An awe-inspiring monument and memorial to honor the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding president of the UAE, the Zayed National Museum lies in the heart of Saadiyat Island Cultural District in Abu Dhabi. The museum displays the history, culture, the social and economic transformation of the Emirates. The design contract was awarded to Foster+Partners through an international competition that involved 12 architectural firms. Zayed National Museum, UAE by Norman Foster: Dynamic character of a contemporary UAE - Sheet1


 The architectural aim was to combine a contemporary form with traditional Arabic design elements to create a museum that is highly efficient, sustainable, welcoming, and reflects the local culture of its place. The museum is set within a landscaped garden, based on a timeline of Sheikh Zayed’s life to celebrate his legacy and love of falconry. 

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The museum comprises five principal galleries which are housed in five towers and three exhibition spaces. Additional facilities such as a theatre, auditorium, shops, café, members’ lounges, and performance spaces are a part of the museum.

Design and Masterplan 

The Zayed National Museum features five solar thermal towers that resemble birds’ wings and are set within a manmade, landscaped mound with gallery spaces located at ground level. The five grand pavilions (wings) of the towers extend up to a maximum height of 114m. The wings are supported by lightweight steel frames, which are successively supported by concrete columns. Dynamic pod-shaped galleries are suspended by a top-lit central lobby which is dug into the earth to exploit its thermal properties and connect the shops, café, and auditorium. One gallery is devoted to the theme of flights and falcons as part of a wider focus on conservation. A bridge and narrow walkway which widens into the buildings allows visitors to enter the museum. VIP guests have a separate garden entrance area with parking space. The Majlis or VIP spaces within the museum lead to a central courtyard where one can enjoy spectacular views of the towers.

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Layered plantation surrounds the museum to create an oasis-like view. The plants selected for landscaping flourish in the local climate. They are salt, drought, and humidity tolerant in nature.

Interior Design 

The meticulous use of light and shadow along with carefully positioned openings, capture and direct the intense sunlight to illuminate the sculptural interior spaces. Objects are displayed within niches and on stone plinths that seamlessly rise from the floor. The auditorium is lined with Emirati textiles which provides a reminiscent setting for presentations and films. The lobby acts as an informal venue for poetry readings, music, and dance where the audience can gather to enjoy the spectacle of traditional performances. The interior concept for the restaurant draws on the hospitality and richness of the Bedouin tent with a careful selection of furnishings. 

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The towers are lightweight steel structures while the wings are constructed from bent steel. The lobby and interior spaces are made from concrete. Sand is procured from the local resources of Saadiyat.


Sustainable features have been an integral part of the Zayed National Museum’s design to minimize the amount of energy required to illuminate and cool the complex. The latticed towers act as thermal chimneys that draw cool air currents through the museum naturally. Fresh air is captured at a low level and cooling pipes buried underground release them into the museum’s lobby. The heat at the top of the towers draws up air vertically through the galleries due to the thermal stack effect. Air vents at the top, take advantage of the negative pressure and draw the hot air out. Instead of artificial heaters, evacuated solar tubes are used to heat water by natural sunlight. Additionally, photovoltaic panels and heat exchangers are placed strategically to further minimize the complex’s energy use.

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Saadiyat Island is the single largest mixed-use development in the Arabian Gulf and the Zayed National Museum is the first of the museums proposed for the island. A performing arts center by Zaha Hadid, a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, a branch of the Louvre museum by Jean Nouvel, and a maritime museum by Tadao Ando are part of the bigger proposal for the Island.



Simran Bajaj is a Mumbai – based architect. She graduated recently in 2019, worked for a while and is pursuing an MBA now. She is a vibrant girl who loves narrating through her writing. Architecture is her passion but writing makes her feel stronger.

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