Wetland: how the UAE's sustainable exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture came together

Inspired by the country’s traditional coral houses, the module is made from ground-breaking cement from brine extracted during industrial desalination

As the world slowly tries to adapt and imagine a new post pandemic reality, the theme of the 17th edition of the Venice Biennale of Architecture is a stirring call to arms: How Will We Live Together.

With heightened sanitary precautions, social distancing, temperature-taking and quarantine for many participants, the biennale miraculously opens its doors to an expectant general public on Saturday, May 22, one of the first genuine global cultural events to return to real-life.

The UAE’s innovative Wetland exhibition takes its place alongside the 64 nations that will be present in the Serenissima’s historic Giardini and Arsenale venues for the next six months up until November 21.

To mark the occasion, the inauguration of Wetland was made in person outside the pavilion by UAE Minister of Culture and Youth Noura Al Kaabi to a cosmopolitan audience that included Roberto Cicutto, the new President of La Biennale. During a stirring ceremony, she said, "the National Pavilion UAE is a bridge from the UAE to the world".

"Participation is an honour, and a rare opportunity to present stories and ideas that define the UAE. This culture of bridge-building and multinational exchange is fundamental to who we are as a nation," she said, also mentioning that this year marked the UAE's tenth participation in the Venice Biennale.

"The UAE is also approaching its golden jubilee, marking 50 years since our founding," Al Kaabi said. "The 2021 exhibition Wetland presents a truly insightful idea, and a fresh perspective on the global issue of climate change. Developing new and more sustainable ways of balancing the needs of the modern world with the need to protect our environment is absolutely critical, and very high on the UAE's national strategic agenda, so this project is outstandingly timely."

Before the minister arrived, Wael Al Awar, who curated Wetland along with Kenichi Teramoto, proudly stood beside his incredible prototype structure built from an innovative, environmental-friendly cement made from recycled brine waste.

The module is inspired by the UAE’s traditional coral houses, but the ground-breaking cement, made from brine extracted during industrial desalination, has the strength and durability to be used in modern architecture in standard brick shape.

“Even before the Biennale’s curator, Hashim Sarkis, announced the theme for 2021, we were already working on the issue of utilising desalination waste that became our Wetland project," Al Awar said. "We began three years ago, when it was already evident that architects have to accept a responsibility to act to address the effects of global warming. So his call for the world of architecture to address this crucial question of how we will all live together corresponded perfectly with the ideals behind Wetland.”

The UAE pavilion audaciously challenges the most basic element of the construction industry: cement.

"For today's generation of architects," Al Awar said, "cement has always been there, an essential product but one that is incredibly unsustainable, with one tonne of cement generating one tonen of CO2. It is quite simply the dumbest material imaginable." Generations before, countries created their own vernacular architecture relying on local resources, such as coral in the UAE, while in other countries it would have been stone, mud, bamboo, wood.

"Obviously coral could not last in the UAE where the population transformed from 10,000 nomadic people to 10 million, but we hope we are now finding an alternative to concrete for future construction projects," Al Awar said.

"And we found that inspiration right here in the UAE's salt flats, the sabkha. As the salt dries we could see that it created natural blocks, and then realised that these had already been used in ancient constructions in Siwa on the Egyptian border with Libya and Tunisia's Chott el Jurd, whose traditional architecture reached a global audience when they were used as a key location for the film Star Wars."

There is ongoing, crucial scientific input to this project, with the curators collaborating with NYU Abu Dhabi, the American University of Sharjah and the University of Tokyo, who are working towards a patent to transform the industrial waste generated by desalination into the magical ingredient to create building bricks.

The Wetland installation is complemented by an emotive series of photographs of the sabkha by renowned Emirati artist, Farah Al Qasimi.

There is no question of using the timeless salt blocks created on the sabkha, Al Awar said.

"This unique region must be preserved and protected at all costs because it acts as the lungs of the UAE, purifying the air by absorbing CO2 just as the trees of Brazil's rainforest.

"This Future Vernacular architecture, which combines local resources with modern technology, may be adapted for other countries outside the UAE that generate desalination waste."

But, he said, it is not a product that should be exported, shipped around the world to build the cities of the future.

"That is simply against nature, defeating the whole ambition of this project. Local produce for local use, a viable alternative to cement’s global carbon footprint," he said.