Icon 174: Jean Nouvel’s long-awaited Louvre Abu Dhabi, plus Tom Karen, New American Design and the Chicago Architecture Biennial 31.10.17

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Cast your mind back to the heady pre-crash days of 2007 and try to remember what the architectural landscape looked like. Despite murmurings from the fringe, the era of icon-building carried on regardless – context-free deconstructivism was the order of the day, with buildings from Coop Himmelblau and Daniel Libeskind among the high-profile openings. It was also the year that Jean Nouvel’s plans for a world-class art gallery in Abu Dhabi were first mooted.

Next month, the French architect’s Louvre Abu Dhabi will finally open. It is a building conceived in a more ambitious, not to mention frivolous, era, and surely owes its realisation to the length of Emirati purse strings, if not the unwavering nature of Nouvel’s vision. But what of that vision? Purely in architectural terms, it is a triumph. Our correspondent discovered a building that marries ancient Arabic architectural typologies – the dome and the citadel – with a virtuoso feat of engineering that enabled the intricately detailed roof. To describe it as contextual might be overstating it, but it is a long way removed from the European spaceship it could so easily have been. That said, we are unlikely to see its like in Europe or North America anytime soon. This is partly down to money, but also to shifting attitudes.

A barometer to where the current architectural scene is heading was provided by this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial. The show underlined how a new generation has once again looked to history for inspiration, which marks a subtle but sure evolution from the last few years of austerity modernism. From the conversations I’ve had, the older guard is still a little uncertain, wary the postmodernist corpse could rise from its gaudy mausoleum to threaten once more. But this is something different – a more considered examination of what the past can offer us and, budgets aside, not a million miles away from the spirit of Nouvel’s new Louvre.



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