An Architecture Biennial for Dubai

Dubai is an urban laboratory: without many of the constraints on land availability, legislation, social concerns and finance that hamstring other cities, Dubai has become a place where new ideas can be explored and new paradigms tested.

At the same time there’s a rootlessness that needs to be addressed. The country is new, and its oil wealth hasn’t been available for long enough to create a history of built environment. Dubai is in the process of inventing itself, of looking for an individual and characteristic style that will define the kind of place it is.

Some great buildings have resulted from the ambition and/or hubris of Dubai’s developers – along with some indifferent architecture, shoddy or even dangerous finishes, and a pick ‘n’ mix approach to styles that has yet to produce the genuine Dubai aesthetic. But we’re getting there.

And away from the in-yer-face glitz of the highest/largest/most expensive/most touristic achievements, there is a calmer, more considered approach to urban development. The communities of villas and high-rise clusters generally work well, the palms and the canal have shown how terraforming can create new city neighbourhoods, the likes of Internet City, Dubai Design District and other functional and vocational concentrations have explored the possibilities of tight zoning (urbanism meets commerce: many of these represent the physical manifestations of free zones).

So Dubai should be a good place to hold an Architecture Biennial – a chance to reflect on what matters in the built environment, and what matters to Dubai.

There’s enough sharp thinking in and around the place, after all, especially in the universities and the more localised architectural practices. There’s international input from the big multinational studios, able to contribute theoretical knowledge and practical experience from projects around the world. And the people who live and work here are not short of opinions about how the city could and should be.

Planning for an Architecture Biennial of Dubai is in its early stages. There’s a basic website with no information but the chance to nominate your favourite Dubai place, a LinkedIn page with a brief Slideshare promo, and an email address; and perhaps crucially there are no sponsors signed up yet.

It’s still early days, though. The target date is November 2018.

2018 also sees the next edition of the granddaddy of architecture biennials, Venice. That established one of the two common approaches for the genre: the biennial sets a theme, different nations are invited to participate with a pavilion in which they can do as they please provided it more less fits the theme.

The other approach is curatorial. There are no national pavilions; instead there’s a programme of events and displays submitted by individuals, groups, or practices with a selection board and a management committee to enforce the theme – if any.

The newish Chicago Architecture Biennial (now its second iteration and running to 31 December this year) doesn’t have a theme, for instance. The huge Bi-City Biennale – the two cities are neighbours Shenzhen and Hong Kong – is always based on the set themes of Urbanism and Urbanization; it runs from 15 December 2017 to 15 March 15 2018.

And the Tallinn Architecture Biennale (in progress now – 13 September to 28 October) has a very specific theme; this year it carries the label bioTallinn and focuses on biotechnology and IT in landscape and urban design.

Most architecture biennials are initiated by a city government or a cultural institution. There are a couple that are actually run by architects’ associations, and they are actually triennials – the Lisbon and Oslo Architecture Triennales, both due for their next outings in Autumn 2019.

And the International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam is taking a different approach: it’s split between two cities (Rotterdam and Brussels) and two years, hence the label IABR–2018+2020 and maybe even its subtitle ‘The Missing Link’. Maybe there would be scope for a two-centre UAE biennial, covering Dubai and Abu Dhabi?

In fact the Dubai event already looks like it could be very different from most other architecture biennials, and maybe ‘architecture’ is too narrow a vision for it; perhaps ‘urban’ would be a better label, since the organisers’ ambitions appear to be broader than simply the style and design of buildings. Their starting point has been that invitation for residents to say something about their favourite place, which immediately makes their focus inclusive and community oriented (rather than say exclusive and profession-oriented).

The proposal is for “a city wide summit for architecture every two years” that would “bring together local and international conversations to illuminate Dubai’s unique architectural landscape” and provide “an umbrella platform celebrating the city’s diverse built environment”. Sounds like ‘Urban Biennial’ might be a better name (and ‘biennial’ rather than biennale’?) …

As a starting point there’s Arch.Season 17, a clutch of meetings and other events in Alserkal Avenue showcasing how the biennial might work and providing space for public consultation and input.

There’s an outdoor Architectural Majlis in Alserkal Avenue on 11 November to kick things off, featuring among others the architect/bloggers who run thetrypticnote. This sounds like an opportunity for some brainstorming as well a chance for the prime movers to talk about their vision for the biennial.

Then there are a couple of guided tours on 15 November – at 11am OMA’s Iyad Alsaka will lead a tour of the Concrete exhibition space in Alserkal; at 4pm Abdulla Al Ghurair from Essa Al Ghurair Investments goes behind the scenes at the group’s Karam Coffee Factory on 4th Street, a building reputedly inspired by Renzo Piano.

On 24 November theJamJar is hosting “A Big Architectural Workshop for families” (12pm) and on the following day the same venue has “Weaving a sustainable work of Interior Architecture”.

The closing Architectural Majlis on 26 November is by invitation only, but it does have participation from the Dubai Design and Fashion Council; that’s the only hint of official endorsement, but the organisers expect that more will follow next year.

The prime mover for the Architecture Biennial is Sonia Brewin, a Slade-trained artist from London who has been in the UAE for a dozen years and is an active participant in the artistic life of the region (she ran the START education programme for Art Dubai for a couple of years, for instance). These days she’s more prominent as one of the people behind the boutique design and architectural studio SVENM, which moved to Alserkal Avenue a while ago. In part that was to provide space for exhibitions and projects, and back in May one of those projects turned out to be the genesis of the Architecture Biennial idea: ‘Everyday Masterpieces: the Art of Buildings’ was based on public responses to the question “What is your favourite building, place or space in Dubai”.

The same question is on the Architectural Biennale website, and a compilation of the most interesting responses will be published at the event. That’s a chance for you to express an opinion and influence the perception of Dubai as an urban environment; there are some very interesting comments already. (There’s probably scope for a companion anthology of buildings we’d rather not see in Dubai – oversized Ferris wheels? A business tower with a pastiche of Big Ben on top? – but maybe that’s too negative …)

The Architecture Biennale could be good for Dubai, especially if it combines the natural enthusiasm for the place with a critical view of how the city can and should work for everyone. The community-generated commentary provides an excellent starting point, emphasising the sense of place. We’d like to see some more specific themes as well, like sustainability, smart cities and IoT, and the need to accommodate so many different earning levels.

Also in November there’s UAE Modern, two days of architectural talks split between the Etihad Museum and d3. This is organised by Massimo Imparato of the Canadian University Dubai as a conference for scholars, professionals and institutional bodies involved in modern architecture heritage research and practice; it doesn’t currently have any connection with the Architecture Biennial, but the timing is felicitous and the scope for a complementary relationship is obvious.

It’s ideas time, and that is always A Good Thing.


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