Saudi Arabia is participating in the Venice architecture biennale for the first time, in a pavilion commissioned by the Misk Art Institute, the foundation set up by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and run by Ahmed Mater.
The pavilion is made up of six spaces designed by the young Jeddah-based architects Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, brothers who collaborate as the studio Bricklab. They present “an introduction to the major urban centres in Saudi Arabia and how the oil boom has affected their growth”, says Abdulrahman Gazzaz, the elder of the two. “Jeddah, as the port city, with its long history as the gateway to the holy cities; Makkah, as the religious capital; Riyadh, as the government capital; and Damman, as the centre of the oil industry.”
Right now, he continues, “a lot of changes are happening. We have this space in between what it was and what it is and what is becoming. It’s a fascinating point in the history of Saudi Arabia.”
'In Saudi, there is a stronger sense of community'
The title for the pavilion, Spaces in Between, looks not only at changes to the kingdom, but also at the fact that Saudi cities are a patchwork of spaces. Because urbanisation in Saudi Arabia was spurred on by the oil boom, its cities are characterised by sprawl, built with cars in mind rather than the slow pace of foot traffic.
Its urban centres extend profligately: more than 40 per cent of city land is vacant, lying in between built blocks – an inefficient use of natural land that also fragments the city fabric.
“There’s a sense of disconnect between different events or places that unfold within the city,” says Turki Gazzaz. “While a lot of contemporary cities in general follow the American highway typology in urban planning, its effect is radically multiplied in Saudi because of the subsidisation of gas, the absence of public transportation and the limited amount of public space.”
The installation looks critically at the rapid pace of this development, and its far-flinging results, while also investigating places where a feeling of community persists.
“In my experience of living in New York, there is a strong sense of individualism for the inhabitants of the city – a lot of people feel like they’re completely independent and alone,” Turki says, referring to his time working at the studio of Daniel Libeskind.
“In Saudi, there is a stronger sense of community, even though our urban fabric has been severely suburbanised. You still get traces of a close-knit community although it operates in a network of isolated social circles.”
The themes explored at the pavilion
The focus is similar to that explored by the UAE pavilion, which looks at "human-scale environments", or urban landscapes that pre-date the prevalence of cars. However, while the UAE pavilion, led by the academic and architect Khaled Al Awadi, is more research-led, Bricklab's will be immersive and experiential, signalling Saudi directly through their choice of material for the pavilion's structures. They are made of resin mixed with sand – an evocative, tactile substance the pair produced in factories in Brescia.
“The combination of sand and resin reflects two primordial conditions of Saudi Arabia as a nation: its oil economy and its desert landscape,” Turki explains. “Even though there’s a lot of diversity around the kingdom in terms of natural environments and climates, the desert comes to the foreground when one recalls the Gulf or Saudi Arabia in particular.”
Each of the pavilion's six structures explores a different theme, with maps and images as well as footage that is shown through the windscreen of a car, mimicking most people's experience of Saudi cities.
Straddling art and architecture, the brothers have worked in an exhibition setting before; for this year’s edition of 21, 39, the yearly Saudi Art Council-sponsored art event in Jeddah, they transformed the traditional house of Rabat Khunji in Al Balad, in the Old Town of the city, into an installation mixing infrastructure and plant life, reflecting on the presence of nature within the built environment.
The ultimate goal
For the Saudi pavilion, they are working with the curators Jawaher Al Sudairy and Sumaya Al Solaiman, who have invited other Saudi cultural figures to contribute to an accompanying publication that surveys urbanisation: the first of its kind to look at the topic in such depth.
“Considering that this is the first participation for Saudi in the Architecture Biennial, we wanted to commemorate the occasion and reflect on Saudi’s architectural history through the eyes of its architects, artists, planners and authors,” says Al Sudairy.
The publication includes works by Mater, the artists Manal Al Dowayan and Moath Alofi, excerpted texts from the renowned authors Abdo Khal and the Umaima Al Khamis, as well as writing from academics and even the former mayor of Riyadh.
With so much scrutiny on Saudi Arabia at the moment as its society opens up, the curators and the architects are also keen to stress the connections between Saudi and the rest of the world. “We aimed to use this occasion to start a conversation,” says Al Sudairy, about “the legacy of Saudi cities and architecture.”
“We want to have this conversation with other countries that share similar experiences, and we also want this conversation to take place within Saudi as well,” she continues.
Abdulrahman Gazzaz agrees. “Ultimately, what we want to achieve with this pavilion is to create this sense of familiarity.” Issues such as sprawl and disconnect “are very familiar problems that are challenging everywhere in the world. We want the visitors to experience the pavilion and really relate to this urban phenomenon and think: oh, this is happening in my city, too.”
The Saudi architecture pavilion, Spaces in Between, is in the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale from May 26 to November 25, 2018