The 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia opened last month and saw the world converge on the floating city. The Biennale continues till November hosting pavilions responding to Alejandro Aravena’s curatorial proposal “Reporting from the front”. Aravena in his brief called for projects that are “looking for new fields of action, facing issues like segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and the participation of communities.” While most pavilion’s featured recent or proposed projects in response to this call for architectures that are responsible and responsive, the National Pavilion of UAE chose to look at the past.
This year’s curator Yasser Elshestawy is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the United Arab Emirates University. Elshestawy has researched and written extensively about urbanization in developing societies and urban history with a particular focus on Middle Eastern cities. He presents ‘Transformations: The Emirati National House’ highlighting the Sha’bīyaa – social housing introduced across the UAE from the 1970s to offer homes and modern amenities to a fairly transient population. We met with Professor Elsheshtawy at the vernissage in Venice and later in Milan at Fondazione Prada. This dialogue stems out of those conversations.
What led you to select the Sha‘bīyaa as the subject of your investigations and feature for this year’s Biennale?
Y: There were two main reasons:
1. The Emirati National House offers insight into significant parts of the UAE’s urban and architectural landscape. This is important because the UAE’s urban centers are known for their gleaming skylines, spectacular architecture, and iconic buildings. Yet if one steps away from these visible signs of modernity and explores its urban landscape another picture emerges. There one will find a thriving urbanity that defies some of the pre-conceived notions pertaining to its architecture. The Sha’abiya neighborhoods, containing the Sha’abi house constitutes one of those sites. In their informality, sense of place and a lived-in look they defy the very notion of glamor, exclusivity, and transience
2. It can also suggest lessons of wider significance. It is an example, and a success story, of a socially conscious architecture that is not speculative or iconic. Indeed provision of decent housing for the disadvantaged is a universal concern and the Sha’abi house demonstrates how to construct an adaptable and flexible typology. The continuous use and change of this model is a rare example of an ongoing architectural experiment. The Sha’abi house was thus a blank canvas, a basic framework, within which various elements of Bedouin life could be placed. It is different from the typical top-down planning approach, which imposes rigid forms and spaces that are not easily modifiable. As an architectural critic, Aaron Betsky poignantly observed in the context of discussing Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s half-finished housing project: “It was not so much “architecture without architects” as architecture expanding the notion of what architecture non-architects could make with the tools architects give.” And it is precisely this notion that gives the Sha’abi house so much more significance and resonance, thereby transcending the UAE context.
You refer to the Sha’bīyaa as “ an example, and success story, of a socially conscious architecture that is not speculative or iconic”. Can you expand on what you mean by it not being ‘speculative’?
Y: Speculative refers to the kind of real estate developments proliferating in the UAE (and elsewhere) — where the focus is on profitability and selling of housing units. The Sha’abi house does not subscribe to such approaches. It is much more focused on providing basic necessities.
In our previous conversations, you have mentioned the influence of Amos Rapoport starting from your formative years as a student. His focus has been cultural variables and vernacular architecture and in his influential book House, Form & Culture he explores how culture, human behavior, and the environment affect house form. Did this in any way guide your research and investigation of the Sha’bīyaa?
Y: Yes; in fact, it has guided much of my work. Amos was my Ph.D. advisor and he is one of the foremost critics of exclusively “form-based” architecture. His book “House, Form and Culture” challenges top-down architecture and instead celebrates vernacular traditions. Significantly his focus on the house as an expression of a people’s culture and lifestyle is a key component in my investigation of the Sha’abi house.
A key question was how did the Sha’abi house fit within an approach that challenges established planning practices, advocates for participatory planning and empowers residents and inhabitants? The transformative aspect of this housing model is of particular relevance here. People moved in and over the years, modified this particular model by adding rooms, decorative elements changing color schemes and doorways. The extent of change varied from one city to the next, one neighborhood to the next. Yet the main idea remained an architecture that people were able to personalize to their needs. As a result, it became an expression of their culture and lifestyle
The issues of threshold, privacy, and gender-based social/spatial organization are deep rooted in the Arab culture and inevitably imprint its vernacular design. In this environment do you think the wall in the Sha’bīyaa might acquire a meaning other than of a western residence? Is there any apparent shift here of the wall’s classical utilization as a divider?
Y: Walls or fences in residential structure — when they are present — serve several purposes: they mark territory; secure boundaries; and enable privacy. These are universal concerns and they are present in varying degrees in many cultures. The Sha’abi house does not, therefore, differ that much — although the notion of privacy acquires a more dominant role. So there is no shift — just an intensified emphasis on a particular function of the “wall.”
The question “What is an Architecture exhibition?” has been posed and discussed on numerous occasions. President of La Biennale di Venezia Paolo Baratta in his introduction to the Biennale revisits asking “what should an Architecture Biennale be?”. In lieu of presenting physical architectural projects; theory, models, research and analysis generally remain key components on display. The exhibition includes voices of several contributors along with many forms of contextual apparatus. What framework did you define for your investigations, analysis of the Sha’bīyaa specifically to present at an Architecture Biennale?
Y: This is a research-based exhibition rather than one where the focus is on the architectural object per se. Accordingly, my aim was to document and map the Sha’abi house — more or less establishing the extent to which they still exist in the UAE. This entailed a historic component (establishing a baseline of sorts”) as well as looking at various scales — city/neighborhood and house scale. At each of these, a variety of display modes were used: drawings, models, and photographs as well as analytical diagrams.
Right from the outset the decision was made that this will not be a strictly historical investigation, nor a nostalgic rumination on “the good old days.” Instead, we would like to highlight the present and the Sha’abiya neighborhoods as an ongoing living testimony about the resilience of the Emirati people and the extent to which the house, with all of its shortcoming, still plays a vital and important role.
The UAE Pavilion is housed in the Arsenale, a site with its own rich history of programmatic and formal transformations. A pre-industrial production center for the military later repurposed for commercial use. It now plays a complimenting host to the Biennale along with the Giardini. The site presents a rich context and displays an attention to sequence and materiality. How did you receive and choose to utilize and transform the exhibition space?
Y: The design of the pavilion aims at moving away from traditional representational depictions. Instead, the concept has been derived from the theme itself, implying a universal concern (adaptable housing) by which the pavilion seeks to position itself squarely within contemporary architectural debates. Representational issues are not completely ignored, however. We would like to evoke the notion of “home” since the theme deals with domestic concerns. To achieve this we looked at the geometry of the house both from an architectural and urban perspective. The notion of transformation, which is the degree to which the house changed over time, formed an integral part in developing the concept. These transformations comprise changes that took place within a modernist plan through the accretion of elements over time as noted. The pavilion is placed within an existing historic structure, the intervention is seen as a delicate installation inserted within this solid context. Through its materiality and overall feel, it should remind viewers of a home. Resultant spaces are intimate and small in scale suggesting rooms in a house.
Geometrically the above is achieved through a grid structure, placed independently of the existing structural system. This grid structure is expressed in space through the dividing panels and is visually present through a series of overhead beams, bisecting and intersecting the space of the pavilion. These beams enable, visually, the creation of spatial zones (rooms as noted above). They are derived from the overall grid structure of the pavilion. Viewers would thus be aware of the grid. Various elements placed within the exhibit (posters, photographs, models and the people themselves) would form a backdrop against this structural system suggesting the variety that is created in the Sha’abi House itself. Furthermore, the paneling system, through the use of a mesh, acts as a screen of sorts, facilitating perceptual connections between the elements and spaces of the pavilion. Visitors would be aware of the surrounding structure, spaces, and rooms. Taken together these elements enable a level of complexity that would sustain interest and more importantly is compatible with the theme of the exhibition itself.
El-Sayed El-Aswad records an interesting conclusion in the catalogue ‘This implies that there can be no change without cultural heritage in the sense that local tradition provides the matrix within which any changes may be proposed or introduced and implemented.’ Modification here seems to be driven more by customs than utilitarian needs. Do you think the transformative character of the Sha’bīyaa is as much a result of the architecture as the nomadic and ephemeral qualities intrinsic to the Bedouin culture that it served?
Y: I think it is a function of both — the architecture facilitated change and the need for change was instigated and initiated by the people themselves based on their cultural needs. Furthermore, in any culture there are certain constants (needs that do not change) which we may call cultural core; and then there are aspects that are changeable — and the house caters to both.
In some way, residents inevitably transform their homes and adapt them to use. Shigeru Ban’s designs with open universal floor plans and moveable partitions offer one end of the spectrum of transformative housing design, where sliding doors allow a variety of spatial arrangements, adjustable to accommodate seasonal or functional needs. Do the transformations of the Sha’bīyaa stand apart from organic repurposing that comes with ownership and does the architecture of the Sha’bīyaa facilitate transformation in any way?
Y: One of the most significant aspects of the Sha’abi house is its transformative capability. People moved in and over the years, modified this particular model by adding rooms, decorative elements changing color schemes and doorways. The extent of change varied from one city to the next, one neighborhood to the next. Yet the main idea remained an architecture that people were able to personalize to their needs. As a result, it became an expression of their culture and lifestyle. Indeed the specific way in which these houses were designed allowed for such an accretive change. The design was based on modular elements, pre-fabricated in many instances, and was a sort of blank slate upon which people could project their aspirations – whether they were functional or aesthetic. The result is an environment that is both functionally responsive and visually interesting because it has resulted in architectural variety. The specific geometry of these thus allowed for such changes to take place.
Finally, you observe in the exhibition Catalogue “While many of these neighborhoods and houses are still occupied by Emirati families the situation is beginning to change. Given the proliferation of housing programs that allocate larger size plots and more lavish buildings, many residents have opted to move to greener pastures, as it were. At the same time changes in ownership structure, where laws have been somewhat relaxed allowing people to rent out their homes, resulted in an influx of expatriate laborers.”. Are there any efforts to preserve the Sha’bīyaa or apply research produced through your exhibit in pertinence to new local housing development models?
Y: A number of government organizations have been looking at the Sha’abi house including Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA); Abu Dhabi Housing Authority (ADHA) and Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council (UPC). In addition, the Ministry of Public Works is also looking at these houses although the focus here is on maintenance and taking stock of existing developments. The TCA has recommended that the Sha’abi house and neighborhoods be considered as a form of modern heritage.
The exhibition ‘Transformations :The Emirati National House’ is on view at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia till November 27, 2016. We would like to congratulate Professor Yasser Elshestawy on a successfully researched and executed exhibit and thank him for his time and willingness to share knowledge always.