Lifescapes beyond bigness - The National Pavilion of the UAE by Compasses
“Lifescapes beyond bigness”, the National Pavilion of the UAE at the 16th Architectural Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia – commissioned by The Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and curated by Khaled Alawadi – further develops a thread that was initiated at the UAE’s debut in 2014 when the exhibition “Lest we Forget, Structures of Memory in the UAE” curated by Michele Bambling started investigating the history UAE by looking at it through the lens of its architectural achievements, and by questioning on «how public and residential architecture, built within a rapidly expanding urban context, shaped the newly established federation and prepared the foundation for its emergence on a global stage».
A promising start that allowed to showcase the first systematic study and documentation of a number of buildings and public works that had marked the shift of the Emirates from a conservative society to a modern confederation that required infrastructures and buildings to provide the physical and symbolic setting where the new born nation could thrive and self represent. The implications of that shift on the transformation of the environment were huge, as much as the impact on lifestyles due to emerging education, healthcare and mobility systems, new residential typologies and commercial buildings.
The narrative of a Nation moving towards modernity was then continued by the 2016 National Pavilion exhibition "Transformations: The Emirati National House" curated by Yasser Elsheshtawy, who focused on another keystone of that transition. For a predominantly nomadic population, the sha‘bī (popular) house marked the unprecedented chance to settle down in a publicly funded single homes environment, designed as clusters of rooms surrounded by a courtyard, a scheme allowing incremental additions to the initial built-up area in order to adapt the homes to the changing needs of the family over the years.
The 2014 and 2016 edition were also a reflection of broader initiatives for the documentation and conservation of Modern Architecture carried on by institutional bodies in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, anticipated and then followed by the publication of papers in academic journals by local and international scholars, all in all contributing to the recognition of the legacy of the architectural achievements of the period between the 1950s and the 1980s, and to foster the narrative of the seamless continuity that linked the pre and the post oil phases of modern Emirates history.
The Conference organized by UAEMODERN.ORG in partnership with the Dubai Design Week in 2017, focused on the architectural achievements of that period, bringing together for the first time institutional bodies and stakeholders from the Emirates and international experts to debate on the legacy of UAE modern architecture.
“Lifescapes beyond bigness” builds new steps of this pathway both by scaling the observation up to the urban fabric and the territory, and by emphasizing on the role of human scale and the relationship «between the physicality of architecture and places, and the dynamic choreography of everyday life».
The pavilion is both a scientific study of urban structures and natural landscapes, and a poetic tale of the daily rituals, that are made possible by the existence of «neighborhoods, urban blocks, streets and alleyways, squares and public spaces, mountains and agrarian settings» that are being threatened under the action of large urban replacements.The exhibition is the outcome of researches made by the curator as a scholar, an architect, and in his capacity of Assistant Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, part of Khalifah University of Science and Technology. Researches are based upon surveys, mapping, on site observations, photo reportage and interviews. The exhibition focuses on the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Three districts have been chosen for a comparative study of urban morphologies: Al Satwa and Al Shorta in Dubai, Baniyas in Abu Dhabi, all of which emerged in between the 1970s and the 1980s. Although very different from each other in their structures, plot sizes and architectural typologies, they seem to share key generative principles that may explain the successful “lifescapes” that they have contributed to form. All districts have a limited accessibility from the main road network, and the internal roads are not crossroads.
Their lower degree in hierarchy is shown both in the size and in the treatment of the surfaces: in Al Shorta and in most part of Al Satwa they are not even paved. This condition has left unclaimed many spaces between the roads and buildings, and the interstitial spaces in-between the buildings. These are claimed harmoniously either by the spontaneous growing of plants and trees, or by informal uses by their inhabitants. The nature of the spaces that the researches unveil cannot be assessed with the metrics that we use to evaluate the landscaped outdoor areas of residential environments that are currently developed in the UAE, where there is a rigid separation between “public” and “private” domains.
The hybrid nature of the spaces that are narrated in the photographic reportage tells stories of social relationships, informal gathering, gardening, palm dates and bee honey harvesting, children’s play, and demonstrates the irreplaceable value of being connected with the land. In the districts that are primarily residential the rituals of everyday life are mostly related to the families and the interaction that occurs in four relational spheres: the couples, males, females and children. In the interviews we feel immersed in the flow of time; the lives of people and the time that they have spent in the UAE – for some it is more than 50 years – are photo-frames of a recent, however old, country history.
The bigger and more complex setting of Al Satwa, due to the presence of mixed-use corridors, reveals other layers of interaction, embracing all forms of crafting and trading; not only inside the shops, but also and more interestingly along the sikkas, the doorways, the walkways and the leftover spaces that are claimed for informal and temporary use.
In Alawadi’s Pavilion the network of the sikkas of Abu Dhabi and Dubai become the target of an in depth study that investigates their consistency, their materials, functions, accessibility and sectional features, and shows a profound awareness of the role played by their spaces in responding to the challenges of the local climate and the constraints of culture. Sikkas intertwine the urban fabric and act as place makers for sociality, trading, play, rest, gardening, pray.
The exploration of resilient lifescapes extends to stories that are blended with some amazing places of the UAE, almost unknown to the mainstream of those who visit the country for tourism, such as the Oasis and the mountains. These are places where people who were born far away seem to possibly reconcile their present with the memories of their home countries. When future is too hard and unpredictable to be tackled, the nature, quality shelters and human spaces become powerful healing tools.
The exhibition unfolds in a narrative that intertwines people’s stories and their daily rituals with the urban and natural spaces where they are performed. The two opposite exposed brick walls of the Arsenale are background to the showcase of photos, posters and maps, while the central part of the exhibition is occupied by a floating structure supporting physical models of urban blocks and natural landmarks at different scales.
When I enter the pavilion Mr. Alawadi, although busy for an interview, greets me gently and liaise me with an assistant, a young Emirati lady, who guides me through the installation, providing an accurate and informative visit, which enriches my understanding of the country, and revamps my commitment to contribute to the spreading of the amazing efforts that the UAE are doing for projecting their past into the future.
Written by Massimo Imparato
UAE Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018
Commissioner: Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation
Architecture and Design
Curator: Khaled Alawadi
Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE