Nick Leech talks to Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Sir Norman Foster in advance of Architecture Visionaries, their talk at Abu Dhabi Art 2012
“It’s a madhouse in here,” remarked a young American with a look of disbelief, as he walked the line that had formed alongside the main auditorium for the public opening of Abu Dhabi Art 2012 on Wednesday night. The evening’s headline attraction, a panel discussion entitled ‘Architecture Visionaries’, was not due to start for another hour and yet a visibly and audibly excited queue, packed four people deep, already snaked down one side of the hall, through a restaurant and into a garden before spilling out into the car park beyond.
As opening nights go, it might seem strange to give top billing at an international art fair to a discussion about architecture, but this was no ordinary opening night. Not only did ‘Architecture Visionaries’ gather the architects responsible for the new Guggenheim, Louvre Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum – institutions designed to secure Saadiyat Island and Abu Dhabi’s future cultural legacy – it also represented the coming together of three of the world’s most celebrated cultural creators on a single stage, a feat of social engineering in and of itself. For one hour only, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Sir Norman Foster would talk about their very different perspectives on architecture, creativity, the relationship between modernity and tradition, and the role of culture in generating social change. It was a heady mix that well over 500 members of the cultured and the curious had found impossible to resist.
The evening had been tipped by some as an attempt by Abu Dhabi’s new Tourism and Culture Authority to reassure the world that the Saadiyat Island project is still on track. At last year’s Abu Dhabi Art there had been speculation that the Guggenheim project was under threat and the wider development has been beset by delays. It had taken three years just to get Gehry, Nouvel, and Foster together on the same platform however, the excitable chatter in the assembled throng and the international audience of Sheikhs, VIPs, artists, art dealers, curators and passionate members of the general public proved that the event was more than just a PR stunt, it was a once in a lifetime event.
Of the three Pritzker prize-winning luminaries – each is the architectural equivalent of a Nobel laureate – Jean Nouvel, the widely respected 67 year-old responsible for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, arrived first with least fuss. Despite his trademark shaved head and all black attire, Nouvel is still unburdened by the kind wider public recognition associated with Frank Gehry and Sir Norman Foster.
Gehry’s buildings, such as his career-changing Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and now a Guggenheim for the Abu Dhabi, may be the most recognisable to the wider public, but it’s Lord Foster’s arrival that causes the greatest stir. The designer of the Zayed National Museum arrives in a pair of green suede shoes and a flamboyant pink shirt and tie. Baron Foster of Thames Bank – to give him his full title – struggled to make his way to the auditorium through a press of camera flashes and requests for photographs.
Thanks to his architecture practice, Foster + Partners, Lord Foster has done more to shape the Abu Dhabi’s skyline than any other, designing both Masdar and Abu Dhabi’s new Central Market, whose soaring towers are due to open early next year. Foster + Partners were also responsible for the dune-inspired UAE Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and which now sits in permanent residence outside Manarat Al Saadiyat. Lord Foster is also one of the main patrons of Abu Dhabi Art.
“We’ve been coming here for over 10 years,” he says in conversation with me before the panel discussion. “Things take time to get established, but I think Abu Dhabi is very progressive… we’re very appreciative of the sympathetic cultural environment that we find here.” He introduces concepts that will recur later that evening: curiosity, sustainability, and innovation. “I think Masdar is probably the most radical environmental experiment that’s taking place in the world today… Even our more mainstream projects are exploratory in their own way. Central Market seeks to rediscover lots of the qualities of a traditional souk. If you take the venue for half of Abu Dhabi Art, it’s in a building that’s been recycled from Shanghai. I guess that’s the ultimate sustainable building, one that can be reused and not thrown away.”
Jean Nouvel, who spoke in French throughout the evening in translation, agrees that there is something special about working in Abu Dhabi. “The capital is on the brink of a golden age. Everything is happening here [and] I’m very proud to participate in the materialisation of this golden age, and this pushes us to go higher and beyond and further because we are doing something that the whole world is looking at.”
Relatively unknown outside France until the mid-nineteen-eighties, Nouvel found international fame when he won a competition to design one of Francois Mitterand’s Grands Projets, L’Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) on Paris’s Left Bank. The IMA was one of Nouvel’s first architectural encounters with the culture of the Islamic world, and in it he explores themes that have resurfaced in his design for the new Louvre.
Nouvel clothed the IMA – a library, museum and cultural centre – in a façade with thirty thousand light-sensitive metal diaphragms that opened and closed like the shutter of a camera. Designed to control the penetration of light into the building, the diaphragms echoed the perforations of traditional Islamic mashrabiya, a concept the architect has returned to in the 180 metre-wide perforated dome that will cast a poetic ‘Rain of Light’ on the buildings and the public spaces of the campus of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.
For Frank Gehry, the treatment of the public spaces surrounding the new Guggenheim is one of the projects key components. “The whole idea is to have public spaces around the museum that are habitable. When I first came here, I saw people sat outside in cafes and it seemed friendlier and more human so creating public spaces that are fifteen degrees cooler than the outside seemed relevant. The idea comes from the region and from the climate. I don’t think you would do a museum like that anywhere else, well maybe in Palm Springs, but nobody’s going to build a museum like that there!”
Later, the evening’s agenda steers conversation away from the specific Saadiyat projects, but the idea that architecture needs to consider more than just buildings is a theme to which Sir Norman Foster repeatedly returns.
“If you think of any place that you visit your memory of it, the quality of your life in a place is more determined by the infrastructure … in other words your experience of how you move through a city, the public spaces, the streets, the squares, the public transport, the ports, your arrival, your departure. It’s more than just the experience of an individual building and it is the interaction between the infrastructure and the individual building that determines the quality of your life.”
If Lord Foster emphasises the importance of physical connections in establishing a sense of place, for Frank Gehry, the key connections are emotional.
“Feelings is what I am interested in… what I am interested in [the] Guggenheim is the potential it has, because of the art that is going to be shown here, and the mandate from the leadership here to collect artists from all over this region and artists from all over the world, and talk to each other through the arts. Art has a truth to it that is impossible to refute and I’m looking to that for your future and for ours.”
Gehry’s final comment may seem rather lofty, but for the hundreds of people of who had been lucky enough to come together for the event, even those who’d huddled round the back of TV screens just to hear what was being said, the truth of the transcendent and communicative power of art and architecture was there to be seen.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi