From Cultural Vacuum to Cultural Capital

Culture is not the first attribute people usually ascribe to Abu Dhabi, a longtime sleepy town best known for its endless sand, enticing sea, and unimaginable amounts of oil. But with an ambitious $27-billion project underway to create an enormous tourist and cultural development on Saadiyat Island ( - located just 500m (1,640 ft.) off the coast of Abu Dhabi - the capital's reputation is changing for the better. The most talked about aspect of the Saadiyat Island project is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, anticipated to fully open by 2012. For a modest $1.3 billion, Abu Dhabi has acquired the right to use the Louvre's name for 30 years, as well as rotate artwork from the world's most famous museum. Jean Nouvel, the architect of the 24,155-sq. m (260,000-sq. ft.) complex, designed it in the shape of a floating web-patterned dome (like a giant umbrella that allows the sun to filter through), and was awarded the 2008 Pritzker architecture prize for his talent. The Louvre Abu Dhabi will showcase art across time and regions, and will be administered by an international agency of French museums that includes some of Paris's best-known art museums, such as the Musée d'Orsay, Centre Pompidou, Musée Rodin, and, of course, the Louvre.

Besides bringing in the granddaddy of all museums, the cultural district of Saadiyat Island includes plans for a national museum, performing arts center, classical arts museum, maritime museum, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, will, like its New York twin, celebrate modern and contemporary art. At 30,000 sq. m (323,000 sq. ft.), this will be the only Guggenheim museum in the region and will be larger than any existing Guggenheim in the world. And the project's ambition doesn't stop there. The 27-sq. km (10-sq. miles) Saadiyat development will also feature residential, business, and leisure components, including 8,000 villas, 38,000 apartments, 29 hotels, two championship golf courses, miles of beaches and mangrove forests, and three marinas. The enormous project will be completed in three phases, with the full opening scheduled for 2018. No doubt, the coming decade will see a number of additional ideas for this visionary project.

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