a bold architectural project

A bold statement fitting for such a bold architectural project

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Today Saadiyat Island is still very much a desert

Today Saadiyat Island is still very much a desert

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Evidence of construction

Evidence of construction activity is to be seen everywhere

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Jean Nouvel takes a tour of the construction site

Jean Nouvel takes a tour of the construction site of his new Louvre Abu Dhabi

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The Light Lab, a giant multistorey structure built to test the materials

The Light Lab, a giant multistorey structure built to test the materials, colours and light conditions for Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi

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A scale model of the new building outside the Light Lab

A scale model of the new building outside the Light Lab demonstrates how the space will look

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To those who walk underneath and poke their heads through the floor

To those who walk underneath and poke their heads through the floor, how the dappled effect of the light might feel

(Image credit: press)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).