Sharjah Architecture Triennial: Designers look back to prepare for unsettled future

Showcase honours old ideas with hopes of inspiring revolutionary solutions to climate change and resource shortages

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The theme of the second Sharjah Architecture Triennial resonates from the ground up.

The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability marks the event's return to Al Qasimiyah School, a building that typifies modernist architecture in Sharjah, with transformations in line with the platform’s ethos.

Built in the 1970s, the school had been abandoned for years until it was taken over by the triennial when it was founded in 2018. It has since been turned into a cultural institution that serves as one of the event's primary locations.

As the second triennial begins, the school’s classrooms have become mixed-media exhibition spaces. Its courtyards are decorated with colossal site-specific installations. The stage area, meanwhile, is decked with cinderblocks and stacked panels that serve as seating areas.

The materials will be resold to suppliers after the triennial concludes in March. These transformations sustain and reinvent the school’s educational and civic purpose.

Along with the old vegetable market and slaughterhouse in Jubail, the venues of the triennial serve as important local examples of how giving a new lease of life to structures can strike a balance between their significant past and bright future.

The first triennial in 2019 ran under the theme of Rights of Future Generation. The platform explored life in urban areas along the Global South, addressing the long-term consequences of climate change and how the next generation may confront these problems.

The triennial builds upon these concerns this year. It is seeking to challenge consumerism and extraction that thrived during industrialisation. It looks towards architectural approaches from the Global South, where technological innovations respond to scarcity.

The triennial looks back, not out of nostalgia, but in hopes of learning lessons that may help prepare for future environmental challenges and resource shortages. Ideas may be as revolutionary as they are honorary.

“Our era is indeed marked by an improved standard of living and life expectancy. However, that prosperity could be short-lived with the looming challenge of climate change,” Tosin Oshinowo, curator of the triennial, says.

The exhibitions, as Oshinowo points out, “pay homage to pre-industrialised societies, better in balance with the natural world".

“These groups of practitioners and artists rethink tradition, holistically engage with the concept of upcycling and recycling and championing the use of materials and posit gentler versions of modernity,” she says.

The works at Al Qasimiya School present case studies that invigorate how architecture is perceived in spatial, cultural, historic and sustainable terms.

Studies span Saudi Arabia to Ecuador, Uzbekistan to Palestine. While many of these approaches are specific to the locality and social norms from which they emerged, they each act as a springboard for ideas that may be applied in a wider spectrum.

A poignant example emerges from Gaza. While the ongoing Israel-Gaza war has led Palestinians to new heights of brutality and suffering, Gazans have long had to deal with sieges, scarcity and bombings. Modes of recycling and reusing materials have come about as a result.

The Power of the ‘Invisibles’ by Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari identifies these “informal initiatives”, which make use of materials ranging from reclaimed rubble and corrugated metal to recycled cardboard and construction rebars.

“It's all about rehabilitating, working with reconstruction bars that are left aside in Gaza, how to fix them and kind of create a new skin for a new surface,” Sharif says.

The exhibition functions as a sort of experimental lab – showcasing a decade’s worth of research as part of Sharif’s and Golzari’s Palestine Regeneration Team initiative. The elements that make up the exhibition include durable benches made of cardboard, tiles made of rammed clay and chairs fashioned from recycled timber.

“They were very creative,” Golzari says of working with the Gazan community. “They had such an energy, positive energy of making sure that they can continue, they can rebuild.

"Their way of reusing whatever was there, which was quite important, shows us that we should not be so obsessed with global imagery. They were quite happy to create new architectural aesthetics.”

From Angola’s capital Luanda, meanwhile, comes Dust As An Accidental Gift. The exhibition by Sandra Poulson transforms what used to be a classroom into a marketplace decked with goods and produce all created from recycled cardboard.

The exhibition challenges the notions that hard materials, such as asphalt and concrete, are necessary for modern living, while highlighting how social norms respond to environmental factors.

“These hard surfaces don’t necessarily apply everywhere,” Poulson says. "They aren’t necessarily things to aspire for. Within a city that is lacking all these hard surfaces, the softness is a resource.

“There is an idea that dust and sand constitute the ground, and its usability is really to navigate and walk, whilst in Luanda I feel there is a relationship with it that doesn’t come from walking through it, but looking at it as something that is in movement itself, and we are in stillness in relation to it.”

This social and environmental interplay has provided several staple jobs in Luanda.

“An example of that, for instance, is the fact that we have people who are dust sweepers,” she says. “It’s the safest possible job you can have in the city because the dust always comes back.

"Imagine the circularity, the kind of sustainability of that practice in itself reacting to the environment without damaging it.”

Shoe-shiners, meanwhile, offer their services to people who are on their way to work. People on their way to banks, universities or public institutions, Poulson says, want to “renew their feet so they enter without traces".

“People wash their shoes always and this had to do with assimilating into Portuguese culture,” she says. Poulson also adds that she hopes to conduct an in-depth study to understand just “how many people are employed by the dust” in Luanda.

An exhibition on the upper floor of the school, on the other hand, addresses topics of conservation, challenging ideas that a structure’s original form should be favoured against subsequent modifications. Tashkent: Appropriating Modernism focuses on three modernist buildings in Uzbekistan’s capital.

These include The State Museum of Arts, Chalkhana [teahouse] Samarkand and Restaurant Zarafshan. The structures were built in the mid-1970s and were based on a typology of forms and materials that were prevalent during the Soviet era.

The architectural language of the era was steeped in pan-cultural notions of progress and renewal. Originally, the structures were designed with a restrained modernist approach that was, over the years, superimposed with decorative designs and modifications that reflected the local heritage.

Tashkent: Appropriating Modernism highlights this tension, juxtaposing the structures’ original forms with their ensuing alterations.

“They reclaimed the buildings trying to make them their own, so that they can really relate to them. Otherwise, they felt very distant from those buildings,” architect Wael Al-Awar, who designed the exhibition, says.

“If you look at their vernacular architecture and their identity, they are a culture that’s all about craft. They built their houses by hand and these modernist buildings are built by concrete, where nothing's done by hand.

"Everything is done by formwork and pouring. When the Soviet Union fell, they felt it was time for them to put their hands on the building.”

The three structures are all shrouded in mystery. It isn’t clear when or who was behind the modifications. However, as conversations increase about whether or not these structures should be restored to their original forms, Al-Awar says it is pivotal to consider the legitimacy of the cultural intervention that reshaped them.

“We always jump to conclusions when we talk about conservation or preservation,” Al-Awar says.

“But today, we really need to pause and question why is the original state more important than the current state of the building? That conversation we need to have before really making key decisions on what to demolish, what to keep and what to change.”

Sharjah Architecture Triennial runs across several locations in Sharjah until March 10. More information is available at

Updated: November 16, 2023, 7:56 AM