Transformations: The Emirati National House

BY Yasser Elsheshtawy / Aug 28 2016 / 20:44 PM

Yasser Elsheshtawy, curator of the National Pavilion UAE at the Venice Biennale unveils the history behind the Emirati Sha’bī house

Transformations: The Emirati National House
A National (Sha’abi) House in Al Maqam District in Al Ain. Photography by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia

The UAE’s urban centres are known for their gleaming skylines, filled with headline-grabbing high-rises designed by name-brand starchitects. They are the evidence of a rapidly urbanising society and representative of a country that is looking towards the future with a clear vision.

Yet on the fringes of the hyper-modern city centres, and in more rural areas of the Emirates, traditional residential areas known as Sha’bīya (folk) neighbourhoods continue to thrive.

The rich history and vivid contemporary life of the Emirati Sha’bī house forms the focus of Transformations: the Emirati National House, the exhibition I have curated for the UAE’s participation in the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is on display in Italy until November 27th 2016.

For the 2016 edition, the Biennale gathered exhibitions by 62 countries under the overarching curatorial inspiration ‘Reporting from the Front’ – a theme chosen by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Alejandro Aravena to encourage curators to focus on unexpected, marginal or peripheral projects, digging deep below the surface of superficial perceptions to address in some way the complex relationship between built environments and quality of life. Though some exhibits were more successful in my eyes than others, I applaud the Biennale’s commitment to connecting the lofty ideals of architecture with the necessities of everyday life for global communities.

A National (Sha’abi) House in the Salamat neighbourhood in Al Ain. Photography by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia

For many, the UAE is perceived to be an environment of exclusion, transience and anomie, where life revolves around ultra-luxury malls, hotels and theme parks. Throughout my years of academic research into the architectural and social landscapes of the region, however, I have aimed to engage more substantively with the often forgotten community spaces which continue to coexist throughout the cities of the UAE.

I am interested not only in architects’ initial designs for buildings and neighbourhoods, but also in how these spaces change and come to life as they are occupied, developing vibrant street corner communities, unexpected aesthetic innovations and ad hoc functional modifications which reflect the nuances of everyday life.

Sha’bīya neighbourhoods were planned across the UAE from the 1970s as part of Sheikh Zayed’s vision to modernise the nation through investment in infrastructure development. Architects, including German firm Braun & Saeckl (whose contributions to the exhibition I note with thanks), collaborated with local decision makers to develop an easily replicable housing design which nevertheless respected and reflected the existing needs and preferences of the Bedouin population, who at the time lived mainly in tents and arish (palm leaf) structures.

National (Sha’abi) House in Al Maqam District in Al Ain. Photography by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia

The Sha’bīya neighbourhoods became the home of tight-knit Emirati communities which continue to thrive today, brought to life by strong attachments and vivid shared memories. And while newer developments dotting the UAE’s landscape offer all the modern amenities, they lack the sense of community and visual diversity prevalent in Sha’bīya neighbourhoods.

The basic housing design proved to be highly adaptable; over the years, as Emirati lifestyles and tastes have changed significantly, many residents have carried out their own alterations: adding extra rooms and personalised decorative elements, repainting in bright colours or landscaping their gardens to make their houses their homes.

The extent of change varied from one city and neighbourhood to the next, yet the main idea remained: an architectural design that families could personalise to their lifestyles. The pre-fabricated elements of the Sha’abi house functioned as a blank slate for residents’ needs – whether functional or aesthetic.  The result is an environment that is both practical for living and visually interesting in its architectural variety.

Examples of National (Sha’abi) Houses in Al Maqam District in Al Ain. Photography by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia

Through this transformative approach, the Sha’abi house has evolved into an expression of local cultures and lifestyles and an important, though often overlooked, component of the nation’s architectural vocabulary.

The Sha’abi house presents a successful example of socially conscious architecture that is not concerned with spectacular or iconic design, but instead is flexible to the needs of its residents, allows for change and development, and enables personalisation and aesthetic differentiation.

The National Pavilion UAE is committed to supporting the arts and architecture practices of the UAE and promoting them to an international audience. With this commitment in mind, I conceived of an exhibition to refocus the discourse surrounding the urban environments of the Gulf away from a preoccupation with its record-breaking architectural achievements and towards the spaces of the everyday. Although perhaps less headline-grabbing, they are no less remarkable and connect clearly to the overarching mood of the Biennale, which demanded that we engage with themes of empowerment, community and social function in architecture.

The open spaces, traditional neighbourhoods and street corners of the UAE – dotted with informal gardens, ad hoc decorations and the accumulated personal touches that represent the UAE’s diverse and living history – are home to active and vibrant communities.

By presenting an exhibition exploring the Sha’abi house more deeply, I have hoped to share with the Biennale’s international audience an unexpected perspective on the diversity of the UAE’s built environment and the ingenuity of its residents.

The National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.