The Los Angeles Times‘s Architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, has just come back from a tour of the Gulf where he was impressed by the overall style of cruiseship modern. But he also took tours of two ambitious projects in Abu Dhabi, one is a sustainable city being built in the harsh environment of the Gulf. The other is Saadiyat Island, the vast cultural complex populated with world-class museums designed by world-famous architects:
I soon arrived at a group of makeshift offices and climbed into an SUV for a trip, chauffeured by a pair of Saadiyat representatives, around the project site, which will include not just cultural facilities but offices, golf courses and retail districts, along with housing for as many as 160,000 residents.
Cranes moved mounds of sand on the horizon. In a few places, palm trees had been planted in neat rows. But for the most part the enormous site had a moonscape emptiness about it. Every once in a while a group of construction workers filed past, wearing fluorescent safety vests over purple jumpsuits. Eventually we made our way to the northwestern tip of the site, where the star architectural attractions of Saadiyat Island will be welcoming visitors as early as 2012. If there is a focal point for Abu Dhabi’s efforts to recalibrate its global image, it is located here. Gehry’s Guggenheim, covering more than 300,000 square feet, will occupy the end of a peninsula. Nouvel’s dome-covered Louvre will jut out into the water just a few hundred yards away. […]
All that ambition has recently run headlong into the lingering doubts about the Emirates political and social structure, especially the behavior of some members of the ruling family:
In recent weeks, these questions have been complicated by a pair of news items from Abu Dhabi that suggest a troubling underside to the emirate’s generally placid surface. About six weeks ago, a videotape from 2004 was leaked to the worldwide press showing a member of the emirate’s ruling family, Sheik Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, appearing to torture an Afghan merchant, beating him with whips and nail-studded boards, stuffing his mouth with sand and driving over his ravaged body with an SUV. The tape has thrown a wrench into negotiations in Washington over a pending nuclear-arms agreement between the U.S. and the UAE.
Around the same time, Human Rights Watch issued a stark report, building on earlier research, condemning working conditions on Saadiyat Island. The report singled out the Louvre and Guggenheim projects, urging the museums to take stronger steps to make sure that laborers on the island were not being mistreated.
Abu Dhabi’s Fortune Favors the Bold (Los Angeles Times)