How the Louvre Abu Dhabi found light with French architect Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel insists that every one of his projects is site specific and therefore totally unique, but at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the control and manipulation of light take centre stage once again.

The prototype chandelier developed for the Louvre Abu Dhabi takes its inspiration from traditional mosque lamps and uses ­technology normally employed in ­bicycle wheel design. Christophe Morin for The National
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When it opens, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be seen as a building where its ­architect, Jean Nouvel, has subordinated concrete and steel, glass and stone, and even the Gulf's corrosive waters, to the deft control of the gentle play of light.

From the filigreed shadows cast by the photo-sensitive apertures in his Institut du Monde Arabe (1987) to the ghostly reflections on the glass facades of buildings such as the Fondation Cartier (1994) and Musée du quai Branly (2006), this intangible force has been Nouvel’s career-long obsession, the aesthetic and intellectual constant in an oeuvre that’s often regarded as disparate and diverse.

The architect insists that every one of his projects is site specific and therefore totally unique, but at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the control and manipulation of light take centre stage once again, not least in the “rain of light” that will ­undoubtedly become the new ­museum’s signature effect. A kinetic pattern of sunlight that already glides, kaleidoscopically, across the new museum’s exterior precincts and facades, the rain of light is the product of an intricate 180-metre-wide, 12,000-tonne, 400,000-part canopy whose complexity derives directly from Nouvel’s desire to create just such an effect.

Inside the museum, natural light will also illuminate 13 “glass galleries” through roof-mounted skylights. This will create conditions where objects that are impervious to the Gulf’s harsh sun can be viewed at their best, while being protected by a system of sensors that will constantly monitor the galleries’ light levels, employing a complex system of automated blinds to reduce them if they’re ever deemed to be too intense.

The chandeliers have special adapters which allow the use of candles in place of bulbs. Christophe Morin for The Nationalt

Despite the complexity of these systems, it’s in the intimate spaces of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s restaurant where Nouvel, who makes no secret of his love of food and fine dining, has elevated the control of light from the status of engineering to something approaching art.

Thanks to a collaboration between the architect and Mobilier National, ­workshops that have created furniture for the French state since the 17th ­century, the museum’s restaurant will soon feature seven bespoke chandeliers that combine the very latest in contemporary design with the finest traditions of French craftsmanship.

The Mobilier employs 350 artisans, including the tapestry and embroidery experts who work in the world-famous Gobelins, Beauvais and Aubusson manufactories. It is responsible for the conservation, maintenance and repair of all the objects that its artisans have produced since it was established as the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne at the order of the French King Louis XIV in 1663. Now, the Mobilier’s head ­offices, designed by the renowned French ­Modernist architect Auguste Perret in 1937, also act as an archive that contains more than 100,000 pieces of furniture and 2,500 tapestries and carpets, the oldest of which were created under the direction of Charles Le Brun, first ­painter to Louis XIV. More recent ­examples include work by Picasso, Miro and Matisse.

“We work with designers here. They give us their drawings and ideas, and we do everything to make what they want,” explains Stéphane ­Aguettant, a specialist in metals who works in the Mobilier’s Research and Creation Workshop L’Atelier de ­Recherche et de Création (Arc).

“Some people can imagine what the object will look like without any problems. Jean Nouvel can do this and I can do it too, but not everybody,” Aguettant says. “So to talk about design, it’s very important to have something to look at that allows us to make decisions about dimensions and materials.”

The Arc contains specialist workshops for cabinetmaking, carpentry and ­metalworking, and has produced contemporary furniture for presidents and palaces, embassies and ministries. It has also worked with designers such as Pierre Paulin, Olivier Mourgue, Philippe Starck and Ettore Sottsass since it was established in 1964.

The outcome of the AJN and ­Mobilier project can be seen in a series of ­lambent halos that currently illuminate a grey stairwell in the Mobilier’s ­utilitarian headquarters. Refracting through a ­series of delicate capsules of hand-blown Bohemian glass and ­reflecting off spokes and rings of polished stainless steel, the light is the product of a prototype that’s the result of more than eight months of intense design development and ­co-ordination.

The chandeliers have special adapters which allow the use of candles in place of bulbs. Christophe Morin for The National

“This is Jean Nouvel’s design and even if I am a designer myself, I just helped him to make it happen,” explains Frédéric Imbert, a senior designer with Ateliers Jean Nouvel who also worked on the complex geometry of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s canopy.

As refined as it is elegant, the ­chandelier uses techniques and ­technology normally employed in ­bicycle wheel design to create a chandelier that also takes its inspiration from traditional mosque lamps, such as those found in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. A building that started life in 537AD as an Orthodox basilica and cathedral – the largest in the world until the construction of Seville Cathedral in 1520 – the Church of the Holy Wisdom became an imperial mosque after the forces of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II finally captured Constantinople in 1453.

“We took the chandeliers there as one of our references because it’s a ­building that used to be a church and then ­became a mosque. That makes it interesting because it represents a ­hybrid, more open-minded approach to ­religion,” ­Imbert says, adopting a very benign view of history that reflects the curatorial stance of the Louvre Abu ­Dhabi.

When it came to Imbert’s work with the team in the Arc, it was a joint love of cycling that propelled the chandelier’s design development, and the choice of materials and techniques. “We took the technology of a bicycle wheel because we liked the lightness and the tension of their structure and we used the technology to create a classical design,” says ­Imbert, an industrial designer who is also a specialist in metallurgy and welding.

“The original aim was to start from a chandelier that you might find in a traditional mosque – that’s why we’ve used hand blown glass – but what is modern is the light source and the tension in the structure,” he says.

“Jean Nouvel’s first aim was also to produce a classic chandelier with candles so that’s why we’ve ended up developing special adaptors that allow you to unscrew the bulbs and put real candles inside.”

The design process started in AJN’s studio and then continued in the Arc’s specialist metals workshop, a room full of workbenches, lathes, drills and tools where Aguettant and his ­colleague, ­Dimitri Hérenicia built the first ­prototype from little more than ­available odds and ends.

“For the model, we make everything by hand with the tools we have here and in the beginning we made small parts, just to see how we might make the junctions and to arrive at the right dimensions,” Aguettant explains. “First of all we made it in wood, just to see and understand the volume, because this is very ­important when you are moving from drawings on paper,” the artisan says, holding up an object that looks like a small cartwheel. “We started with a wooden design like this and only later did we try it in metal to try to understand how many parts would be required and then, after more than three months, it became tubular.”

The prototype chandelier developed for the Louvre Abu Dhabi takes its inspiration from traditional mosque lamps.

Christophe Morin for The National

The precise dimensions of the ­chandelier were determined by a number of technical considerations, such as the weight of the glass or the volume of electrical wire that’s required for a fully ­programmable chandelier, but the real driver behind the design was Jean Nouvel’s desire for an elegance that is simultaneously ­contemporary and classical. “Initially we thought that the weight would be a big issue,” Imbert admits. “But ­eventually the goal was more about addressing the perception of weight rather than the physical weight of the chandelier, which is actually quite light.

When all seven chandeliers are installed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s ­restaurant, they will illuminate a space that has the capacity to contain seven private dining booths or one large room, and the ability to programme the chandeliers to be able to respond to those changes was also a key part of Jean Nouvel’s design.

“If the event is more private, everything is closed and both the chandelier and the light levels will be lower. But if you have a more public event or corporate dining, it will be more open and the light levels and chandeliers will be raised and will also align,” Imbert explains.

“For the prototype, we have just two rings of lights and that already produces a lot of light, but for the museum there will be five rings per chandelier and each [ring] will have three different levels of light control. That’s a lot of wire.”

“We also had many discussions about the spokes, because in the beginning we weren’t sure that they could support the weight of the glass,” Aguettant adds. “They are only 2mm thick, exactly the same as those on a bicycle, but if they’re good enough for a Grand Bois [bicycle wheel] they’re strong enough for the chandelier.”