26 November 2014
Last summer I spent six weeks in Bahrain for an internship and during that period I had the opportunity to discover the architectural beauties of this small island in the Arabian Gulf, which include historical buildings as well as very modern ones. For this reason, while I was walking through the Arsenale, I was particularly eager to visit the Bahraini pavilion wondering if I would have found there reproductions of those buildings that I had seen with my own eyes. This is an account of what I found there, through a description of the pavilion, its structure and its ultimate goal.
The name of the Bahraini pavilion is “Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms”, a name which immediately recalls the general title of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition chosen by its director, Rem Koolhaas, that is “Fundamentals- Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014”. As all the other pavilions, Bahrain accepted the invitation of the director and followed the evolution of its national architecture along the last century. However, in spite of collecting and supplying information only about its own architectural identity, this country realized a very ambitious project, describing the last 100 years of architecture across the whole Arab world. As a student of Arabic, I found this choice very interesting and therefore I spent plenty of time contemplating the pavilion.
Its curators are two architects, George Arbid and Bernard Khoury, who worked in collaboration with The Arab Center for Architecture, based in Beirut, with the aim of creating the right pavilion for this work conceived as a survey of architecture built across the Arab world over the past century. The installation consists in a vast circular table, onto which a map of the Arab region has been printed. In this map, the curators located 100 buildings, one for each year, which are accompanied by a flag representing the nationality of the architect who realized them. The map is surrounded by a narration of the key socio-political events that the region witnessed during the last century: a story that is further described by a first-person account which is read loudly in Arabic and translated into English in headphones. Therefore, visitors who do not speak Arabic are in a certain way forced to take a seat and spend time in the pavilion in order to fully understand the meaning of the speaker’s words. Moreover, above the installation, there is a dome with projections of a commissioned screenplay by Studio Safar which consists of a reading of the 22 national anthems of the Arab countries.
On the shelves of this huge bookcase, the curators put 40000 copies of a book called “Architecture from the Arab World 1914-2014 (a Selection)” that visitors can take away for free. This is the catalogue of the exhibition and it is a very integral part of the pavilion itself. In this book, in fact, there are the pictures of the 100 buildings selected by the curators among the 22 Arab countries to tell the story of Arab architecture during the last century, the same buildings that have been located on the map. Moreover, a collection of seven different essays form the scientific content of the exhibition and follow the historical evolution of architecture within the different geographical areas of the Arab World, divided in this book into Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, the Levant, North Africa and East Africa.
Leafing through this book, I particularly focused my attention on the buildings selected from Bahrain and from the United Arab Emirates. There are four Bahraini buildings in this book and they are used to represent three different stages in the country’s architectural development. The first, Seyadi Majlis (1914-1920), stands for the vernacular architecture, the buildings of which were built with the resources which were immediately available, such as coral stones, bamboo mats and shells. The National Museum of Bahrain (1982-1988) and the Ministry of Justice and Social Affairs (1986-1989) are expression of the modernist project which began in the country after the discovery of oil and finally Dar Al Riffa Al Odah (2014) represents the new and progressive architecture, born from the negotiation between modernity and local traditions, question that has never been fully resolved in Bahrain. The curators chose 4 Emirati buildings as well. These buildings are Bayt Burj al-Riyah (1920), the First National City Bank (1964-1967), Kindergarten Prototypes (1973-1975) and Masdar Institute (2010). I was really surprised to find out that this pavilion and our pavilion (the UAE pavilion) agree in a certain way in the choice of the stages which paved the way to the architectural development in the UAE. In the UAE pavilion, the narration of the architectural development in the country passes through 4 distinctive phases, which are expression of a very specific kind of architecture:
1914 – 1949 – Vernacular Architecture
1950-1970 – Infrastructure and Urban Development
1971-1994 – Structures of Modernity
1995-2014 – Retrospective and Innovative Architecture aimed at preserving modern heritage buildings and planning for a sustainable future.
By sheer coincidence, if you check the dates of the four Emirati buildings selected by the Bahraini pavilion, there is actually one example for each of the four periods of UAE pavilion’s narration.
Apart from these personal considerations,the Bahraini pavilion’s ultimate goal was the creation of an index of architecture for the entire Arab world, to reflect on pan-Arabic heritage as well as on what remains of the pan-Arabic project at a time when the whole region is going through major changes. The survey had at the same time as aim the description of the common conditions that shaped the architecture of many of the Arab countries: the influence of colonial rule, the impact of the discovery of oil and gas, architectures once specific and local which have become interchangeable and global, national identity which seems to have been sacrificed to modernity and the environmental challenges that Arab countries have recently begun to address with varying degrees of commitment.The political uprisings that the region is now experiencing also form an important point of commonality. In this particular moment in which everything in the region seems in flux, according to this pavilion’s curators, establishing a conversation about shared experience and identity could not be more timely and could at the same time possibly represent a way out from this critic period.