As part of ArchDaily's coverage of the 2016 Venice Biennale, we are presenting a series of articles written by the curators of the exhibitions and installations on show.
In response to Alejandro Aravena’s Biennale theme “Reporting from the Front” the UAE National Pavilion, commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, has chosen as its main theme the transformation of the UAE National house, also known as Sha’abi, or People’s house – a housing program that was introduced in the UAE in the early 1970s to house what was then a fairly transient population.
One of the most significant aspects of the Sha’abi house is its transformative capability. People moved in and over the years modified this particular model by adding rooms, decorative elements, changing color schemes and doorways, as well as extensive landscaping. The extent of change varied from one city to the next, one neighborhood to the next. Yet the main idea remained, an architecture that people were able to personalize to their needs. As a result it became an expression of their culture and lifestyle. Indeed the specific way in which these houses were designed allowed for such an accretive change. The design was based on modular elements, pre-fabricated in many instances, and was a sort of blank slate upon which people could project their aspirations – whether they were functional or aesthetic. The result is an environment that is both functionally responsive and visually interesting because it has resulted in architectural variety. The specific geometry of these houses thus allowed for such changes to take place. In such a way both ‘beauty’ in a very broad sense as well as the social aspect of these houses is being addressed, thus resonating with the overarching Biennale theme that looks at how the built environment can enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants. Our ‘front’ is the UAE’s early generation urban housing landscape.
This is a research-based exhibition rather than one where the focus is on the architectural object per se. Accordingly our aim was to document and map the Sha’abi house. This entailed an historic component (establishing a base line of sorts) as well as looking at various scales — ranging from the city/neighborhood to the house. At each of these a variety of display modes were used: drawings, models, video and photographs as well as analytical diagrams. Right from the outset the decision was made that this will not be a strictly historical investigation, nor a nostalgic rumination on “the good old days.” Instead the highlight is the present and the portrayal of the Sha’abiya neighborhoods as an ongoing living testimony about the resilience of the Emirati people and the extent to which the house, with all of its shortcoming, still plays a vital and important role.
With respect to the actual design of the pavilion the aim is to move away from traditional representational depictions. Instead the concept is derived from the theme itself, implying a universal concern (adaptable housing) by which the pavilion seeks to position itself squarely within contemporary architectural debates. Representational issues are not completely ignored however. We would like to evoke the notion of “home” since the theme deals with domestic concerns. To achieve this we looked at the geometry of the house both from an architectural and urban perspective. The notion of transformation, which is the degree to which the house changed over time, formed an integral part in developing the concept. These transformations comprise changes that took place within a modernist plan through the accretion of elements over time as noted. The pavilion itself is placed within an existing historic structure (the Arsenale, Sale d’Armi), and the intervention is seen as a delicate installation inserted within this solid context. Resultant spaces should remind viewers of a home as they are intimate and small in scale suggesting rooms in a house. Furthermore the choice of materials – steel columns, beams, panels, and metallic mesh screens – echo the existing iron columns in the space and contrast with the exposed brick wall. The pavilion is thus a contextual response to its surrounding.
Geometrically the above is achieved through a grid structure, placed independently of the existing structural system. This grid structure is expressed in space through the dividing panels and is visually present through a series of overhead beams, bisecting and intersecting the space of the pavilion. These beams enable, visually, the creation of spatial zones (rooms as noted above). They are derived from the overall grid structure of the pavilion. Viewers would thus be aware of the grid. Various elements placed within the exhibit (posters, photographs, models and the people themselves) form a backdrop against this structural system suggesting the variety that is created in the Sha’abi House itself. Furthermore, the paneling system, through the use of a mesh, acts as a screen of sorts, facilitating perceptual connections between the elements and spaces of the pavilion. Visitors would be aware of the surrounding structure, spaces and rooms. Taken together these elements enable a level of complexity that would sustain interest and more importantly is compatible with the theme of the exhibition itself.
The Exhibition has been conceptualised/structured according to three main sections: history, neighborhood and house. Ideally they should be experienced sequentially — but that is not a necessity. Indeed people usually construct their own sequence in such spaces, forming an independent narrative. These thematic sections are placed in relation to a central area which contains large images taken by Reem Falaknaz – an Emirati photographer. They are the centerpiece of the exhibition, the focal point drawing people into the space. While they are examining the other elements and sections, glimpses of these photographs are always present. The specific layout and display of these enables an intimate experience that allows for reflection on the house and the people – some are portraits while others show everyday interactions. The architecture is in the backdrop and the emphasis is on the people, a central tenet of the exhibition. In close proximity is an interactive screen where visitors are able to experience the geographic variety of the Sha’abi house in various parts of the UAE. In the process they can learn more about the UAE and its people. From this central area viewers are led to an inner, semi-enclosed space which features a case-study house (the Meqbali house). This intimate space comprises detailed drawings and diagrams as well as a table upon which is placed a large-format book containing family photographs of the Meqbali household showing how the house has been used over the years.
Overall the pavilion hopes to achieve two main objectives:
1) It offers insight into a significant part of the UAE’s urban and architectural landscape. This is important because the UAE’s urban centers are known for their gleaming skylines, spectacular architecture and iconic buildings. Yet if one steps away from these visible signs of modernity and explores its urban landscape another picture emerges. There one will find a thriving urbanity that defies some of the pre-conceived notions pertaining to its architecture. The Sha’abiya neighborhoods, containing the Sha’abi house, constitutes one of those sites. In their informality, sense of place and a lived-in look they defy the very notion of glamour, exclusivity and transience.
2) It can also suggest lessons of wider significance. It is an example, and a success story, of a socially conscious architecture that is not speculative or iconic. Indeed provision of decent housing for the disadvantaged is a universal concern and the Sha’abi house demonstrates how to construct an adaptable and flexible typology. The continuous use and change of this model is a rare example of an ongoing architectural experiment. The Sha’abi house was thus a blank canvas, a basic framework, within which various elements of Bedouin life could be placed. It is different from the typical top-down planning approach, which imposes rigid forms and spaces that are not easily modifiable. A form of architecture without architects. And it is precisely this notion that gives the Sha’abi house so much more significance and resonance, thereby transcending the UAE context.