Lulu Island: an uncultured pearl in a sea of development

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A man-made breakwater that shelters Abu Dhabi island from the high tides and open waters of the Arabian Gulf, Lulu Island sits squeezed between the crab-like pincers of its marina and the docks at Mina Zayed.

The result is a rather unlovely blot on the horizon and a 600-metre-wide lagoon that fronts the capital’s carefully manicured Corniche.

Unlike its name, which means “pearl” in Arabic, there is nothing beautiful or romantic about the island’s 500 barren hectares, but that hasn’t prevented Lulu from developing a strangely fascinating and unusual atmosphere.

Instead, Lulu’s peculiar genius loci stems from the fact that in the midst of an urban landscape shaped by relentless and near continuous development, the island displays an inertia that is both uncanny and unique.

While malls and museums, racing circuits and marinas have risen from the sands of nearby islands such as Reem and Al Maryah, Saadiyat and Yas, Lulu appears to have resisted all attempts at development.

If Abu Dhabi island is a palimpsest that retains fragments of its urban past, Lulu Island is a screen on which dreams have been projected, but which have barely left a trace.

And so the island remains empty, scarred only by a handful of abandoned jetties, cabanas, cafes and a deserted camel riding circuit – relics from a time when it was briefly open to the public.

Hassan Mahmood readily admits to being mildly obsessed by what he describes as Lulu’s “lack of progress”.

“It hasn’t changed for as long as I’ve been here,” says the 43-year-old engineer who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2008 and is now living on a Corniche that has been transformed during the same period, thanks to the construction of megastructures such as Foster + Partners’ World Trade Centre, Etihad Towers and HOK’s new headquarters for Adnoc.

Mahmood finds Lulu difficult to ignore because he looks at the island “almost every day” from the kitchen window of his 14th-storey apartment in Al Markaziyah.

“I suppose it’s ideal if you can get there and you want the beach to yourself,” he explains. “But given all of the other things that have changed in this city, the fact that it’s still empty is a mystery to me.”

That state of suspension has persisted since the early 80s when Lulu was built amidst proposals that immediately identified it as a location for leisure, culture, spectacle and luxury, predating Abu Dhabi’s plans for Saadiyat by more than 25 years.

“In the case of this beautiful and unique island, the important thing, in our view, is to create a comprehensive and unforgettable show” wrote the Brazilian master architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1981.

The designer of some of the most instantly recognisable modernist buildings of the 20th century, Niemeyer worked on a proposal for Lulu even before the island had a name.

Niemeyer’s plans for his “leisure island” included hotels and waterside residences, an elevated monorail, marina and aquarium, a nautical club, helipads, a convention centre and a zoo.

The star attractions, however, were a rejuvenation centre designed to attract geriatric medical tourists, and a culturally sensitive theme park that took its inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights.

Niemeyer considered the complex, which he designed as two enormous domes bisected by a sloping ramp, as a more suitable replacement for the “scheduled Disneyland” that was already under consideration, but which, for the architect, had “nothing to do with the Arab world”.

Thirty-five years after he produced his lyrical sketch scheme, the architect, who produced more than 600 designs during his seven-decade-long career, still expressed regret at its rejection.

“It was a project I worked on with great energy,” the 98-year-old remembered. “But which, unfortunately, did not come off paper.”

Ironically, it is this failure, and the fact that Niemeyer’s scheme sat unpublished and forgotten in an archive for many decades, that makes it a Lulu Island proposal par excellence.

Niemeyer’s quotes, notes and drawings are the subject of a new book, Oscar Niemeyer in Abu Dhabi, which was launched at the Architectural Association in London this week.

The book was written and researched by John Burns of Brownbook, who sees a certain prophetic quality in Niemeyer’s proposed electric vehicles, raised monorail and cultural district.

“Had Niemeyer’s proposal been commissioned,” Burns writes, “Abu Dhabi would have seen Lulu Island become its first epicentre of architecture, culture and leisure”.

But if, as Burns suggests, traces of Niemeyer’s proposal can be still be seen in the Dubai Metro, at Masdar City and on Saadiyat Island, its impact on the subsequent proposals for Lulu was even more profound.

Niemeyer’s emphasis on spectacle and leisure provided the island with a frame of reference that lasted for a generation but by 1997 it looked like the dream of Lulu had finally come to an end.

Faced with spiralling costs which had doubled from earlier estimates, plans for the island’s development were finally brought to a halt.

“The Abu Dhabi government has shelved the project indefinitely because of its high costs and its other commitments,” said an unidentifed Western diplomat who was quoted in an Agence-France Presse report that was reprinted in The Emirates News.

“The Government believes there is no rush for the project as it is a recreational project. There are other pressing needs.”

By September 2003 however, Lulu Island was back on the agenda when the establishment of the General Corporation for Development and Investment of Lulu Island.

Funded by the Abu Dhabi government to the tune of Dh100 million, the purpose of the corporation was to “develop and invest in Lulu Island in Abu Dhabi and turn it into one of the city’s modern hallmarks,” said its royal decree.

The corporation’s plans for the island included a wildlife reserve, “fun parks”, hotels, restaurants, man-made lakes and even a museum, but when Lulu finally opened to the public in 2007 the facilities that had been created, which included two restaurants, four coffee shops, a track for camel and horse riding and two artificial lakes, felt underpowered to say the very least.

By this time however, the thinking around Lulu Island had shifted once again.

In 2006, President HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was presented with a new plan for the island by the master developer Sorouh Real Estate, which envisaged Lulu as “a new waterfront bustling with mixed use commercial, residential, cultural and recreational facilities” but architectural hubris appeared to have reached new levels when, four years later, the US architecture giant Skidmore Owings & Merrill presented plans for their 1,312-foot-high Lulu Tower, a 75-storey high-rise that would have been shaped like a giant clam.

The following year Abu Dhabi’s Department of Transport awarded a consultancy contract for the Lulu Road Project, an eight-kilometre-long, six-lane road that would connect the marina on Abu Dhabi’s breakwater with the docks at Mina Zayed.

As always seems to be the way with Lulu Island, none of these projects is yet to come to fruition but what is it about the island that makes it so resistant to development?

In an interview with Brownbook’s John Burns, the former translator and interpreter to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Zaki Nusseibeh described Lulu Island as a “late starter” but the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet has put forward another theory.

“Because I am a believer in poetry, I think there is something beside the social, political or economic reasons that might be behind the lack of execution of any of the projects connected with Lulu Island.”

In 2013 Tabet, who specialises in researching and retelling hidden histories, was commissioned to produce a performance as part of that year’s Abu Dhabi Art.

To unwary visitors looking for a free cruise around Lulu Island, Looking for Pearls seemed like an ordinary boat tour, but as the boat embarked it soon became clear that they were about to experience something quite different.

Looking for Pearls was actually Tabet’s investigation into the stories that had accumulated around Lulu Island’s fantastical past.

“Lulu has always been a place that is as fictional as it is true, as imagined as it is real,” the artist explains.

“There was talk about wild cats that took over the island and even a mermaid, but for me it wasn’t a case of trying to distinguish between the factual and the anecdotal, it was more a case of taking on all of Lulu’s stories equally. It’s what the island calls for.”

For Tabet, who trained as an architect before he became an artist, one of the most fantastical stories he uncovered related to the island’s unusual shape.

“Quite by accident, I read that Lulu had been built in the shape of Abu Dhabi but that it was five times smaller. That’s an extremely interesting and radical idea.”

To test this Tabet made a drawing of the island and then enlarged and rotated it. Whether the story was true or not, the enlarged Lulu Island mapped onto Abu Dhabi island almost perfectly.

“There are these moments when there is suddenly the means to execute an idea that can only exist in the imagination, when an imagined situation gets executed and is given form, but in doing that there is also a moment when the pure poetry removes the possibility of realising anything else,” the artist explains.

“A lot of the projects that have been proposed for this island belong in the realm of the fantastic, but the island itself is already fantastical enough.”

Tabet believes that the most radical thing that could be done to Lulu is to leave the island as it is.

“The most poetic project would be to reopen it to the public because the moment you execute anything on that island there is a level of magic that will be completely lost.”

Oscar Niemeyer in Abu Dhabi is published by Brownbook and is available from