Museum architect's inspiration: the falcon

Lord Foster's elegant rendering of nature – the museum's soaring towers represent the feathers of a falcon's wing – will house themes close to the heart of the late President of the UAE.

The Zayed National Museum as seen from the park looking north east is seen in this computer rendering distributed by TDIC in relation to Saadiyat Island, the Arts Quarter, and the newly unveiled design for the Zayed National Museum. (Courtesy TDIC)
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ABU DHABI // Five gleaming steel towers will rise grandly from a beautifully landscaped man-made oasis, climbing into the sky hundreds of metres above the Gulf.

Below, in the heart of the cavern-like ground floor, visitors to the Zayed National Museum will enter a public lobby dug into the side of a hill and illuminated from above. Suspended hanging pods will house the five main exhibition areas in an environment coloured to resemble the sands of Saadiyat Island.

Outside, sculpted gardens and a promenade will welcome guests who come to visit the 66,000-square-metre facility. Outdoor installations and gardens, all created to seamlessly fit in with the surrounding natural environment, set the stage for a uniquely UAE experience.

While the museum's design is meant to represent the feathers of a falcon's wing, solar panelling and heat exchangers imitate the natural functions of the bird's wing, said Lord Foster, the building's architect.

The concept of the architecture was conceived specifically with the UAE's scenery in mind, and the design and functionality fit surprising well together, he said.

"Falcons are very close to the heart of the founder, the heritage and the culture, [and] there is a very direct symbolic relationship," he said at the unveiling of the museum's design.

"The function of the dark golden-brown colour outside of the wing … is meant to absorb the heat, like our technology."

In the building's central atrium, the "anchor for the visitor experience", meeting areas and an information desk will co-exist with a fine dining restaurant, educational facilities and conference rooms, and a bookstore.

The plans for the museum also include nearly 1,000 square metres of restaurants and cafes, VIP and member lounges, performance space, and 340 square metres of shops.

The life story and accomplishments of the museum's namesake will be highlighted in the Sheikh Zayed: Life and Times lower gallery. Pictures, videos and artifacts will illustrate his legacy as a leader who persuaded the emirates to unify, made lasting reforms and greened the desert city of Abu Dhabi.

A library will link that narrative to research facilities and a collection of original and electronic resources. The Sheikh Zayed Library will have access to worldwide research centres.

A falconry and conservation centre will highlight the late founder's favourite pastime, as well as his inclination to make conservation of wildlife and land one of the country's top priorities.

Sheikh Zayed hosted the first International Conference on Falconry and Conservation in 1976, boosting popularity of the bird and the sport, and drawing awareness to the importance of managing the environment.

The five main upper galleries, each based on a core value of Sheikh Zayed's life and legacy, will be suspended under the five towers. The galleries - land and water, people and heritage, history and society, science and learning, faith and Islam - will further detail the narrative introduced on the lower floor.

In the Land and Water gallery, visitors will learn the history of the UAE's land use through archaeological and historical materials, along with interactive displays.

Sheikh Zayed, who stressed the importance of sustainability and conservation, made use of the land's oil and water resources, and museum visitors will see how residents were able to use, cultivate and trade the region's resources.

Because tradition and culture were tenets of Sheikh Zayed's life, the People and Heritage gallery is dedicated to celebrating the values of the Emirati people. The gallery will focus on the traditions that are at the heart of the UAE's political and cultural life, which is shaped by "an emphasis on human relationships and connections between different groups".

The exhibit will also include insight into Abu Dhabi's pre-oil times.

Visitors to the History and Society gallery will not only learn about the creation of the modern state by Sheikh Zayed, but they will also take a journey back to the Stone Age. Utilising rich archaeological material, historical documents from across the UAE and artifacts from around the world, the exhibit will detail the region's history from 200,000 BC to the establishment of the country. The gallery also draws attention to the UAE's role in the development of Middle Eastern civilisations by highlighting the area's history of maritime trade with Mesopotamia, India and Pakistan.

Sheikh Zayed's passion for education still has a strong influence today as the country aims to transition from an oil-based to knowledge-based economy as part of its long-term vision. The Science and Learning gallery will feature interactive exhibits and historic scientific tools, such as time-telling systems and sea and desert navigation. Tablets with cuneiform script, known to be among the world's first forms of writing, are expected to be exhibited.

Themes of Islam and humanitarianism, central to Sheikh Zayed's beliefs and work, will be on display in a "contemplative space". Manuscripts, models of mosques, ancient relics, photography and multimedia will demonstrate the role of Islam in Sheikh Zayed's actions and personal philosophies, as well as its place in history and practice among other faiths in the diverse, modern-day UAE.

Mohammad Ahmad al Bowardi, the secretary general of the Executive Council, said that the broader project would prove to be a financially sustainable model.

"The development of Saadiyat Island within itself has been built … to sustain the cultural district, so it is a very unique project," he said.

The museum itself is not expected to open for another four years, but the project will complement Abu Dhabi's offshoots of the Guggenheim and Louvre galleries, which are expected to open on Saadiyat Island's cultural corner around the same time.