Technology vs context in sustainable architecture: SAT 2023 sets its title and theme

Regional market at Dandaji, Niger, by atelier masōmī

Next year’s Sharjah Architecture Triennial will bear the title The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability. This theme refers to the culture of re-use, re-appropriation, innovation, collaboration and adaptation in the Global South, created by issues of scarcity and poverty.

As the press release puts it, the Triennial “will explore how we can reorient global conversations to create a more sustainable, resilient and equitable future”.

That sounds worthy enough, but it’s clearly a realistic response to contemporary issues and should be a useful corrective to the prevailing obsession with technology as the solution to sustainability in contemporary architecture. The Triennial argues that the distinctive architectural practices of the Global South typically respond directly to culture, place and climate, and use methods and solutions shaped by the rhythms of everyday life, climate and material availability.

This approaches celebrates the use of natural and local materials, with traditional designs that respond to place and local constraints. At the same time it recognises that nothing can be permanent, that everything in our environment should be able to adapt to realities and needs. And we like the implication in the title that the results can be aesthetically pleasing too.

So SAT’s curator, Tosin Oshinowo (right), is prioritising vernacular over academic architecture, though aa recent Wallpaper* interview qualified that: “The Triennial will explore how we can create meaningful spaces that speak to their local environments and will highlight the contextual architects that are currently doing so. I use the word contextual instead of vernacular as I feel society has made vernacular seem primitive and non-Western architecture is far from that.”

She added: “The more affluent in the Global South are still emulating the Western world and this is something we need to pause. This context that we are trying to copy isn’t appropriate for our own. While the world is gradually beginning to acknowledge that there is no real hierarchy in design, the architecture of Africa and the rest of the non-western world still needs to be championed more globally. This is what I hope to achieve through the triennial.”

Basically that’s a very different direction of travel to architecture in the global North, which typically has the luxuries of time and resources (including advanced technologies and moneyed clients) to play with concepts like place-making and manipulation of volumes.

It’s also a practical way to pivot around Sharjah’s special circumstances, one of the central tenets of the Triennial (“physically anchored in Sharjah and the United Arab Emirates, SAT aims to engage diverse audiences and stakeholders in a collective conversation on architecture at the neighbourhood, city, and regional levels”).

Tosin Oshinowo points to “the natural extreme climate conditions and … the overwhelming presence of impermanence in civic status” to justify Sharjah’s relevance to the theme: “a study of Sharjah provides the foundation to explore approaches to architecture that prioritise an understanding of impermanence, an embrace of the inevitability of scarcity, and a psychology of the collective that is essential for our shared future globally.” Certainly Sharjah, like all the UAE cities, has developed quickly (too quickly?) from a coastal village into a conglomerate largely defined by 70s thinking about cities, and latterly that has prompted a rethink of priorities and a welcome focus on urban planning.

Oshinowo’s formal curatorial statement promises to explore “design solutions built from conditions of scarcity and how these illuminate a pathway forward to reorient our conversation on sustainability … Whereas the current global perspective on sustainability relies on technical innovation, this new perspective prioritises contextual solutions, resource sharing and waste reuse.

“We will showcase examples of work that are based on a more foundational notion of regeneration and renewal that underscores an understanding of circularity that has been with us for generations. We will explore techniques that are ingenious, embracing the idea that everything is impermanent and subject to evolution and repair, and that work with nature rather than against it.”

Oshinowo has put together an impressive curatorial advisory board to inform her curatorial vision for 2023. As well as Sharjah Art Foundation’s Hoor Al Qasimi, who is president of Sharjah Architecture Triennial, the board includes …

  • Curator, writer and cultural advisor Beatrice Galilee, the first curator of contemporary architecture and design at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and these days co-founder and executive director of a new platform for architecture and design discourse, The World Around, that is in residence at the Guggenheim New York
  • Mariam Kamara of architecture and research firm atelier masōmī in Niger. She is a 2019 Laureate of the Prince Claus Award and the New York Times has named her as one of 15 Creative Women of Our Time.
  • Rahul Mehrotra, founder of architecture firm RMA Architects of Mumbai and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has written and lectured extensively on issues to do with architecture, conservation and urban planning and design in India (and Mumbai in particular).
  • British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, whose interdisciplinary practice uses citations of Western art history and literature to question the validity of contemporary cultural and national identities within the context of globalisation.
  • Brazilian architect and urbanist Paulo Tavares, co-curator of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. His practice sits between architecture, visual cultures and advocacy and typically questions the colonial legacies of modernity.

Sharjah Architectural Triennial is scheduled to open in November 2023.

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