First glimpse of jewel in the crown

A new exhibition on Saadiyat Island is the first example of a development that will soon be seen across the world as a major cultural destination.

This artist's rendering shows the design for the propsosed Louvre Museum to be built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.
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ABU DHABI // The 10-lane motorway that bisects Saadiyat Island affords unspectacular views: packed white sand; dusty construction trucks; a few cranes; squat buildings and a smattering of dun-coloured electrical sub-stations.
Yet in the midst of the vast, dusty site are growing the first shoots of a future that promises to be breathtaking. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, officially opened the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge 11 days ago, it marked a milestone in the story of the UAE. The 1.4km structure connects Saadiyat Island to Abu Dhabi city, and it is certain to become one of the world's best known bridges; a gateway to a cultural powerhouse.
The first tangible glimpse of what is to come on the island could be had yesterday evening when small group of people attended the private opening of Saadiyat's first exhibition, the Art Cars expo. The privileged few were among the first to set foot on the island who were not construction workers. The show is designed to coincide with the capital's inaugural Grand Prix next weekend. The free event opens to the public today and runs until November 30, just outside the under-construction Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition hall. To make it accessible, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has opened up a small section on the northern tip of the island.
The exhibition features classic cars decorated in pop-art designs by local and foreign artists. Alongside are vehicular reminders of the country's motoring development, including some of the Ford trucks used to transport the first drilling workers in the country, and several Chevrolet Impalas favoured by the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE. "There have been crossings through Saadiyat, but this is now the first event," said Ahmed Hussein, the chief operating officer of the TDIC, as he oversaw the finishing touches to the expo yesterday afternoon.
Although the hall exhibition hall itself is not yet complete, Mr Hussein said it would house scale models of what the island will one day look like, when it opens in time for Abu Dhabi Art, which will run from November 19 to 22. That and the Art Cars expo are the first such cultural events on an island that will become renowned for many more. By 2012 or 2013, such global attractions as the Louvre and Guggenheim museums will be rubbing shoulders with the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, while the Performing Arts Centre and a maritime museum are also planned to grace the island by 2018.
For now, just the bare bones of the new Louvre are visible. Although one day the intricate, lace-patterned dome and stunning architecture will be hard to miss, at the moment, the museum is a looming, dark green pyramid-like structure with a flattened top. "From the inside, it's dark completely. There are curtains around the whole thing," Mr Hussein said. "Jean Nouvel [the architect] is using a number of materials and testing to see which one will be useful."
Mr Nouvel is still deciding which material to use for the 180-metre dome that will cover and shade much of the museum. Using a unique, lace-like construction reminiscent of the intersecting branches of bare desert trees, the architect has built a small section of the dome using different materials to test how well each performs in the desert climate, and how each affects the natural light and temperature inside.
"He knows 100 per cent what it will be like. What I appreciate is that he's seeing what is the reality," Mr Hussein said. "These are internal preparations and tests for the Louvre dome." Mr Nouvel is also tracking how the light inside varies as the sun crosses the sky. "It's saving us millions," Mr Hussein said. "Other buildings rely on simple structures. He's relying on sunlight rays." Over at the site of the Guggenheim, construction crews have cleared the land, although the renowned American architect Frank Gehry's groundbreaking building is still impossible to discern.
The development of the entire island, including hotels and residential districts, has been targeted for completion by 2020. The island will also be home to international educational institutions such as New York University and the Sorbonne. In addition to all this, golf lovers are expected to flock to the island once the Gary Player Saadiyat Beach Golf Course opens at the end of the year. Player has used the natural assets of Saadiyat Island to help him design and shape a course that weaves in and out of surrounding developments, exposing open tees to the magnificent waterfront.
"Saadiyat Island is truly breathtaking and the sensory elements of the landscape, along with the sweeping Arabian coastline and deep green fairways, give the course a real edge. It is a gift to nature," he said when he visited the island to inspect the course last April. The tips of the date palms that dot the course, still bound in burlap, can be seen from the Shahama-Saadiyat motorway, which now affords a short cut between Abu Dhabi Port and the highway to Dubai. Allowing motorists to bypass downtown Abu Dhabi, the route incorporates the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge and merges with the motorway near Al Bahia.
"It's a great short cut," Mr Hussein said. However, at present the public are barred from leaving the motorway at any point on the island except the turn-off for Manarat Al Saadiyat. About 65 per cent of the underlying infrastructure is complete on the northern section of the island, Mr Hussein said. The underground waterworks and electrical sub-stations that will feed residential areas, museums and entertainment centres in coming years are still under construction, invisible to the untrained eye except for the criss-crossing of trucks over unpaved roads.
Saadiyat Island was originally projected to cost US$27 billion (Dh99.2bn). However, that figure is being re-assessed after the fall in the cost of construction materials, caused in part by the global financial crisis. More than 20,000 workers will be stationed there within the next year. When it is finished, the planners, architects, designers, engineers and builders behind Saadiyat Island expect it to take its place as a sparkling jewel in the crown of the UAE and the Middle East, a work of art in itself.
jgerson@thenational.ae