Cultural desert: Will Abu Dhabi censor its new museums?

The world's leading architects are building museums in Abu Dhabi as the emirate pours a fortune into trying to become one of the art capitals of the world. But will the works inside be censored?
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The Independent Culture

What do you need to create one of the world's most spectacular cultural centres from a piece of waste ground? The best architects in the world, the biggest museum names in the world and an awful lot of money.

The Middle Eastern Emirate of Abu Dhabi certainly has the money. It sits on 10 per cent of the world's oil reserves. It has the ambition, with the stated aim of becoming one of the world's top five cities by 2030 and a leading cultural centre in just three years' time. And that money has helped it get the names. The Guggenheim will be opening a museum there and so, astonishingly, will the Louvre, the first time its name will have been used on a museum outside Paris. OK, less astonishing when you consider that Abu Dhabi has given it around £400m for the use of that name.

And so, within walking distance of one another on a small island a few miles from the centre of Abu Dhabi a cluster of new museums is currently being built. And to show that money talks, they are being designed by the biggest names in architecture. Jean Nouvel is in charge of the Louvre, Frank Gehry is designing the Guggenheim, Zaha Hadid a new performing arts centre, Norman Foster the Zayed National Museum (named after the founder of the United Arab Emirates) and Japan's Tadao Ando the Maritime Museum.

The buildings will be spectacular. Of that there is little doubt. But after my visit to Abu Dhabi to see the work in progress and attend the Abu Dhabi art fair, I would also sound a note of caution. While the buildings are likely to be dazzling, what will go in them is rather vague. The art fair, attended by White Cube's chief Jay Jopling and many international art luminaries, certainly showed that Abu Dhabi wants to acquire international art. Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted work Sadness sold to the wife of Abu Dhabi's crown prince for £2.5m. But, while some of the Louvre's holdings may go to the Abu Dhabi Louvre for example, nothing is yet being spelt out even though all the new museums are due to open in three years' time, when Abu Dhabi wants to proclaim itself at the very least the art capital of the Middle East, and perhaps something even more ambitious than that.

And there is another worry, little mentioned, but undoubtedly there. Will there be censorship practised over the art that appears, even in world-renowned names like the Louvre and Guggenheim? Representatives of Abu Dhabi denied this, though there were mutterings about the need always to "show respect". But the top New York art dealer David Zwirner, who was at the art fair, was brave enough to reveal that he had been banned from bringing a catalogue of his artist Marlene Dumas, who specialises in painting the physical reality of the human body, sometimes nude. "I think that is a pity, "said Mr Zwirner, "and I hope it is going to change."

How much, or how little, figurative art will be allowed in these new museums? It's a question that will need to be explored and answered by the heads of the Louvre and Guggenheim in Paris and New York, and indeed by Neil MacGregor, head of the British Museum, which is advising the emirate on its Zayed National Museum, undoubtedly for a good fee. Any collusion in censorship would be more than unfortunate.

But for the moment one can certainly revel in the architecture that is taking shape in the cultural district of Saadiyat Island (translation Island of Happiness), a short bus ride from the emirate's commercial centre.

The Zayed National Museum will contain some local and regional treasures but mainly look at aspects of Sheikh Zayed's life and work. Its architect Sir Norman Foster will unveil his design next week. But the designs for the other museums have been unveiled. They all adopt a flavour of the region in their architecture, and building work has started. Frank Gehry, who designed the Bilbao in Guggenheim, is set to make an equally impressive mark on this Guggenheim. Its dramatic conical forms exert a modern twist on the region's ancient wind-towers. The structures serve to ventilate and cool the museum's covered courtyards, one of several sustainable concepts in the design. At 13,000 square metres, it will be larger than any other Guggenheim museum. Interestingly, the larger galleries will be built more like raw industrial spaces with exposed lighting and systems: a less finished look. This results from Tom Krens, former head of Guggenheim in New York, visiting artists in their studios and watching them create works within large industrial spaces. He and Gehry believe that "it would be these galleries that would be attractive as spawning homes for a new scale of contemporary art: art that would be, perhaps, made on site and would be of a scale that could not be achieved in the normally organised museums around the world."

Lovers of Jean Nouvel's architecture won't be surprised to learn that his Louvre is no less ambitious. Nouvel references traditional Arabian architecture. Topped with a hemisphere that appears to float, it echoes the great domes of Islamic design. The shallow dome recalls the geometric patterns found in Islamic art, the outdoor plazas and promenades become the streets linking exhibition spaces. The sun filters through, illuminating the gallery's interior, while the water below reflects the building's structure and creates a micro-climate. The chance to work with a building surrounded by water will have appealed to Nouvel, who loves to incorporate water into his architecture, as he did with the concert hall on Lake Lucerne, which has water actually flowing into the building.

With the Abu Dhabi Louvre, Nouvel's intention is that the museum will appear to hover just above the water's surface and the sun will bathe the spaces underneath the dome in exquisite dappled effects.

Zaha Hadid takes for her inspiration for the performing arts centre the organisational forms within organic structures. Motifs refer to natural shapes – leaves, stems, buds, fruit and branches. The lobbies all have sea views to keep visitors in visual contact with the natural environment. The enclosed spaces are engineered to maximise natural energies, with large windows capturing daylight. Her intention is that multiple summits on the structures housing the performance spaces spring from the structure "like fruits on the vine" and face towards the water. It should all certainly make one appreciate a glass of wine in the interval that much more.

Tadao Ando's Maritime Museum has as its centrepiece a lifesize reconstruction of a traditional dhow (Arabian boat) floating above an underwater aquarium. Ando's dramatic design is created from a blend of wind, sail and desert influences. The building's exterior has a hollowed out underside aimed to reflect the vacuum of a sail filled by a sea breeze.

The grand opening of all the museums in 2013 is not really that far away. It's likely that Abu Dhabi with its wealth can complete on time if the will is there. Then it has to convince the world that it can acquire or borrow the artworks appropriate for such spaces, and that it will be as open-minded, daring and liberal in its embrace of art as it has been in its embrace of architecture.