The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at La Biennale di Venezia
The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia is making its third appearance at the esteemed 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. This year, the pavilion presents the exhibition “IRTH إرث” (which means ‘legacy’ in Arabic), curated by Basma and Noura Bouzo, and designed by the architect AlBara Saimaldahar. The exhibition delves into the interplay between material and immaterial elements in the realm of architecture, shedding light on their cohesive relationship and profound impact on the perception and interpretation of a nation’s inhabitants.
Materials used in shaping built environments offer valuable insights into the culture and identity of a country or geographical area. Tangible and intangible properties inherent in these materials define the character of spaces and objects, as they become vessels of narratives and repositories of wisdom. They serve as milestones, bridging the legacy of the past with new practices that pave the way for future-proofed innovation. Within this dynamic legacy, every individual becomes both a recipient and a creator, continuously adding to a continuum of knowledge.
At the heart of the “IRTH إرث” exhibition lies an interactive exploration of the connection between the past and the future, anchored by one of the historically significant materials employed in Saudi architecture: earth. Earth serves both as a structural element and an architectural cladding material. In this exhibition, earth is evoked through its texture and color, encompassing the diverse earth tones found across Saudi Arabia, ranging from the desert dunes to the Red Sea coast.
The Pavilion’s design, conceptualized by architect AlBara Saimaldahar, adopts a multi-layered approach to provide visitors with diverse perspectives on the project. The structure, divided into several sections, reflects on the use of vernacular components alongside innovative technologies. It embraces the intrinsic essence of Saudi craftsmanship by incorporating elaborate artifacts and transforming traditional patterns and motifs from Al-Balad, the Historical Jeddah, into fluid forms. This design approach juxtaposes nostalgia, legacy, and ongoing adaptation, intertwining the essence of the past with a visionary glimpse of the future.
The exhibition engages visitors in a sensorial experience, allowing them to enter a simple yet immersive room that stimulates their senses, triggering individual reactions, memories, and emotions in an independent and uninfluenced manner. This experiential component encourages visitors to forge a personal connection with the Pavilion, fostering an introspective journey within the space.
The exhibition’s narrative unfolds through three main structures, which visitors traverse by passing beneath six arches that serve as authentic gateways. These imposing eight-sided metal structures are internally clad with wooden panels and externally adorned with 3D-printed clay tiles. The undulating patterns on these tiles, reminiscent of desert dunes, imbue the portals with both grandeur and lightness. The arches evoke monumental works of architecture carved in stone and caves, conveying a sense of endurance throughout time, while also symbolising the transience of materials, much like the shifting sands of the Rub’ al-Khali desert.
In the middle of the Pavilion, experimentation takes center stage within an olfactory setting. A large empty rectangular room is infused with a fragrance specially created for the exhibition, combining lavender, frankincense, and myrrh. These olfactory notes resonate with Arab culture in its most intimate form, creating an immersive sensory hub. Here, the dematerialised environment provides a glimpse into the future through the lens of tradition, offering visitors an extraordinary moment in time that elicits unique memories and perceptions.
A prominent element within the hall is a sculpture—an illuminated 3D-printed clay column that projects light patterns onto the floor, walls, and ceiling of the Pavilion. After the conclusion of the Architecture Biennale, this sculpture will be transported to the bottom of the Red Sea, serving as an artificial stone to promote the growth of a marine ecosystem. Underwater structures play a crucial role in habitat formation, and as more columns are printed, this ‘first stone’ will be joined by new elements, gradually transforming the artificial object into a labyrinth of vertical lines. Within this contrasting landscape, corals and other life forms will emerge, visualising the intricate relationship between nature and artifice—a delicate and enduring balance.
The exhibition culminates with two final portals, inviting visitors to actively participate in their transformation. By adding new tiles—constructed from the legacy of earth/clay tiles—to the octahedral structure, visitors engage in an interplay of progressive change, gradually shaping the Pavilion over time.
The “IRTH إرث” exhibition at the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia represents the collaborative efforts of various institutions, local organisations, architects, and individual practitioners. It serves as a conduit for a larger conversation on the perspectives at play and their implications for the future of materiality and built environments. Through this participatory approach, the exhibition fosters dialogue, expands horizons, and inspires future generations to envision and shape a lasting architectural legacy.
Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Venice Biennale for Architecture demonstrates a commitment to learning from peers, forging new partnerships, and building bridges of understanding. By showcasing their architectural achievements and engaging in a global discourse on architecture and design, Saudi Arabia contributes to the evolution of the field and paves the way for a future where collaborative practice and human-centric approaches are at the forefront. The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia beckons visitors to reflect upon their senses and the imprints they generate within space and time, highlighting the value of the unseen and empowering occupants to shape their cognitive reconnaissances and placemaking experiences.
The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at La Biennale di Venezia
Location: The Arsenale – Sale d’Armi
Duration: May 20 – November 26, 2023