Saadiyat Island

by | 09. Nov 2012

Cultural | Feature

Image courtesy Tadao Ando Architects

Four renowned architects have been commissioned by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) for iconic museums and a performing arts centre which will position the UAE capital’s Saadiyat Island, that lies just offshore the emirate, as a world-class cultural destination.

Tadao Ando is designing the Maritime Museum, Frank Gehry the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Zaha Hadid the Saadiyat’s Performing Arts Centre, and Jean Nouvel is designing the Classical Museum.
Ando’s Maritime Museum concept takes its inspiration from Abu Dhabi’s natural surroundings, landscape and maritime traditions. It has a reflective surface visually merging sea and land. Its ship-like interior has floating decks which guide visitors through the exhibition space.

Dhows, Arab sailing vessels with triangular or lateen sails, float over the voids of the interior space and help create an intense visual experience by relating objects to one another and to the museum architecture as a whole. Below ground, there is a second space – a reception hall with an enormous aquarium. A traditional dhow floats over the aquarium and is seen from different perspectives.
/Tadao Ando

Image courtesy Tadao Ando Architects


Image courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP

In order to emphasis the simple, but powerful, shape of the building, the surrounding landscape is organized in grid form. Rows of trees line the forecourt of the site, creating an oasis-like border that allows visitors to transition gradually between the dynamic city and the more serene and contemplative space of the museum.

Gehry’s concept for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, which at 320,000 square feet will be the world’s largest Guggenheim museum, is designed around accommodating approximately 130,000 square feet of exhibition space. It will feature permanent collections, galleries for special exhibitions, a centre for art and technology, a children’s art education facility, archives, library and research centre and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.

It was clear from the beginning that this had to be a new invention. The landscape, the opportunity, the requirement, to build something that people all over the world would come to and the possible resource to accomplish it opened tracks that were not likely to be considered anywhere else. The site itself, virtually on the water or close to the water on all sides, in a desert landscape with the beautiful sea and the light quality of the place suggested some of the direction.
/Frank Gehry

Image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects

Four storys of central core galleries are laid out around a courtyard, with two more rings of galleries spanning out from the core. The third ring is for larger galleries, built more like raw industrial space with exposed lighting and systems. These galleries will be homes for a new scale of contemporary art – art that would be, perhaps, made on site and of a scale that could not be achieved in the normally organized museums around the world.


In Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre concept, a 62 metre high building is proposed housing five theatres – a music hall, concert hall, opera house, drama theatre and a flexible theatre with a combined seating capacity for 6,300. The Centre may also house an Academy of Performing Arts.

As it winds through the site, the architecture increases in complexity, building up height and depth and achieving multiple summits in the bodies housing the performance spaces, which spring from the structure like fruits on a vine and face westward, toward the water.
/Zaha Hadid

Image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects


Image courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel

The building becomes part of an inclining ensemble of structures that stretch from the Maritime Museum at its southern end to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi at the northern tip. With its centre of mass at the water’s edge, the Performing Arts Centre focuses its volume along the central axis of the site. This arrangement interrupts the block matrix at the Arterial Road, opening views to the sea and the skyline of Abu Dhabi.

The concert hall is above the lower four theatres, allowing daylight into its interior and dramatic views of the sea and city skyline from the huge window behind the stage. Local lobbies for each theatre are orientated towards the sea to give each visitor a constant visual contact with their surroundings.

Nouvel’s design concept for the Classical Museum owes much to Saadiyat’s natural surroundings.

The island offers a harsh landscape, tempered by its meeting with the channel, a striking image of the aridity of the earth versus the fluidity of the waters. These fired the imagination towards unknown cities buried deep into the sands or sunk under water. These dreamy thoughts have merged into a simple plan of an archaeological field revived as a small city, a cluster of nearly one-row buildings along a leisurely promenade.
/Jean Nouvel

Image courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel

The building is covered with a large dome, a form common to all civilisations. This one is made of a web of different patterns interlaced into a translucent ceiling which lets a diffuse, magical light come through in the best tradition of great Arabian architecture. Water is given a crucial role, both in reflecting every part of the building and acting as a psyche, and in creating, with a little help from the wind, a comfortable micro-climate that will give visitors a feeling of entering a different world.

The museums on Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District are scheduled to open under a phased programme starting in 2012.

Spread over 87,340 square kilometers, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates which make up the United Arab Emirates and accounts for more than 85% of the country’s total land mass. The UAE is one of the six members of the Arabian Gulf Co-operation Council.

Saadiyat Island – which translates from Arabic as Island of Happiness – is the largest single mixed-use development in the Arabian Gulf. The 27 square kilometer natural island – half the size of Bermuda – lies only 500 meters offshore Abu Dhabi island – the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Saadiyat Island is being developed into a complete visitor and residential destination.

Saadiyat Island will be linked to the main Abu Dhabi island and the Abu Dhabi mainland via two, 10-lane freeways making the destination easily accessible to Abu Dhabi International Airport, which will be just a 25 kilometer drive away.
Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District will also feature a Biennale Park and 19 international pavilions which will be criss-crossed by a 1.5 kilometre long navigable canal. The 19 pavilions, which will host a range of art and cultural events and activities, will be designed by some of today’s leading architects. These include UAE’s Khalid Alnajjar Russia’s Yuri Avvakumov, USA’s Greg Lynn, New York’s Hani Rashid, UK’s David Adjaye, China’s Pei-Zhu, and Korea’s Seung H-Sang.

The USA-headquartered urban design, engineering and interiors firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) has created the final master plan for the Cultural District.

The long-term plans also include the development of a creative campus of graduate schools in the fine arts within Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District. These will be devoted to art, architecture, music and drama. Special attention will also be given to developing educational outreach programmes for the youth of the entire Gulf region.


CITY Abu Dhabi
COUNTRY United Arab Emirates