Saving the world, one saltflat at a time

The National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates’ upcoming exhibition for the Venice Biennale of Architecture – which opens 22 May and runs to 21 November – will feature a large structure built from an innovative, environmentally friendly cement made from salt (it’s based on waste brine recycled from industrial desalination).

Curated by Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis under the overall theme How Will We Live Together?, the 2020 Biennale will look at architecture’s ability to engage people and communities across increasing social, economic, political and digital divides.

The construction for the UAE National Pavilion, in an exhibit titled Wetland, is a decent size: 2.7m tall with a 7 x 5m base. The walls are pretty thick but the interior space is around the size of an average room, 2.5 x 5m. It’s made from around three thousand coral-branch-like modules, hand-cast from a brine-based cement.

The aim is to demonstrate a viable structure that qualifies as ‘future vernacular’ architecture using a building material that does not have the critical environmental burden of conventional Portland cement. Currently conventional cement and concrete accounts for around 7-8 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

Salt in the form of excess brine from desalination is a material that the UAE has in abundance – there are around 70 desalination plants around our coastline. We’ve maintained a focus on a localised architectural practice deeply intertwined with the resources and environment of the Gulf”, said the architect/curators, Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto of the Dubai/Tokyo based design studio waiwai.

“The cement is based on magnesium oxide made from brine leftover during industrial desalination … It has the strength and durability to be used in modern architecture in standard brick shapes, but for this exhibition, we have been inspired by the UAE’s traditional vernacular architecture of coral houses, to hand-cast modules in organic, coral-inspired shapes.

“In this way we are reimagining modern architectural processes and retaining a strong, poetic sense of the region’s identity and culture within the structure.”

Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto worked with researchers from NYU Abu Dhabi, the American University of Sharjah, and the University of Tokyo to develop the chemistry of the cement and the advanced digital engineering technology needed to work with it.

The basic work was done largely at NYUAD’s Advanced Materials and Building Efficiency Research (AMBER) Laboratory. It’s long been known that MgO, a mineral found in salt deposits, could be incorporated into building materials as a type of cement. It’s already widely used as a heat-resistant material, and more recently has been formed into lightweight wallboards – but has not usually been specified for load-bearing components.

The AMBER team has been able to synthesise the magnesium oxide in brine into a cement-like substance that can be as strong and adaptable as ordinary concrete. Not only does the process require much less heat than making ordinary cement, the magnesium oxide cement absorbs carbon dioxide over time to gain strength – so potentially it could be a carbon-negative building material.

Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto have said that their work with the National Pavilion UAE “provided us with the resources to experiment with this vision through a collaborative process, enabling us to develop a proof of concept showing that locally-sourced salt-based cement is a viable, scalable alternative” – and hopefully a good-looking one too, with a sense of place and at the same time a chance to contribute to saving the world. What more could you ask?

Early experimental versions of the prototype and accompanying workthroughs are on display at the Wetland research lab in Alserkal Avenue’s warehouse 50 throughout May. The space is occupied by sabkha samples, research examples and the first two test models.

At the National Pavilion UAE in Venice, the prototype will be displayed with 4.5 x 3m photographs of the Al Ruwais sabkha (salt flats) taken by the New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi. Her images aim to capture the tension between urbanisation and nature in the salt flats: she describes the scenery of the sabkha sites as a “moment of conflict and resolution … On and below the earth, the sabkha is a serene living environment with many layers of water, sand, salt and micro-organisms which have evolved in harmony to create a delicate ecological system that absorbs more carbon per square meter than the rainforest. But directly above this natural phenomenon are high-tension voltage cables running to massive industrial facilities nearby, emitting an ear-splitting electrical buzz”.

The exhibition also includes a three-minute soundtrack capturing the ecological story of the sabkhas with water moving underground, the desalination process that creates brine and the exhibition’s research journey.

We’re told the whole thing will also be available online. There’s also an accompanying publication, The Anatomy of Sabkhas, written by urban researchers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib and co-edited by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto; Wael Al Awar is also participating in the Curators’ Collective, a collaboration between curators of many of the national pavilions at the 2021 Biennale.

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