Faysal Tabbarah to curate UAE pavilion at 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale

Faysal Tabbarah’s A Softly Winded Chair

Faysal Tabbarah, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Architecture at the American University of Sharjah, has been named by National Pavilion UAE as the curator for the UAE’s participation in the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2023.

The 2023 Biennale Architettura has the theme The Laboratory of the Future and is being curated by the Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic, educator and novelist Lesley Lokko.

Tabbarah was selected following the National Pavilion UAE’s open call for proposals. Applicants were tasked with “exploring an intriguing aspect of the UAE’s architecture or built environment that contributes to the discourse around architectural practice locally, regionally, and internationally”.

Alongside his day job at AUS, Tabbarah (right) is also the co-founder (with Nada Taryam and Khawla Al Hashimi) of Architecture + Other Things (A+OT), an experimental architecture and design studio in Sharjah. He describes his teaching, research and practice as interrogating “the relationships between regional environmental and architectural imaginaries” – how people bring their natural surroundings to bear on how they understand and shape their world – “to develop alternative building practices that are rooted in their surrounding material and cultural environments”.

That doesn’t imply a slavish obsession with tradition; elsewhere he’s said that Arabic architecture today should “critically asses the contemporary Middle Eastern condition, embrace contemporary design methodologies, and abandon nostalgia”. And as long ago as 2017 he was talking at Amman Design Week about A+OT’s interest blurring the natural and the synthetic to offer an alternative attitude to design, building and construction in the Anthropocene – almost as a critique of contemporary obsessions with the process-driven technologies of ‘green’ building.

His proposal for the Biennale Architettura, which will be exhibited as research findings in Venice along with an accompanying book, aims to explore the relationship between architecture and arid landscapes in the UAE and reimagine them as spaces of abundance and productivity.

That’s something we’d all hope for, of course, provided it doesn’t detract too much from the natural environment; that tension, combined with the potential contrast between traditional and technological solutions, should make for an interesting exhibit – and given the increasing scarcity of water in the world, one that should feel very timely.

As Tabbarah says: “My approach will rely on integrating technology with land-based materials practices and knowledge found in arid landscapes in the UAE … Aridity is a fast-approaching future condition for many regions, and through this exhibition, we’ll explore their potential as spaces of abundance and productivity.”

This looks like an extension of an ongoing A+OT research project titled Other Environmentalisms which “integrates environmental history methodologies and material research to generate architectural conditions that exhibit alternative attitudes to making and assembly to mainstream sustainable architectural production … The goal of this research is to challenge deterministic ideas about the MENA natural environment which limit architectural discourse and production in the MENA”.

A farm in the Hajar Mountains. Photo: Faysal Tabbarah

Angela Migally, Executive Director at the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, summarised the National Pavilion UAE programme (which the Foundation runs) as “showcasing the best of the UAE’s art and architecture practices through sharing curated stories at one of the most important global stages in the world, La Biennale di Venezia” and said “the Pavilion has been a platform for thought-provoking research and exhibitions … We look forward to exploring the outcome of Tabbarah’s project, that addresses timely real-life challenges we see echoed around the world today”.

The exhibition will actually be Tabbarah’s second participation in the Biennale Architettura; he has previously collaborated with the Kuwait Pavilion’s curators for their Space Wars presentation in 2021. A+OT’s recently completed projects include Water in the Green, the winning entry for the Sabeel Water Fountains competition at Expo 2020, and the Abwab pavilions for the 2018 Dubai Design Week (which investigated the potential second life of fallen branches, coated in recycled and dyed paper pulp to provide structural armatures that can be composted or recycled after use).

The National Pavilion UAE will present its exhibition for the 18th Biennale Architettura from 20 May to 26 November 2023. This will be its fifth participation in the International Architecture Exhibition, and last time out the National Pavilion UAE won the Golden Lion award for the best National Participation for its exhibition Wetland.

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