Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Rain of Light landmark begins to recede from view

After more than five years as an important test structure for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, the distinctive wedge-shaped Rain of Light has served its purpose. With the building now being demolished, Nick Leech reports on the milestones it achieved.

The skeleton of the Rain of Light mockup building.  Silvia Razgova / The National
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For the past five years a grey, wedge-shaped monolith on the north-west corner of Saadiyat Island has been one of the most curious landmarks on Abu Dhabi’s rapidly changing skyline.

Named after the optical effect it was built to test, the Rain of Light chamber was completed soon after construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi began in March 2009.

As German foundation specialist Bauer International sank 100 kilometres of steel and more than 4,500 concrete pilings into the sand to start the project, the chamber was the only part visible from the 1.4-kilometre, 10-lane Sheikh Khalifa Bridge crossing from Abu Dhabi island.

During 2011 and 2012, the years of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s apparent hiatus, it appeared more like the vestige of a vision whose future was far from clear.

But since last year when the contract for Louvre Abu Dhabi was finally awarded and the current phase of construction began, the Rain of Light has slowly receded from view.

Obscured by the efforts of 5,000 workers over 19-million man hours, the Rain of Light was soon overshadowed by an even more distinctive landmark – the curving form of the Louvre’s 180-metre wide roof.

Now the chamber is to disappear for good.

“The Rain of Light has been the landmark for Saadiyat for as long as I can remember, but we’ve started demolition now so the contractor can use the area,” says Turner Construction International’s Amer Kharbush, the Louvre’s project manager.

“We are talking above 55 per cent with a little bit more than a year to go. We’ve finished 99 per cent of the gallery spaces. We have one more roof slab left to pour, but structurally we’re complete and we are actually starting the internal finishing work on the galleries.”

Mr Kharbush admits that there is still some serious heavy lifting to do, as the 7,000-tonne roof has to be raised, centimetre by centimetre before it can be lowered with millimetre accuracy into place.

Jassim Al Hammadi, director of infrastructure and buildings at Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company, says once the dome has been lowered into place most of the project’s most serious challenges will have passed.

“What’s coming is the mechanical, electrical and plumbing work, and finishing,” Mr Al Hammadi says. “Right now, we have around 5,000 men on site and we might reach a peak of 7,000 or 8,000, just to mitigate whatever we may have lost on time so we can achieve our goal.”

Mr Kharbush says the opening target for Louvre Abu Dhabi remains the same, 13 months from now.

“At this moment in time, the plan is [to open in] December 2015,” he says. “We’re on plan right now and we haven’t deviated.”

While the demolition of the Rain of Light may be a lesser milestone for Mr Kharbush and his colleagues, its removal does mark a tipping point.

As with the nearby mock-up gallery – which was built to allow the fine-tuning of the museum’s design, finishes, colours and materials – the chamber’s removal means a shift from time-consuming testing and experimentation to an all-out push for completion.

The Rain of Light was built as a test chamber for the analysis of a 1:1 scale prototype section of the museum’s canopy.

More than just a roof, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s dome is likely to become the museum’s signature, the unmistakable feature that promises to capture the imagination of the public, professionals and photographers alike.

The structure, resembling an upturned saucer, weighs almost as much as the Eiffel Tower. It will weigh 12,000 tonnes once the eight layers of aluminium and stainless steel cladding have been added, allowing it to work its particular magic.

Designed as a protective veil to create a microclimate for the museum’s visitors, buildings and precincts, the canopy will also use a computer-designed lattice to create the shifting light effect that its designer, Jean Nouvel, christened the Rain of Light.

“We [will] walk around in the shade that is perforated by small holes,” the architect said during a recent visit. “These small holes aren’t what you see in a strainer; they’re not just random holes that allow light in. It has to pass through a total of eight filters.

“Sunlight passes through two holes, then it is blocked by the third. But this soon changes as the rays move and we get spots of light that appear and disappear, enlarge and shrink.

“It’s a kinetic effect that is visible to the naked eye, because in 30 to 40 seconds you’ll see that one spot is getting bigger and another is disappearing.”

While Nouvel’s intangible and ephemeral dream can be predicted using computers and models, it could not be accurately recreated in detail without a full-scale mock-up operating in real conditions.

“The on site mock-up provided the team with a reference of the working effect of the Rain of Light and the opportunity to study the beams of light so as to specifically adjust the perforation pattern,” explains Atelier Jean Nouvel’s Hala Warde, the project’s architectural leader since its inception in 2007.

“The Rain of Light mock-up was always considered a temporary structure. As all the tests have now been conducted, it is time for it to be dismantled.”

Now that the details of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s canopy have been finalised, the construction teams can apply the 8,000 aluminium and stainless steel “stars” that will help to turn Nouvel’s vision into reality.

But it is a rather different kind of light effect that has captured Mr Kharbush’s imagination.

“We’re done with the dome and we’re almost there,” he says. “The light at the end of the tunnel is getting bigger.”

nleech@thenational.ae