April 28, 2021 - United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale - Wetland
e-flux Architecture
April 28, 2021
April 28, 2021

United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Photo: Farah Al Qasimi. Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE, Venice Biennale 2021.

May 22–November 21, 2021

United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Arsenale - Sale d'Armi

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The National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates’ exhibition for the 2021 Venice Biennale will present photographs taken by New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi, which capture the tension between urbanisation and nature in the UAE’s sabkha (salt flats). Taken in Al Qasimi’s trademark style, the 4.5 x 3m scenic photographs illustrate the natural inspiration for an innovative, environmentally friendly cement structure made of recycled industrial-waste brine.

In the exhibition space, the photographs will sit alongside the large-scale prototype structure, formed from up to 3000 modules made of the MgO-based cement and designed by the curators, Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto. The structure is 2.7m tall and 7 x 5m wide on its exterior, creating a walkable interior space the size of an average room, 2.5 x 5m.

The curators worked with specialist teams at the New York University Abu Dhabi’s Amber Lab, the American University of Sharjah’s Department of Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Sciences, and the University of Tokyo’s Obuchi Lab and Sato Lab to develop the chemical formula for the cement and to use advanced digital engineering technology to formulate a viable structure inspired by the concept of “future vernacular” architecture. Throughout May, experimental early versions of the prototype will be on display at the Wetland research lab in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.

Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto said: “Throughout our collaborative research process to develop a building material without the critical environmental impact of Portland cement, we’ve maintained a focus on a localized architectural practice deeply intertwined with the resources and environment of the Gulf. Our MgO cement is made from brine left over during industrial desalination, a resource that the UAE has in abundance. It has the strength and durability to be used in modern architecture in standard brick shapes, but for this exhibition, we have been inspired by the UAE’s traditional vernacular architecture of coral houses to hand-cast modules in organic, coral-inspired shapes. In this way we are reimagining modern architectural processes and retaining a strong, poetic sense of the region’s identity and culture within the structure.”

Farah Al Qasimi said: “The scenery of the sabkha sites presents a moment of conflict and resolution. On and below the earth, the sabkha is a serene living environment with many layers of water, sand, salt and microorganisms, which have evolved in harmony to create a delicate ecological system that absorbs more carbon per square meter than the rainforest. But directly above this natural phenomenon are high-tension voltage cables running to massive industrial facilities nearby, emitting an ear-splitting electrical buzz. My photographs of the site capture this tension between industrialization and the environment. I’m proud to be contributing to the UAE’s pavilion, working with a cosmopolitan team that reflects the nation’s diversity.”

Laila Binbrek, Coordinating Director, National Pavilion UAE, Venice Biennale 2021 said: “Wetland presents a groundbreaking potential solution to the global issue of climate change, through a project that is rooted in our local stories, environment and society—reflecting the National Pavilion UAE’s commitment to tell the UAE’s untold stories while facilitating global dialogue.”

The exhibition also includes a three-minute soundtrack capturing the story of the sabkhas, the desalination process that creates brine, and the research journey. An accompanying publication titled The Anatomy of Sabkhas, written by urban researchers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib and co-edited by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, will also be released, including a supplementary volume by architect Marina Tabassum. The UAE’s sabkhas have been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to their scale, cultural significance and ecological complexity.

United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
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