UAE’s ‘Transformations’ exhibition exloring the national house unveiled at 2016 Venice Biennale

UAE’s ‘Transformations’ exhibition exloring the national house unveiled at 2016 Venice Biennale

Architectural diagrams, photographs, scale models and archival material tells the story of this year’s UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, entitled ‘Transformations: The Emirati National House’.

UAE Pavilion at Venice Biennale

The exhibition explores the transformative aspect of the housing model of the Emirati national houses, known in Arabic as sha’bi (folk) house, which were introduced across the UAE from the 1970s in order to offer homes and modern amenities to the population.

These types of houses are found in residential neighbourhoods of most cities across the UAE, with the standard typlogy involving a series of rooms that are overlooking a central courtyard. While first designed as a standard housing model, there has been architectural modifications made to the basic structure to cater to the changing lifestyles of the residents.

Curator Yasser Elsheshtawy at the opening of the UAE Pavilion

The exhibition itself, curated by associate professor of architecture at the UAE University and expert on regional architecture and urban planning, Yasser Elsheshtawy, features historical and technical materials including detailed architectural analysis of a present day national house, archival newspaper clippings that document the initial start of the National Housing program, as well as photographs by Dutch photographer Gerard Klijn, taken in the 70s. It also features specifically commissioned photographs by Emirati photographer Reem Falaknaz.


The exhibition is presented in the UAE’s permanent pavilion in Venice’s Arsenale- Sale d’Armi, and is divided into four interwoven sections, conceptualised as a series of scales moving from the regional down to an individual house that is laid out on a grid is separated by wall panels that draw visitors through the story of the national house.

Prior to the opening of the exhibition. Elsheshway and team putting together the various elements of the pavilion.

The four sections includes the following: the History section presents archival images, documents and videos that record the establishment of the National Housing project throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. It also includes aerial photographs by captured by British Petroleum.

National housing in Abu Dhabi in the early 1970s.
 (Gérard Klijn. © Catholic Documentation Center of the Radboud University Nijmegen).

Next comes the Neighbourhood section that examines the urban fabric of the national housing developments at a city-wide scale including an interactive map as well as architectural models. The House section develops a detailed analysis of the national house at an individual level, through the use of massing models, elevation drawings and diagrams that present the changes of each building within a contemporary neighbourhood.

National housing in Fujairah. (Image by Yasser Elsheshtawy. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE).

Lastly, the Central section, which is the centerpiece of the exhibition, presents a detailed case study of a single national house and the Emirati family who continue to live there.

Typical floor plan of a national house type as implemented by the Ministry of Public Works (1974). Courtesy UAE Ministry of Public Works.

Yasser Elsheshtawy has produced fascinating and detailed research on this unique element of the UAE’s

urban and architectural landscape. The exhibition offers us the opportunity to share a lesser-known

aspect of our nation’s architecture at one of the world’s most prominent architecture events,says Khulood Al Atiyat, manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.
“In line with the Foundation’s mission to invest in the future of the UAE by investing its people, we are particularly pleased that this year’s exhibition will focus on the everyday spaces of the UAE’s citizens,

developing a new angle of architectural discourse about our country.”
Commenting on the accompanying publication, Elsheshtawy said: “[It] will share a comprehensive overview of the National Housing project as an interesting architectural experiment where people are

actively involved in constructing and modifying their built environment.”

Rawiya Al Suroor enters her house. (Image by Reem Falaknaz. Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE).

“We would like to highlight the sha’bīyaa (folk) neighborhoods as an ongoing living testimony about the resilienc e of the Emirati people and the extent to which the house, with all of its shortcoming, still plays a vital and important role.”
The accompanying publication will contextualize the exhibition and associated research, providing a backdrop to the content displayed in the exhibition. It features essays and academic studies by architects, sociologists, conservators and scholars.
The exhibition is open until November 27, 2016.

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