Stepping off a water taxi into the heart of Venice for the first time is an unforgettable experience. The narrow alleys, the romantic bridges over busy canals, the gondolas and grand villas teetering over the water all speak of centuries-old history. Given, however, that it would be possible to fit its tallest building – the famous bell tower in St Mark’s Square – in Burj Al Arab’s atrium alone, this at first seems a strange location for a celebration of the UAE’s architectural history.
But for the next five months, the Venice Architecture Biennale is in town. Anyone who is anyone in the world of building is here. And, for the first time, so is the UAE, presenting a national pavilion to stand alongside the best on the planet.
Still, it’s with a certain sense of trepidation that we stroll along the canal to Arsenale – the ancient shipyard and armoury, and one of two main sites around which the biennale is based. The 14th version of this international exhibition is a curious hybrid of art and history, culture and architecture – a bizarrely brilliant coming together of the world’s weird, wonderful and, yes, sometimes overambitious architects and designers. In the Giardini’s central pavilion, an immaculately dressed Venetian peers, baffled, at a space dedicated to the history of the humble lavatory, dubbed by some visitors “the toilet room”. Elsewhere, there’s a collection of staircases and a celebration of 1960s Italian discotheques. It’s a fantastical celebration of construction in all its forms.
Role of the UAE
How does the UAE fit into this magical melange? After all, the curator of the biennale Rem Koolhaas – one of the most important architects working in the field today – requested that all the participating countries followed the theme “absorbing modernity 1914-2014”. Just to put that in some kind of context, the master plan for Dubai wasn’t drawn up until 1960.
But, rather brilliantly, the UAE pavilion confounds expectations. For its debut, one might expect a flash, brash space in keeping with many people’s preconceptions of Dubai. But inside a cool, dark room there’s barely any recognition of, say, the Burj Khalifa. The content is hidden behind thick black walls referencing traditional courtyard living – and there is another layer after that: pull-out drawers that really do tell the story of 100 years of the UAE’s architectural history.
“Nearly everyone looks for the Burj Khalifa first,” says Adina Hempel, who has been in charge of research for the national pavilion project. “And that’s fine,” she adds, pointing to the one immediate reference to it on an intriguing illustrated timeline of building in the UAE. “But we’re here in Venice to break apart those preconceptions. We want to show the history, starting with the tradition of arish and coral stone houses and emphasising that they influenced the modern buildings of the 1970s and 1980s. The UAE is a fast-growing country attracting fabulous international architecture, but it’s not a place that has just ‘happened’ in the past 10 years.”
This sense of a story is key to the UAE pavilion. We happen upon a Swiss architect, Brigitta Schild, who tells us that she had no other “reference to the UAE other than the Burj Khalifa” before she spent time at the biennale.
“What fascinated me was the pre-oil story and how the creation of these big cities has caused issues which, more often than not, were solved with real vision. And the work that’s been done on how memories and buildings interlink is really interesting. We have centuries of iconic buildings in Europe, of course, so what happens when you don’t have that to fall back on?”
And while other national pavilions tend to have a relatively fluid movement of people (except the Thailand room, which is, curiously, almost entirely dark), the UAE effort encourages people to stop, think and perhaps learn something. Pulling out one of the drawers featuring a family photograph album of children by the National Houses of the 1980s, the German architect David Kasparek tells us he loves the “muted, reflective and very personal” atmosphere of the pavilion.
Wilhelm Warning, a Munich-based broadcast journalist, agrees. “Maybe all we know in Germany is that the UAE has a lot of money and builds whatever it wants. But it’s a deeper story than that,” he admits. “It’s interesting to see this development of the Emirates from a cultural and architectural perspective, and realise that there’s a proudness, richness and heritage that goes back much further than perhaps a European would think.”
The right balance
Walking around the other national pavilions in Arsenale, it feels like the curator Michele Bambling’s team have pitched the balance between history and art just right. There is a big crowd based at Estonia’s overly tricksy pavilion exploring public spaces, with projections and digital imagery – although this may be because they’re handing out fantastic cake and drinks: even the most assiduously dressed Venetian architect is beginning to wilt in the late spring heat.
Bahrain’s effort is similarly popular: its circular, library-like space selecting 100 buildings across the Arab world is quite the talking point, although not as immediately eager to please as the entrance to Chile’s pavilion. A garishly decorated family apartment, complete with pink walls and photos of children, seems incredibly realistic – until you find out it actually is a woman’s living room, transported across the Atlantic. It’s like a brilliant living history museum.
The UAE pavilion may not have that same sense of merriment, but for Bambling, there is a real sense of satisfaction that her initial idea is engaging people.
“It’s wonderful to see, in the flesh, this idea we’ve been working on for so long,” she says, with a mixture of pride and relief. “Even the way the light falls across the space, for me, represents the layering of memories we have wanted to capture. Every drawer has a story and what I like is that it’s not narrated by me, but by someone who directly experienced these changes and developments in the UAE. There’s this sense of wonder in UAE architecture and I hope we’ve captured some of that.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not hard to find people with a connection to the UAE flocking to the pavilion, too. “You don’t always appreciate the buildings you see every day in Abu Dhabi,” notes the personal trainer Penny Howarth, gazing at a picture of the bus station. “This just makes you think what an amazing story it has been, how this place has made its mark.”
“It tells an emotional story – about nation-building, but about everyday people, too,” adds the architect Sandra Piesik.
But if anyone should be emotional, it’s Deborah Bentley. The first UAE National Pavilion has been a truly collaborative experience and the architecture professor at Abu Dhabi University worked with her students on a drawer that focuses on the Volcano Fountain, Abu Dhabi’s famous landmark demolished in 2004. It’s only a small part of the pavilion, but it says everything about its attention to detail.
“Buildings in the UAE can be so transient, demolished too easily,” says Bentley. “And with that, people’s memories disappear. So the class had a look at conservation – which is part of a wider conversation both in this pavilion and the UAE as a whole – and our students really dedicated themselves to finding and creating archive material. When you lose those buildings you run the risk of losing your identity.
“So to see it here ...” she tails off. “Well, I’m close to tears actually.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Adina Hampel’s name and referred to her as Anna Hampel.