Designers

Inside Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Frank Gehry talks about Abu Dhabi Guggenheim

The site of the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is desolate these days: just arid land and concrete pilings jutting out over a peninsula on Saadiyat Island, north of the city’s urban center here. But in about three years, it is poised to become an international tourist attraction, when a stunning museum designed by Frank Gehry, a graceful tumble of giant plaster building blocks and translucent blue cones, is scheduled to open.

The site of the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is desolate these days: just arid land and concrete pilings jutting out over a peninsula on Saadiyat Island, north of the city’s urban center here. But in about three years, it is poised to become an international tourist attraction, when a stunning museum designed by Frank Gehry, a graceful tumble of giant plaster building blocks and translucent blue cones, is scheduled to open.

 Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times


Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Part of a $27 billion cultural and tourism initiative, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is one of three museums under construction that are being financed by the government of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. A branch of the Louvre, designed by Jean Nouvel, is opening next year. And the Zayed National Museum, lionizing a former ruler, designed by Norman Foster and created with the British Museum as a consultant, is expected to open its doors in 2016. Local officials bristle when asked about importing big Western brand names and expertise.

“We have to begin somewhere,” said Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, a cultural adviser at the emirates’ Ministry of Presidential Affairs. “We know we cannot create culture overnight, so we are strategically building museums that in time will train our own people, so we can find our own voice. Hopefully, in 20 or 30 years’ time, we will have our own cultural elite, so our young people won’t have to go to London or Paris to learn about art.”

Mr. Nusseibeh pointed to the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, which was paid for by the government of the Basque region of Spain and has been attracting about one million visitors a year since it opened in 1997.

As recently as the 1950s, Abu Dhabi was little more than a cluster of tiny villages and date farms populated by fishermen, pearl hunters and nomadic Bedouins. It wasn’t until the advent of oil production in the 1960s that the emirate got its first paved roads; later, hospitals and schools arrived.

Hanan Sayed Worrell, the Guggenheim’s senior representative in Abu Dhabi, stood overlooking the Guggenheim’s site on a 106-degree afternoon. “Ten years ago, there was nothing here,” she said.

Before 2006, “you would have had to come by boat,” she added. “There wasn’t a road or bridge. There was nothing but sand.”

A lot has happened in the eight years since the government of Abu Dhabi announced the project. There was the worldwide economic downturn of 2008 and the Arab Spring. There were also changes of leadership within the Tourism, Development and Investment Company, the government-run developers who are overseeing the museums. Between economic fears and political unrest, by 2012 work on the museum projects had frozen. “All the pilings were in, and then everything just stopped,” Mr. Gehry recalled. “Everybody was silent.” A year ago, he said, he heard from a new group at the development company that was determined to see the projects through.

More recently, the region has been at the center of a worker-abuse scandal, focused in particular on the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, which was built by migrant laborers who were forced to live and work under unspeakably harsh and abusive conditions. Fearing that history might repeat itself, Human Rights Watch has led several protests at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, waving banners that call for fair labor practices.

Even before the protests, Mr. Gehry said, he was contacted by Human Rights Watch. “I spoke to the emirates,” Mr. Gehry said in a telephone interview. “And they’re concerned about it, too. We’re going to make sure everything is done properly. We’re trying to move the needle.”

Unlike Doha (Qatar’s capital) — whose royal family has enlisted top flight advisers and spent what is rumored to be more than $1 billion to build a masterpiece collection including works by Cézanne, Picasso, Rothko, Twombly and Damien Hirst for its network of museums — Abu Dhabi has been modest in its acquisitions. While no one at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will talk officially about money, people close to the museum say they have a budget of about $600 million with which the curators, in collaboration with local officials, have so far purchased about 250 works.

Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, who said he sees establishing a branch in Abu Dhabi as part of the museum’s worldwide mission, added that he was “deeply committed to fair labor issues.” Although a contractor for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not been selected (a decision, officials there say, is imminent), the government of Abu Dhabi, through the development company, has already hired Pricewaterhouse Coopers to oversee the construction, which is expected to start next year, enlisting monitors to keep watch over the project.

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About Zoran Opalic

Professional in design and publishing industry. Conceptualize and orchestrate designs and redesigns that effectively reinforce and build brand images. Proven ability to drive record-high campaign in increasing publication sales and execute successful product launches...

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