Living with aridity, and what we can learn from it

The National Pavilion UAE has detailed its participation at the upcoming 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture. Curator Faysal Tabbarah has put together an exhibition with the title Aridly Abundant; it suggests that arid environments can be transformed into spaces of ‘abundance’, specifically by integrating land-based practices in architecture with modern technology.

This looks like a very pertinent response to the Biennale Architettura’s theme, ‘The Laboratory of the Future’. That was defined by its curator, the Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic, educator and best-selling novelist Lesley Lokko. As she put it, “architects have a unique opportunity to put forward ambitious and creative ideas that help us imagine a more equitable and optimistic future in common”.

Already nearly a third of the earth’s land surface is defined as arid or semi-arid.Climate change means that water will become increasingly scarce, droughts will become increasingly common, and desertification will spread. But people have been living in arid environments for years, and they frequently do so in buildings that draw from and engage with what to outside eyes might look like an unpromising set of conditions.

That seems to provide a starting point for Aridly Abundant. The exhibition will transform the pavilion’s space at the Biennale Architettura “with all the spatial, material, and tactical qualities of arid environments”, and so create the backdrop for architectural elements that are suited to such contexts – now and in the future.

In fact Faysal Tabbarah (right) says the overarching question he’s exploring through the exhibition is basically a change of mindset: “what architectural possibilities can emerge when we reimagine arid landscapes as spaces of abundance?” So the exhibition aims to challenge the perception of arid environments as spaces of scarcity and sparse possibilities, and it will do so by pointing to ongoing practices in arid lands that question the mainstream use of mainstream materials. In particular, of course, it will explore architectural possibilities from within the UAE’s own arid landscapes – desert plateaus, coastal plains, and wadis of the Al Hajar mountains.

The three main areas of research are …

  • Building in aridity – uncovering arid lands-based practices and exploring how the intersection with contemporary technologies can produce resilient context-specific built environments that adapt and react to the challenges imposed by surrounding aridity.
  • Building with aridity – rethinking extractive material practices and exploring materials available within arid landscapes that can be used to construct environmentally sustainable and culturally rooted built environments
  • Building for aridity – recognising that desertification and aridity will be a future global condition, and seeking resources, conditions and knowledge from existing arid landscapes that can provide critical lessons for regions that have to confront aridity.

Laila Binbrek, Director of the National Pavilion UAE, hopes that the exhibition will deliver ideas and pointers that other regions will be able to use when they have to face up to an increasingly arid future. “Tabbarah’s research will shine a light on the UAE’s ancient and modern practices in dealing with conditions which are inherent to our culture. By asking the right questions, Tabbarah encourages necessary dialogue to deepen our understanding of this topic.”

The 18th International Architecture Exhibition, titled The Laboratory of the Future, runs from 20 May to 26 November 2023 (with pre-opening days on 18 and 19 May). The National Pavilion UAE has a permanent space in the Sale d’Armi at the Arsenale; 2023 marks the UAE’s fifth participation in Biennale Architettura.

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