Why I will always remember the Louvre Abu Dhabi I saw first

Nick Leech describes reporting on the Louvre Abu Dhabi over the last 5 years as the new museum has taken shape

A laborer works, fitting a rubber gasket between the aluminium extrusions and the stainless steel panels on 'stars', which will become cladding pieces for the Louvre Abu Dhabi dome, on Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, at the White Aluminium fabrication plant in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi.  The steel panels are inserted into the stars to give them the reflective quality that is required by Jean Nouvel's concept for the Louvre. A gasket has to be fitted between the stainless steel and the aluminium to prevent the stainless steel and the aluminium from making contact because if they do, then the metals will corrode.(Silvia Razgova / The National)  /  Usage:  undated, RESTRICTED /  Section: NA   /  Reporter:  Nick Leech *** Local Caption ***  SR-150119-LAD0155.jpg SR-150119-LAD0155.jpg
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For the second time in two weeks, unofficial pictures from inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi have recently ­appeared on social media, providing a ­tantalising glimpse inside the new museum and serving as a reminder that the building is almost complete.

The first post appeared more than a week ago on Twitter when the French ambassador to the UAE, Ludovic Pouille, posted images showing the interior of the museum's mighty temporary gallery, a vast box-like space that will eventually act as a home for travelling exhibitions.

Pouille's second image captured the underside of the museum's 180­-metre-wide canopy, which not only generates a microclimate that shelters the museum precincts, but also act as the lens that generates what promises to be the museum's signature effect – Jean Nouvel's much-anticipated and kaleidoscopic Rain of Light.

The second online post came earlier this week when, following a private tour, a Kuwaiti architect posted an image of himself up against some of the metal "stars" that help to form the museum's eight-layered, 7,000 tonne roof.


Read more: Louvre Abu Dhabi's Rain of Light roof - in pictures


This was contrasted with a shot that appears to reveal little more than a fairly anonymous-looking stairwell. But appearances can be deceiving.

On show is a glimpse of the museum's dark and crisply-cut paving, much of which is made from a Belgian limestone called bleue du Hainaut – chosen for its hardness and ability to be cut with precision – and the building's chalky concrete cladding.

In comparison to the museum's dense and multi-layered roof, which from the underside looks like a giant woven and upturned nest, the Louvre Abu Dhabi's smooth walls are deceptively simple, but like everything on the project, their cladding is actually fiendishly complex and sheds a light on the depth of detail and the enormity of effort that has gone into its construction.

As many as 4,680 panels of ultra-high performance, fibre-reinforced concrete have been used to dress the museum's walls and unbelievably, 3,821 of these are unique, which not only means that each has its own specific location, but that they had to be fitted in a precise order, like some giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Coupled with the fact that every building, doorway, window and angle has a different dimension, the finish was designed to achieve an illusory, archaic effect and to communicate an almost impalpable sense of a building that has been hand-crafted over time, which, to a large extent the Louvre Abu Dhabi has.

Nothing communicated that sense of the hand-made and the bespoke as much as the scene I witnessed in 2015 at a fabrication and assembly plant, deep in Mussafah, Abu Dhabi's industrial zone.

Laborers work with aluminium extrusions, which clip together to form the 'stars' that will become cladding pieces for the Louvre Abu Dhabi dome, on Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, at the White Aluminium fabrication plant in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi. (Silvia Razgova / The National)  /  Usage:  undated, RESTRICTED /  Section: NA   /  Reporter:  Nick Leech *** Local Caption ***  SR-150119-LAD0103.jpg SR-150119-LAD0103.jpg
Workers clip simple aluminium extrusions together to form the complex 'stars' that clad the Louvre Abu Dhabi's dome at a fabrication plant in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National

There, in the same place where the window frames for the Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi's leaning Capital Gate Tower were made, I watched men using little more than screwdrivers and mallets transform 500,000 aluminium profiles into the 7,850 stars that now clad the museum's mighty roof.

The air may have peeled with the sound of ringing hammers and the clash of metal hitting metal, but the care that was taken in creating stars with the necessary accuracy, which was measured in millimetres rather than centimetres, was more reminiscent of watching a tailor or a cabinetmaker at work.


Read more: Play of light entwined in design: The Louvre Abu Dhabi's concrete cladding is far from simple


Back at Saadiyat I watched as the largest, which measured 13 metres in diameter and weighed 1.3 tonnes, was lifted into place and then stood on the very top and centre of the museum's canopy, looking back at Abu Dhabi's skyline as the shining metal hemisphere sloped away from me, vertiginously, on all sides.


Read more: Final outer piece of Louvre Abu Dhabi's jigsaw canopy put in place


A colleague of mine says that imaginatively, we always inhabit the Abu Dhabi we knew when we arrived, not the city as we experience it in the present, and that is certainly the case when it comes to my experience of reporting on the Saadiyat Island museum.

No matter how serene the Louvre Abu Dhabi may feel when it opens, or how illustrious its contents, it will always be a place of titanic effort and profound achievement for me, part-shipyard and part-hive, where at its peak more than 4,000 men worked to the same end at the same time, heroes each and every one of them.


Read more: 

French ambassador posts pictures from the Louvre Abu Dhabi