Venice Architecture Biennale 2014: In depth analysis by Michele Bambling, curator of UAE Pavilion

Rem Koolhaas, director of ‘Fundamentals,’ the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, asked the curators to examine the past century of architectural development in their respective national pavilion exhibitions.  Koolhaas’s mandate, with its prescribed theme and timeframe, established a compelling opportunity for comparative analysis of twentieth century global architectural history demonstrated through exhibitions.  In collaboration with architects Marco Sosa and Adina Hempel, I curated ‘Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE,’ to be viewed by an international audience within this larger curatorial context.

Indeed Koolhaas’s brief provided an ideal entry point for the National Pavilion UAE, in the venerable Venice Architecture Biennale.  The directive set the parameters for ‘Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE,’ which surveys the architectural and urban development in the Emirates from 1914-2014, spanning the monumental shifts from vernacular to modern, then contemporary architecture.  By providing a coherent chronological and thematic overview of this history, the exhibition lays the groundwork for forthcoming architecture exhibitions in the National Pavilion UAE at the Venice Architecture Biennale.  Moreover, the exhibition itself – a seminal platform of a growing archive – is the foundation for its own trajectory.

Koolhaas’s curatorial vision was pertinent for the UAE, as it addressed a significant area of scholarship awaiting research.  Little in-depth examination of the young nation’s history of architecture and urban development has been conducted.  At present no centralized archive or scholarly resource dedicated to the subject exists.  Much of the historical record is no longer in the UAE, but has been dispersed worldwide after international architects and engineers working on major projects returned to their home countries.  Other documentation remains tucked in the private files of local architecture and engineering firms, client institutions and municipalities.

Therefore the starting point for curating the exhibition began with a concerted effort to gather disparate primary material that would reveal the UAE’s leap into modernity through the rapid development of its infrastructure and civic architecture.  We reached out to the public by holding a series of workshops and panel discussions.  We spoke with practicing and retired architects and engineers, to professors and students of architecture, to historians, and to architectural conservators.  Certain institutions, including the National Archive, The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC), Dubai Municipality, Sharjah Municipality, Sharjah Art Foundation, British Petroleum, Japan Oil Development Co., Ltd. (JODCO), Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO), Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Dubai Petroleum, the Armed Officers Club, Zayed Sports City Stadium, the Abu Dhabi International Airport, and Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, generously provided access to their records of the nation building years, the primary focus of the exhibition.

The exhibition archives diverse contributions of content including: architectural and engineering drawings, sketches of national houses by their residents, archival photographs of structures commissioned by the oil companies, oral history recordings, vernacular photographs of people amid buildings or in urban contexts, videos taken from cars and helicopters of the burgeoning cities, organic construction materials including areesh palm frond, coral stone and mangrove wood, old post cards of buildings and cityscapes, documents attesting to building codes, contracts, supplies, etc.

We also generated content for the exhibition through collaborative projects with several local universities. For example, architect Lina Ahmed worked with Zayed University students to laser-cut models of building facades, architect Deborah Bentley oversaw a team of Abu Dhabi University students who constructed section models, and architect Yasser Elsheshtawy graduate students of U.A.E. University created figure-ground animated drawings demonstrating the fast-paced urban growth of the principle cities of the UAE.

The disparate content is organized into drawers of an archive that was designed for future expansion as the research continues to develop.  A timeline runs the length of the cabinets, providing a chronological order to the content of the drawers.  The items contained within each drawer are arranged to narrate a case study and explained by quotations from historians and other informed voices.  Columns of drawers are related by theme.  Viewers may open drawers randomly or in succession to discover discrete or related histories of architecture and urban development. Each item displayed in the exhibition thus relates a unique story while contributing to the collective archive of UAE architecture and urban development.

The assemblage inherently addresses the complex questions of what constitutes Emirati architectural ‘history.’ What represents it?  Who tells it? How is it remembered and interpreted? How does architecture built in the UAE relate to national identity and the native environment? Does vernacular and modern architecture inform contemporary practice? The exhibition advances a multiplicity of histories, represented by tangible and intangible evidence, told by professional architects and engineers as well as by ordinary people who occupied and remember those structures and spaces. It also invites the viewer, who may have participated in or witnessed the national project of building the UAE, to contribute to the evolving archive initiated with the exhibition.

The manner of exhibiting the research material incites other fundamental questions such as how readily can the viewer accesses the content?  How does the display mode and installation design communicate meaning and encourage interpretation?  Like the buildings typically hidden behind privacy and boundary walls in the UAE, the archive is only visible after one walks behind the exterior walls of the installation.

The exhibition design simultaneously reveals what it conceals.  This subtle transformative experience signals that the exhibition is interactive, inviting the audience to explore and engage with the content.  At first glance nothing is displayed, but rather stored in closed drawers.  When the curious viewer opens the drawers content is shared. By pulling open the drawers of the archive one may turn album pages, flip through sheets of renderings, peer at contact sheets or put on headphones to listen to documentary films.

The exhibition encourages physical engagement with the research material.  This sense of discovery is heightened by the fact that nearly everything in the archive is on view for the first time.

Since the debut of the National Pavilion UAE at the Venice Architecture Biennale we have received feedback that viewers were surprised by the restrained exhibition aesthetic (an interpretation of areesh palm frond woven in twine).  Viewers noted the scale of collaboration by Emirati and international people, the poignant personal memories of buildings no longer standing, and the emphasis on obscure architecture of the modern period. This underscored the close relationships that the founding leaders of the UAE had with the architects and engineers who designed the modern nation.

For more images of the UAE National Pavilion, please click here.



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