How to build a future

Sharjah Architecture Triennial has put some detail on to its inaugural edition, curated by Adrian Lahoud from the RCA and running from 9 November 2019 to 8 February 2020 under the label Rights of Future Generations.

That title suggests a goal of rethinking “fundamental questions about architecture and its power to create and sustain alternative modes of existence … Arising from the conviction that architecture can address climate change by emancipating itself from entrenched forms of hegemony and extractivism, Rights of Future Generations is an invitation to identify and question unspoken assumptions on which design has been based for so long”.

That’s exactly the kind of wide-scale thinking that you want from a Triennial (alongside the legacy-building for professional status that will hopefully be left in the region).

Triennial curator Adrian Lahoud: “we must move away from the extractive and exploitative models that dominate architectural practice”

The Triennial’s four-day opening programme – 9 to 12 November, coinciding with the start of Dubai Design Week – consists of a number of events, free and open to the public, including performances, talks, and screenings by Triennial participants and invitees.

We’ll look at what we see as the Triennial’s highlights in a future issue of magpie. But a couple of key background notes are worth commending now.

Structure

For one, the main exhibition venues will be two recently decommissioned public buildings. Both venues – the former Al-Qasimiyah School (top) and the old Al Jubail Vegetable Market (below) – are classic examples of 1970/80s modernism in the UAE.

The repurposed premises obviously fit with the Triennial’s broader commitment to adaptive reuse. The refurb was done by SpaceContinuum, the research-based design studio set up by Mona El Mousfy to focus on cultural and social spaces and dwellings. She is advisor to the Triennial and has also served as the Architecture Consultant for the Sharjah Art Foundation since 2005 (she designed the elegantly understated and brilliantly functional Sharjah Art Spaces development for SAF in Al Mujeirah Square).

El Mousfy summarised the thinking behind the reuse of existing structures like the school and the market: “We believe that thoughtful adaptive reuse of culturally valuable buildings supports the re-evaluation and transformation of architecture.” It’s not just the environmental value of this approach, it’s the way it can provide a coherent pathway through heritage: it “creates a layered architecture in continuous dialogue, building upon the city’s history and memories while responding to contemporary uses and evolving aspirations”.

The Al-Qasimiyah School is based on the elementary school prototype designed by the engineering consultancy Khatib and Alami in the mid-1970s, one of 26 such schools distributed across the Emirates. Renovation and repurposing will provide the Triennial’s permanent headquarters along with a library, café, and exhibition spaces.

The old Vegetable Market, adjacent to the Al Jubail bus station, was designed by Halcrow Group, a British engineering consultancy that was a significant player in the modernisation of the UAE’s civil infrastructure at the time. As part of Sharjah’s old Jubail Souk complex, the location and function of the market – built in the early 1980s – helps the Triennial to relate to Sharjah’s long history as a trade hub with a vibrant, multi-ethnic landscape.

Purpose

What looks like the more functional aspect of the Triennial is the Rights of Future Generations Working Group, described as “a forum for policymaking and advocacy whose mission is to secure a better world for future generations … It aims to address the fundamental risks of environmental degradation, poverty, inequality, and political, racial and gender discrimination”. So no pressure then …

The Group will hold its first policy day on 12 November at Sharjah’s Africa Hall, and like all the Triennial’s opening events this will be free and open to the public. There will be a series of speeches and/or lectures from big names, though not all are without qualification – like Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil until she lost her impeachment trial in 2016 (for graft and more in relation to Brazil’s major oil company, Petrobras: true, her accusers had obviously dodgy political motives, but her defence wasn’t great).

Roussel will deliver a lecture on the politics of climate change, global justice, and development. She does have some credits in this world, not least because her most notable achievement in office is probably the Luz para Todos (Electricity for All) programme from ten years ago. That was designed to bring mains power to around 4.6 million rural households in Brazil and was implemented during her pre-Presidential days in charge of the energy ministry.

Less contentious will be the presence of María Fernanda Espinosa (President of the United Nations General Assembly, poet and essayist, knowledgeable on ecology). She’ll be speaking on the UN’s failed efforts to address climate change through multilateral action, which is undoubtedly one of the key international issue of our times.

But it’s not just the starry speakers who deserve the attention. Working throughout the Triennial, the Working Group aims to develop a charter on the rights of future generations. It doesn’t exist yet, of course, but it already has a sonorous title: the Sharjah Charter.

The group is chaired by Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese diplomat who was the chief negotiator for the G77 group of developing nations at the much-criticised UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen. At that time he was vocal in his condemnation of Western nations choosing an overly soft approach to climate change, “ advancing the interests of the developed countries at the expense of the balance of obligations between developed and developing countries”.

Lumumba Di-Aping at the UN Climate Change Conference 2009, Copenhagen. “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact,” he said

He has already been sharing platforms with Adrian Lahoud, the Triennial’s curator, on the impact of climate change especially on non-emergent poor countries of the South.

This is the key issue of the Triennial. As Lahoud put it a few weeks ago,“ I believe that architecture as a practice holds a key role in addressing climate change … In order to leverage this potential, we must move away from the extractive and exploitative models that dominate architectural practice. We are at a point of ecological collapse and one fact must not be ignored: that the sites, regions and populations most immediately and irreversibly threatened by climate change are the same ones that face regimes of global socio-economic extraction and exploitation”.

Architecture as the bottom-up approach to saving the world? If some detail on that is the core of the project, the Sharjah Charter will deserve all the plaudits it can get.

The Sharjah Architecture Triennial runs 9 November to 8 February. Details here.

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