The neatly dressed man with the backpack is standing by the side of the highway, next to a broken-down car, and waves at us. At first, we think he wants us to tow him, but it turns out he is not worried about getting to a repair shop; he has applied for work at the Louvre Abu Dhabi construction site and the breakdown has made him late for his job interview. Can we take him to Saadiyat island? Sure, we say. Of course. Secretly, I am not just happy to help the guy out, I'm also quite excited to see what is going on at a construction site I've watched with anticipation ever since I moved to Abu Dhabi. A few months ago, it finally went from stagnation to 24-hour activity and I have been wanting to peek behind the security fence ever since.
A new opening date for the Louvre Abu Dhabi was announced earlier this year and, since then, contractors working on what one day will be the Saadiyat Cultural District, part of Abu Dhabi's high-rolling, high-brow economic diversification strategy, have been hiring engineers and workers en masse. The city's first mega-museum is now slated to open in 2015 and, judging from the few structures currently in place, this deadline will be a tough one to keep, even with work continuing non-stop through the night. This is what the site looks like right now:
We obtain an entry pass from the security gate and drive into the designated patch of desert island, which by 2017, will be home to three large-scale, star-architect designed museums: the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel), the Zayed National Museum (Foster + Partners) and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry). These cultural monoliths will be anchor points of a whole new district, including residential, business and retail areas. TDIC, the government-owned master developer of Saadiyat island, has just announced plans for luxury beach front condos, sponsored by Luis Vuitton, and, by the end of 2013, investors will be able to buy plots of land near the museums.
Driving along the dirt tracks linking the various parts of the site, we pass forlorn-looking street signs, asking us to suspend disbelief and overlay what we see with our own eyes with the architectural renderings of the master plan. The signs, white letters on a blue background, stand in the middle of what can only be described as nothing much. They seem to be willing reality to comply with their instructions: Here be museums! The meaning of the words is so far removed from the visual context, it practically makes me chuckle and conjures up Magritte's painting, The Treachery of Images, in my mind. Or better still, this hubble-bubble version:
When we drop the man off at the stacked containers housing the contractors' offices, he thanks us, urges us to visit his hometown in Kerala, grabs his backpack and darts inside. It is one minute before the beginning of his interview.