Architects helped endanger the planet, but now they can help rescue it

Construction today does not have to be as polluting as before

This picture taken on April 20, 2021 shows a view of the Dubai Marina. / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE
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How will we live together? Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT and curator of the upcoming architecture edition of the Venice Biennale, posed this intriguing question before the Covid-19 pandemic even began. As the theme of the 2021 Biennale, the question calls for participating countries and curators to reflect on the future of collective living at one of the world’s most significant forums for architecture and the built environment.

Even before the crisis, global platforms like the Venice Biennale, the World Economic Forum and Expo 2020 Dubai had a vital role to play in convening ideas and creating discussions around sustainability, urban development and climate change. Now, after a year of profound change, this call for long-term solutions is more relevant than ever.

As architects, we feel it is our responsibility to cast a critical eye on our industry’s significant contribution to the climate crisis and identify areas where we can mitigate its impact through new thinking. This is why we chose to respond to the National Pavilion UAE’s open call for projects to represent the country on the Venice Biennale’s important platform. Our project, Wetland, responds to Mr Sarkis’s question by thinking not just about communities, but also humanity’s relationship with our planet.

In early 2020, emissions fell to record lows due to industrial restrictions

In the first half of 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by a record-breaking 1550 million metric tonnes due to restrictions on transport and industrial activity. We should celebrate this, but if the underlying systems and issues remain unchanged, the number will represent a relatively small and temporary blip on the charts. The planet is still heading for a temperature rise of more than three degrees this century. By the end of 2020, some of the world’s most polluting industries, including construction, were already back to normal.

We have always been conscious of the local environment in the projects that we’ve created for our design studio, waiwai, which is based in Dubai. We aim to minimise energy use, incorporate indigenous flora and make the most of natural resources. However, with just 100 companies said to be responsible for 71 per cent of all global emissions since 1988, it has become clearer than ever that the environmental impact of full-scale industrial activity vastly outweighs individual actions.

FILE PHOTO: People walk past the Rialto Bridge during high tide as the flood barriers known as Mose are not raised, in Venice, Italy, December 8, 2020. REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri/File Photo

Over the past two years, through our project for the National Pavilion UAE, we have been able to tackle a global issue from a local perspective by focusing on the world’s two most highly-consumed materials: water and concrete.

Producing cement – a vital ingredient in concrete – accounts for eight per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and should be a matter of urgent concern across the environmental, architecture and construction industries.

Here in the Arabian Gulf, water is a scarce resource. The vast majority of potable water comes from desalination plants, which support habitation in our region but also produce a significant amount of brine, highly-saturated saltwater that goes back into the ocean, drastically raising marine salinity levels.

We saw brine not as a waste product, but as a resource in abundance. Our project proposes a potential method to recycle it into a green, MgO-based alternative cement that would match traditional Portland brands for strength, durability and accessibility.

Learning from natural landscapes is one of our fundamental principles. In partnership with NYU Abu Dhabi, the American University of Sharjah and the University of Tokyo, we’ve created an experimental prototype inspired by crystalised salts and minerals found in the UAE’s salt flats, or sabkhas, unique and complex natural phenomena tentatively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our experience shows us that to respond to climate change we must turn to the natural world for answers. One square metre of sabkha can sequester more carbon than one of rainforest, and yet our understanding of them is still in its early stages. In addition to our experiments, the National Pavilion UAE has commissioned a publication authored by urbanists Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, which contains extensive research into the sabkhas’ essential ecological and cultural value for the Emirates.

The 2021 Venice Biennale has asked us a simple question with complex answers. For us, living together sustainably means finding solutions that balance the modern world’s need for an immense amount of construction and manufacturing, with the need to preserve our natural environment.

Rethinking how we engage with the assets of the natural world – such as our idea to transform waste brine into a building material – is fundamental. We must ensure that as our sector emerges from the pandemic, it is not just a return to the “old normal”, but to long-lasting systemic and behavioural change that sets us on a path to renewed harmony with our natural world. This is how we intend to answer the Biennale’s question: how will we live together?

Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, founders of Dubai-based architects waiwai, are curating the National Pavilion UAE at the Venice Biennale