With its domed top and intricate meshwork, the Louvre Abu Dhabi looks like a delicate spaceship, but it’s decidedly earthbound. Well, more like seabound. Conceived as an extension of Saadiyat Island by lead architect Jean Nouvel, the museum couldn’t get under way until contractors blocked off a section of the sea and drained all the water. (The pumps ran for six years.)

Algorithms determined the size and location of 7,850 steel-and-­aluminum stars in the dome to filter Abu ­Dhabi’s scorching rays. Inspired by Arabic ­geometric patterns and sunlight through palm fronds, the design keeps the promenades cool while creating the speckled visual effect of a slow-motion disco ball.Algorithms determined the size and location of 7,850 steel-and-­aluminum stars in the dome to filter Abu ­Dhabi’s scorching rays. Inspired by Arabic ­geometric patterns and sunlight through palm fronds, the design keeps the promenades cool while creating the speckled visual effect of a slow-motion disco ball.Courtesy of TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Once the buildings were near completion, the team waterproofed the exteriors—then tore down the seawalls. Now the salty waves of the Persian Gulf lap against the sides, reflecting beams of light that shoot through the perforated dome. “There are surprises every day,” says Hala Wardé, one of the architects. “It looks like vibrations on the white walls.” The exhibit spaces stand about a dozen feet above sea level to protect the artwork from watery ruin, but the museum itself—set to open this year—is anchored to the seafloor. That way it won’t float away before you get there.

Water surrounds walkways, rising and falling with the tide. Below sea level, double-membrane waterproofing—designed to last 100 years—safeguards the building.Water surrounds walkways, rising and falling with the tide. Below sea level, double-membrane waterproofing—designed to last 100 years—safeguards the building.Courtesy of TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel

While in Abu Dhabi

Eat: Haggle for fresh seafood at Mina Fish Market before chowing down at the Corniche harborside promenade.

Stay: Take in the crazy LED canopy and sunset views from two rooftop pools at the Yas Viceroy hotel.

Do: Explore Warehouse 421’s interactive exhibit on Emirati clothing and accessories (through August), then chill on a beanbag and enjoy a Middle Eastern film at the outdoor theater.

This article appears in the May issue. Subscribe now.