New ways of designing cities: inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial gets its theme

The inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial will have as its theme ‘Rights of Future Generations’. The announcement was made in Venice at the opening of the Mostra di Architettura di Venezia, the architecture section of the Venice Biennale, which meant it was rather lost in the surrounding noise.

Which is a shame, because the Sharjah Architecture Triennial is shaping up to be an important addition to the calendar. Opening in November 2019 and running for three months, the Triennial will be the first major platform for dialogue on architecture and urbanism to focus on the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa and South Asia.

Adrian Lahoud, newly appointed curator of the first Sharjah Architecture Triennial

As for the theme, it could not be more apposite. As the newly appointed curator, Adrian Lahoud, put it: “Rights of Future Generations is an invitation to radically rethink fundamental questions about architecture and its power to create and sustain alternative modes of existence. The last decades have seen a massive expansion in rights, yet this expansion has failed to address long-standing challenges around environmental change and inequality.

“A focus on rights to health, education, and housing as individual rights has obscured collective rights such as rights of nature and environmental rights. At the same time, the conceptualisation of rights as basic standards reduces the diversity of human existence to mere subsistence within a universal minimum.”

Now that’s suitably contentious – how do you balance the individual’s right to health and housing against a society’s rights to environmental security? And what role should architecture and urbanism play?

This is from the Triennial’s statement: “Deeply-held preconceptions expressed in very basic ideas like shelter continue to inform how we think about architecture as something that protects us from the environment, or as some primordial need that exists irrespective of the existential differences between societies. The same is true for concepts like habitat that are deployed in the same way and by the same institutions. This colonial legacy has never ceased informing the kinds of desires and ambitions the discipline and the profession authorises. Any emancipatory project will have to start with this condition.”

“A focus on rights to health, education, and housing as individual rights has obscured collective rights such as rights of nature and environmental rights …”

So architecture has a part to play in emancipation? Well, yes. “Rights of Future Generations questions how inheritance, legacy, and the state of the environment are passed from one generation to the next, how present decisions have long-term intergenerational consequences, and how other expressions of co-existence, including indigenous ones, might challenge dominant western perspectives …”

And that’s the exciting part: former colonies are well placed to provide a post-colonial view of development generally. An authentic contribution from the Middle East and elsewhere that goes beyond issues like accommodating heat and dust would be most useful in developing policies and principles for the future.

And “the Sharjah Architecture Triennial will focus on moments where experiments with architectural and institutional forms collaborate to generate new social realities … Design is an opportunity to bring alternative modes of existence into being, including new concepts of what buildings, cities, landscapes, and territories are.

“In order to do that effectively, architecture has to find ways of working alongside institutions that are able to structure the protocols, habits and rituals that organise lives according to these new ideas.”

This feels very much like Adrian Lahoud’s baby, as indeed it should be. Lahoud is Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art in London. He’s an internationally recognised architect, urban designer, and researcher who has written and lectured extensively on urban spatial forms and large-scale environmental change with a focus on the Arab world and Africa. His research centres on the idea of scale within architecture and urban design especially with regards to climatic and environmental transformations. His PhD thesis ‘The Problem of Scale: The City, the Territory, the Planetary’ sets out a theory of scale drawn from architectural practice in the context of emancipatory struggles.

Mona El Mousfy told us that he was selected from a strong group of candidates, and his curatorial proposal was particularly impressive. “The Board and Management Committee were very much attracted to Adrian’s forward-looking concept of the Rights of Future Generations and its potential to fundamentally reshape the way we think about the design of our societies and our environment.

“We are confident that Lahoud will make an important contribution to the Triennial’s mission to reframe the conversation on regional architecture and urbanism.

El Mousfy (right) has been instrumental in developing plans for the Triennial and advises Sheikh Khalid Al Qasimi, head of Sharjah Urban Planning Council and the chairman of Sharjah Architecture Triennial; she’s also been the Architecture Consultant for the Sharjah Art Foundation since 2005 and in that capacity was largely responsible for Sharjah Art Spaces, the core exhibition areas of the Sharjah Biennial.

El Mousfy calls the Sharjah Art Foundation “a sister programme that has led by example”. She’s thinking in particular of the way the Biennial has managed to combine international standing with a strongly regional flavour, matching the core sessions and exhibitions with a longer-term programme of events and activations.

Accordingly, in parallel to each edition of the Triennial itself there will be ongoing series of public events “aiming at broadening the conversation to a public sphere that includes architecture practitioners, urbanists and planners, public and academic institutions, and the general public”, as El Mousfy put it. Lahoud has already confirmed that a series of regular meetings and public events will be convened in Sharjah in the run-up to November 2019.

So the Triennial won’t be exclusively professional, though it definitely won’t be as populist as the proposed Dubai Architecture Biennial. Its first public programme last month was presented as a “new level of engagement with local audiences” but still managed to be pretty academic – a panel chaired by Varkki Pallatucheril, Dean of the College of Art Architecture and Design at AUS, discussed what Mona El Mousfy described to us as “the reconfiguration of the morphologies of Gulf cities and the changes in the national housing strategies following the rapid population growth that occurred since the 60s and 70s … It questioned the effect that the gradual inland shift of the citizens had on relations connecting the citizens to the historical city centres, and relations connecting the citizens amongst themselves, and to the expatriate communities that they host”.

It’s not exactly ‘vote for your favourite building in Sharjah’.

But the Sharjah Architecture Triennial is the first significant such event in the MENASA region, the first international platform on architecture and urbanism in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

And that’s the exciting part: the Triennial should be able to draw on international conversations about those critical topics, framing them in a MENASA perspective with what Mona El Mousfy termed “the potential to address regional challenges and create knowledge that is generated from the region”.

Adrian Lahoud didn’t feel able to respond to questions from magpie; but in another interview he outlined the role of the Triennial as establishing “a series of conceptual, practical, and legal legacies that will resonate through architectural discourse both within and beyond the region … The theme and structure should not only provide a platform and framework for future scholarship, it would also act as a provocation for historically, socially, politically aware, architectural experimentation now and in the future”.

“We believe that we can arrive at new ways of designing cities …”

Khalid Al Qasimi spoke ahead of the April event and summarised the possibilities: “this is a crucial moment in the understanding and development of architecture and urban planning of the MENASA region. The regional urban landscape is evolving at a tremendous speed and impacting how urban dwellers interact amongst themselves.

“Sharjah Architecture Triennial will offer an accessible platform for critical reflection on the social and cultural issues that we face at both regional and international levels.

“Through the creative process of this exchange, we believe that we can arrive at new ways of designing cities.”

New ways of designing cities: now that’s an ambitious goal. And an entirely feasible one.

The Triennial’s website is here.

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