“The colonization period created several architectural and urban dichotomies, exploring local architectural antecedents and the native rooted tradition of Arab‐Islamic architecture in order to forge new styles. These dichotomies cannot be overlooked when assessing contemporary architectural practice since the independence of the Middle Eastern countries” – Hassan Radoine, Architecture in the Middle East: A Background, 2017

The rich history of architectural designs in the Middle East, can be attributed to the region’s geographical location, climate, topography, culture, environment, social and political histories. The built environment of the Middle East, particularly at present, has witnessed rapid changes in the ways that architecture contributes to shaping of its histories, which tell a different topographical story of past and present as observed in cities as diverse as Tehran, Jeddah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul and so on.

In contributing to the global architectural discourse, the region cannot be disregarded in relation to contemporary architectural trends, particularly in the Gulf area. This is particularly pertinent to conversations centred on how contemporary architecture cohabits with the built heritage of past civilizations. The enduring cultural, political and economic evolutions in a harsh physical (climate) context has generated intellectual and artistic exchanges making the Middle East a ground for continuous experimentation in new concepts and ideas of contemporary architecture and urbanism.

The Venice Biennale Architettura 2018, which runs from May 26 to November 25, is titled Freespace, a word that describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda. Middle Eastern Pavilions from the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, and first-timers Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, all respond to this “sense of humanity at the core of architecture” in different ways that are context specific, thus demonstrating the complex issues pertaining to concerns for a region that has witnessed a staggering boom in its built environment, and the balance of old and new, monumental and human-scale.

The Pavilion of Turkey – Vardiya (the Shift)
The Pavilion of Turkey offers an open space for creative encounters and collaboration with Vardiya (the Shift), conceived in response to the biennale’s overarching theme of Freespace. Curated by Kerem Piker and coordinated by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), Vardiya is committed to staging a program full of public events that will turn the Pavilion of Turkey into an open space for temporary accommodation, production and encountering. Curator Kerem Piker explains the curatorial framework by stating: “Architecture is a field that is constantly expanding, transforming and renewing itself. As such, there is a need for environments where architectural knowledge is reproduced, shared and discussed, and the voices of new participants heard.”

Vardiya is envisioned by the curators and commissioner to become a hotspot for workshops, roundtable discussions and informal meetings that will welcome 122 international students of architecture, academics, keynote speakers, tutors, guest professionals and visitors. Vardiya invites all to a continuous process of learning and production throughout the 25 weeks of the Biennale. The organization of the program puts architecture students at the frontline through an international open call that responded to questions such as: “Why does the biennial exist? What does the biennial do? For whom does the biennial exist?” Shortlisted participants, visitors and guests think through the purpose and role of the biennials through video installations. Along with the outcomes of this open call, students are encouraged to assume the role of active producers of an evolving exhibition content in the pavilion through workshops run by invited professional and student groups. There are around 50 digital meetings with participants from a range of disciplines and lectures by keynote speakers from an international roster of leading architects.

With Vardiya, it is intended that critical dialogue on the role of the Biennale ensues amongst invited guests, visitors, architecture and design professionals. Furthermore, the Pavilion of Turkey hopes to incorporate individual and collective experiments across generations and bring this into the locus of contemporary architecture’s agenda.

caption: Vardiya/the Shift, Pavilion of Turkey at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Photo Credit: RMphotostudio

National Pavilion of the UAE – Lifescapes Beyond Bigness
The pavilion of the UAE presents a thesis exhibition titled Lifescapes Beyond Bigness, which explores the “hidden and unfamiliar” scenes of everyday life in the UAE through four human-scale urban typologies in residential neighbourhoods (Al Satwa, Dubai and Al Shorta in Abu Dhabi), networks (Deira, Bur Dubai and Downtown Abu Dhabi), urban blocks (Al Zahya, Al Danah, Al Dhafrah and Al Zaab all in Abu Dhabi) and natural landscapes (Al Mutaredh Oasis and Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain). The exhibition’s curator, Dr Khaled Alawadi, is an Emirati architect and urban planner who holds the position of Assistant Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi. “Lifescapes Beyond Bigness is an effort to look beyond the monumental scale of the UAE’s iconic architecture and instead invites visitors to experience its humane and under-celebrated landscapes,” says Alawadi. “These human-scale ‘quotidian landscapes’ are socially orientated, rather than being confined by bigness in architecture and urban planning. The exhibition explores how human-scale landscapes are flexible, generous and adaptable in the promotion of community engagement, social encounters and pedestrian urbanism, from impromptu playgrounds to street-corner gardens.”

Some of these socially adaptable spaces are best captured in images of the Al Satwa neighbourhood of Dubai, a high density residential and commercial area located southwest of Bur Dubai and adjacent to Sheikh Zayed Road. It is known for its large South Asian community, particularly Filipino nationals, who often referred to the area as mini-Manila. Al Satwa is contrasted in its outer limits by the bigness of the towers dotting Sheikh Zayed road. The future of this neighbourhood is uncertain due to proposals for Jumeirah Garden City, which means this important neighbourhood and community will be razed to make way for part of the new development.

Through photography, typological maps, graphs of behavioural data, architectural drawings, case studies and three-dimensional models, the exhibition critically reflects on the interplay between the largesse of the UAE’s built environment, against a contrasting view of the somewhat “unknown” human-scale.

The Pavilion of Egypt – Robabecciah: The Informal City
Curated by architects Islam El Mashtooly and Mouaz Abouziad, and academic Cristiano Luchetti, the Egyptian pavilion’s Robabecciah: The Informal City proposes to explore the country’s redevelopment and strategies of requalification for spontaneous commercial spaces. Illegal, sporadic, free trading structures are commonplace not just in urban areas but also in suburban Egyptian neighbourhoods.

The “roba becciah” according to the curatorial team, “represents an important metaphor of the anthropological-urban condition of the contemporary world, as it is an ancient form of recycling and involves, in different ways, all the layers of the society.” It presents a social role capable of “gaining geographic value by determining the spatial fruition of substantial areas within the urban territory.” Robabecciah then becomes an important mode of travelling cities and the development of residential areas, as it reintroduces functions in abandoned areas, and builds economies on the waste of the society. The spaces of commerce that usually occupy confined and allocated spaces of markets and souks now extend far beyond these parameters and into every available street corner and impromptu site, without any apparent rule. They are not limited to daylight hours or a few week days and are permanent structures that exist between buildings and roads, invading free lots, girders and underpasses. They operate specific “administrations” and self-governing tools, extending to the point of forming semi-autonomous districts within the metropolitan territory.

The pavilion’s focus is on these new spatialities, their strategies and contents in a display bringing together disused items produced by consumerist societies that are then stacked to create “mono-functional” enclaves for future trading. This re-design of the “urban-market” seeks to rethink the role of “free space” within the social fabric of the city and also as a way to contribute to better living in contemporary metropolises.

credits : robabecciah/Marina Caneve

Pavilion of the Kingdom of Bahrain – Friday Sermon
For its fifth year of participation in the Biennale, the Kingdom of Bahrain features an installation and research project titled Friday Sermon and curated by Nora Akawi, an architect and researcher based in New York and Amman, and Noura Al Sayeh, a Bahrain-based architect. The pavilion considers the ritual of the Friday sermon, its influences on public space and opinion not just in Bahrain but globally, to think through ideas of free space and by extension, free speech for Arab and Muslim communities. The Friday Sermon (khuṭbah) serves here as a protagonist for the entanglement of state, law and religion, and traces across geographies the evolution and apparatus for this historic mode of preaching for collective listening. This mode of worship both sonically inhabits and transforms public space in ways that might be viewed on the one hand, as obstructing and confrontational, while on the other reinforcing and community-building, thus leading to debates on the meaning of free space, and how they are used as states of assembly.

The exhibition is designed by London and Basel-based Apparata Studio, who created a large-scale structure to host an experiential sound installation by Giuseppe Ielasi and Khyam Alami that draws on live recordings of khuṭbahs in Bahrain. Alongside this, there are different explorations of Friday sermons by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who investigates the effects of “loudspeaker libertarianism” and loss of hearing in Cairo with his piece The All Hearing. Matilde Cassani explores the architecture of the minibar and its adaptation in an Italian context, whilst Mezna Qato and Sadia Shirazi present 7 Scores & the People’s Mic Khutba, a book of scores that responds to Muslim social life under siege and reimagines different formats for the Friday sermon.

Pavilion of Saudi Arabia – Spaces in Between
Alongside Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a first-time participant at this year’s Biennale. For its debut appearance organized by the Misk Art Institute, under the leadership of Ahmed Mater, the pavilion is titled Spaces in Between, in response to the overarching Biennale theme of Freespace. Spaces in Between is curated by Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman and Ms Jawaher Al Sudairy, as well as brothers Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, both of whom represent a younger generation of Saudi architects and were selected from a competition of over 70 entries. The exhibition, according to Al Sudairy will “explore the social implications of architecture, and Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz are using this opportunity to examine the relationship between space and architecture with the idea to engage visitors in the potential of creating interaction through redesign.”

The project seeks to explore “new possibilities for utilizing liminal spaces” that have the potential to create an increase in socialization and community building within Saudi’s ever-increasing cities. In the last 40 years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has undergone rapid urbanisation, which has extended its built environment outwards. This has created a boom in disjointed, mono-functional, car-dependent neighbourhoods that rely heavily on interconnected highway networks. Roughly 40% of the land in Saudi cities lies vacant, and the pavilion’s central aim is to reimagine the role design can play in steering these cities’ inward development, by repurposing empty lots as public spaces that are human-scale and facilitate walkability and human interaction. The pavilion is also part of Saudi Vision 2030, the official plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and develop its public sectors through identifying and empowering Saudi creative talent, in this case through the appointment of two curators and two architects for the national pavilion.

Pavilion of Lebanon – The Place That Remains
Lebanon’s debut with The Place That Remains echoes the territorial challenges in Lebanese society that has historically placed the country at the crossroads of regional conflicts. The project seeks to “shed light on unbuilt land, its cultural characteristics and prospects for improving the built environment, whilst reflecting on both the social and cultural responsivities on architects.” Curated by Hala Younes, assistant professor of architecture at the Lebanese American University (LAU), alongside Alain Leloup acting as co-curator of photography, the purpose of this exhibition she states, is to “spread knowledge and awareness about Lebanese territories because heritage is not only architecture but lies also on geography and landscape.”

The pavilion gathers architects, artists, researchers and Lebanese institutions to reflect on the built environment through a reflection on unbuilt land. Additionally, possible visions of future landscapes and national territory will be imagined with a focus on Nahr Beirut (Beirut River) and its watershed. Six photographers – Gregory Buchakjian, Catherine Cattaruzza, Gilbert Hage, Hoda Kassatly, Ieva Sauvargaite and Tala Khoury – present this theme through 3D relief maps, landscape photography and video surveillance. Historical aerial photographs from the Directorate of Geographic Affair of the Lebanese Army are on display and further contextualise the exhibition.

The fragile nature of territory, scarcity of resources and commodification are all points for discussion, with territory rendered visible thus requiring the tangible reality to be brought back to a centralised position so that it becomes possible to identify, inventory, list and make visible “the place that remains” and the condition for its preservation.

The 16th International Architecture Exhibition is curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Directors of Grafton Architects and takes place from May 26-November 25 in the Giardini and Arsenale venues, and in other locations in Venice.