NIEMEYER IN ABU DHABI
A new book explores Oscar Niemeyer’s forgotten plans for Abu Dhabi’s Lulu Island.
The late modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer designed everything from Brazil’s capital city right down to a box of chocolates. Before his death at the grand old age of 104, his plan chest in Rio de Janeiro heaved with the blueprints of over 600 projects.
Designed over a period of 70 years, it’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that some of Niemeyer’s unbuilt projects have been neglected from memory, following the same unfortunate fate as some of his built works; the ruins of a semi-built international fair in Lebanon, for example, or his now-crumbling universities in Algeria.
Oscar Niemeyer in Abu Dhabi is a new publication I edited for Emirati publishing house Brownbook, which was produced in collaboration with Fundação Oscar Niemeyer, the architect’s official archives. Its title alludes to one such unbuilt project, an all-out Arabian pleasure park that Niemeyer proposed in 1981 for Lulu Island, Abu Dhabi. It was a project mentioned only in footnotes and online stubs but that begged a question: How, four decades into his career, did Niemeyer wind up on the shores of a tiny island off the coast of a then-small GCC nation?
In 1964, following the deposition of Brazil’s then-President João Goulart, Niemeyer packed up his trunk and self-exiled to Europe; a hardline, right wing Brazil was no place for an avowed communist. “I decided to pack up my architecture and my hurt feelings and go abroad,” Niemeyer wrote in his memoir.
It was during this period that Niemeyer set sail (for he was afraid of flying) to the Middle East and North Africa. His political leanings led to friendships with revolutionary leaders and designs for newly independent nations in the region. Until he returned to Brazil in 1985, the architect lent his signature free-flowing, futuristic forms to sketches for a zoo in Algeria, a town plan for Libya and a Toyota branch in Saudi Arabia, among others.
Abu Dhabi was no different, it seems. Sometimes detailed, often little more than a squiggle, Niemeyer’s sketches for Abu Dhabi illustrate an ambitious master plan featuring domed 1001 Nights theme parks, UFO-like auditorium centers and a modernist care home for geriatric Emiratis.
Although, as Niemeyer himself once wrote, the project “never made it off paper,” what I found curious during my research and interviews is that his plans for Abu Dhabi bear relevance to the city’s current urban development.
At a point when Saadiyat Island has caught the imagination of starchitects such as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry and is set to become the world’s most concentrated square mile of art, culture and architecture, what I find interesting to note is the ironic twist of fate of its barren neighbor, Lulu Island, and that a 30-year old love affair between one of the world’s most legendary architects and the Middle East has been all but forgotten in the slew of anticipation surrounding the projects that his disciples are set to build.