Building the new Louvre: Turning the desert into a cultural jewel

A new Louvre museum is emerging on reclaimed land on the edge of the Persian Gulf. It's one of a number of architectural mega-projects transforming oil-rich states in the Middle East. By Dean Irvine, CNN

Part 1

On an early summer morning, downtown Abu Dhabi doesn't so much shimmer in the desert heat as swelter.

In near-100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), skyscrapers set back from the city's corniche loom over the edge of the Persian Gulf, modern monuments to the Emirate's oil-fuelled wealth.

If the gleaming buildings represent the transformation of the United Arab Emirates over the last fifty years, what's emerging just a ten-minute drive away on Saadiyat Island is a vision of what the Gulf state hopes will be a marker for its future.

Today, it's mostly a vast construction site - nothing new for this booming country - but covering 27 square miles, the island is steadily being transformed into a cultural hub with high-end resorts and homes that the government hopes will make the world sit up and take notice.

Home already to a campus for New York University, it will soon be joined by three major international museums, including what will be the world's largest Guggenheim museum (designed by Frank Gehry), and, opening next year, a new Louvre.

Designs by architects Ateliers Jean Nouvel suggest the Louvre structure will look every bit as eye-catching as anything displayed inside it.

Yet the setting couldn't be more different from the heart of Paris, where the world's most-visited museum has stood for centuries.

On partly reclaimed land jutting into emerald waters, eight cranes tower over the main structure, where each day thousands of construction workers and 250 managers and architects are racing to complete the building for a December 2015 opening.

Amer Kharbush, the project manager from Turner Construction, is responsible for marshaling the effort to keep the construction on track.

Stepping out of an air-conditioned SUV onto the site, the UAE resident by way of Florida takes stock of what they've achieved since work began in January 2013.

"This is unique," he says, proudly surveying the half-completed structure.

"The teamwork, from the contractors to the engineers: People really want this job to be built. I mean, how many Louvres do you get to build in a lifetime?"

Plans for the future: Early artists impressions of how Saadiyat island would be transformed.

One every 800 years or so seems the average, with the new Abu Dhabi Louvre the result of an intergovernmental deal made between France and the UAE in 2007.

For a reported $520 million, the venerable Louvre agreed to attach its name to a new museum in the UAE, as well as agreeing the loan of artwork and special exhibitions, and offering management advice from Paris. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, will also have its own permanent collection, which is being purchased by the government at great expense.

The museum's authorities are tight-lipped about budgets and what is being bought, but the collection will span the globe and ages, from the birth of civilization all the way to contemporary art. So far, major acquisitions include Paul Gauguin's "Breton Boys Wrestling," a 3,000-year-old Middle Eastern gold bracelet and contemporary works by American painter Cy Twombly.

Adding to the permanent collection will be loans from the Louvre in Paris as well as eleven other French cultural heavy-weights, including the Musée d'Orsay, which houses the world's largest collection of impressionist paintings, and the Pompidou Center's Musée National d'Art Moderne, second only to New York's MOMA for its number of pieces of modern art.

At the time, the intergovernmental deal whipped up plenty of controversy in France. Opponents to it (part of a larger $1.3 billion agreement with France's cultural authority, Agence France-Museums) complained that the country's unique culture was being diminished, sold and exploited for economic and political gain.

A plan of construction zones resting in the offices of Turner Construction in Abu Dhabi.

Seven years later, any remaining complaints would be drowned out by the almost-constant sound of bolting and welding coming from inside the super-sized structure.

Back in Kharbush's office in the nearby nerve center for the project, a sign behind his desk reveals his attitude and approach to its construction.

It reads: "Except in the middle of a battlefield, nowhere must men coordinate the movement of other men and all materials in the midst of such chaos, with such limited certainty of present facts and future occurrences, as a huge construction project."