Five Arab countries are participating in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, including, for the first time, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Largely considered one of the most significant architectural gatherings in the world, it is an event that draws practitioners, academics, and critics. Over the last few years there has been an increased presence from the Gulf Arab states, with the participation of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, providing a platform and opportunity for these countries to make a positive contribution to architectural discourse. The biennale is not just an event for the display of buildings; it also aims at addressing larger architectural issues, in many instances derived from pressing problems facing the profession. This is articulated through a theme introduced by the chosen curator(s), which participants are invited to reflect on. Responses vary greatly, but for the most part countries present their architectural output while also addressing issues of substance pertaining to architecture. This entails providing a window into their sociopolitical context since architecture does not operate in a vacuum. Rather, as was so eloquently expressed in the Chilean statement for this year’s event, contributors should consider “the question of architecture’s entanglement with structures of power [and] suggest answers to it.”
While being relative newcomers, Arab countries, with the exception of Egypt, generally avoid explicit political expression. The focus tends to be on historical surveys or a display of architectural and urban progression cast within a nationalistic narrative. There are exceptions, such as Bahrain’s contribution, “Friday Sermon,” which courageously introduces a theme that has a political undertone. The contribution interrogates whether the notion of “Freespace,” this year’s theme, can be truly applied to any urban setting, and also examines the intersection of religion and politics. Presented in an exquisitely designed space, the mere consideration of such a theme, given Bahrain’s own sociopolitical context, raises a number of interesting questions pertaining to the nature of public space in the Gulf, and the very choice of such a topic and its divergence from conventional approaches. But there is also another issue – whether countries participating in these events mask unpleasant social realities through a display that seems to suggest a progressive agenda.
The biennale was established in 1895 as an event exclusively dedicated to art. The architectural iteration began in 1980, and has since alternated with its artistic counterpart. This year it is curated by two renowned architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, from the Irish firm Grafton Architects. They invited more than a hundred architects in addition to 65 national pavilions. Among the five participating Arab countries, only Egypt has a permanent presence, dating back to 1932. The others have a temporary assigned space, which is allotted for a set number of years. Bahrain was the first Gulf Arab state to participate, contributing to the Architectural Biennale in 2010. The kingdom won the best pavilion award for a display that offered an implicit critique of Bahrain’s urban development, which has resulted in the marginalization of traditional forms of livelihood – in this case fishermen whose huts were presented as a symbol for these changes. Three were dismantled in Bahrain and reconstructed in Venice so as to speak “of the discomfort of the current relation with the sea.”
Bahrain’s regional counterparts have largely focused on historical or nationalistic narratives, but there have been exceptions. In 2016, for example, Kuwait’s pavilion, “Between East and West: A Gulf,” consisted of an attempt to remake the Gulf waterway through the development of islands, and in a sense suggesting an alternative geography. The UAE pavilion that year, “Transformations: The UAE National House,” focused on a public housing typology and how it transformed over the years. The presentation implicitly criticized contemporary housing practices, viewed as inherently unsustainable. To that end any reference to existing housing policies was avoided. At the same time, broader architectural issues were considered in response to that year’s theme, “Reporting from the Front,” by associating the topic with the architectural construct of “Architecture without Architects.” This entailed presenting examples of how people play an active role constructing their own environment. The exhibition and particularly its overall spatial design were critically reviewed by the media including the respected architectural publication Domus, and many others.
Freespace, the 2018 biennale’s main theme, is defined as architecture’s capacity to have a generosity of spirit and sense of humanity. It also suggests that architecture can become a space of opportunity. Criticized by some as vague and “nebulous” it nevertheless provides an opportunity for bringing architecture closer to humanistic concerns, which can sometimes be lost in the current climate of speculative urban development. Indeed, there are some interesting contributions such as that of the United States, which engages with different notions of citizenship, a particularly poignant choice of topic given the current political climate in the United States. There are a number of other notable displays, including the award-winning Swiss pavilion involving manipulation of scale and perspective in familiar environments. Ignoring their building’s interior spaces, the British shifted the exhibition to the roof, introducing a plaza and nothing else. Germany looked at the “unbuilding of walls” with architectural proposals alongside the wall that divided Berlin. The Argentinians had a particularly interesting and beautiful exhibition inviting visitors to experience its vast Pampas, or plains, through an elongated glass box containing a landscape in miniature, surrounded by architectural sketches depicting buildings in their unfinished state. The Chilean pavilion was notable as well, focusing on a single event or building namely its main stadium, exploring how its architecture resonated and interacted with the country’s tumultuous political history. These are all heady themes, not concerned with celebrating the greatness of a country, or listing its achievements.
The contributions of Arab countries vary but mostly tread on familiar grounds. Egypt, in the exhibition “Robabekiah,” examines the notion of informality. Interestingly, this specific topic formed the foundation of the previous two biennales, which makes this a rather curious choice given the wealth of architectural production in Egypt. Lebanon’s display, “The Place that Remains,” examines the country’s fragile landscape. With regard to the Gulf Arab states, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia focus on their respective countries’ liminal space – although conceptualized differently. The UAE’s theme “Lifescapes beyond Bigness,” highlight Dubai’s and Abu Dhabi’s small and intimate spaces. The exhibition consists of an open space dominated by a series of models occupying the center, in addition to a massive map of the UAE. The main content is presented as research posters and small photographs relegated to sidewalls. Saudi Arabia, in a very similar space, incorporates a spatially complex arrangement of “cylindrical spaces” with a gathering space of contemplation. Throughout, visitors experience vignettes and aspects related to the theme “Spaces in Between,” which explores the social potential of liminal spaces in Saudi cities. Both pavilions refrain from making any overt political statements, or engaging with ongoing architectural debates. They also emphasize a detached view from above through masterplans, aerial views, city maps, and 3D models.
Bahrain’s Pavilion: The Friday Sermon
Bahrain has an interesting, albeit mixed, record. Aside from its 2010 award-winning entry, in 2014 the kingdom enlisted Lebanon-based curators: architect Bernard Khoury and academic George Arbid. Their particular approach had a pan-Arab tilt that focused on modernist architecture in the region, without explicitly referencing any developments in Bahrain. In 2016, while the focus was on aluminum as a building material pervasive in many cities in the Gulf, including Manama, the exhibition itself was sparse and minimal, lacking a clear formal structure.
In 2018, however, “Friday Sermon” both represents a creative response to the theme, Freespace, while articulating a spatially striking installation. The curators, Nora Akawi (a New York-based architect and researcher) and Noura Al Sayeh (head of architectural affairs at the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities), engage with the political ramification of the Friday sermon noting that “in times of intensified struggles for freedom, speech, and their repression, it is not only productive, but necessary to consider both the violence and the possibilities embedded in the architecture and medium of the khutba [sermon].” They are also looking at “implications for the transformation of common space, sometimes as an obstruction and other times as reinforcement, to the possibilities for free spaces of assembly.” The exhibition itself consists of a large-scale enclosure that contains a sound installation of recordings from Friday sermons in Bahrain. Through this enclosure a central void is created allowing for experiencing the soundscape. At the periphery, outside this void, are video installations examining different aspects of the Friday sermon, in Cairo and Italy.
Critical reactions to this contribution have been quite remarkable. The venerable Architectural Review noted that it is one of the few pavilions that has successfully engaged with the theme of Freespace. Moreover “the somewhat carceral aspect of the structure posits the sermon as producing an ideal freespace, often politically curtailed in reality.” ArchitectureAU, an Australian architecture publication, commented on the spatial intervention in the exhibition, as it “cleverly creates an obstacle to this procession by walling off an area of empty space, forcing visitors to either enter or go around.” And emphasizing the political aspect of communal spaces of gathering, it noted that such sites are never truly free, and always subject to political influence. Perhaps the most significant commentary came from Metropolis Magazine, which listed it among its top 10 national pavilions, observing that “it’s a space for gathering, but its opacity and stern materiality reflects deficient public freedoms in the Gulf state.”
This last comment is indeed intriguing and may not have been the intent of the organizers. However, in the exhibition’s official statement the potential for such an interpretation is made possible by emphasizing the theme’s universality and also its political dimension. Aside from that, the differences with the other participants from the region are quite remarkable. In their choice of theme, grounded in both an everyday reality in Bahrain while at the same time addressing larger architectural issues pertaining to the sociopolitical power of architectural space, for example, and the intersection of religion and architecture, the curators have made a truly substantive contribution to architectural discourse. Within the Bahraini context where an entire public space, the Pearl Roundabout, was physically eradicated given its association with political dissent during the Arab Spring uprisings, the mere allusion to these matters is laudable. But this also raises the issue of artwashing, a word typically used with respect to the corporatization of culture and its use to mask gentrification. But it is also relevant here. A country may choose to put forward a progressive agenda in order to mitigate international concerns about human rights, silencing of expression, and the like. In this case such installations, while receiving positive coverage, are potentially implicated in these transgressions.
One important lesson from Bahrain’s demonstrably successful participation in the biennale is that countries need to take risks with respect to their chosen theme as well as its spatial articulation. The model of artistic (and by extension architectural) patronage that relies on state-led institutions, or private, royalty-led philanthropic organizations may need to be rethought, or, as is the case in Bahrain, free rein should be given to artists, architects, designers, and curators. The biennale is not intended as an event to celebrate a countries’ achievements or to engage in any sort of nationalistic display. It is in many ways an attempt to move the architectural discourse forward, to provide a blueprint for the profession to face pressing architectural concerns. Being critical is at the core of this. And this means that the event needs to have a meaningful impact on the local context and not just be used to mask and hide unpleasant social realities, in a way sanitizing the urban and architectural discourse. Otherwise, it will simply be a matter of rhetoric.
Yasser Elsheshtawy is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and a former visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.