Venice provides a new angle for architectural discourse on UAE
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.