With Masdar City, Foster & Partners was the first international architecture firm to design buildings in Abu Dhabi that borrow from the region’s desert-savvy vernacular. Now they are continuing that tradition with the Zayed National Museum on Al Saadiyat Island, which will sport five wing-shaped solar thermal towers when completed.
Conceived as a monument to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a beloved figure in the United Arab Emirates who had a strong commitment to nature conservation, the new museum will showcase the emirate’s history and culture, as well as its more recent social and economic transformation.
“Architecturally, the aim has been to combine a highly efficient, contemporary form with elements of traditional Arabic design and hospitality to create a museum that is sustainable, welcoming and culturally of its place,” writes Foster & Partners.
At first glance, it’s hard to see how F&P have incorporated ancient Islamic principles into the modern design.
A fan of five steel “wings” that sprout from a landscaped mound looks more like something from a science fiction novel set in the future, and the massive lobby buried underground to make optimum use of the earth’s thermal properties resembles a large hobbit house more than anything we’ve seen on the Arabian peninsula, but a passive cooling system mimics traditional wind towers used in much traditional Islamic architecture.
Like the Bastakiya wind towers in Dubai, which evacuate hot air using the stacked chimney effect, the five solar thermal towers draw hot air from the ground, funnel it through the galleries, and then push it out through vents at the tip of the aerodynamic towers.
Cool air is then pumped into the lobby through buried ground-cooling pipes, which mitigates air-conditioning use – something of an addiction in scorching hot Gulf countries.
While the sun presents a huge challenge for designers working in the Middle East, it can also provide great benefits, including plenty of natural light – something that F&P understands well.
“Throughout, the treatment of light and shade draws on a tradition of discreet, carefully positioned openings, which capture and direct the region’s intense sunlight to illuminate and animate these interior spaces,” they write.
Along with Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim and a slew of other landmarks, the Zayed National Museum is expected to attract scores of visitors to Al Saadiyat Island, an exclusive cultural district that will be connected to Abu Dhabi via a 10 lane causeway.
The Tourism Development & Investment Company approved the design in 2010 and more than 1,000 pilings were constructed and tested by July, 2010. Since then, no new updates have been posted, but the TDIC expects to open the museum to the public by 2016.