The UAE's cultural challenge

10 September 2014

Although several landmark museum projects have been launched in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, few have been completed

Over the past decade, governments and state-controlled developers have planned to build several landmark museum projects in the UAE.

Keen to promote science, history and the arts, high-profile foreign firms have been hired to design architectural statements that will become some of the most recognisable structures in the world and will improve the country’s standing as a cultural centre.

The problem is these landmarks are also some of the most difficult buildings to develop and construct, meaning that although many schemes have been launched, few have been completed. “Museums have been difficult to bid for successfully,” says a Dubai-based contractor. “They are complex designs with lots of risk, so you have to do a lot of work with the client to make them work, hence the delays.”

Saadiyat Island

Abu Dhabi has the grandest ambitions. In 2007, it announced plans to build a cultural district on Saadiyat Island that will include the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum, a performing arts centre, a maritime museum and other arts pavilions.

The buildings were designed by some of the leading names in global architecture. The Louvre was designed by France’s Jean Nouvel, the Guggenheim by the US’ Frank Gehry, Zayed National Museum by the UK’s Foster+Partners, the performing arts centre by UK-based Zaha Hadid and the maritime museum by Japan’s Tadao Ando. The projects quickly attracted global attention, but although construction companies from around the world were keen to take part, progress has been slow.

The first museum to be tendered was the Louvre. When it was launched, it was given a 2012 completion date as part of a cultural accord signed by the Abu Dhabi and French governments. This included the display of exhibits from the Louvre in Paris once the Abu Dhabi building had been completed.

The construction work was first tendered in 2009 as a design-and-build scheme. Even though the tender attracted widespread interest, it was soon cancelled as the project owner, the government-owned Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), chose to develop the design further and tender the museum as a series of traditional construction packages.

Louvre delays

The project was tendered again in 2010, but was then cancelled after TDIC shortlisted two firms in 2011. The work was tendered again in 2012, and finally in January 2013, TDIC awarded the $653m main construction deal to a joint venture of the local Arabtec Construction, Spain’s Constructora San Jose and Oger Abu Dhabi.

The contract, which was awarded after the museum was originally meant to be completed, also vastly exceeds the initial cost estimates. When launched, it was expected to cost $100m-$140m to build, whereas when signed the contract was valued at $653m.

With the Louvre finally awarded, TDIC has moved forward and tendered two more museums. In November 2013, it received bids from contractors for the deal to build the Zayed National Museum, and in August this year, offers were submitted for the contract to build the Guggenheim Museum.

The award for the Zayed National Museum award has also been slow. There are two frontrunners for the deal, a joint venture of Belgium’s Six Construct and the local Dhabi
Contracting; and Arabtec Construction. Contractors are hopeful an award will be made in September or October – almost a year after bids were submitted.

Dubai progress

Progress on cultural projects in neighbouring Dubai has also been disappointing. Before the emirate’s property market collapsed in late 2008, developers were planning to invest billions of dollars in 10 museums, nine libraries, 14 theatres, an opera house, 11 galleries, seven arts and culture institutes and workshops for artists as part of the Khor Dubai project that was launched in March 2008.

The 20 kilometre-long development was planned to start in the Shindagha area and run through Business Bay to the new creek extension, and include a Zaha Hadid-designed opera house on an island in the creek.

These schemes were quickly abandoned in late 2008 and early 2009 and although most remain dormant, some components have been revived as a part of other projects.

In March 2012, local developer Emaar Properties announced plans for a cultural district next to Burj Khalifa in the Downtown Dubai area. The area will contain a modern art museum, an opera house and other cultural facilities, as well as two hotels, studios and leisure facilities.

Emaar awarded Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company the estimated $191m construction deal for the art museum and opera house in December. The 2,000-seat venue will be built in Emaar’s Downtown Dubai development. The architect is UK-based Atkins.

RTA deals

Elsewhere in Dubai, the Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) is working on several smaller cultural projects and initiatives. In March, it approved the final design and main components of the Union Museum. The facility is to be constructed at Union House, where the document announcing the formation of the UAE federation was signed in 1971. The design was completed by the UK’s Halcrow, which is part of US-based CH2M Hill.

The RTA has also signed a $50m deal with Dubai Culture & Arts Authority to transform six of the emirate’s metro stations into art museums, as well as an agreement for the decoration of bridges and underpasses.

Sharjah spending

Sharjah is likewise investing in cultural projects, albeit on a smaller scale. This year, the emirate has been working on 21 individual schemes costing a total of $409m to support its status as the capital of Islamic culture in 2014. The projects include new universities, monuments, Islamic parks, traditional markets and museums.

Once all these initiatives are completed, the UAE will be home to some of the most complex buildings in the world. The challenge will then shift from construction to curation as the museums seek to attract visitors and justify the cost and effort it took to build them.

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