As announced in October 2015, UAEU professor Yasser Elsheshtawy has been selected to curate the United Arab Emirates pavilion for the 2016 Venice Biennale. Following the Biennale’s theme of Reporting from the Front, Elsheshtawy—who runs the blog Dubaization, a term he coined in 2004 to depict the influence of Dubai on the urban discourse—has chosen to highlight the country’s social housing program, known as Sha’abi housing, which began in the 1970s and continues on to today.
ArchDaily was given the opportunity to speak to Elsheshtawy about the history of the United Arab Emirates’ Sha’abi housing, and what role it might play in informing the urban future of a country that has become renowned for a very different type of architecture. Continue reading for our exclusive interview with Elsheshtawy on this year’s UAE pavilion.
Patrick Lynch: Could you explain your proposal for the UAE pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale? What is the story behind Sha’abi housing, and where does your interest in this come from?
Yasser Elsheshtawy: It started when they announced Alejandro Aravena’s theme for the biennale. I began looking at the description of the theme and how National Pavilions represent themselves. There were a couple of points of interest, which I think also reflect Aravena's background in social architecture and public housing. He wants national pavilions to go beyond the iconic and the spectacular, and to focus on architectures that enhance the quality of life and also to show an architecture that celebrates the everyday. There was a key phrase that I found interesting – he wants people to challenge the status quo in some way. So looking at the architectural landscape of the UAE, it’s sort of challenging. It’s not easy to find something that responds to that, but I found the Sha’abi housing – the almost socialist housing program that was implemented in the UAE in the early 70s - to be relevant toward the theme for a whole bunch of reasons.
PL: Do these houses follow a specific architectural plan or typology, or was it more of a general program for how social housing should work?
YE: The way this was implemented—and it's an ongoing program, it continues until now—when the UAE was formed in 1971, much of the population was composed of bedouins who lived in the desert in temporary housing and even people who lived in settlements at the time, such as Abu Dhabi or Dubai, lived in houses that were – I wouldn’t say temporary, but made of material that wasn’t particularly strong or permanent. So it was a way to introduce modernity to the country and a way to encourage people to settle, wherever they were. The particular architecture, and this is the interesting part, was based on a very basic model, like a courtyard typology, where you have a basic plan. One of the basic models was a 24 by 24 meter plot. You have a fence around that, and then a bunch of walls located within that plot and they overlook a courtyard. This was the basic model and they were generally two or three bedroom units.
People moved in and over the years, modified this particular model. They have added rooms, they have added decorative elements, they’ve changed colors, they’ve changed entryways. So it has transformed and become something else, and that’s the fascinating aspect of these houses. The extent of change varies from one city to the next, one neighborhood to the next, but the idea is still there, that this is a kind of architecture that people are able to personalize to their needs and because of that it became an expression of their culture and their lifestyle, and I find that particular aspect absolutely fascinating.
PL: So these types of houses are still found throughout the UAE, including Dubai, where there has been so much development recently?
YE: Yes, they do exist in various cities and settlements, but it differs in terms of level of preservation and in terms of prevalence. For instance the city where I live, Al Ain, which is where UAE University is where I teach, is an inland city. It’s the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates, a desert town, an oasis town. It’s significant in the history of the UAE because this is where the country’s founder came from and a large percentages of Emiratis, UAE citizens, live in Al Ain. So you see a lot of these Sha’abi houses in Al Ain. Many are quite well preserved, occupied still by Emirati families.
You see it also in Abu Dhabi, but then when you go to places like Dubai, for example, just some of those neighborhoods still exist there, and I have written about a few of them, such as Satwa. Another example is the neighborhood of Shorta. I was there right before it was slated for demolition and we spoke to some of the families there and it's basically the same idea, the basic Sha’abi housing model transformed by the users and so on. But that neighborhood doesn’t exist anymore, it’s gone. It was demolished a year ago because of ongoing developments, so in Dubai only a few still exist.
If you go to the northern Emirates, some are still there, because of the different economic context. Their conditions are not as well maintained. So the extent of how well they are preserved and how many still exist varies, but you find them throughout different cities. I should say that our focus in the pavilion will be on the city of Al Ain. We’re doing a survey of all these different neighborhoods, but then we are shifting back to Al Ain because the extent of these neighborhoods are still relatively well preserved. I think it offers the best record of how these houses are still being used.
PL: You’ve written a lot about Dubai, and I know many people’s perception of the UAE comes from that image of Dubai. I was curious as to what the attitude is about that type of development from the majority of the Emiratis, is that the type of development that people think is helping the country succeed?
YE: Well it’s an interesting question. It’s difficult to tell. In general, there is a sense of acceptance about these projects. They tend to be perceived in a way that they are a reflection of the country’s progress and advancement. So that’s sort of the official, public view. But there are also views that in some instances, these developments are geared toward westerners and expatriates and so on, and there might be a perception that it’s not for everybody or the rest of the country. But it’s difficult to gauge people’s exact reactions, because there are no polls, and if you were to ask them, they’d say “yeah, it’s great.” But they take place, and to a large degree, they are seen as a source of pride in a sense that it is a part of whatever happens in the country. And it’s just left at that. Then they go on with their daily lives. So I don’t think it’s fully integrated within the overall everyday environment.
PL: Going back to the Sha’abi housing, do you think that’s something that could be reinterpreted in the contemporary world for the modern city, including Dubai?
YE: That’s an implicit objective behind our focus on that particular type of housing, because it tends to be overlooked in the overall architectural landscape of the Emirates. The focus is always on spectacular, iconic architecture or looking at some historical forms. So something like the Sha’abi housing which is not particularly pretty architecturally, something visually quite ordinary, tends to be overlooked, and the general attitude is that this is something that should be removed and demolished because it doesn’t present a good image of the country. But that is not what everybody thinks and there are in fact some people, even on higher authority levels, that look at these places with some sense of nostalgia and think that they reflect a certain way of living and a certain attitude – sort of like communal living. There is a sense of community in these neighborhoods that should be preserved in some way.
There have been some organizations like in Abu Dhabi the tourism and culture authority which have actually over the past few years been looking at some of these houses, in addition to other modernist architecture from the 70s and 80s, and looking at ways of how to preserve them and find a new use for them. But for the moment, that’s just wishful thinking in many ways. The overall ethos of development is towards these houses being replaced with bigger, fancier, flashier villas. We hope to find a way to show the value of these projects: architecturally, socially, from an urban perspective. And that some of these neighborhoods are quite valuable. That they are still being occupied by people, still being actively used, that there is some value in keeping them.
PL: It sounds like one of the most important things you said is how they are able to be personalized by their residents. What do you think are the architectural elements that allow for customization?
YE: We’re looking at that right now actually. If you look at some of the very initial designs, the elements that were being used were quite basic. This way a basic concrete and brick construction—there were hardly any decorative elements—there is relatively a lot of space, large spans. The courtyard, for example, was quite large compared to the actual rooms that were being built. That’s in addition to the modular construction that was being used, which allowed people to add rooms and other elements. The specific architectural elements that were being used were designed in a way that allowed things to be added to them. The open spaces surrounding these housing were relatively large, so people could add gardens and landscaping, which is a very significant feature of these houses.
We’re now doing this archival search about these initial models and the laws that accompanied their distribution. These houses were given by the government to residents of the UAE, but they never really had full ownership. They had the right to use the house, but they could not sell it, couldn’t rent it and one of the very significant provisions is that they could not add anything to it unless they received permission from the authorities. The authorities were also in charge of maintaining the properties, and if you wanted to add anything to the house, they referred to that as “maintenance.” So people would seek permission to add a room. Sometimes they would get it, sometimes they wouldn’t. And from what I can tell, sometimes people wouldn’t even gets permits, they would just add stuff. The degree to which this has been implemented has varied greatly, so it's interesting because it's not exactly informal but not fully formal: it's something in-between, unlike in other countries, like Egypt or Brazil where you have informal housing, which is completely outside the formal spectrum of building. Here it exists in an in between state, and it nevertheless happened anyway and people added things.
PL: How are these housed oriented to one another, and how many people are they designed for?
YE: Sometimes they are attached back to back, but usually they are standalone structures, and the distance between one unit and the next is a small alleyway. So it’s quite regular even in the way it's planned with a rigid grid system. Initially this was planned for a basic family: husband, wife, children, but this has changed over the years. Now some of these houses have multiple generations. You can find 10, 12 people of one family living in some of these houses. Younger generations, older. That varies from one unit to the next. It makes looking at that particular type of housing unique because it accommodates quite a lot of people, generations. In some instances, younger generations move out and move to newer, bigger housing provided by the state. And the parents or grandparents refuse to leave because they grew up in that house and they’ve lived there all their lives. So you see a lot of older folks in these houses. I live in one of these neighborhoods actually in a newer house and when I walk around, you see a bunch of older people sitting outside, but you also see children playing. When Emiratis move out, some of these houses are occupied by South Asian laborers or other Arabs. The law has been relaxed now so that people who own these houses can rent them out. That has changed recently. It’s not exactly official, but the implementation preventing renting from happening is not implemented. So these units have been subdivided into several units, and then you have different people living in them. That happens particularly in Dubai.
PL: You’ve written about avoiding spectacle in architecture. What do you think is the danger in pursuing that?
YE: It lends itself to cliche building. If that is what everybody is talking about, then immediately the next attribute will be artificiality. So that’s the danger. And it’s one reason I’ve written my book, Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, to try to go beyond that. I’m not disputing the beauty of whatever iconic buildings and urban developments are being created, but there is another side that exists, and we need to highlight this as well. That particular side is the one the gives the character and the uniqueness to the particular urban environment of the cities here, whether it is Dubai, or Abu Dhabi or whatever. In the past I’ve looked at the informal use of public spaces and I think the Sha’abi housing is another expression of that, because again it’s something that’s outside of the mainstream, and it shows a particular type of architecture that is to a large degree driven by its inhabitants. Not exactly architecture without architects, but closer to that. More of a designed framework that residents can build within. This takes us away from the cliche of the Emirates as an artificial environment, where people are merely recipients of buildings without them having any feedback on whether they like that or not.