From left: Noura Mohamed Juma, General Consul, General Consulate of the UAE in Milan, Italy, Yasser Elsheshtawy, Curator, Falah Mohamed Al Ahbabi, Director General, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, and Paolo Baratta, President, la Biennale di Venezia, at the opening of UAE National Pavilion for Architecture Exhibition at Venice Biennale Image Credit: Mohamed Somji

The concept of the Emirati National House was introduced across the UAE from the 1970s to 1980s as a social housing project to offer homes and modern amenities to a transient local population.

The transformative aspect of the housing model of Emirati national houses, also known as sha’bīyaa (folk) houses, is the subject of the UAE National Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale) which opened on May 28 and will run until November 27.

Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, director and curator of the Architecture Section of the Venice Biennale 2016, chose the theme Reporting from the Front to showcase architecture that goes beyond the iconic and the spectacular and deals with the challenges of the 21st century.

An example of how some of the houses have grown vertically, where residents have closed up the balconies

“We believe that the advancement of architecture is not a goal in itself but a way to improve people’s quality of life,” says Aravena, who is also this year’s prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize winner.

Paolo Baratta, president of La Biennale di Venezia, sums this up very well in his introduction: “We are not interested in architecture as the manifestation of a formal style, but rather as an instrument of self-government, of humanist civilisation, and how it demonstrates the ability of humans to become masters of their own destinies.”

Responding to Aravena’s call to present examples of how the built environment can improve people’s quality of life, Yasser Elsheshtawy, associate professor of architecture at the UAE University, the curator of the UAE National Pavilion, goes beyond the clichéd image of the country, skyscrapers and shopping malls to showcase the informal urbanism characterised by architectural production by UAE nationals at the grassroots level.

In Elsheshtawy’s view, the basic modern structure of a square shape and a courtyard that made its appearance in the 1970s in the UAE landscape — initiated by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan as a form of social housing — provided a flexible model which the residents were able to change as per their lifestyle, culture and social needs, and an excellent example of architecture practice at the grassroots.

One of the earliest photos of housing structures in Abu Dhabi offering modern amenities to a fairly transient population

Moreover, by focusing on such neighbourhoods, the architectural discourse in the UAE moves to one that is concerned with the everyday spaces of its citizens.

Titled “Transformations: The Emirati National House”, the exhibition being held at the UAE’s permanent pavilion in Venice’s Arsenale — Sale d’Armi, features a range of archival materials, photography, architectural diagrams and scale models.

Historical and technical materials, including detailed architectural analysis of a current national house, archival newspaper clippings documenting the initial start of the National Housing programme and 1970s photographs by Dutch photographer Gérard Klijn, are part of the exhibition.

“The exhibition and accompanying publication share a comprehensive overview of the National Housing project as an interesting architectural experiment in which people are actively involved in constructing and modifying their built environment,” says Elsheshtawy. “We have highlighted the sha’bīyaa neighbourhoods as an ongoing living testimony to the resilience of the Emirati people and the extent to which the house, with all of its shortcomings, still plays a vital and important role.”

A visitor looks at the display regarding the evolution of the National House across the UAE

The case studies that are part of the presentation provide useful lessons on how constructing an adaptable and flexible typology can be used to address the universal concern of providing adaptable social housing.

The exhibition is divided into four interwoven sections conceptualised as a series of scales moving from the region down to an individual house, laid out on a grid separated by wall panels that draw visitors through the story of the national house.

- History: This section presents archival images, documents and videos that record the establishment of the National Housing project throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It includes aerial photographs taken by British Petroleum, initial architectural drawings, images of sha’bīyaa neighbourhoods by Klijn as well as the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Petroleum Operations Ltd (Adco), and archival newspaper clippings from “Al Ittihad” and other local publications.

- Neighbourhood: The section examines the urban fabric of national housing developments at a city-wide scale. An interactive map will provide insight into the landscape of the UAE and the widespread development of traditional residential, or sha’bīyaa neighbourhoods. It is accompanied by architectural models at various scales, analytical diagrams, photography and video.

- House: This section develops a detailed analysis of the national house at an individual level, through massing models, elevation drawings, diagrams representing individual changes to each building within a contemporary neighbourhood and a large-scale model of a group of houses.

- Central: The centrepiece of the exhibition presents a detailed case study of a single national house and the Emirati family who continue to live there, through a detailed architectural analysis as well as intimate family memories. The section is accompanied by a specially commissioned series of images by Emirati photographer Reem Falaknaz, who has travelled to these neighbourhoods to capture the human aspect of living communities.

“I am documenting something that may be on the way out,” says Elsheshtawy. “By highlighting that, we can encourage their preservation. But the main motivation is that we can learn so much from it.”

The accompanying publication contextualises the exhibition and associated research, providing a backdrop to the content displayed in the exhibition. It features essays and academic studies by architects, sociologists, conservators and scholars.

“Yasser Elsheshtawy has produced fascinating and detailed research on this unique element of the UAE’s urban and architectural landscape. The exhibition offers us the opportunity to share a lesser-known aspect of our nation’s architecture at one of the world’s most prominent architecture events,” says Khulood Al Atiyat, manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.

“In line with the Foundation’s mission to invest in the future of the UAE by investing in its people, we are particularly pleased that this year’s exhibition will focus on the everyday spaces of the UAE’s citizens, developing a new angle of architectural discourse about our country,” she said.

The National Pavilion UAE at La Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.


Architectural models of the traditional UAE residential, or sha‘bīyaa (folk) neighbourhoods

Urban development

It was two years ago when the UAE first participated in the International Architecture Exhibition in its 14th edition, with an exhibition titled “Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE”, curated by Dr Michele Bambling. The exhibition surveyed the architectural and urban development in the Emirates from 1914 to 2014, spanning the monumental shifts from vernacular to modern, and then contemporary architecture.

When Elsheshtawy started working on his curatorial project, the lack of data was clearly a challenge. But luckily, he managed to find some archival documents — pictures of early settlements. These were courtyard-oriented irregular houses that existed in Abu Dhabi in the late 1950s.

Klijn’s work, which has not been released in public until now, shows modern structures making an appearance in the landscape in the early 1970s. Another source was Adco.

There were also some early drawings and plans for prefabricated houses. Elsheshtawy tracked down two architects in Germany and got the personal story behind the drawings and prototypes that they were asked to design and build in Abu Dhabi for Emiratis in the 1970s. But because of the costs involved in the prefabricated construction techniques, those plans did not materialise.

Elsheshtawy’s search and documentation work took him to various parts of the UAE to find out how the national housing projects were carried out. For the purpose of the study, he chose to concentrate on Al Ain, as it “has more preserved houses in many of its old neighbourhoods”.

What follows is a fascinating detailed analysis of these urban grids from the micro to the macro level while simultaneously documenting the personal stories of the residents across many generations.

The central message of Elsheshtawy’s research into the Emirati National House seems to uphold the “Architecture Without Architects” thesis originally put forward by Bernard Rudofsky in his 1964 book, providing a demonstration of the artistic, functional and cultural richness of vernacular architecture. The message is for architects to step back and allow people to modify their neighbourhood.

There was indeed an element of adaptability in the Emirati National House plan and it was anticipated that people may go for changes. The residents have individualised their homes, so much so that each house is completely different from the next one in the neighbourhood, moving away from the mundane early modern designs to give way to Arabic motifs and designs.

The modifications that have added to the lived-in feeling are the majlises, car sheds, individualised colours, Arabic motifs, designs and patterns on doors, raised walls for more privacy and landscaping that sometimes completely submerges the house.

Some of the houses have grown vertically, where the residents have made changes by closing up the balconies in a vertical manner.

In the alleyways of these residential neighbourhoods, Elsheshtawy says one tends to forget the clichéd images of the UAE. “It is not remarkable architecture but it has many beautiful elements and above all, a feeling of having been lived in.”

The curator

Yasser Elsheshtawy is an associate professor of architecture at the UAE University, where he has taught since 1997. His scholarship deals with urbanisation in developing societies, urban history and environment-behaviour studies, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern cities.

Elsheshtawy also runs UAE University’s Urban Research Lab. His work focuses on the city, aiming to capture the urban experience of city dwellers.

He has produced more than 70 publications in leading international journals and publishing houses, including his book “Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle” and books edited by him — “The Evolving Arab City” and “Planning Middle Eastern Cities”, which have become key references on urbanism and architecture in the region.

He has been invited to present his research at international institutions such as Columbia University, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the ETH, Zurich, the Louvre Auditorium, Paris, and the Canadian Center of Architecture, Montreal, and his multimedia work has been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum and New York University.

A series of online initiatives form another component of Elsheshtawy’s output encompassing a blog on Dubai (dubaization.com) hailed by the “Guardian” as one of the leading blogs in the world, and uaemodern.com, which explores the modernist urban and architectural landscape of the UAE.

The Venice Internship Programme

National Pavilion UAE’s Venice Internship offers training opportunities to young residents of the UAE through a one-month internship on site in Venice, acting as custodians and docents of the pavilion.

The programme aims to create a legacy of highly skilled art practitioners in the UAE equipped to take the national contemporary art and cultural scene boldly into the future.

The internship programme is open to Emiratis and long-term residents of the UAE who are over 21 years of age, and have an interest or background in art, architecture or a related discipline.

Rotated on a monthly basis throughout the six months of the biennale, the different intern groups oversee the exhibition and participate in an educational programme, run in partnership with Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and other cultural institutions in the UAE and Venice.

The interns work side-by-side with Italian interns, through an on-going partnership with Ca’ Foscari.

This partnership has been developed to foster a true exchange of cultures between the interns and to allow the UAE participants to engage with Italian customs, language and knowledge during their experience in Venice.

N.P. Krishna Kumar is a freelance writer based in Dubai.

“Transformations: The Emirati National House” will run at the UAE National Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of Venice Biennale until November 27.