This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale is dedicated to the theme ‘Laboratory of the Future’. Curated by Lesley Lokko, its first curator of African descent, the biennale is staged as an ambitious examination of the architecture and heritage of underrepresented countries, largely from the African continent. The Middle East did not feature a great number of presentations from the countries which make up the region, apart from those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, and Palestine. Through the various showings of its participating nations, Arab countries reflected on traditional building techniques, heritage architecture and the natural landscape and how such elements could contribute to contemporary structures during an age of climate change.
In the UAE Pavilion a series of separated stone walls with variously cut and coloured rocks can be found positioned at different points. Titled Aridy Abundant and curated by Faysal Tabbarah, the pavilion sought to challenge our preconceptions around aridity—particularly that which one finds in desert landscapes such as in the Arabian Peninsula. Tabbarah explored the dry, hot landscape typical of the Arabian Peninsula and sought to reveal the architectural possibilities that can arrive for contemporary architecture when one looks at such landscapes as areas of abundance. “Through Aridly Abundant, our aim is to change perspectives of arid landscapes as devoid of value and reimagine them as an abundant source of knowledge and resources, by investigating an alternative and contemporary building system rooted in the UAE’s cultural and material environment,” Tabbarah said in a statement. In their research Tabbarah and his team employed land-based practices with contemporary technology such as 3D scanning and 3D printing to present the potential of stone construction as an adaptable and sustainable form of architecture for countries affected by climate change. The idea, explains Tabbarah, is that through contemporary architecture that use material and traditional building techniques from the arid landscape, nations might be able to better explore and adapt to their own increasingly changing environments in the future. “Our aim is to change perspectives of arid landscapes as devoid of value and reimagine them as abundant sources of knowledge and resources,” added Tabbarah.
Stationed next door to the UAE Pavilion is the Pavilion of Saudi Arabia—among two, alongside Egypt, permanent pavilions in the main Giardini and Arsenale areas of the Venice Biennale. Titled Irth, meaning ‘legacy’ in Arabic, Saudi Arabia’s third participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale presented the work of Saudi architect AlBara Saimaldahar, the managing partner of Dahr Studio, alongside the work of curators Basma and Noura Bouzo, sisters, and co-founders of &bouqu, a creative and cultural consultancy firm. Inside, within a dimly lit space, is an installation presenting eight gateways in homage to the city gates found in the Kingdom. Reminiscent of elegant Islamic arches, the gateways are created with architectural cladding material evocative of the earthly tones found throughout the Kingdom’s desert landscape, reflective particularly of the earth one finds on the Red Sea coast. “We wanted to look to our past heritage, architecture and craftsmanship to find ways of building in the present,” noted Saimaldahar. The archways are situated at the front and back of the pavilion and are joined by a central area, also dim-lit and showcasing one light installation decorated with a mashrabiya-like pattern—it is like a place for tranquility and pause after a long journey. Moreover, a grounding scent fusing lavender and frankincense fills the air—it too is reminiscent of the traditional of perfumes, scents and spices that have for centuries made up an integral part of Arabian culture. “The idea through Irth is present the value of the unseen through architecture; the destination is not the end but rather a call for reflection,” added Saimaldahar.
In the Kuwait Pavilion, located this year in Dorsoduro’s Magazzino Del Sale, a former historic 15th-century warehouse where salt was stored (at the time salt was the ‘petroleum’ of Venice), focus was placed on reinvigorating Kuwait’s past identity through its heritage architecture. Titled Rethinking Rethinking Kuwait and supported by the Kuwaiti National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature (NCCAL), the presentation marks Kuwait’s fifth national participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Inside the pavilion are various artworks, old and new photographs, architectural plans, artworks, and installations presenting new urban design proposes that seek to rectify and revitalise the erasure of historic architecture.
“Many of the projects exhibited here are trying to reconcile with our identity and heritage through our history—through historic architectural structures that people often don’t see or known about,” said one of the pavilion’s curators Mohammad Kassem. “Want to bring back old practices and place them within more cognitive spaces and landscapes. We want to reconcile with our past and identity through the modern and traditional structures inherent to Kuwait.”
A recurring focus of the pavilion is the Al Ahmadi, a historic town of Al-Ahmadi and Sulaibikhat Bay in Kuwait, known for its ecological importance and overlooked archaeological history. In her work Native Plants of Kuwait Maha Al-Asaker creates a series of imprints featuring sculptural