Middle Eastern Pavilions Loom Large At Venice’s Architecture Biennale

Turkish Pavillion, Venice
La Biennale di Venezia
A view of a multimedia installation at the Turkish Pavilon, 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, Freespace.
There are five participating countries from the Middle East

Embracing the concept of ‘Freespace’ as its primary theme, the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale features 63 national pavilions located at the Giardini and the Arsenale, as well as additional participants in the main exhibition and related architectural and cultural events taking place throughout the floating city.Curated by architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, co-directors of the Dublin-based Grafton Architects, Freespace is open to interpretation, but the explanation that best fits the diversity of the national pavilions comes from the final proposal of the curators’ manifesto: “Freespace encompasses freedom to imagine the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.”

There are five participating countries from the Middle East: Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. Their pavilions, which are located deep within the Arsenale, vary in size and content, but they all reflect upon the history and recent development of the architectural landscape in the region. Returning to the Biennale for the fifth time since winning the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion in 2010, the Kingdom of Bahrain considers the Friday sermon as a means for addressing and discussing positions on public issues. Organised by Nora Akawi, an architect, curator and researcher based in New York, and Noura Al-Sayeh, an architect working at the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, the exhibition Friday Sermon examines public spaces temporarily activated through mass assembly.

Eastern Lures - Biennale

A view of the Saudi Pavilion titled Spaces in Between from the 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, Freespace

A dynamic Plexiglas and aluminum structure, designed by the London-based architects Studio Apparata, presents sound compositions by Giuseppe Ielasi and Khyam Allami that incorporate recorded Bahraini sermons. Open at the street level, the structure is intended to be a municipal space, where the sacred and the profane rub up against one another. On its periphery, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s video The All-Hearing, in which he ironically asked two Sheikhs in Cairo to give sermons on noise pollution, and Matilde Cassani’s fabricated minbars—inspired by interior design in Italy, where mosques have to adapt to existing spaces—add nuance to the display.

According to Hala Younes, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and the curator for the country’s first national pavilion in Venice, Lebanon is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. She has organised the exhibition The Place That Remains to provide an assessment of the territory and the condition of architecture in her homeland. Intended to identify the free spaces that remain and the potential for building the countries’ future, the exhibition is centered around an enormous cartographic model of the watershed of the Beirut River, with analytical maps projected on it.

The watershed was chosen because water is a resource that must be shared, unlike the land, which is mostly privately owned. The maps show Beirut’s urban sprawl, what has resisted urbanisation and what should be preserved. Images of a 1956 aerial photographic survey are contrasted with similar views from 2008 to reveal expanding development, while documentary photography by six artists—including Sudergargaite Douaihi’s pictures of recreational sites, Gregory Buchakjian’s photos of architectural ruins, and Houda Kassatly’s shots of vernacular gardens—expose the current land use. Making its inaugural appearance in the Biennale, the Saudi Pavilion is exhibiting Spaces in Between, which explores new possibilities for the use of transitional spaces. The young Saudi architects Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, founders of Bricklab, were selected in a competition judged by a panel that included pavilion curators Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman, Dean of the College of Design at Inam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University, and Jawaher Al Sudairy, Director for Research at Al Nahda Society.

Eastern Lures - Biennale

A detail of an installation at the Lebanese Pavilion, 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, Freespace ©Venicedocumentationproject

Addressing the country’s expanding urban boundaries, where vacant lands and highways separate social interaction, the architects have designed a series of connected cylinder-shaped modules, which range in size and present the stories of rapid urban development, views of the cities from the car, and places of isolation and inclusion. Ironically, the stylish structure, which functions equally as a dwelling and a site for conveying content, was constructed from resin, a byproduct of petroleum, and sand—both plentiful resources in the desert kingdom. Turning its pavilion into a laboratory for creative encounters, collaborative production and cultural exchange, Turkey’s third presentation in the Biennale offers a programme of public events centered around an open office, a forum and a dozen staging areas with video displays. Curated by architect Kerem Piker and a team of associates, the exhibition Vardiya began with an open call sent to architectural schools worldwide. Soliciting one-minute videos about the role of biennials from 500 applicants in 29 countries, the organisers narrowed the list to 122 architecture students, who are visiting the pavilion in shifts to actively produce the content.

The faces of the students are projected on the soft cell, tent-like structures, which are dedicated to workshops. Inside each cell is a video with a teaser for the upcoming workshop, while hammocks for lounging are hung in between the structures and movable stools are placed below. The programme imparts the students as agents of culture transcending borders, with the beneficial results being offered on social media sites, including YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Marking its third national pavilion in the Biennale as well, the United Arab Emirates presents the exhibition Lifescape Beyond Bigness, exploring the relationship between the built environment and the human scale of everyday life. Curated by architect and urban planner Dr Khaled Alawadi, the exhibition examines four types of municipal environments: residential neighborhoods, urban blocks and the networks of streets and alleyways in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the natural landscape of Al Ain. 

Eastern Lures - Biennale

A view of the UAE Pavilion Lifescapes Beyond Bigness at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, Freespace

Enclosed in walls of white steel bars, the presentation features 3D models of high- and low-rise construction suspended through the centre of the space and photographs, maps and architectural renderings of the various neighbourhoods on the encircling surfaces. It’s the photos and testimonies of everyday people, however, that helps the project hit the right chord. Gathered by Alawadi, who teaches sustainable urbanism at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute, and his students, who made site visits three times a week, the documentation offers the perceptions of the people who inhabit the localities and know what makes them livable. 


The International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia runs until 25 November 2018. Labiennale.org 

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Turkish Pavillion, Venice
La Biennale di Venezia
A view of a multimedia installation at the Turkish Pavilon, 16th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, Freespace.