Learning from Architectural Travel

FHD’s trip to Abu Dhabi

By Sriram Ramakrishnan

Architecture and travel are two domains that have a symbiotic relationship with each other. Recently I had an opportunity to travel to Abu Dhabi with a couple of my FHD colleagues. While designing one of our commercial projects in Dubai, we had a critical discussion about quality of light, and next week we were on our way to Abu Dhabi to study the recently opened Abu Dhabi Louvre museum. Our visit and some of the interesting architectural conversation we had, prompts me to share the experience.

Our first stop, Masdar city is a unique example of a microcosm of what Middle Eastern communities aspire to be. Norman Foster, who is renowned to use high tech approach to solve fundamental user requirements, takes a new avatar in this project. He uses vernacular adobe construction finish to provide a down to earth façade that interacts with the users at multiple levels. The big strength of the project lies in the effective use of just 2 modular façade units, to create an entire façade, by generating several conditions. One modular unit is a curve that packs an Arabic jali with a fenestration, while the second module packs an Arabic jali with a balcony opening. An array of the two, generates an alternate of partial fenestration through a jail, with a window condition or a balcony condition. And every block at a right angle to an existing block mirrors the modules, creates a unique look and at the same time have a dialogue with other facades, and also accentuates the corners. Another strength of the project is effective to use of high technology to a low-end application, such as a high tech wind tunnel, to bring cool air to the courtyards much alike a traditional Arabic wind tunnel, but in a more effective way. The big weakness of the project lies in utilizing a typical glass and steel façade under the outer adobe skin, which by its very design disregards what the adobe skin has to offer. The beautiful adobe jail has an opaque beneath, while the wide window has a narrow glass slit beneath, thereby making a beautiful daylighting nonexistent. The balcony works beautifully though. Another weakness is when high technology disregards the vernacular character, for instance, generic solar panels cantilevering out of a perfectly designed vernacular façade. Overall, Masdar city is a great learning experience for us, especially considering that we work in India – a climatic region that allows the outer adobe skin to work by itself without the demand of an opaque double skin underneath. It gives us a new insight into the communities we design in India and around the world.

At a time when the world is moving towards glossy closed shopping malls, Abu Dhabi Central market, again by Norman Foster provides a necessary breakthrough its vernacular feel. The finesse of Foster is visible right from the first glance you get before driving down a ramp to park. The façade is once again made of modules (this time flat) of jali that gives a clean edge. It was a bit disappointing to find that the material that looks like terracotta is actually colored concrete, but never the less its visual performance is impeccable. The interiors give a feel of traditional Arabic souq, with its narrow shopping lanes with colorful shape son either sides, intercepted by semi-open courts with seating. The wooden modules that decorate also enhances the feel with its architectural elegance against vernacular elements. The only drawback is that it turns too repetitive within a very short time. Within an hour inside, we felt the space turn monotonous. A good break is an area with a narrow atrium between wide courts resembling Japanese proportions, and a large vertical circulation atrium with fountains and daylighting. We personally felt that the project was a great attempt that just felt short of achieving its goal. With several malls coming up in India within the next few years, and with FHD designing some of the largest malls, we gained a very valuable look and feel from the project.

Our next stop, Sheikh Zayed Mosque requires no introduction. Neither does it require critical analysis. The material – pure white marble, the superhuman scale, further emphasized with their reflection on the water is breathtaking. The moment I stepped into it, I stopped thing as an architect, and became a humble traveler, clicking pics at everything I see. No image or explanation can sum up the experience we had. The glass windows that filter in light, the detailed underside of domes, intricate stone carvings, and magnificent glass chandeliers take the viewer’s experience to the next level.

Finally, we stepped into the single most important architectural piece that inspired us to visit the city in the first place. Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel gives just a glimpse of its form before the user enters indoor through a linear path that would not let you guess the magnificence waiting in store for you. Once you cross the ticket counter and enter the first exhibit – “Evolution of man” – a 12 room sequential display of the evolution of human civilization through mostly sculptural artifacts. The critical architecture doesn’t unravel itself yet, but on a closer look, the intricately thought about architectural services astonishes a learned architect. The HVAC inlets are hidden and the outlets become edge detail for a skylight. All emergency systems are tucked into a vertical bar matching the entry opening. A neat stone finished flooring in grey complements the clean white walls and ceilings. A few darker rooms transition you to artificially lit typical museum interiors. Even the display cases are well thought to provide seamless glass cases for display, which at times responds to flooring patterns. The latter half of the exhibit has masterpieces in art from greats such as Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gough, Pablo Picasso, Jason Pollock, among others. Art has always played a significant role in shaping my thought process as an architect. The exit of the 12 room principal exhibit is where architecture shows its real glory. The diffused light specs falling on clean white volumes with a dark grey patterned backdrop, with blue water, interlay immediately puts you in a studio-quality environment! Architects would better understand when I compare it to the kind of environment we create for a model to render within a software. The image looks surrealistic. It took us an hour back to come to ground reality. On deeper investigation, the master plan symbolizes a traditional Arab Souq, creating beautiful interstitial spaces for a market that sells cultural intelligence to its visitors. The museum has a handful of other exhibits of considerable art quality, but architecture had already numbed my sense of art. Once the noon sun begins to set, the blue water begins to reflect light during the evening creating a never before seen sunset from indoor. Upon sunset, the white massing takes over, where every façade has few glowing opaque cuts but one which actually opens. The facades are made of glass-reinforced concrete panels of sizes that never repeat within the entire project. The artificial lighting at night is a letdown for me, but considering it is a new museum it has time to evolve. The museum has a grand exit, something that made me feel like walking through a museum in a reverse sequence. It may be an intentional design move.

With so much culture to display, India is about to come up with world-class museums in every city in the near future, and I am personally looking forward to designing some of them. Among the series of global museums I have been to in the past, Louvre Abu Dhabi definitely stands out as one of the most unique architectural responses to the context of the museum. Overall, the Abu Dhabi visit started as a personal obsession for a few of us at FHD as critical architects but has turned out to be a learning experience that not only dares us to reach for the horizon but rather reinvent the horizon itself.

If you are interested in Architectural travel, you might also be interested in our future blog “Reading Architecture” about architectural books. Do Checkout!