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Human scale in urban design

UAE’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale explores the capacity of architecture to connect with history, time, place and people

  • Installation view of the three-dimensional scale models at the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates exhibitiImage Credit: National Pavilion UAE
  • Installation view of the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates exhibition Lifescapes Beyond Bigness at the 16Image Credit: National Pavilion UAE
Gulf News

Today the UAE is well known for its modern architecture and iconic skyscrapers. But beyond the impressive skylines are old neighbourhoods where the pace of life is different, and the sense of community is strong. These more human scale areas where people get together are the focus of Lifescapes Beyond Bigness, presented by the UAE’s National Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which opened on May 26. Curated by Dr Khaled Alawadi, the show explores the interplay of architecture and social life across four different urban landscapes of the UAE.

The UAE has been participating in the Venice Biennale’s international art and architecture exhibitions since 2009 and 2014 respectively. This year the theme of the International Architecture Exhibition is ‘Freespace’, and participating nations were invited to respond to it by exploring the capacity of architecture to connect with history, time, place and people.

Explaining his curatorial approach, Dr Alawadi says, “Lifescapes Beyond Bigness presents the simplicity of lifescapes in the UAE’s hidden urban pockets. It is an effort to look beyond the monumental scale of the UAE’s most iconic architecture, and instead invite visitors to experience its humane and under-celebrated landscapes where people come together, from alleyways to neighbourhoods. Rather than being confined by bigness in architecture and urban planning these human-scale ‘quotidian landscapes’ are socially oriented, lively, rich spaces where cities come alive and an important part of life in the UAE. 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 a street-corner garden.”

Dr Alawadi is an Emirati architect and urban planner, who specialises in the design of sustainable cities. He has taught at MIT’s Centre for Advanced Urbanism and is currently Assistant Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, part of Khalifa University of Science and Technology, where he founded the master’s programme in Sustainable Critical Infrastructure.

For this exhibition he has examined the interplay between the physicality of architecture and urban design and the dynamic choreography of people’s daily routines in four different typologies and places from the UAE’s diverse landscapes. These include residential neighbourhoods such as Al Satwa and Al Shorta in Dubai and Baniyas in Abu Dhabi; the networks of streets and sikkaks (alleyways) in Deira, Bur Dubai and Downtown Abu Dhabi; urban blocks such as Al Zahya, Al Danah, Al Dhafrah, and Al Zaab in Abu Dhabi; and the natural landscapes of Al Mutaredh Oasis and Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain.

His team of researchers used various spatial mapping and observation techniques to document and analyse the physical characteristics and typologies of these places, the design traditions that have shaped them, the behavioral rhythms and life of the inhabitants, and the role of everyday landscapes in accommodating, enhancing and facilitating social activities.

The final exhibition features a series of site photographs, portraits of people, time-lapse images and case studies of everyday life. There are aerial photographs of Satwa showing the old houses with corrugated metal roofs, narrow roads and people riding bicycles contrasting sharply with the ‘corridor of bigness’ of the skyscrapers on Shaikh Zayed Road looming in the background. Other pictures show children gathered around a wood fire after a game of football in the sand; elderly men chatting on a street corner in Baniyas Municipal Market; a group of people offering Friday prayers in an alleyway; people of various nationalities on the streets of Deira, and palm lined sikkaks in quiet villages.

Displayed alongside are technical drawings, typological maps, and graphs of behavioral data that highlight how the physical environment of each site influences daily social activities. Suspended in the centre of the Pavilion is a mosaic of three-dimensional scale models designed to let visitors experience the form and morphological details of the four typologies. The exhibition thus shows a side of the UAE that is important but often overlooked in the discourse about the country’s mega-development.

An accompanying publication presents more details of the research through case studies and personal stories that offer an insight into the anthropology of each research site. The book, edited by Dr Alawadi includes essays by well-known scholars and professionals in the field, offering an inspiring narrative of the UAE’s unique form of urbanism, revealing hidden sites and everyday stories and reflecting on the importance of human scale in urban design.

The National Pavilion UAE at the Venice Biennale is commissioned by the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development. Her Highness Shaikha Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, founder of the Foundation, says, “Since our inaugural participation in 2009, the National Pavilion UAE has presented a series of exhibitions that reflect the breadth of the nation’s cultural conversations from historical to contemporary, charting and contributing to the evolving landscape. The 2018 exhibition has produced thorough and lasting research that will become a significant milestone in understanding urbanism in the UAE, while celebrating the humanity and spontaneity of our cities.”

Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, highlighted the historical context of the exhibition in her speech at the inauguration. “In the Year of Zayed, Lifescapes Beyond Bigness pays tribute to the vision of the UAE’s founding father and reflects his belief that social needs and human happiness should be at the heart of urban development. The exhibition celebrates the diverse and vibrant communities that make up our nation and shares our stories with the world,” she said.

As part of its Venice Internship programme, The National Pavilion UAE offers opportunities to young residents of the UAE to do one-month internships in Venice during the Biennale. The interns oversee the daily operations of the exhibition and participate in an educational programme run in partnership with Ca’Foscari University and other cultural institutions in the UAE and Venice.

The 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale will run until November 25.