Venice provides a new angle for architectural discourse on UAE

Sunday 14/08/2016
A visitor looks at the display regarding the evolution of the Emirati National House.

Dubai - Visitors to the UAE pavil­ion at the 15th Venice In­ternational Architecture Exhibition are not greet­ed by iconic structures, record-breaking skyscrapers and mega projects that have dominated the United Arab Emirates’ urban environment, making its world­wide reputation.

Rather, the narrative has been shifted by curator and architect Yasser Elsheshtawy to focus in­stead on the architectural trans­formation of the “Emirati national house” or sha’bi — Arabic for “folk house”.

The pavilion sets forth a grass-roots approach to architecture, exploring sha’bi, which is a style of mass housing introduced in the 1970s to accommodate what was at that time a fairly transient popula­tion. Elsheshtawy, an expert on ur­banisation and associate professor of architecture at the UAE Univer­sity in Al Ain, reviewed the myriad ways sha’bi has been adapted by Emirati residents over the years.

Families made various archi­tectural modifications to the ba­sic structure, reflecting changing lifestyles, needs and culture. This was done by adding rooms, deco­rative elements, changing colour schemes and doorways. Extensive landscaping, which dominates many neighbourhoods, also took place, Elsheshtawy said.

“This kind of change was pos­sible because the modular proto­type, prefabricated in many in­stances, provided a flexible model and was like a blank slate upon which the residents exercised their functional and aesthetic aspira­tions,” Elsheshtawy said.

“Sha’bi can be construed as a form of vernacular architecture that challenges the notion of top-down planning that we are so used to in the region and elsewhere. This early housing model was inspired by the layout of the arish houses constructed from palm fronds that were inhabited by the Bedouins.

“In their informality, sense of place and a lived-in look, they defy the very notion of glamour, exclu­sivity and transience.”

Elsheshtawy concentrated on the study of two typical sha’biyaa neighbourhoods — Al Defa’a and Al Maqam — in Al-Ain to prepare the work.

The theme of the UAE pavilion was considered a unique response to the Venice exhibition’s overall theme – Reporting from the Front. “We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in it­self but a way to improve people’s quality of life,” exhibition Curator Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean archi­tect, said in an introduction posted on the exhibition website.

Elsheshtawy said that it took him and his four-member team nine months to assemble the UAE pavil­ion. Their work included archival searches, mapping of neighbour­hoods and houses, literature re­view and urban and architectural analysis.

“All data were processed and vis­ualised at the Urban Research Lab at the UAE University. Two of my assistants would, on a weekly ba­sis, travel to Abu Dhabi to conduct research at the UAE’s National Ar­chive Centre. All research work was completed by March 2016. From then on until the actual opening, ef­forts were geared towards prepar­ing the material for display, as well as editing the various publications accompanying the exhibition,” he said.

Elsheshtawy applauded the amount of interest that the UAE ex­hibition has attracted in Venice.

“There seems to be a strong un­derstanding of the exhibition’s theme and content,” he said. “I think visitors in general appreci­ated learning more about a lesser-known aspect of the UAE’s thriving architecture and one that focuses on the everyday spaces of the UAE citizens, developing a new angle of architectural discourse about the UAE.”

The pavilion was designed so vis­itors get a feel of walking through a sha’biyaa neighbourhood. “Per­sonally witnessing the public’s re­action to the exhibition was quite remarkable,” Elsheshtawy said. “Many seemed to enjoy the mate­rial on display and appreciated the elegance of the exhibition design. It did not have a cluttered effect and the exhibition sequence was well-planned.”

Research that went into the UAE pavilion included personal stories of the Emirati residents and fami­lies in sha‘biyaa neighbourhoods.

When asked whether the re­search would continue and wheth­er he thinks other Gulf countries should be doing case studies on these lines, Elsheshtawy was ada­mant: “Yes, I think they should definitely look to capture similar experiences on the ‘human aspect of living communities’ as it offers audiences an unexpected perspec­tive on these countries’ urban cul­ture, moving away from the head­line-grabbing developments and clichés of mass consumption and ultra-luxury.

“Such documentation and map­ping is important, particularly in a young country as the UAE as it helps to highlight a significant as­pect of its heritage. There are also many potential lessons that could benefit contemporary housing ini­tiatives,” Elsheshtawy added.