How the Hajar Mountains inspired the UAE's National Pavilion at the coming Venice Biennale

Aridly Abundant will pair traditional techniques with contemporary technology at the architecture event

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The National Pavilion UAE has unveiled more details about its participation at the coming Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens in May. Titled Aridly Abundant, the project will explore how the desert plateaus, wadis and coastal plains of the UAE’s Hajar Mountain range can be used as models of abundance for other arid environments.

The project — which marks the UAE's fifth outing at the architecture event and 12th total at Venice — will look at how the UAE can pair traditional architectural practices with contemporary technology, and export these practices to help countries most affected by climate change.

Aridly Abundant is curated by Faysal Tabbarah, associate dean and associate professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah. Tabbarah says the main question he hopes to address is: “What architectural possibilities can emerge when we reimagine arid landscapes as spaces of abundance?”

Tabbarah tells The National the project hopes to use the diversity of the Hajar Mountains to "reshape the narrative around arid landscapes", and present them as "spaces of abundance".

He adds: "There are many complex micro-conditions or microclimates occurring within a relatively small landscape. For example, the climatic and physical differences between the desert plateau, wadis, and coastal plains within Al Hajar Mountain range and its environs each generate a radically different approach to stone construction and use of materials that at first might appear to be very similar."

The project seeks to address the biennale’s theme of The Laboratory of the Future, conceived and curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect and academic Lesley Lokko, which invited architects to imagine what the future might hold.

Aside from the intersection between land-based practices and contemporary technology, Tabbarah’s research presents new ways to extract materials from arid landscapes, simultaneously creating culturally rooted and environmentally sustainable built environments.

Part of his research focuses on the UAE's traditional "land-based practices". He explains: "Land-based practices are ongoing practices that are rooted in historical attitudes, actions, and knowledge that amplify the entanglements between cultural identity and landscape.

"Land-based practices have long provided sustainable built environments that respond to the environmental, economic and material challenges presented by conditions of aridity."

Tabbarah says the historic stone constructions of the Hajar Mountains present a "deep reservoir for exploring ways in which we can integrate technology with historical land-based practices to enable sustainable built environments".

There are various ways these can be paired with contemporary technology, he adds. "We have identified that a workflow that integrates technologies such as 3D scanning and 3D printing, along with digital data gathering and analysis, can amplify land-based practices and make them relevant for contemporary construction."

The project, he adds, will draw themes, lessons and questions from the UAE's experience, and "consider how these practices can be shared with other territories around the world facing the threat of aridity and desertification, including countries across Africa, Asia, and Southern Europe".

"Disappearing land-based practices, such as the aforementioned stone constructions, implies a disappearing relationship with the land, which is a crucial component of enabling a sustainable built environment.

"What inspires me the most is the ways in which individuals and communities engaging with agricultural production in arid landscapes continue to innovate in very tactical ways that integrate simple technologies with historical practices."

He adds: “The National Pavilion UAE’s exhibition at Biennale Architettura 2023 delves into themes, lessons and questions based on learnings from within the UAE’s arid landscapes that other places around the world facing the threat of aridity and desertification can find of use, including countries across Africa, Asia, and southern Europe such as Italy, Spain, and Greece.”

Angela Migally, executive director of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation — which commissions the pavilion — says: “Through the National Pavilion UAE’s participation in the Biennale Architettura, we’re particularly excited to see a global exchange that can help us share our knowledge, and collectively co-create sustainable solutions for the future.”

Meanwhile, Laila Binbrek, director of National Pavilion UAE, says: “Arid landscapes are a growing global phenomenon and will challenge us to adapt our future ways of life. Tabbarah’s research will shine a light on the UAE’s ancient and modern practices in dealing with conditions which are inherent to our culture.

“By asking the right questions, Tabbarah encourages necessary dialogue to deepen our understanding of this topic, which other nations who might have to deal with this condition in the future, can use and build upon.”

Binbrek tells The National that there has never been a greater sense of urgency around the issues of climate crisis, sustainability and safeguarding the future for the next generation. She adds: "Faysal’s work is integral to this global conversation. The project seeks to share the UAE’s local-based knowledge and research that is of relevance and importance to other nations facing aridity; an environmental condition that is increasing around the world.

"Faysal’s research takes us back to our natural landscape to find solutions for our current and future problems. By challenging us to rethink how we define aridity, i.e. prioritising aridity when considering architectural production, it forces us to rethink mainstream material practices, and provokes an architectural discourse that is built in, with and for aridity."

The exhibition will be joined by a travelogue publication, which explores aridity as not just a condition but a practice, an identity and a state of mind. Co-edited by Tabbarah and WTD Magazine founder Meitha Almazrooei, it will explore the UAE’s arid landscapes through works of fiction and poetry, scientific essays, travel stories and photography.

Binbrek adds: "Our research publications are an additional tool we use to continue the dialogue of each exhibition long after the biennale ends, and we always hope that this knowledge will be disseminated both locally and globally, and possibly even expanded upon in the future."

The National Pavilion UAE is supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth, with a permanent pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia’s Arsenale — Sale d’Armi.

Aridly Abundant will be presented at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, from May 20 to November 26 in Venice

Updated: February 14, 2023, 12:18 PM