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Abu Dhabi: building in a vacuum

Are the sheikhs putting form before content? There is no currently no art to hang in the Louvre Abu Dhabi and no orchestra to play in the Performing Arts Centre

Abu Dhabi may have been spurred into action by its youthful new leadership, but a further spike on the rowel is its undeniable rivalry with Dubai. It is worth remembering that, in spite of the enormity of their projects, the two emirates are quite literally neighbouring family businesses. This creates an environment that Tabet describes as ‘healthy competition’, with lines of cousins operating under a ‘my-building-is-better-than-your-building’ logic. The more cynical Reinier de Graaf, partner at OMA – which designed the masterplan for Waterfront City, a speculative 1.5 million-inhabitant city on the borders of the two emirates – sees the Abu Dhabi-Dubai relationship as simple envy, adding: ‘It’s as basic as I describe it to you.’

Nowhere is this one-upmanship more apparent than in Abu Dhabi’s £17 billion plans for Saadiyat Island (see case study), set to be a superlative new capital for world culture. This large, low-lying island, 500m off the coast of Abu Dhabi Island, is the location for a £125 million Guggenheim by Frank Gehry (twice the budget of Bilbao); a £67 million Louvre by Jean Nouvel (part of a £800 million deal with the French Minister for Culture, including £320 million for the use of the word ‘Louvre’); a 6,300-seat Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid (pictured); a Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando; and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Foster + Partners. Alongside these projects will be 19 cultural pavilions, based on the Venice Biennale concept. The island’s further development includes hotels, resorts, golf courses and luxury housing. This ‘constellation of cultural attractions’ will be a lodestone for global tourism, and the new pearl of the Arabian coast.

The same oxymorons that apply to speculative financial developments reappear in the culture sector, in that the sheikhs are building in a vacuum in order to create demand. At present, there is no art to hang in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, nor an orchestra to play in Hadid’s anfractuous halls. Ironically the design, which resembles a complicated sports sneaker, is described by Hadid as a ‘growing organism’, gathering in complexity to achieve performance spaces ‘which spring from the structure like fruits on a vine’. In reality the desert whence it springs offers no fruits nor vines, either literally or artistically. It yields nothing but oil.

Part six: Cashing in

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