Marking its first appearance at the Venice Biennale, Saudi Arabia’s first ever pavilion, entitled ‘Spaces in Between’, will be located in a large exhibition space within the Venetian Arsenal – the most prominent building of the exhibition. Alongside other regional countries, including Lebanon and Pakistan, the Saudi pavilion will explore new possibilities for the utilisation of “liminal spaces to increase socialisation and community building within Saudi’s rapidly expanding cities.”
According to a statement release by the Misk Art Institute, which is organising the pavilion, Saudi metropolitan centres have undergone rapid urbanisation, with rural migration propelling built territories outwards. This settlement-driven growth has produced disjointed, mono-functional, car-dependent neighbourhoods connected by highways.
The statements added that this condition has led to 40 percent of city land to lay vacant with wide distances between residential enclaves “eroding social ties and depleting natural resources.” The pavilion will further emphasis the role architects have in reckoning this fragmented urbanisation, and steer development inward with empty lots repurposed into convivial public spaces that encourage social interaction.
The selected Saudi architects include Bricklab’s Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, who will represent the younger generation of architects currently emerging from Saudi Arabia. They will be supervised by a panel of judges in addition to the pavilion’s curators: Dr Sumaya Al-Solaiman and Jawaher Al Sudairy.
“The exhibition will explore the social implications of architects,” said Al Sudairy. “[The architects] are using this opportunity to examine the relationship between space and architecture – hoping to engage visitors in the potential of creating interaction through redesign.”
Materialising the response to the biennale’s theme as well as the outcome of the research for the pavilion, the Gazzaz brothers opted to examine the social implications of architecture. Visitors are invited to explore urban and architectural settings of Saudi cities through vignettes that engage them on the impact of space and design.
The pavilion is divided into three unequal parts: first, the entrance that intrigues and allows a moment of rest and orientation; second, the central installation of interconnected cylindrical spaces which narrates the story; and third, the forum area – a place of consolidation and reflection.
The entrance is intended to welcome visitors and allow passers-by to find a place to sit and rest, as well as collect information on the pavilion. The entrance does not allow a full view of the interior of the installation, encouraging them to enter and explore.
The central portion of the pavilion consists of interconnected cylinder-shaped modules of ranging size. Each module is dedicated to a component of the overarching theme, ‘Spaces in Between’, such as vacancy, sprawl, isolation and inclusion.
According to a brief released by the architects, the cylinders are constructed using resin, which was chosen to highlight petroleum as a component of sprawl, considering the extent to which petroleum has propelled urbanisation in Saudi Arabia as well as shaped the form of cities and architecture in the country. In each of these spaces, information is presented as maps, soundscapes and projections of images and videos that bring visitors closer to understanding urban life in Saudi Arabia.
The final portion of the pavilion, the ‘forum’, allows for a variety of social uses. Its openness encourages interaction and movement. And the scattered seating in the centre is intended to permit visitors to rearrange them and use them to create social groupings. The seating is framed by two wall projections showing images that complement the themes in the central installation, exploring social spaces and the contrast between city centre, and hinterland.
“Similar to our cities, the Saudi pavilion has a centre and periphery,” the brief reads. “The core expands as a series of cylindrical spaces that are interconnected, while leaving space all around it. The core becomes a marvel from within and without. These circular spaces symbolise different social groups in their sizes, connections and their limited accessibility. As the narrative unfolds we encourage visitors to reflect on similarities and differences of the global phenomenon of urban sprawl and its effects on the lives of people.”
According to Ahmed Mater, the executive director of the Misk Art Institute, the pavilion is an “unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community.”
“It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi though to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” he added. “Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the biennale, but also, we are looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw upon from our own community.”