Research, Content and Catalogue; Exhibition Report National Pavilion UAE 

This is the third in our series of essays covering the National Pavilion UAE la biennale di Venezia. The first presented an overview of Aravena’s theme for the biennale [Reporting from the Front] and the concept selected by curator Yasser Elshestawy for this year’s UAE exhibit [’Transformations: The Emirati National House’ – the Sha’bīyaa ]. The second took the form of a dialogue with Professor Elshestawy. In this essay, we navigate through the sequential layout of the exhibit paired with visuals of the spaces and look deeper into the Exhibition Catalogue as a document of exhaustive research and a valuable academic resource.

Exhibition Catalogue:

To deal with the folk house as a category of archived material is to strip it from its social and cultural context as well as to relegate it to an epiphenomenal residue

The exhibition catalogue captures a historical and contemporary gist of the urban development of the UAE specifically from the viewpoint of National Housing and its evolution through time. It does not only document old and new multimedia research from different sources it also records observations and analysis becoming a first of its kind comprehensive archive of vernacular architecture of the UAE. It features essays and contributions on a significant aspect of UAE’s history focusing on the built form and social policies of its Rulers. Thus making it a valuable asset of architectural, historical and socio-spatial research and a must read for anyone interested in gaining insight into the evolution of the cultural and residential fabric of the UAE.


National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia 2016


The structure of the catalogue follows a thematic layout shifting a series of levels and scales. These themes are categorized as History, Neighbourhood, and House. The history section traces the origin of the house in order to determine the extent of change and transformations that have taken place through time. The Neighborhood scale establishes the geographical range of the Sha’bīyaa. The final section provides a closer and more detailed analysis of the house as an architectural unit. Each theme features essays and archival data followed by a dedicated section of complimenting research including newspaper records, survey material, urban and analytical diagrams, typological studies and transformation diagrams detailing the changes in plan structure as well as the overall morphology of a specific house.



All the essays, research, and contributions beautifully compliment and help contextualize the exhibit. In ‘The evolving landscape of Dubai’s national housing neighborhoods’ architect Khaled Al Awadi ,Assistant Professor of Sustainable Urbanism Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, discusses the housing landscape in Dubai by providing extensive research on the city’s Sha‘bīyaa neighborhoods. He compares five main elements in the built landscapes of these neighborhoods namely: street patterns, urban blocks, net density, land parcelization, and building forms. To map the spatial evolution of the local neighborhoods in Dubai, he draws on site observations, GIS analysis, historical documents, and aerial imagery. Applying ethnographic methods he defines the influence of urban forms on everyday life and social activities.


National housing in Abu Dhabi in the early 1970s.
 (Gérard Klijn. © Catholic Documentation Center of the Radboud University Nijmegen)
National housing in Abu Dhabi in the early 1970s.
 (Gérard Klijn. © Catholic Documentation Center of the Radboud University Nijmegen)

Another important contribution is by El-Sayed El-Aswad, Ph.D. Professor of Anthropology, department of Sociology UAE University. In his essay the “Social and Spatial organization patterns in the traditional house,” he presents a case study of Al Ain, a city in the UAE. El-Aswad states that “Architecture is an important indicator of the rapid social and cultural change in both the public and private domains of Emirati society”  He stresses on the necessity of studying vernacular architecture through the lens of an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach, including but not limited to anthropology, archaeology, architectural history/theory, art history, folklore, cultural geography, and sociology.  He goes on to define certain fundamental features of the Folk house:

1. The traditional or folk house has been subjected to constant development processes locally known as modifications (ta‘dilāt)

2- After the modification, the folk house is an inward- looking building in which most of the spaces are arranged around an open courtyard that connects different areas of the house.

3- The house is a horizontal single-story building enclosed by outer walls, trees, and shrubs.

4- The house is an autonomous unit separated from neighboring houses by at least one meter-wide vacant space.

National Housing in Madinat Zayed. (Image by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE)
National Housing in Madinat Zayed. (Image by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE)

Along with investigative writings, the catalogue also records the memory and narrative of these social housing projects. These take the form of an interview by Adina Hempel, with the German Architect duo Wolfgang Braun and Peter Sackl, responsible for creating a full-scale prototype of a Sha’bi house in the desert of Al Ain; and family photographs of the residents of a Sha’biya house documenting the transformations that occurred since its was first occupied in 1978. Contemporary photographs and accounts of visits to abandoned buildings and active neighborhoods and homes add another dimension to this historical narrative and animate the evolution.

The Exhibit in Venice:

National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia 2016

In Venice, the host city, the exhibit is housed inside the Arsenale, a site with its own rich history of programmatic and formal transformations. Movement through the exhibit is a sequential experience with thematically choreographed spaces and a periodizing approach to presenting data.

To best narrate the experience it constructs within the space, we dissect the exhibit into sections defined in the words of the curator Yasser Elsheshtawy:

“The Exhibition has been conceptualized and structured according to four main sections. Ideally, they should be experienced sequentially — but that is not a necessity. Indeed people usually construct their own sequence in such spaces.

1. History Section

This is the first space that visitors will encounter and through which they will be familiarized with the Shaabi House. As they approach the space there is an image that was identified from the collection of Dutch photographer Gerard Klijn; walking towards that image a series of smaller images appear depicting Abu Dhabi’s houses in the pre-oil phase on the side wall; also displayed here is a short video showing the earliest recording of Sha’bīyaa housing in Abu Dhabi (Huntley Video). In the main space of the history section, there are a series of displays of varying size and scale comprising archival information – newspaper pages; house images; drawings of Sha’bīyaa houses. This space is otherwise dimly lit with a focus on these various display items encouraging visitor perusal.

2. City/Neighborhood Section

This section is informative and familiarizes people with the geography of the UAE and its landscape; in addition, it displays maps, aerial photographs of the various Sha’bīyaa neighborhoods; and analytical diagrams examining the specific formal character of the neighborhood. All this is centered around three main components: a 4m long linear panorama of the back of a Sha’bīyaa neighborhood; a scaled model of a neighborhood; and an interactive screen atop a table — this screen contains all the survey data. Additional material includes images of the survey carried out throughout the UAE showing the diversity of the various Sha’bīyaa houses. There is a lot of information and data in this section but viewers should be able to experience this information without being overwhelmed.

3. House Section

This section examines the house in more detail and contains numerous drawings, photographs as well as architectural models. It is centered around two main elements: a massing model comprising six small models of a house type, and a detailed scaled house complex made up of four houses with a pathway in between – overall the idea in this section is to evoke the feeling of being in this house, and how life takes place in and around the house; viewers should also be able to get a sense of the changes and transformations that occurred over time.

4. Central Area

From the House section, viewers are led to an inner, semi-enclosed space which features a case-study (the Meqbaali house) containing detailed drawings and diagrams as well as a table upon which is placed a large-format book containing family photographs of the Meqbaali household showing how the house has been used over the years. Also part of the central space are Reem Falaknaz’s images and they are the centerpiece of the exhibition; they are the focal point drawing people into the space, and while they are examining the other elements and sections glimpses of these photographs are always present. The specific layout and display of these enable an intimate experience that allows for reflection on the house and the people – some are portraits while others show everyday interactions. The architecture is in the backdrop and the emphasis is on the people.”

National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia 2016

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.

If you are interested in the Exhibition Catalogue, please email:


All images courtesy: The National Pavilion UAE

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