Architecture, Pavilions from the Middle East, Venice Biennale 2018

Round up: Venice Biennale pavilions from the Middle East

Held until 25 November 2018, the 16th edition of the Venice Biennale is arguably architecture’s most significant international annual event. Building on the thematic concept ‘Freespace’, presented by this year’s curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, the biennale hosts a main exhibition featuring 71 participants, while two Special Sections feature a total of 29 more participants. Elsewhere, 65 national pavilions present exhibitions inspired by the biennale’s concept, including three first-time participants from the Middle East and the greater region: Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan.

In celebration of the increased presence of the region at the Venice Biennale, MEA rounds up five of the national pavilions representing countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Lebanon and Egypt.

National Pavilion of Egypt

Proposed as part of a competition hosted by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the curators of this year’s pavilion are Dubai-based Egyptian architects Islam El Mashtooly and Mouaz Abouzaid, as well as assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah, Cristiano Luchetti. Art director, Giuseppe Moscatello has collaborated with the curators for the pavilion as well as worked with the team in an advisory capacity.
The theme of the pavilion is titled ‘Roba becciah: The informal city’, and examines the concept of roba becciah – originating from the Italian term roba vecciah – which refers to the disused items that are collected for trading purposes.

“The pavilion proposes the theme of strategic redevelopment of spontaneous commercial spaces across Egypt,” said Luchetti. “In many urban and suburban areas, the phenomenon of ‘free’, unstructured, illegal trading reaches such high levels that it is the predominant element to drive the use of public space.

“The traditional souk confined to the narrow streets and interstitial spaces of historical areas has conquered new territories. In Egyptian cities, the space of commerce extends its tentacles seamlessly along the lines of urban streams without any rule.”

In addition, Luchetti added that this phenomenon is not temporary – it is not sporadically limited to daylight hours or a few days a week. The commercial space is permanent between buildings and roads, occupying free lots, girders and underpasses. In some cases, the few spaces intended for public use and leisure are fenced off and paradoxically closed in order to “avoid invasion” by the expanding commercial activities that have created an ever-crowded environment across the country. In other cases there are real city-markets with specific administrations and self-governing tools extending to the point of forming semi-autonomous districts within the metropolitan territory.

Reflecting its inspiration, the pavilion features a suspended installation that contains more than 400 pieces of roba becciah collected from Souk Al Jouma in Cairo.

“The challenge we found in the construction was in creating the actual suspension. We designed the selection that we brought from Egypt with the biggest pieces in the middle and then it extends outward, so there is a kind of order in the installation,” said Abouzaid. “When you look at the installation and at the objects, they are exactly as we bought them from Egypt… the way it was designed and placed within the pavilion shows some order, which means that with some tweaking we can really come up with some good ideas and add value.”

The pavilion also features research on roba becciah as well as a film screened on one of the walls.

National Pavilion of Lebanon

Participating for its first time at the Venice Biennale, Lebanon presents ‘The Place That Remains’, curated by Hala Younes, assistant professor of architecture at the Lebanese American University.

The exhibition aims to highlight the “unbuilt land, its cultural characteristics and its prospects in improving the built environment and its living conditions, as well as the architect’s social and cultural role,” said Younes.

She added, “The purpose is to spread knowledge and awareness about the territorial challenges in Lebanon because our heritage is not only architectural but lies also in geography and landscape.”

Focusing on Nahr Beirut (Beirut River) and its watershed, the Lebanese pavilion explores the preconditions for architecture through assessing its bedrock and the challenges protagonists face, such as the fragile nature of territory, scarcity of resources and commodification. According to Younes, the pavilion hopes to gather architects, artists, researchers and institutions to reflect on possible visions for the future of Lebanon’s national territory and landscape.

“In the work, the territory is rendered visible, requiring the tangible and sensitive reality to be brought back to the centre, whereby it becomes possible to identify, inventory, list and shed light on ‘The Place that Remains’ and the conditions required for its preservation,” said Younes.

The project features various formats, including a combined 3D relief map, landscape photography and video surveillance, while the watershed setting allows its creators to ensure that the resources remain the key focus.

In addition, the pavilion features the work of six photographers including Gregory Buchakjian, Catherine Cattaruzza and Talal Khoury (video). Co-curated by Alain Leloup, historical aerial photographs from the Directorate of Geographic Affairs of the Lebanese Army are also on display.

National Pavilion of Bahrain

Curated by architects Nora Akawi and Noura Al Sayeh, the Pavilion of the Kingdom of Bahrain was commissioned by Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Minister of Culture, with this year marking its fifth participation.

Titled ‘Friday Sermon’, the pavilion features an installation and research on the ritual of the Friday sermon and its influence on public space and public opinion.

“When thinking about free space, and by extension free speech for the Arab and Muslim communities, the Friday khutbah becomes a key protagonist, especially as state, law and religion remain as entangled as ever,” wrote the architects in a statement. “Friday Sermon traces the evolution and apparatus of this ritual of preaching and collective listening, and its implications on the transformation of common space, sometimes as an obstruction, other times as reinforcement, to the possibilities for free spaces of debate and assembly.”

Designed by Apparatus Studio, the exhibition consists of a large-scale structure that hosts a sound installation by Giuseppe Ielasi and Khyam Alami based on recordings of Friday sermons in Bahrain. The installation defines a central void under which one can experience the sound installation and references to the sacred space of the religious, while the periphery of the installation hosts three different contributions, each exploring a different aspect of the Friday sermon practices.

‘The All Hearing’, a video installation by artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, explores the effects of “loudspeaker libertarianism” in Cairo and its consequences on hearing damage and noise pollution in the city. Simultaneously, the installation by Matilde Cassani looks into the architecture of the minbar and its adaptation in the Italian context. The pavilion features other artworks, as well, including 3 Scores & the People’s Mic Khutba by Mezna Qato and Sadia Shirazi.

A collection of five essays accompanied by a series of images by Camille Zakharia is also on display.

National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s pavilion, entitled ‘Spaces in Between’, is organised by the Misk Art Institute and designed by Bricklab’s Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz.

According to the institute, the Saudi pavilion will explore new possibilities for the utilisation of “liminal spaces to increase socialisation and community building within Saudi’s rapidly expanding cities.” It added that Saudi metropolitan centres have undergone rapid urbanisation, with rural migration propelling built territories outwards. This settlement-driven growth has produced disjointed, mono-functional, car-dependent neighbourhoods connected by highways.

Consequently, 40 percent of city land lays vacant with wide distances between residential enclaves “eroding social ties and depleting natural resources.”

“Acknowledging this tension and radically reconsidering the role of tradition in shaping contemporary Saudi society is imperative for our future development,” the architects said. “This is translated into Saudi’s pavilion in its materiality — we have developed a unique material composed of resin and sand to create the walls and floors of the pavilion.”

They added, “Resin as a petrochemical by-product was chosen to symbolise the nation’s oil dependent economy, and sand on the other hand was used to reflect Saudi Arabia’s predominant natural landscape. By bringing the two together we are emphasising a need to move beyond oil dependency and to reassess our natural and cultural heritage to be engaged more critically for the development of our society.”

National Pavilion of the UAE

The UAE Pavilion for the 2018 Venice Biennale, ‘Lifescapes Beyond Bigness’, curated by Masdar Institute professor, Khaled Alawadi, explores human-scale architecture in the UAE.

The exhibition highlights the role of architecture and urban design in forming the ‘choreography’ of everyday life, with a particular focus on “quotidian landscapes in accommodating, enhancing and facilitating social activities across various locations in the UAE,” according to a statement.

A curatorial selection of different typologies and places across the UAE are investigated in the exhibition, including neighbourhoods, urban blocks, streets and alleyways, squares and public spaces, mountains and agrarian settings.

Using site observations and mapping techniques, the exhibition presents an exploration of physical characteristics and typologies, through themes such as behavioural rhythms and informal patterns of life, as well as the architectural and design traditions that have helped shape them.

The exhibition also invites visitors to experience important landscapes that are often overlooked when individuals engage in the UAE’s mega-development discourse.

READ MORE: Pakistan’s first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale