The promise of the Cultural District has been obscured by headlines and controversy. Youssef Rakha attempts to picture a new kind of cultural venue.
It is 2020, and you have just arrived in Abu Dhabi. It has been 12 years since you were last here - briefly, for work - and so far, at least, there is hardly anything you recognise. The new state-of-the-art airport is a futuristic shopping paradise, passport control is brief and mechanised, and a Japanese-style bullet train will take you straight to your holiday destination of choice: Saadiyat Island.
An idea long in the making, the plan to develop this island around a globally-orientated Cultural District started tentatively in the lifetime of Sheikh Zayed as the flagship project of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), whose projects he regarded as crucial to the future of the country and its desire to diversify an oil-based economy. The Cultural District has been shaped since by the guidance of Sheikh Zayed's two sons, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
The mandate for Saadiyat Island and its cultural district is two-fold, and not without the possibility for misunderstanding. On the one hand leaders speak of the cultural project emanating from Emirati, Arab and Islamic heritage, and on the other, of creating "a world-class destination" that will presumably attract high-class tourists by the planeload, and in so doing develop ties with "the highest calibre of global partners".
Abu Dhabi hopes Saadiyat will facilitate "greater understanding between all nations," by building a cultural bridge to foster interaction between the great civilisations of Orient and Occident. The presence, side by side, of museums like the Louvre and the Guggenheim is sure to attract tourists from the West and beyond, but the true potential of the project is its capacity for engaging local and Arab talent, whose participation will be required if it is to realise its cultural objectives of interaction and exchange.
But it is less these mandates than its unprecedented scale that makes the Saadiyat project so momentous. To call it ambitious would be to understate not only its sheer size but also the vision that lay behind it: a glorious meeting of cultures at the heart of a peaceful Middle East which, while giving up not an ounce of its cultural identity, is moving to the forefront of world economic, technological and cultural accomplishment.
These objectives, and the scale and cost involved, were bound to incite debate. The celebratory announcements of institutional and architectural participation have overshadowed what little detailed information exists about the programming and curatorial plans for the interiors of these grand museums - and this has only widened the scope of a controversy that largely misses the point. While Saadiyat represents a hugely ambitious bid by the UAE for regional leadership in the cultural field, it is almost more important as a possible new blueprint for the very concept of a cultural venue: rather than a single building, or a complex of the same in an urban environment, a "venue" will now be constituted as a cluster of ecologically sensitive buildings that are themselves artworks — enclosed within a dedicated, naturally circumscribed space.
By the time of its completion in a decade, the Cultural District will represent perhaps the largest concentration of cultural venues anywhere in the world: four enormous museums, a five-stage performing arts centre, and a Biennial Park of 19 multipurpose venues arrayed along a man-made canal. It may be the only development on the planet whose principal architects - Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid - are all winners of the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Nouvel and Gehry respectively, promise to bring to the region masterpieces from Europe and America. Bruno Maquart, who heads the France Museums Agency, a new organisation intended to implement the agreement between France and Abu Dhabi, and to facilitate co-operation not only with the Louvre but with 12 public institutions who are partners in the plan, talks of the presence of "great French collections spanning prominent fine arts, decorative arts and archaeological findings from all around the world". The Louvre Abu Dhabi will not only display works on loan from its namesake in Paris, but from other major French museums.
While the presence of these two major names from the West has provoked various criticisms (especially in France), it has also made for local as well as international excitement. Mr Maquart dismisses criticisms to which the Louvre has been subjected from French intellectuals, saying, "I expect everyone to be proud of the ambitious work we will achieve in Abu Dhabi." For the Emirati artist Abdurrahim ash Sharif, who founded the Flying House Gallery last year in Dubai, such "myopic" reservations about Saadiyat overlook the fact that neither in the Arab world nor elsewhere in the East are there "institutions of such calibre". "We can only be proud," he says, of the presence of such centres on UAE soil.
But the Tourism Development Investment Company, which is steering the project, emphasises that it is not simply a matter of replicating institutions: the Guggenheim and Louvre will be "very different" from their namesakes: "We are not importing what already exists. Both will be new concepts for the 21st century and will be adapted to suit the needs of the new generation and the region." With "a wide geographic outreach", they will bridge "not only East and West" but also "East and East".
The parent museums will also be hiring local staff; "It is part of our job," says Mr Maquart, "to help building and training the future museum's team." Sharif's positive response typifies the sense of elation that has pervaded Emirati cultural circles, particularly in Dubai. Khaled Alnajjar of dxb.lab, the only Emirati architect with a Saadiyat commission (he will design a pavilion in the Biennial Park), enthuses, "It will be amazing. Can you imagine? It's a colossal project and the vision behind it is amazing. The experience of going there will be like nothing else. I don't know about you but I know I will be going there."
While the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, and the France Museums Agency in Paris, will obviously play a role in directing content in their respective outposts in Abu Dhabi, TDIC say it is "far too premature to commit to specifics" with regard to the other venues - the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Maritime Museum, and the Performing Arts Centre, the last of which will not open until 2018. Lord Cultural Resources, a Toronto-based infrastructure development firm, has been working on designing some of the programs for the Sheikh Zayed and Maritime Museums as well as organising the space within the Louvre. (The firm also managed content for the Saudi Arabian National Museum in Riyadh.) Barry Lord, who heads the firm, says, "Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat are really on the cutting edge of a change that is happening in the art world and the museum world," Mr Lord said, pointing to a movement out of conventional centres in Europe and America and across to other parts of the world, notably Asia. "Really what's emerging is a multicultural art world remarkably different from the art world we know, and so you have major museums reaching out I think it's a really courageous thing for a small country like the UAE to take the lead. It's heroic."
Heroism notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi is certainly making a phenomenal investment in art and culture as gateways to an increasingly transnational future where, irrespective of their place of origin, the cultural achievements of humanity, as Mr Sharif describes them, are the property of humanity at large. Emirati artists like Ibtisam Abdulaziz point, rather more pragmatically, to an increasing "tendency in the Emirates to be aware of the importance of art". She believes "there is bound to be a positive impact" for local and Arab artists - something Maquart, however tentatively, confirms: "The Agency will help with the Louvre Abu Dhabi's permanent collection and part of the acquisition process is to commission living artists from all over the world, including naturally the Arab world." The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will also have funding to establish its own permanent collection, and these works are likely to eventually circulate to the other Guggenheim museums around the world, underscoring the idea that Saadiyat Island will produce a cultural traffic that flows in two directions.
Still, for Ms Abdulaziz, Mr Sharif and many others, the test will be in how the venues actually function: content, programmes and access. And while details have yet to be determined for the most part, it is clear that both education and Emiratisation are written into the plans. It is clear even at this point that the organisers of the Cultural District are determined to gear programmes and educational outreach toward local residents, and to employ Emiratis from the outset.
Though Abu Dhabi invested enormous capital in bringing Western institutions and their collections to Saadiyat, the museums will be setting up their own administrative offices on the island, investing the enterprise with centuries-old expertise and enabling a "world-class" cultural mentality to take root in Abu Dhabi. Through the museums and universities that will join them - including New York University and the Sorbonne - the Cultural District aims to provide Emiratis and Arabs with little opportunity to visit the West with exposure to the best that the West has to offer, alongside collections of European-held Islamic art, all of this contributing to the bridge between "East and East."
As Mr Lord pointed out, the Art of Islam exhibition organised by TDIC at Emirates Palace beautifully prefigures the kind of work on which the Abu Dhabi authorities are spending their ample resources. That the London-based collector Dr Nasser D Khalili should have been persuaded to bring his peerless collection of Islamic art to Abu Dhabi must be counted an achievement.
With over 500 pieces selected from among 20,000 meticulously preserved objects in the Nasser Khalili Islamic collection — from early Koranic scrolls to Ottoman pottery, from Safavid rugs, Ilkhanid metalwork, Mughal jewellery, to work by the legendary 13th-century Abbasid calligrapher Yaqut al Musta'simi — the exhibition poignantly encapsulated the beauty and vitality of a civilisation that has had to withdraw into the wings since the dawn of modern times.
Khalili, an Iranian by birth, seemed to regard Abu Dhabi as an increasingly credible partner in the process of "bringing back the glory of Muslim artists" to this part of the world. "Most of these pieces," he said, "were actually acquired in the West;" and yet they "were not made to be kept in a corner. Being a collector," Khalili said without irony, "is a crusade."
Plans for Saadiyat Island have also incorporated a self-consciously national dimension, which has been somewhat obscured by excitement over the Guggenheim and Louvre. As well as bringing Western art into the region, and acquiring work – some of it local and Arab – that will in turn be shown in the West, the Cultural District should also contribute to a globally accessible cultural definition of the Gulf and the place it occupies in the wider context of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
More Emirati than Arab or Muslim, and definitely less Western-orientated, there are two other museums to be included in the Cultural District: the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, and the Maritime Museum. Together with the Louvre and the Guggenheim, the first and more important of these — to be designed by Foster and Partners — is due for completion by the end of Phase One of the project in 2012-13.
The TDIC say that "nothing is yet defined" for the content of the UAE's first major cultural monument to its own national identity. But the museum is intended, they say, to "reflect the life and values of Sheikh Zayed." It is not yet clear who will be directing its programmes.
According to Mr Lord, the National Museum has the twofold aim of presenting a biography of Sheikh Zayed, including memorabilia, personal affects and interactive audiovisual accounts of his life story, as well as five separate galleries, commemorating five of the values he held dearest: Emirati heritage, the environment, the transformation of the Emirates, unity through leadership and education (including the role of women).
The mission, Mr Lord says, is "to tell the story of the Emirates in an exciting way" — which story is organically bound up with the biography of Sheikh Zayed himself. Mr Lord adds that the values Sheikh Zayed promoted have since acquired greater relevance to the world at large: interest in the well being of the natural world, for example, and unity as "an example of overcoming differences through negotiation".
The Maritime Museum, designed by Tadao Ando, is scheduled to be open with Phase Two of the cultural District in 2016, but for now its contents are hard to predict: for now, TDIC say, "there are lots of initial ideas emanating from the local and regional maritime history – including the pearling industry."
Both of these walk-in environments, according to Mr Lord, will help recreate the experience of being in a particular place at a particular time, and convey to the world a message about how a small tribal society might capitalise on a single natural resource to formulate not only a unified modern nation but a cultural signature of its own.
One way in which the Cultural District hopes to draw in the world is to include provisions for every kind of artistic endeavour. The largest building conceived to this end is the Performing Arts Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, which will include not only a Music Hall, an Opera House and a Drama Theatre but also an Academy of Performing Arts. At present it is not known who will direct the content, or what will be showcased there, but it may safely be predicted that events like the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival will relocate to its stages.
The space may also absorb much of the burgeoning cinematic energy currently brewing at the Cultural Foundation and the New York Film Academy. Perhaps it will host film and theatre festivals, though whether or not it will be open to pop concerts like those of Elton John or Amr Diab is open to conjecture. It should also bolster nascent local talents in music and film, providing space for creative work, production, and performance. The plans for an Academy of Performing Arts, which remain undefined, nevertheless further confirm the commitment to make Saadiyat a place of education as well as recreation.
Likewise the Biennial Park (scheduled for Phase Three in 2018-19) is designed to be as flexible as possible. The 19 spaces are geared towards pedestrians to encourage movement from one to another and will host alternating art and architecture biennial programming while playing host to performances, exhibitions, lectures, workshops and presentations.
In itself the Park is a showcase of young architectural talent from all over the world.
Perhaps it was inevitable for the ambitions of the Cultural District to raise not only pragmatic but rather ideological concerns — most of which may be hard to allay until people have actually had the experience of visiting the venues in question, let alone detailed data about their contents and mode of operation.
In Paris the Louvre deal was decried as an instance of "France selling her soul". But according to Mr Maquart, where an "artificial transplant" of venues and exhibits is suspected, there are "high ideals and specific goals. The whole project," he adds, "is about the dialogue between Orient and Occident... spanning different geographical areas and different historical artistic periods and using the latest technology."
For Brendt Scherer, the director of the prestigious Berlin House of World Cultures, which — noticing "more and more activities in the cultural field there" and looking out to the Subcontinent and other parts of Asia — is currently considering the prospects of co-operation with the Gulf, "you just cannot transplant by bringing art from one place to another the whole set of ideas. For me the question is — and therefore I am so hesitant to say anything — if this transfer of institutions from the West to the Gulf is a completely artificial undertaking or not. But this I cannot say until I have concrete data on the ground."
Those who have more such data generally describe the exchanges to which Saadiyat should give way, rather, in terms of a mutual nurturing of souls — echoing Sheikh Mohammed's statements to the press — with institutional awareness of the importance of patronising art, to paraphrase Ms Abdulaziz, finding expression in a "totally justifiable" eagerness to co-operate with the world's foremost institutions regardless of their national allegiances.
As Mr Lord and Mr Sharif imply, the benefits of such co-operation will not be confined to Abu Dhabi or its citizens and visitors – Western institutions have much to gain from reaching out to the future centres of the art world.
While Europeans have complained that the Louvre has little to do with Arab culture, some local residents have surprisingly similar concerns about how the Cultural District will be able to reach out to Emiratis and their needs.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one poet and journalist acknowledged that "the economic side of globally orientated megaprojects is rightly prioritised," but questioned "the relevance of such projects to Emiratis themselves: surely we must first draw on our own heritage to catch up with the world, to develop a collective progressive mentality. We must have the moral as well as the material equipment to deal with others, before we embark on the business of addressing the world at large."
Mohammed al Mazru'i, a painter who worked for many years developing and managing projects at the Cultural Foundation, felt that Saadiyat was passing over "a historic opportunity to establish the first world-class museum of modern Arab art."
One test for the Cultural District will be whether it can initiate meaningful relations with the traditional cultural capitals of the Arab world (Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, the cities of the Maghreb and perhaps even Baghdad), where modern artistic and literary traditions dating back to the 18th century have lost touch with the latest developments in the Western metropolises that inspired them.
Some worry that while the project may comprise an unprecedented achievement in culture and tourism, the vast majority of Emiratis have a sensibility distant from the world of contemporary art, however much its centre is moving in our direction.
"On the one hand it is beautiful that there should be venues devoted to the arts and culture," says Dr Hissa Loutah, a professor at UAE University in Al Ain, "and I certainly hope there will be programmes that incorporate the daily life of the citizens, but on the other hand it must be remembered that culture is by definition a societal surge, and the Cultural District will be an elitist undertaking if it remains divorced from the grassroots life of this society."
Still, the test of these projects is not the astonishing scale of their ambition but rather the day-to-day operation of all the elements in concert: how the exhibits and programmes might reflect the project's stated goals of true cultural exchange as well as outreach to and involvement from the local population — to whom Saadiyat will ultimately belong.