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Contextualism through the eyes of Jean Nouvel: the Louvre Abu Dhabi
by Marta Pienkosz

December 2020

‘Rain of light’ - the mesmerizing impression of the Louvre Abu Dhabi - is how Luc Boegly and Sergio Garcia describe their capture of the museum in the Archdaily weblog. A massive steel dome with thousands of stars seems to protect a snow- white collection of small buildings, each of which hides precious works of art. One could find harmony and impeccability in this photograph if it were not for the irregular marks of light. Two Emirati women, pictured in the foreground, admire the phenomenon while a press conference takes place in the distance. Only when one frees himself from the delight of the ‘rain of light’, the unimaginable scale of the project can be noticed. The depicted museum was founded on an unprecedented partnership between France and the UAE to nurture a bold vision of Abu Dhabi's cultural progress in 2007. It was accompanied by the prospect of creating a universal museum for future generations on the border of three continents. Modeled after the Bilbao effect, the founders wanted to create a 21st century work of architecture that would transform the underdeveloped Saadiyat Island into a bustling cultural center. This topic, however, raises some controversy regarding the perceived continuation of the Orientalist tradition, revealed by the choice of a French architect, Jean Nouvel, to implement a modernist project, named after the most prestigious museum in Europe. Therefore, it is important to understand how contemporary collaboration and careful consideration of the cultural context can fight prejudices regarding the interpretation of the Eastern world. This essay examines Nouvel’s aspiration to create a work of art in the spirit of contextual architecture, one that by definition “descriptively captures the concern for the uniqueness of place” (Hurrt, 67). Jean Nouvel's unconventional architectural practice which combines the principles of modernity and tradition shows that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is more than an oriental imposition.

A thorough exploration of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s dome shows how contextual landmarks inspired his practice and the foundations of his vision combining modernist elements with Arab culture. The centerpiece of Nouvel’s design, the massive steel dome, appears absurdly suspended in the air and delicately covers the ‘city-museum’ consisting of 23 galleries. The dome resembles the starry night sky and provides a magical backdrop to the white galleries emerging from different planes. The dome does not mirror the white or glass ceilings of typical galleries, but it delights the viewers with its originality. In the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s promotional documentary, created in collaboration with CNN, Nicolai Ouroussoff, professor at Columbia University, suggests that “ [the] remarkable dome [...] has echoes of the domes of the mosque or Mashrabiya screens and other Arab precedence”. In other words, the starry dome should be read as a modern interpretation of the Middle East's most iconic landmark - the mosques. The traditional, subtly set dome, together with the characteristic spire, however, differs from the version presented by Nouvel. The project is monumental in scale, but in comparison to mosques it is minimalistic in its finish. Lavishness, gold and arabesques were replaced with prefabricated steel and concrete, typical of rough and primitive modern architecture. The Nouvel project therefore combines local elements with modern materials, thus making an attempt to define a vision of a modern Arab building.

It is questionable, however, whether this inspiration of the mosques comes robustly from regional culture or rather embodies orientalism. Seth Graebner, doctor of French Literature, in his essay "The Louvre Abu Dhabi: French Universalism, Exported" suggests that while searching for Arab inspiration, Nouvel did not fully delve into the subject. While appreciating the architect's genius, he states that “Employing a French architect to build a major monument in some sort of Arab style would seem to follow a long Orientalist tradition of French architects designing buildings [...] in what they saw as Arab styles” (191).  Simply put, Graebner points out that the buildings erected in former French colonies drew a superficial inspiration from the Western perception of the East, which was often distorted from ignorance. Although the UAE was never colonized by France, Graebner criticizes commissioning Nouvel to build a museum that was to promote cultural development and become an icon of Abu Dhabi. Graebner further illustrates the merely superficial symbolism of the dome by adding that “at this historical distance from [...] the dynasties that built some of the most famous domes in the Muslim world, Europeans are not the only ones to stereotype ‘Arab’ Architecture” (191). To put it another way, Graebner identifies orientalism as still present and unconsciously influencing artistic intentions. It can be inferred that the contextual inspiration of the mosque dome is questionable due to its superficiality, which may have its roots in orientalist prejudices.

Analyzing Nouvel's design using one of the defining factors of contextualism, "a concern for the uniqueness of a place", however, showcases its special characteristics and conscious inspiration by the region (Hurrt, 67). In the interview for the Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Hala Warde, an architect at Ateliers Jean Nouvel, identifies two things that are “completely the essence of the Arab architecture which is the geometry and the light.” Nouvel’'s interest in both is obvious even at first glance. Eight layers of various geometric figures, superimposed systematically, refract the light thus introducing a certain degree of randomness. The tangle on the top of the dome seems to be contrasting with the regularity of the polished rectangles specked with radiating shapes. Exceptionally intense light and consistent weather all year round grant the building its regional character. This delightful effect of scattering and penetrating light into the interior would not be possible in any of the western capitals, hence the design addresses the aforementioned ‘concern for the uniqueness of the place’. Grabner points out that the “web-patterned dome allows the sun to filter through, reminiscent of rays passing through date palm fronds in an oasis […] in the best tradition of great Arabian architecture” (191). He suggests that while observing ‘The Rain of light’ one can sense a familiar shadow, soothing on hot days. The diffused light on the floor thus evokes pleasant associations. The parallels between the two effects, however, are not apparent for first-time travelers. Thus, the idea that only some can notice and experience this sensation suggests a thorough contextual inspiration, but a deviation from the orientalist stream.The Islamic influence deeply present in this project sets the Louvre apart from other glazed skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. Contextualism, therefore, grants this building a truly Arabic character, which, combined with modern materials, becomes the foundation of the newly emerging architectural style- modern Arab architecture.

The coexistence of the Louvre with the emerging urban fabric of Saadiyat Island indicates a further deviation from the universal modernist trend towards a more regionally embedded one. The location of Saadiyat Island next to the waters of the Persian Gulf was fully taken advantage of to make the Louvre look as if it was drifting on the surface of the water. On the right side of Luc Boegly’s and Sergio Grazia’s photograph one can notice the light refracting from the water surface (Figure 1, p.1). After all, what could be more representative of this region than the waters of the Persian Gulf meandering in the narrow channels between galleries? It can be said that Nouvel had the opportunity to define the style of the urban fabric, as the Saadiyat Island was underdeveloped and the architectural context itself was merely nascent at the time of his project’s construction. Although Nouvel did not have to adapt to the distinctive style of any buildings, his design should stimulate developments in proximity. However, seeing how few, if any, investments have been made in the immediate vicinity of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the contextualism of the Nouvel’s project can be questioned. In “The Open City'' Essay, Richard Sennett criticizes the state of modern urban design and introduces the concept of ‘the Open City’ as a solution to the current decline in vitality of urban imagination. One of the characteristics of such a city is the incompleteness of form which “extends to the very context of buildings themselves” (Sennett, 3). That is to say, juxtaposed buildings acquire a different meaning, thus increasing a collective urban value. Sennett further stresses the importance of a coexistence in the neighborhood by adding that “all great works of architecture […] stimulate building around themselves” (3). The incompleteness of the form eases an urban expansion thereby boosting the growth of the community. This is one of the central ideas of modern architecture that requires a simplicity of form and eventually leads to the further development of cities. One can imagine the challenge posed by this breathtaking dome for priceless works of art, it's almost as if the museum was the exhibit itself. In the search for Islamic inspiration, Nouvel overlooked the basic principles of modern design. Here the form is definitely not incomplete, but deeply geographically entrenched. Nouvel therefore chooses unique cultural characteristics at the expense of modernist ideals, thus further opposing orientalism in his design.

The analysis of curatorial practice and the embodiment of the universal vision of the museum further enriches the context of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. It was designed in such a way as to combine collections of artworks from different geographical regions and cultural origins into one unified space. The exhibitions do not solely present Middle Eastern or European culture, but rather juxtapose them in a striking way with artworks from other continents. The steel dome, pictured by Luc Boegly and Sergio Grazia, sits on top of low-lying buildings reminiscent of Arab settlements (Figure 1, p.1). Their photograph, however, depicts a vastness of empty space, uncommon for the characteristic labyrinth of narrow alleys. Esra Akcan in his scholarly article, “Is a Global History of Architecture Displayable? A Historiographical Perspective on the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale and Louvre Abu Dhabi” written for the MIT Press Journal ArtMargin, draws parallels between the symbolic meaning of the dome and universalistic vision. He states that “The dome, a familiar metaphor of universality, sits abruptly atop the pavilions, creating random meeting points, random shadows, and random spaces underneath” (91). In other words, the dome unites all these fragmented galleries arranged chronologically into one story about the modern world. More metaphorically, just as the dome connects galleries, a museum could stimulate random encounters of cultures, races, and beliefs of people united by a common experience. This informal mixing of people creates new connections between individuals from different backgrounds, thus realizing a universal vision. It can even be said that instead of fitting in with Sennett's vision of an ‘open city’, Nouvel created one within the inclusive and stimulating environment of his design. Nouvel, drawing additional inspiration from mosques, alleys and the familiar shadow of the oasis, wanted to combine traditional elements with the openness and universalist attitude of the 21st century UAE. In doing so, he created an equilibrium between the two aspects that the Emiratis value the most, respect for culture and tradition and the stimulation of diversity unmatched in any previous architectural projects.

Akcan, however, points to some limitations of this global metaphor, stating that it “is more reminiscent of an 18th-century universalist vision, which covers up existing differences by prioritizing its own preconceptions, than of a 21st-century cosmopolitan vision, constructed inductively from below through a carefully considered study of the differences and points of contact between various parts of the world” (91). Simply put, the dome covering the smaller galleries is a very superficial interpretation of universalism. The fragmentation of the building and its unification by an element with such strong metaphorical connotations alludes to a stereotypical concept of covering the differences and gaps. Akcan suggests that the Nouvel's design does not represent the dialogue between separated cultures, each represented by a small cubic space, but rather connects them in the name of the abstract idea of universalism. It can be inferred that although the design symbolizes a certain universalism, it does not cultivate the 21st century vision of cooperation between cultures and nations through careful study of the points of interaction. The orientalist influence of Nouvel's inspiration with Arab culture, discussed before, seems to also be the subject of the symbolism of the dome. The dome with the merged galleries represents what in the ignorance of the 18th century was considered a manifestation of openness and inclusion. Whether this allusion was a deliberate artistic choice or an interpretation given by the visitors is a completely new debate. There is no doubt, however, that the contextualism of such a controversial building, due to the orientalist tradition and a certain way in which Europe perceived the rest of the world, will inevitably be the subject of discussion and criticism. If Louvre Abu Dhabi was a purely modern building, derived from Chicago skyscrapers, it would not have attracted as much attention. Nouvel's striving to understand the contextualism of the region naturally evokes mixed emotions. Certainly, achieving a balance in the name of modern Arab architecture requires a compromise between the principles of both styles. Nevertheless, Nouvel's project incorporates universal vision and elements of global and Islamic culture in such a spectacular way that it opposes all orientalist impositions and justifies his innovative style.

An in-depth analysis of the contextual nature of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, symbolism,  the uniqueness of the place and curatorial practice, shows how important it was for this museum to be more than just a modernist frame for the collections. Louvre Abu Dhabi strongly emphasizes contextual inspirations from local culture and region and represents a universal vision of the 21st century museum. It thus brings together two contrasting thoughts of globalization and individuality and creates a welcoming place for all cultures that is deeply rooted in the traditions of Abu Dhabi. By creating a work of art in the spirit of contextual architecture, Nouvel departed from established unidentified architectural practices and proposed a new style, modern Arab architecture, that combines modern design principles with the inspiration of light, geometry and Islamic Art. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is, therefore, on the boundary of innovation and tradition rather than an oriental trend that contrasts the West with the East. Moreover, Abu Dhabi, by planning to create a cultural district on Saadiyat Island, hopes to further distort the Orientalist tradition in the name of interregional cooperation. In recent years, it has commissioned other large architectural firms, Foster + Partners, Gehry Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects, to build mesmerizing museums that, together with the Louvre, have the potential to become icons of 21st century modern Arab architecture.


Akcan, E. “Is a Global History of Architecture Displayable? A Historiographical Perspective on the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale and Louvre Abu Dhabi.” ARTMargins, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 88–91. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1162/ARTM_r_00105. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.

Boegly, Luc, and Sergio Grazia. Louvre Abu Dhabi / Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Archdaily, 0AD,

Graebner Seth. “The Louvre Abu Dhabi : French Universalism, Exported.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 54, no. 2, 2014, p. 186. EBSCOhost, true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.26378905&site=eds-live.

Hurrt, Steven Richard. “Conjectures on Urban Form.” Cornel Journal of Architecture v.2, January 1982,

Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi- CNN Documentary. YouTube, uploaded by Louvre Abu Dhabi, 25 Jan. 2018,

Sennett, Richard. “The Open City.” Urban Age, November 2006