How Abu Dhabi's Bassam Freiha Art Foundation became an architectural marvel

From back-garden project to public space, Saadiyat Cultural District's first private institution opened this month

Architect of Bassam Freiha Art Foundation describes idea behind its design

Architect of Bassam Freiha Art Foundation describes idea behind its design
Powered by automated translation

With its clean angular design and gentle symmetries, Bassam Freiha Art Foundation manages the difficult task of architecturally separating itself from its impressive neighbours at the Saadiyat Cultural District.

Opening earlier this month, the foundation is the first private institution in the district. It is nestled beside Manarat Al Saadiyat and Berklee Abu Dhabi, renowned for its obsidian dune-shaped structure. The construction of Zayed National Museum with its unmistakable falcon wing looms nearby. Louvre Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, with its signature floating dome is situated mere minutes away.

In this huddle of awe-inspiring structures, Bassam Freiha Art Foundation still stands out. Its restrained design juxtaposes fibre cement and glass in a cantilever structure that tapers towards its courtyard and seemingly hovers over the water around it. Its facade is pockmarked at the sides with jagged patterns. The openings emit a serene incandescent glow in the evening and allow sunlight to filter into the space during the day. The structure’s front, meanwhile, is pristine with monolithic sides that let the glass entrance in the centre dominate the viewer’s focus.

Devising a structure that is proudly distinct in one of the world’s most dense cultural hubs was surely a challenge. While one would presume the design was established after the foundation’s location was determined, it was in fact the architecture that propelled the project from a relatively modest private endeavour to a public space.

Bassam Freiha, a philanthropist and art collector, had originally intended to build a space in the back garden of his Abu Dhabi home to hold his collection. He commissioned Rasha Gebran, director of architecture and design at ADD Consultants, to come up with a few designs for the project.

“[Freiha] called me up one day and said he wanted to build a small art gallery in his backyard,” Gebran says. “I did the regular design and then three that were completely out-of-the-box.”

One in particular stood out, though it almost seemed too far-fetched, elaborate and ambitious to function as a back-garden gallery. However, it was this design that suggested the project had greater potential. The proposal caught Freiha’s attention and eventually found its way to President Sheikh Mohamed.

“Two days later, [Freiha] calls me and tells me he showed the designs to President Sheikh Mohamed and had told him about his plans to build a gallery in his backyard,” Gebran says. “Sheikh Mohamed went quiet for a bit, looked at his art and said ‘you just gave me an idea’.”

A plaque at the entrance of the foundation quoting Freiha hints at how the president enabled the project, helping it bloom from a structure to house a single collection to a public space dedicated to showcasing artworks from regional and international private collectors.

"Heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for the generous support of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, who endorsed the establishment of this art foundation to serve as bridge for cultural dialogue. I am honored to have it bear my name,” the plaque reads.

As the project shifted to the public sphere, Gebran was called on to refine and tweak the design accordingly. By the end of January last year, Freiha reached out to the architect again, saying that he and President Sheikh Mohamed had settled on a design, and that a location for the project was to be determined. Weeks later, the president had allotted a plot on Saadiyat Cultural District.

For Gebran, this seemed like a wild dream – what had started out as a private project had rapidly turned into an institutional project at one of the most prestigious addresses in the UAE.

“I was in awe,” Gebran says. Construction of the foundation began in March last year and within a span of eight months, it had been completed. Gebran says she owes a lot to the support and expertise of Elie Kanaan of Scan Construction, who helped the project materialise as designed.

“Without him, this wouldn't have happened,” she says. “We made a very good team, he happens to be one of my childhood friends. It was pure coincidence.”

Elaborating on the design of the foundation and the materials used, Gebran points out:

“As you can see it's [a] cantilever,” she says. “There’s a pedestal that carries the steel structure. I have a concrete body from the inside that has a glass elevation. And there's a steel structure on top of it that's carrying the cladding. So, it's like an envelope. I have this major beam on top that's lifting them from both sides, and it's laying onto the concrete.”

The structure’s exterior, Gebran says, was inspired by the character of Freiha himself. “When I see Bassam, I see power, I see influence, I see a storyline. He's been here for a very long time, and has done a lot for this country,” she says.”

The interior was challenging, especially since Gebran chose to do away with centre columns to allow for complete modularity of the space. “I have set all the columns so that the space can be completely flexible,” she says. “This is why we have movable walls. The walls are on wheels. Flexibility was key.”

When deciding on the palette for the structure, she says she opted for materials and hues that are “timeless.”

“This is fibre cement,” Gebran says of the exterior. “The reason I used it is because it's extremely sustainable and it’s recyclable. It has really big spans and we can perforate it. It’s a very solid material.”

The interior, meanwhile, from the reception to restrooms, are fitted with textured stones. The doors that lead to security rooms, meanwhile, are hidden – almost undistinguishable from the walls, instilling a feeling of openness throughout the space.

“I wanted to select the right materials that would be special and timeless. Not ones that were in today and not tomorrow,” she says.

Beyond the main building, the premises also feature an annex space as well as a courtyard that can elegantly accommodate outdoor installations, as it does for its inaugural exhibitions. The courtyard features a few chikoo trees.

“The reason why we picked that tree is that [Freiha] wanted a green tree that keeps growing and symbolises growth,” she says.

In addition to hosting exhibitions, the foundation will also aim to bolster emerging talent through programming that includes annual scholarships, art history lectures, panel discussions, children workshops and book launches. The annex was designed accordingly to meet this educational and community aspect.

Gebran says the annex was actually an idea of Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi. It was his suggestion, Gebran says, to create a space for “programmes that can cater to enhancing local artists.”

The structure doesn’t seem like an afterthought, and with its sharp angular edges that peek out to the lushness of the premises, it naturally blends in with its surroundings.

Bassam Freiha Art Foundation on Saadiyat Island Abu Dhabi is open daily from 10am to 8pm. More information is available at

Updated: March 13, 2024, 8:19 AM