Better than big? The UAE brings life beyond largeness to Venice

The theme of the exhibition in the UAE Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale has been announced, and it’s an interesting one: Lifescapes Beyond Bigness, “an exhibition exploring human-scale architectural landscapes”.

The irony is inescapable, given that bigness is so inescapably linked with the international perception of the country. It seems a prime requirement that the UAE must have the tallest, widest, most extreme, most expensive, most shiny examples of everything.

Maybe there’s no contradiction, in fact. Lifescapes Beyond Bigness will aim to highlight the role of architecture and urban design in forming “the choreography of people’s daily routines … It particularly investigates the role of ‘quotidian’ (everyday) landscapes in accommodating, enhancing, and facilitating social activities across different places in the UAE”. Clearly the plaza below the Burj Khalifa or the urbanity of the Palm are amenable to “accommodating, enhancing, and facilitating” social activities.

But it seems that a more unstructured topography will provide the basis of the exhibition. Or as the press release puts it, “the everyday life or the choreography of informal, un-programmed lifescapes in the UAE will be explored through a curatorial selection of different typologies and places from the UAE’s diverse landscape”. Examples cited are “neighbourhoods, urban blocks, streets and alleyways, squares and public spaces, mountains and agrarian settings”.

… an excursion into these humane and under-celebrated areas of the UAE, highlighting the interplay between the physicality of architecture and places …

The UAE’s urban planners would probably claim that all of those feature in their newest developments – well, possibly not alleyways: they don’t seem to rank very highly on the list of desirable brochure-friendly buzzwords – but obviously there’s going to be more mileage in seeing how people have adapted (and adapted to) less organised, less predictable, less planned spaces.

The Lifescapes Beyond Bigness curator is Khaled Alawadi, an architect, planner and urban designer who is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, and his credentials are very good. Sustainable urbanism is probably the key to the future of a planet with a nine billion population, after all, and it’s thinkers like Dr Alawadi who will be shaping that.

So this could be one of the more broad-based UAE National Pavilion shows. We’re promised “sophisticated site observation and mapping research techniques” that will present an exploration the architectural and design traditions that have shaped the behavioural rhythms and informal patterns of life lived within them.

And it should also present an antidote to the kind of kneejerk reaction with which we started this piece: the exhibition “will also invite visitors to experience important landscapes that are often overlooked in common perceptions about UAE’s megadevelopment discourse”. The UAE as a repository of varied approaches to the environment? Should be fun.

Here’s Dr Alawadi’s official statement: “The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father, believed that urban planning should aim to support happiness and social cohesion by putting human needs at the centre of design. In line with this principle, many of the UAE’s pre-1990s urban and non-urban ‘quotidian’ landscapes were socially responsive and facilitated the development of diverse, vibrant communities.

“This exhibition is an excursion into these humane and under-celebrated areas of the UAE, highlighting the interplay between the physicality of architecture and places, and the dynamic choreography of everyday life.”

Khulood Al Atiyat, commissioner of the National Pavilion UAE in his role as Manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage at the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, points out that Dr Alawadi’s research encompasses human behaviour and social life rather than focusing only on the narrow issues of design and architecture. He believes the result will be “a rich picture of the UAE which will challenge preconceptions”.

Let’s hope so. The 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale will run from 26 May to 25 November.

What do you think?

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