At night, the dome sparkles from the inside. The stainless steel reinforced concrete walls in the foreground protect the museum from the sea. © Louvre Abu Dhabi – photography Mohamed Somji – Architect Jean Nouvel

Louvre Abu Dhabi: A rain of light

In the Louvre Abu Dhabi, stainless steel not only protects precious artwork but becomes art itself. The museum’s breath-taking roof contains molybdenum to withstand one of the world’s most corrosive environments. Inside, rays of sunlight dance across surfaces, creating a spectacle unlike any other, writes Thierry Pierard.
 
^ At night, the dome sparkles from the inside. The stainless steel reinforced concrete walls in the foreground protect the museum from the sea. © Louvre Abu Dhabi – photography Mohamed Somji – Architect Jean Nouvel

Article by Joanne McIntyre
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Where the desert meets the sea in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, a massive dome of stainless steel and aluminium ‘stars’ seem to levitate above water. But award-winning architect Jean Nouvel’s design is no desert mirage. The stainless steel capped structure contains the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, a ‘museum city’ of 55 individual buildings, housing priceless artworks. Its design is a work of art itself, as brilliant as the pieces it houses. This extravagant new construction is part of the Emirate’s wider initiative to diversify its economy by welcoming visitors as an international, cultural destination.

The museum’s many stainless steel features, therefore, help to guarantee the longevity of the complex as a world-class tourist destination.

As it seldom rains in the Arabian desert, the dome did not need to be fully closed. Like an upended, woven basket, sunlight filters in through select points, creating a one-of-a-kind spectacle known as the ‘rain of light’.

The woven design harkens back to the interlacing of woven palm fronds traditionally used on Emirati roofs as protection from the sun. Throughout the day, scattered fragments of light float according to the course of the sun, like levitating diamonds. This dramatic effect is inspired by the semi-covered streets of a special kind of Arab market, known as a souk. Cut out against the environing darkness, one can almost grasp the sun’s rays as they mingle with minute particles of dust in motionless suspension.

A nebula of metal stars

Sunlight enters the dome through a ‘nebula of stars’ weighing over 7,500 tonnes – as much as the Eiffel Tower. The roof is composed of 7,850 star-shaped elements superimposed over eight layers. The stainless steel clad outer layers are separated from the aluminium inner layers by a five-meter high standalone steel structure. In total, the layers contain nearly 460,000 geometrically distinct intersections, linked by over 410,000 connection points. In addition to their differing shapes, the stars’ angular arrangement varies from one layer to the next, which complicates the passage of light.

The steel structure separating the layers is made of 85 monumental elements, or Super-Sized Elements (SSE). The SSE are subdivided into 11 unique modules, each weighing on average 50 tonnes. They are welded or fastened by bolted plates. The SSE are coated with paint that reflects the infrared energy of sunlight, contributing to lower temperatures inside the structure and also to enhanced colour vibrancy.

Stainless steel for durability and aesthetics

In addition to its complex geometry, the dome’s materials play a decisive role in the ‘rain of light’.

Extruded aluminium was used as the substructure of the eight layers of stars for its ease in terms of manufacturing, implementation, weight and corrosion resistance; and also for its light-reflecting capabilities.

The engineers and the architect used stainless steel for the four upper layers of the dome, which are the most exposed to the climate, but also the most visible. The 4,481 stars of the upper layers were all clad on their upper face with 0.8-mm thick sheets made of duplex stainless steel. These sheets were first welded to each other, then fastened to the aluminium substructure through neopreneinsulated joints to avoid any galvanic corrosion of the aluminium by the stainless steel. To completely separate the two metals, the underside of the stainless steel sheets are clad with an anti-corrosion protective polyethylene film. The cladding takes on the exact curvature of the surface of the stars; an angle of slightly less than 180°, allowing for the low height of the dome of 36 meters and its wide diameter of 180 meters, accentuating its lightweight effect.

Safe with stainless steel

The admirers of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s valuable collection can rest assured. The pieces will not be impacted by ocean salts or desert sun. Resting on a stainless steel reinforced throne of concrete piles, protected by a stainless steel reinforced moat, and crowned with a stainless steel dome, the artwork and its visitors are safeguarded all around by this amazing material. Light raining in through its roof, the mirage-like Louvre Abu Dhabi is a mystical, yet calculated cultural artefact, one that will stand for many generations to enjoy, thanks to the durability imbued by molybdenum.
 

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