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Abdul Rahman Munif, the late well-known Saudi author of the novel “Cities of Salt,” was asked about why he chose such a title for the book. He responded that cities in the region, despite their spectacular architectures, are ultimately transient, and at the slightest sign of trouble, they will simply disappear, as salt dissolves in water. While not discounting the transient nature of their urban populations, Gulf Arab cities are here to stay. Indeed, over the last few decades they have built durable infrastructures in a massive construction program. And, in a twist of irony, it is “Salt” that formed the basis for the United Arab Emirates’ award-winning national presentation at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.
The title of the contribution, “Wetland,” alludes to the main theme of the exhibition: the creation of an environmentally friendly cement made from industrial waste brine. It very much aligns with the new focus on sustainability, protecting resources, and mitigating the effects of climate change. This is a remarkable achievement, especially considering that the only other Arab country to have won an award is Bahrain in 2010.
The UAE’s exhibition, rather than focusing on historicist representations, portraying the region through a geopolitical lens of ongoing conflict and violence, or attributing some magical qualities to a 20th century modernity that has been lost in the face of ongoing development, sought to broaden its scope. Instead of serving as the locus for exotic curiosity, this year’s theme aspired to show how the region can make a substantive contribution to contemporary architectural discourse by offering real and practical solutions to pressing issues.
The UAE’s participation in the event over the last few years laid the groundwork for this shift and achievement. In 2014, when the country began its participation in the Architecture Biennale, the focus was on 20th century modernism. The exhibition in 2016, “Transformation of the Emirati National House,” curated by this author, steered away from this mostly historical approach by exploring the extent to which the house is inhabited in the present day and how it forms an indispensable part of the UAE’s architectural and urban landscape. The 2018 pavilion took this further – the curator looked at the notion of “bigness,” implying a need to shift attention to smaller and more modest urban spaces.
Some critics have suggested such participation may mask endemic problems in Emirati society that need to be tackled. Reuters recently reported on the deportation of African workers from Dubai. And there are ongoing issues such as segregation in the urban environment and conditions of labor camps. Participating in international events and celebrating awards could be seen as sidestepping such issues. Instead, participating in the biennale, and being recognized as a leading architectural force, is an important step toward engaging with sociopolitical issues and toward considering the extent to which the built environment can contribute to an equitable and sustainable future.
This is the 10th time the UAE has participated with an exhibition at a dedicated space located in the Arsenale, which is one of two key locations (the other is the Giardini) hosting the event. Architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto are the curators, selected following a competitive process conducted by the commissioner, Abu Dhabi’s Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. The curators founded waiwai design in Dubai, a multidisciplinary design firm. Awar hails from Lebanon while Teramoto is from Japan. Awar’s biography describes him as a “permanent outsider working with no geographical boundaries.” The exhibition presents a large-scale prototype structure created from an environmentally friendly cement made of recycled waste brine. As stated by the commissioner, the structure recalls “the UAE’s traditional coral-built houses, forming a hand-built 7 x 5 meter prototype.” The prototype is accompanied by large-scale images, created by New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi, of the UAE’s sabkhas, or salt flats, which provided inspiration for the research process. The exhibition also includes a 3-minute soundtrack capturing the story of the sabkhas, the desalination process that creates brine, and the research journey.
The installation fits within the overall theme of the biennale, “How will we live together.” According to the Architecture Biennale’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, the theme seeks to provide “a new spatial contract. In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together.” He identifies a number of ways this notion of “living together” can be achieved: through connections across digital and real space; by exploring new ways of habitation; by looking at how communities can demand equity and inclusion; by examining new geographies of association; and, of particular relevance for the UAE’s contribution, by coming “together as a planet facing crises that require global action for all of us to continue living at all.”
A number of other Arab countries are participating in the event. Bahrain’s pavilion explores the urban landscape of Muharraq and the impact of development on its oyster beds. It is a rumination on how to balance the need for development, sustainability, and the preservation of a historic site. Egypt’s contribution, “Blessed Fragments,” displays a series of portraits representing ordinary, humble people, and visitors are tasked with imagining themselves among them. Iraq, participating for the first time in the biennale, returns to the very beginning of its architectural legacy: “the vernacular architecture and watercraft of ancient Mesopotamia,” seeking to establish a connection with the Venetian setting through an examination of boat construction, “bringing people together through boats.” Both Egypt’s and Iraq’s exhibitions have a tenuous connection to the built environment. A stronger case is made by Kuwait’s pavilion, which examines the struggle, or “Space Wars,” between the main city and the sprawling spaces that surround the urban center. The exhibition displays a carpet designed by the curators “inspired by the interviews collected throughout the project leading to the Biennale … an abstract interpretation of the narratives and maps that describe the hinterland.” Lebanon’s exhibition, “A Roof for Silence,” “evokes the theme of living together through the notion of emptiness as a temporal and spatial condition of architecture.” The installation is centered on 16 olive trees, and as visitors walk through the space, they encounter a trail of glass on the ground, representing imprints of “fractal traces” evoking the impact of the August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port. Through this experience, the curator aims to present emptiness as another form of architecture – spaces that invite contemplation and reflection. The Saudi pavilion, “Accommodations,” is a response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It examines how the threat of contagion is managed through permanent and temporary structures, and specifically, “how the built environment and urban fabric accommodate the conditions of emergency and how the meaning and use of such spaces shift over time.”
Like the UAE’s, the contributions from Arab countries have largely moved away from historicist representations and revisionary perspectives as well as the ongoing discussions pertaining to modernism. Instead, they tackle pressing issues related to the natural environment, climate change, and new forms of habitation. In that way they make a vital contribution to contemporary urban and architectural discourses. But the UAE pavilion is different in many ways. For one, dominating the exhibition is an actual structure, specifically constructed for the event. On first sight, it is not particularly inspiring as a kind of primordial, cave-like form. Interestingly, the commissioner suggested that the inspiration came from houses in the region that used to be built from coral stone, a rather unsustainable material, leading to the depletion of a valuable resource. However, putting this aside, the contribution caught the attention of the international jury, led by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, noting that the UAE received the award because it is a “bold experiment which encourages us to think about the relationship between waste and production at both the local and global scales, and opens to new construction possibilities between craft and high technology.” These possibilities could contribute to the development of an urban future that is sustainable.
However, the biennale has not been without its critics. One described it as “conceptual posturing.” Another noted that “many featured projects were more like conceptual flights of fancy than plans for built environments,” including a bust of Nefertiti made from beeswax and suggestions for feeding the world with microalgae. Some also commented on the inherent political nature of “living together.” An exhibition by a Spanish practice proposed the redevelopment of a neighborhood near Paris to accommodate African migrants through the design of collective housing, a market, and a subway station. Uzbekistan reconstructed a section of a house found in a mahalla, a low-rise, high-density community with shared spaces that is present throughout Asia. It is these edgier explorations that are missing in contributions from Arab countries, choosing to bypass sociopolitical themes, focusing instead on subjects that address an international audience and the adoption of seemingly more trendy topics.
It is important to capitalize on this moment. Winning such a prestigious award shows that the UAE is being recognized for exploring cutting edge architectural subjects. Future contributions could usefully take this sense of daring further to show that the UAE is not reluctant to expose injustices, and that it aims to realize a truly sustainable future – one that is inclusive and open to all. And with that optimistic vision, Munif’s bleak premonition about the “Cities of Salt” can be put to rest, starting with an installation that used this material to pave the way for a promising future.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He previously served as a visiting scholar at AGSIW and is the author of “Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia” (Routledge, 2019).
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