The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Sunday, November 25, 2018

In between working and battling stroppy appliances I've had a bit of time here in the Emirates to be a tourist. So at the first opportunity I found my way to the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.

This is a peek at the building. (Thank you to Francisco Anzola, who’s a much better photographer than me.)

It’s a bit odd to find an outpost of the famed Louvre Gallery here in the desert but the two museums are actually entirely separate entities. They're linked by a $525 million dollar branding agreement that allows the Emirates institution to use the Louvre name for 30 years, with further $747 million spent for “art loans, special exhibitions and management advice. And that’s just for the name and a bit of what’s inside. The other part of this equation is the building itself, which is frankly magnificent. I went with friend and colleague Mika, who, before I stole him away to join the ceremonies circus, was an unsuspecting architecture graduate in Baku. We were both more interested in the building than its contents, but dutifully took in a large percentage of the collection.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is billed as a museum of art and civilisations (apparently that S at the end is important), so it has galleries for temporary exhibitions of artwork, but also has a permanent collection of historical artefacts arranged in twelve interconnected rooms starting with prehistory and speeding through the entirety of human existence up to the contemporary era. The most modern of the galleries were closed for re-fit when Mika and I visited, but to tell the truth we didn’t make it past about Room 6 before bailing out for coffee and pastry. Along the way I enjoyed the Egyptian room, which has a very nice sarcophagus. And I loved that a display of stained glass showed not just the front side, meant for viewing, but also the back of the piece, revealing charming curls of lead securing the glass to the supporting frame.

I’m sure the front of this was delightful; sorry I neglected to take a picture of that. I’m sure Francisco would not have been so thoughtless.

But I just found this too fantastic

We also spent a good chunk of time in a temporary exhibition of Japanese prints, and a really fun display about Japanese manga comics (which former Go See Run Eat Drink readers will recall from many many moons ago). That gallery let us colour in the walls!

Me working hard at staying between the lines.

And they had interactive virtual reality goggles you could wear to “enter” some traditional Japanese woodcuts. We both chose a print of a boat on water with a range of mountains in the background. It was surprisingly immersive and impressive.

Mika on the boat, turning around to discover there’s another passenger behind him!

So we did take in the artwork at the Louvre, but that’s really not why we went. We went for the building. Because of this:

That dome is unbelievable. (And of course I didn’t take this photo either, because I'm not travelling with my own drone, jetpack or private helicopter.)

The design of the whole building is fantastic. As you can see, the galleries are a series of 55 smaller, almost discrete buildings arranged a bit like an Arabic souk with alleyways between them. The whole arrangement is completely surrounded by the sea, and the top is capped by that magnificent dome - 180 metres in diameter (almost 600 feet) and weighing in at 7,000 tonnes. (Articles about the dome inevitably mention that the weight is almost equivalent to the weight of the Eiffel Tower.) The entire dome is supported in only four places and appears to float over the “souk" giving cover to the buildings below, which are essentially outdoors, but still sheltered. The entire arrangement is completely beguiling but it’s the dome that makes it spectacular. It’s not simply that the structure is big, it’s that the roof is composed of eight separate layers of perforations shaped like eight pointed stars in different scales. Each layer filters the light, and as the sun moves across the sky the points of light that reach through shift and change creating what’s often described as a “rain of light”.

Astonishing. On the day we visited it was a bit cloudy so we only got the full effect in the brief moments when the sun broke through, but it was still breathtaking.

French architect Jean Nouvel designed the building and has said that "Sometimes, in the solar noon, the brightness is so dense that it looks like light stalactites are piercing the dome.” Walking under the roof among the galleries and alleyways is exceedingly pleasant. In a climate like this where the temperature right now - in winter - often reaches 36 degrees celsius, indoor spaces are frequently overly air-conditioned. (This sometimes creates the odd effect of having your glasses steam up when going outside, an unsettling reversal for someone who grew up in Canada.) The indoor galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi are also air-conditioned but under the dome, while you’re still technically outside in the true climate of the region, the breeze from the sea and the shade from the roof make it temperate, and while I’d never describe it as cool it does feel right. (To be clear, it is NEVER cool in Abu Dhabi. The overnight lows right now hover around 24 degrees and in the summer it gets into the high 40s. Basically, the sun is trying to kill you.)

Here’s a small taste of that stalactite action Jean was talking about.

Naturally, Mika and I were both fascinated by the design and engineering of the roof. As we stared up at it Mika, who actually went to school for this stuff, told me about a professor he had who dated from the Soviet era. This professor was a bit hidebound and taught his students, with unwavering certainty, that any structure must have a supporting column every six metres. No matter what. Every six metres. Which in the case of the Louvre’s dome would have resulted in a close to a hundred support columns around the perimeter as opposed to, er... FOUR. Luckily, no one called that guy to build the place, since he is clearly a twit.

We stared for a long time but couldn’t see how the repeated pattern managed to curve to the shape. Actually, we couldn’t even see the eight different layers. The whole effect was mind-blowing.

The site for the building is the formerly-mostly-abandoned island of Saadiyat near the port of Abu Dhabi. It was in there, in 2007, and long before anyone started building support columns and galleries and domes, that a huge sand wall was constructed to hold back the waters of the Arabian Gulf while the museum's foundations were laid. Pumps ran 24 hours hours a day for years during construction expelling the seawater that seeped through the wall. This went on even during an almost two year hiatus resulting from the worldwide economic slump and resulting drop in the price of oil. When construction resumed engineers and builders installed a waterproof membrane around the entire foundation, which sits as much as 10 metres below sea level, and fitted every one of the 4500 concrete supports for the building with cathodic protection to prevent the concrete from corroding in the seawater. (Hands up everyone who knew concrete can corrode?)

Throughout construction the seawall held back the water as if the entire building was in dry dock and the partially completed dome was held up by a forest of temporary supports strategically places around the galleries below. But eventually the pumps were turned off and water was allowed to reclaim the land surrounding the museum. There’s a really good article about the construction here, which I highly recommend even if you just skip to the short video that shows time lapse footage of various areas of the build site as they’re cleared of equipment and gradually flooded.

And that’s the other remarkable part of Jean Nouvel’s design - the water. It’s always there as you walk around under the dome. There are views out to the sea, and small, almost private spots where you turn a corner and find another unexpected bit of water. The sea doesn’t just surround the museum, it’s part of the place.

You can walk all the way down to the water in some areas. In others there are raised platforms that are completely surrounded, and in other spots what look like man-made tidal pools.

And every where you get views out to the sea. It truly is an island, with just three ways on and off. Look at it on Google Earth and you’ll see what I mean.

Saadiyat Island is very big. I mean it’s not exactly Baffin Island or anything, but there’s still a LOT of space to fill. Plans call for it to become a cultural centre, including a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry and the Zayed National Museum, along with a maritime museum, arts centre, schools and a residential community. So far though, it’s still mostly sand.

Mika and I thoroughly enjoyed the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but I also enjoyed the quiet evening at home that followed. Since then I've done a little bit more sightseeing, but work is catching up with me and the days are long. Mostly what I want to do in my small bits of down time is sit on the couch or on the beach, because it feels like a long haul since I left my frozen little boat last February and I'm getting a bit weary. I'm very much looking forward to getting this job done and being home - all of my different homes, that is - in time for Christmas.

The Curse of Room 2153

Sunday, November 11, 2018

It started with the toaster.

Actually, let me back up. I sort of neglected to mention this, but after I left the sunny climes of Australia I had only the briefest of interludes at home on the boat before starting the next, thankfully shorter, adventure. It was so brief an interlude that when I was buying groceries after returning I actually hesitated before investing in a jar of mayonnaise. Then I came to my senses, because the mayonnaise cost 65p and what’s the point of being a well paid International Woman of Mystery if you can’t be a bit profligate with the condiments on occasion?

Having abandoned my mayonnaise, I flew to Abu Dhabi where I’m now working on another Abu Dhabi National Day show. It’s all a bit same-same as the last time I was here in 2015. It’s a somewhat different group of people to work with and a somewhat higher profile event than last time, but it’s the same stadium and ultimately it’s simply another big show. This year is a bit different because it’s the Year of Zayed, so-named because 2018 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE. It’s a significant milestone for the country, and it feels like our show is one of the key events of the year. No pressure!

So let's review quickly: Jakarta is ancient history. Australia is a fading memory. I'm in Abu Dhabi, and we’re back in the desert!

Also back in a really fancy hotel which - I never tire of telling people about this - 
has a private beach!

It is unquestionably a nice hotel, and my room is lovely, spacious, and well-equipped. It’s got a kitchen area with a large fridge and a two-burner hob and a microwave and kettle and a washing machine (more on which later). And of course it came with a toaster. The hotel room also comes with an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet downstairs, which would seem to negate the need for a toaster, but bear with me. I know it sounds like the worst sort of ungratefulness, but sometimes I just don’t have the heart for the communal breakfast buffet at 7am on a work day. It’s great for a short stay, or for a treat, or for a slap-up day off brunch. But when you’re in for a long term stay and you’re working every day, sometimes it’s nice to have breakfast “at home” like you’re a normal person. It’s also good not to have to walk past the endless trays of pain au chocolate and muffins and donuts every morning. So a few times a week I shuffle into the kitchen and make myself coffee and a bowl of fruit and a soft boiled egg on toast, with Marmite (of course). It’s a less challenging start to the day. Or at least it’s meant to be.

What happened when I first tried my calming-at-home-breakfast was this: I got the egg boiling on the stove, prepped my bowl of mixed fruit, put the kettle on for coffee and popped a piece of bread in the toaster. Thirty seconds later the power went out in the entire room. Of course access to the breaker panel is locked so all I could do was call the hotel desk and wait for an electrician to come reset the breaker. I assumed that the wiring in the room just wasn’t up to the task of running a burner on the stove, a kettle and a toaster all at once. So while I was waiting for the guy to arrive I made coffee with the pretty-much-hot-enough water and I let the egg sit in formerly boiling water to finish cooking and I prepared my Marmite on warm bread. Eventually a lovely man came and unlocked the cabinet and reset the power and I asked him where I could plug in the toaster to avoid the same fate the next time I make breakfast. We identified an outlet next to the couch, he went on his way, and I ate my warm bread.

A later, more successful breakfast

The next time I attempted toast was in the evening, to accompany an omelette for supper. While the frying pan was heating on the stove, I plugged in the toaster next to the couch and popped in the bread once again. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will not be surprised to learn that thirty seconds later I was standing in a dark room, with another slice of warm bread. This time I drew a different hotel electrician who was a bit livelier, and he could tell I had just enough knowledge to be worth the effort, so we did a bit of troubleshooting. We checked the wattage rating on the toaster (a mere 800w) and on the breakers. We even recreated the scene several times - stove on, toast in - and each time, after a tantalising moment of optimism, our hopes were dashed and we were left in the dark. Finally, we turned off everything else and just ran the toaster. And again… darkness. The toaster did it! It was the toaster all along! (It was like a really badly written murder mystery where the toaster, the hob and the kettle are all sitting nervously in a snow-bound drawing room while the famous detective paces the carpet and says, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here this evening…”)

Finally, the friendly electrician took the evil toaster away for re-education and brought me this fancy new one.

Then I tried to plug the kettle back in where it had always been plugged, and realised it had a two-prong euro-style plug and the outlet is UK style. And I was baffled, because the kettle had always been plugged into the same place (until we started troubleshooting) and all I was doing was putting it back. I assumed the electrician had mistakenly taken an adapter that I hadn’t noticed was there. He hadn’t taken it, but he did offer to plug the kettle in for me. The kettle with the euro-style plug. Plugged into the UK-style outlet. Intrigued, I backed away and let him have a go. He flicked off the switch on the outlet, blithely inserted a screwdriver tip into the hole for the ground pin - thus neatly defeating the safety lock-out - and slid the plug into place.

Well, played sir. Now if only you hadn’t accidentally left your toolkit in the breaker panel cabinet thus forcing the front desk to phone at 11:30pm while I was half asleep so I could let you in to retrieve it. Then again, we did do the Watts = Volts x Amps equation together twice, so I still feel we’ve bonded a bit.

As I said, it started with the toaster. Next was the fridge. The door wasn’t closing properly, which meant a lot of condensation from the humid air in the room was building up and it was basically raining in the fridge. I asked them to have a look at it one day while I was out. When I got home that evening I could see the workmen had emptied the contents of the fridge so they could fix it, because things had gone back a bit haphazardly (or not at all, like the dish of tuna salad that had been left on the counter). Then I looked a bit closer and realised that there was something missing. On arrival in Abu Dhabi I’d stocked up at the Duty Free shop, because it can be a bit of a faff buying alcohol in the UAE. So I was certain I had two bottles of white wine in the fridge. Not anymore. One bottle was clearly missing. I searched around to see if it had just been mis-filed but quickly realised it was simply gone.

This presented a dilemma. I was missing a bottle of wine. People had been in my room handling the bottles of wine. It not hard to think someone might have taken the bottle. Clearly that was not right, so it should have been simple for me to call the hotel and report the problem. Then again, it was just a £10 bottle of plonk and I suspect the punishment for that kind of thing in this country might be quite harsh. Alcohol can be a touchy subject here, and the UAE is already a tricky place for foreign workers. (And everyone in the service industry is a foreign worker. Everyone.) Did I really need to put someone in that position for a lousy bottle of Riesling? Then again, if someone had taken it hadn’t they put themselves in that position? Then again if you’re desperate enough that you need to steal a cheap bottle of wine, who am I to judge, sitting in my five star hotel room? Then again if it had been taken and I didn’t report it, would word spread that the chick in Room 2153 was an easy mark? I had another six weeks to go in this hotel. I went back and forth again and again. I consulted friends and family. I even checked with one of my local staff. Finally, I called. But I deliberately didn’t say “One of the guys fixing my fridge stole a bottle of wine.” I phrased it much more delicately, saying “I can see the guys who worked on the fridge moved a lot of things around and I can’t find one bottle of wine.”

Very shortly after I got a call from a manager who apologetically explained that while moving things in the fridge, one of the bottles of wine had accidentally been dropped and broken. (This also explained why a red plastic dustpan was left on the counter, the presence of which had been mysterious but ended up being independently corroborative evidence.) So faith in humanity was restored, the wine was replaced, and this time my sleep was not interrupted at midnight by any forgetful fridge repairmen who’d left their screwdrivers in the mayonnaise.

It’s not a Riesling, but I’m sure it will be fine. Sadly, the next morning when I opened the fridge to get the bag of coffee for breakfast I realised the bottle of wine wasn’t the only thing missing. I couldn't find the coffee. This time, rather than tying myself in knots again I’ve chosen to believe it was accidentally discarded during cleanup and I simply bought another bag. There’s only so much moral debate I can handle in the morning. 
Especially before I’ve had a coffee.

So there was the demon toaster. And there was WinebottleGate. But all that was nothing compared to the main event, and the true proof that this hotel room is cursed. I already mentioned the room has a washing machine, and I took advantage of it on the first day off, putting in a load before going down for breakfast. (It was a day off, so I was in just the right mood for the buffet.) When I got back I could hear the machine was on the spin cycle and a bit off-balance because it was making quite a racket inside its cabinet. I didn’t think much of it, and once the cycle finished I happily festooned the room with damp socks and underwear. (Because the retractable clothesline in the bathtub is exactly four inches too short to reach the bracket on the other side, but I wasn’t about to call the hotel AGAIN. Who knows what mayhem could result from that?)

The next week I put a bigger load in and decamped to the dining room for brunch once again. But this time I came back to a scene that was like the opening sequence to that "the-toaster-done-it" murder mystery from earlier. It was the establishing shot of the murder victim lying prone in an expanding pool of vital fluids. Except this victim was a front-loading washer. Or perhaps it was simply that the challenge of life in Room 2153 had proved too much for the poor washing machine because when I opened the door it looked like the thing had tried to fling itself to its death by launching from its cabinet and landing face down on the kitchen floor.

This is the scene I came home to, with the machine still running, desperately grinding itself into the tilework. The plumbing connection had also ripped apart, which meant that water was spouting energetically from the open pipework and flooding the kitchen floor. All it needed was a bit of police tape and it could have been the first episode of Law & Order LAU (Large Appliance Unit).

Considering the seriousness of the situation, I was a bit surprised at how long it took for one of the hotel engineers to arrive. Sure, I’d closed the cut-off valve for the water so it wasn’t actively flooding the room. But I was still expecting a slightly more energetic response than one mostly disinterested guy. Then again, as soon as that one guy took in the entire scene of the crime it didn’t take long for a whole team of people to arrive. Soon there were two workers and a supervisor and a manager splashing around and the supervisor guy quickly diagnosed the problem. Apparently in the two years since the machine was installed no other guest had ever used it. Because if they had, they would have been the ones to discover that the stabilising bolts that are put in place at the factory to hold the internal drum solidly for shipping had not been removed when the machine was set up in the room. This meant that the drum couldn’t move freely on its shock-absorbing mounting and instead any imbalance in the load was transmitted through the whole appliance while the drum was spinning at 600 RPM. It must have sounded like someone swinging a sledgehammer around inside an oil drum.

The offending parts. They are not small. 

At this point I feel like I should put the hotel maintenance staff on my Christmas card list. They’re here so often they’re practically family. My colleague Kieran and I have discussed setting up an pool to predict what might go wrong next. I think it’ll be something that takes out the phone, so I’m unable to call to for assistance. Kieran suggested that if blood starts to seep out of the walls I should really ask to move rooms, but I’m sort of enjoying the frisson of anticipation that comes every time I get home.

In fact things have settled down, though I’m nervous saying that out loud. And I hasten to add the really, the hotel is lovely and the staff are very friendly and helpful and good with a mop when called on. And despite the suicidal washing machine I did manage to salvage most of my day off and went down to the beach to enjoy the end of the afternoon.

There really wasn’t much wrong with this at all.

And definitely nothing wrong with this.