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AD Louvre vs. LV Foundation

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Just as ex-smokers appreciate the flavour of food more after quitting, I find I’m more appreciative of buildings since I overcame my addiction to architectural news. It’s not a total break however for, every now and then, a rogue Dezeen email or something will blog smoke in my face. And so it was I learned a couple of months ago that Jean Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre was ready to fawn over. Last summer I roamed the periphery of Paris admiring successful social housing projects and forgot Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation even existed. I finally saw it last January and last week drove down to Abu Dhabi to have a look at Abu Dhabi Louvre.

It’s Heavyweight Fight Time!

Site disturbance: LV Foundation sits in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne in a corner clearing that’s been a long time in the making.

No forests were harmed in the making of AD Louvre. Its site was probably never even mangrove swamp as it looks like it was reclaimed, surrounded by a seawall and then drained and the building built in something akin to a swimming pool that was subsequently flooded. It’s no prototype for new coastal buildings, but I was curious to see if it was worth the trouble.

Access: The closest metro station to LV Foundation is Les Sablons on the 9th. There’s a brasserie on the corner where you can wait for friends to join you in what, in summer, would be a pleasant ten-minute walk.

AD Louvre’s closest metro station is UAE Exchange 100 km away in Dubai. You could walk the six kilometres from the edge of Abu Dhabi proper but, when the temperature is 42°C as it was the day I visited, you’re going to want to either take your car or a taxi or bus from your hotel.

First glimpse: My heart didn’t skip a beat upon my first glimpse of LV Foundataion. The entrance is around the corner from a dramatically angled curve of glass with the building on the wrong side of it. “They’re sails you know?” I heard a passerby mansplain.

I first glimpsed the top of the dome of AD Louvre as I was driving across the bridge on the E12. I’m glad I did it because, expecting signage, I drove by Exits 07 and 08 and guessed my way back from Exit 09. Exasperatingly, direction signs appear once you no longer need them. The parking area stretches half a kilometre away from the building and alongside it the path to the entrance. Electric buggies will save you the walk.

I walked and, as I walked, I began to anticipate some that famously dappled sunlight as I approached the entrance in time to witness its canopy’s window of perfect uselessness one hour either side of midday one month either side of the summer solstice.

Getting in: LV Foundation had three queues: online booking, walk-ins and some mysterious third queue. There was a 90-munite wait for walk-ins. Plastic raincoats were distributed so people wouldn’t lose their place running for shelter from the squally rain. Unforeseen and unsympathetically housed security measures were in place and the cursory scan each bag received made the length and slowness of the queue even more of a mystery. Crowd control?

Getting inside AD Louvre was quick and easy with three times the number of scanners for maybe a twentieth of the people. The enclosure for the security measures looks like part of the original design but could easily be a late addition as the route from security to galleries is not straightforward.

Entrance & Layout: 

It’s not straightfoward at LV Foundation either. You enter the lobby with galleries on the left and a museum of the building and its design on the right. You must progress upwards through this before checking out the galleries on your way down. One third of the building is devoted to the building which is both monument and poem to itself. I don’t know how Art feels about this.

Gehry has called the stairwell mass The Iceberg, suggesting there’s more to it than what we see. There is in a sense. For a building intent on amplifying disjunctions between enclosure and contents, these were most uncontrived in the stairwell where the stairs were free to be stairs. Any unavoidably flat surface displayed more sketches and drawings.

Fire Escape: The fire-escape diagrams at LV Foundation no doubt satisfied requirements but, in an environment calculated to disorient and with self-referential ones the only points of reference, they were stunningly opaque. At AD Louvre I forgot to look for a fire-escape plan.

God help us!

Rainwater: Drainage is no problem at AD Louvre but leakage into the lower levels of service corridors, toilets and archive storage [!] might be as a few of the ornamental pools were empty.

Downpipes must be internal so those flat roofs had better be periodically swept just in case it does rain. At LV Foundation you can have fun trying to work out where the water goes because its many surfaces collect water on the outside or inside or both, and that water can drop onto people trying to shelter from the rain and/or the building. Nothing can be done about runoff when roof surfaces project down to a point but other situations show an astonishing degree of contrivance and I can’t help thinking there might be structural drainpipes or drainpipes as pseudo-structure.

ArtificeThe reason I think that is becauase some of the structure seems arbitrary. The equal amounts and constant distribution of metal and timber members defies rationalization in terms of structure, construction, weight or maintenance. Beams sometimes extend for the sake of it, or switch from one material to another. Mixed in with all this are non-compositional concerns as I saw one place [bottom right, below] where an exposed timber beam was protected by metal sheeting.

Here, I’m using the word artifice to describe any contrivance necessary to make the building work as designed. The design itself is of course 100% artifice.


It’s no less so at AD Louvre. The idea of having some archetypal Middle Eastern village beneath the grand and sheltering arc of the heavens isn’t without its problems. The good thing is that each gallery can have its own external volume.

Those exquisitely articulated volumes are overclad in mosaics of large panels that give this archetypal Middle Eastern village an incongruous futuro-prefab look confounding an already confounding scale. I see no reason for this, other than to indicate design effort to stop this archetypal Middle Eastern village looking too archetypal and Middle Eastern.

Navigation: I was the only one referring to the museum map as I walked around AD Louvre. The route is polylinear yet obvious. At LV Foundation, nobody seemed to know where they were going next nor how to get there. Fortunately, the incredibly helpful staff know their way around the building and can provide precise directions. Make sure you understand those directions before you thank them and go off on your own.

Toilets: Those at AD Louvre were stunning and spacious with a basin for every cubicle and unexpected side entry.  By comparison, those at LV Foundation seemed mean. Access panels mocked the wall cladding .  

Art: Let’s not forget why we’re here. More crowd control measures and a secondary queue made LV Foundation’s special exhibition a non-started. This is a problem. The building attracts people in record numbers but prevents them from seeing much – not that there’s all that much exhibition space anyway. The largest gallery at ground level had some things on loan from MoMA.

There was less of a frenzy at AD Louvre. The galleries were beautifully constructed and fitted and were probably the most beautiful and beautifully lit I’ve ever seen, although they are dim. [I’m longsighted, so I expect descriptions to be readable if I’m wearing my glasses.] The basic design decision means there are many largely unused and unappreciated external spaces between them but this allows natural light in as well as obscured views out. These links may prevent gallery fatigue but there are too many. The museum experience never really gets going. AD Louvre is not a museum like The British Museum or The Louvre where you can run in to avoid the rain and emerge hours later.

Gift Shop: The gift shop at LV Foundation isn’t large but crammed with stuff you might enjoy considering buying (but don’t buy the fritted Gehry mug unless you plan to always wash it by hand.) As is the way, you get to pass by the gift shop both on the way in and the way out. It was expensive pickings at AD Louvre and not a fridge magnet in sight!  

Restaurant: The gallery café at LV Foundation is called Le Frank and makes a big thing of fish. The one at AD Louvre has an entrance at one end for à la carte and another at the other end for take-away selections. Seating is separate but the view’s the same.


Leaving LV Foundation is simple. You just push the revolving door, it revolves and you’re out. With AD Louvre you’ve actually been outside since you left the last gallery and there’s no going back. The muesum behind you, you can now wander around taking photographs of the dome once your glasses have unsteamed.

Not much light gets past the dome. What looked like a filigree and a reprise of Institut du monde arabe but this time with no moving parts, is actually more like a Brillo pad. Many of the spaces between the galleries are accessible but deserted dead-ends. When you’ve had enough you can leave through the gift shop or via the toilets downstairs that will lead you back up to the gift shop, or you can bypass both by taking the external path to the turnstiles of no-return.

Raison d’etre: Asking why a building exists is always a good question but one rarely asked. Some people are of the opinion the Gulf States need starchitect buildings in order to establish cultural legitimacy [1] and bring in the tourists. Perhaps, but then what’s the excuse of Paris that needs neither? Grand words accompany both LV Foundation and AD Louvre but one thing they share and that we can say with the weight of history behind us is that clients with money who want to build something for whatever reason will have no trouble finding architects to help them to realize their dream.

At a reported €780 million, LV Foundation was’nt cheap but the deal is that, after 55 years, Bernard Arnault, Chairman of LVMH and France’s richest man (at US$80 bil.), will donate the building to France. We’ll never know if Mon. Arnault simply gifted the state 1% of his fortune or if there were concessions to be had from him doing so. Abu Dhabi Louvre is said to have cost €93 mil. which seems unreasonably low until you factor in the rights to use the Louvre name that cost another €500 mil. Cost-wise, the two work about the same, allowing for respective margins of obscurity. The rights [and I use the word without quotation marks] for Louis Vuitton Foundation to invoke the Gehry brand come at similarly huge cost except in this case it is folded into the cost of the building. What else could or would have been down with those monies is impossible to say.

What I can say is that judging a building on the basis of its play of surfaces and materials or its play of light and shade is obscene and to think of comparing buildings on that basis even more so. Abu Dhabi Louvre vs. LV Foundation? It’s a draw.

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  • Very playful – I don’t think I’ve read a comparison of the loos before. I passed the LV Foundation and felt no interest in entering it (and by the way, it’s the Bois de Boulogne, not Vincennes, in the 16th) and I’m interested to hear your comments about the dead cul-de-sac connecting spaces. I’d like to visit the Nouvel building because I rate him higher than Gehry – and I get a sense that you prefer it, reading between the lines. I fear these buildings are all about exhibiting themselves rather than anything inside, but they certainly draw the crowds and that’s not to be sniffed at.

    • says:

      Thanks Colin – corrected. But yes, both have a problem with dead cul-de-sac spaces and while at LV there’s always something to look at or look out at or take a photo of for some reason you’ll wonder why later, the in-between spaces at AD don’t offer even that. In principle they allow for better gallery illumination – and so they should in a flow of single-storey spaces but there’s not even much sense of this in those galleries beneath the nearly opaque dome. Everyone will agree both buildings are very good at their not-so-covert job of attracting people even if as architectural tourists. In that sense they’re equal but we can’t say LV is more successful on the basis of number of passers-through. I don’t think there are any meaningful criteria for comparison. There’s no way anyone could list all the things I did and compare them and arrive at a definitive comprehensive judgment as to which is better. It’s also impossible to arrive at a conclusion based on some dubious aesthetic comparison and I find it shocking to think that may well be the most meaningful criteria there is. It’s not that I think aesthetics is or should be dominant. It’s just that these buildings seem designed to resist evaluation according to anything else but their own terms.

      So then, as far as things floating in architectural space free of any obligation other than to be admired go, I think AD does it better than LV. I find it more coherent, less tricksy. At AD I don’t understand the structure of the dome or how it is supported but the intention is obvious and, though I did expect a bit more light to find its way through, it’s a clear realization of that intent. Here’s an early viz.

      This next photo from a few years back I kept because it’s such a bizarre photo but again it’s clear what the intent is.

      I’ve no idea what Gehry’s intent at LV was other than to produce a building identifiable as Gehry in that it can’t be deciphered in terms other than the artistic intent of its architect. In which case we’re entitled to ask “Is it good art?” and I don’t think it is. Jackson Pollock did it better.

      But thanks again Colin and let me know if you’re passing through Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

      • That is an astonishing picture, and yes, doesn’t it say everything about the building that we should be looking up and not at whatever is being displayed. I like the idea that we don’t necessarily understand how the dome is held up, though. Thanks for your interesting response. You definitely live in a fascinating region.