23 October 2014
The exhibition “Lest We Forget. Structures of Memory in the UAE” is a clear response to the theme of the 2014 La Biennale di Venezia proposed by Rem Koolhaas: “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014.” It is an opportunity for a thorough analysis of architectural and urban development in one of the youngest Countries in the world, but also a scenery of some of its most emblematic buildings.
The Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates – that I would like to affectionately call Our Pavilion – therefore proposes four major historical periods: 1914-49 Vernacular Architecture, Infrastructure and Urban Development 1950-70, 1971-94 Structures of Modernity, 1995-2014 Retrospection and Innovation. The fulcrum of the research are the 70s and 80s of the last century, in view of the fact that the independence of the UAE from Great Britain is dated December 1971.
I could describe the wonderful installation in several ways, through numerous comparisons, highlighting its many and labyrinthine facets. The way that comes most natural is to use some adjectives, adjectives that I attach personally to this masterpiece.Not being a student of architecture, you may think that I will never fully understand the great enthusiasm that gave birth to this project, the technical drafts, calculations, measurements, costs and efforts it brings with it: it may be true, actually.But the Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates does not discriminate against anyone, it is welcoming and helpful: it lets you read itself like an open book, as the first item I cherished the very first day of work: a big book elegantly bound, full of photos and comments.
Isn’t this wonderful? Through these photos, everyone – absolutely everyone – can join the project and sneak silently into the lives of those who have given life and form to it. The Pavilion is also smart and straightforward, you can recognize it in a simple manner through all of its complexity: Feelings, feelings that these photos bring with them.
The reflection on modernity, presented for the first time here in Venice, is immediately recognized with a rigorous and elegant installation. Black is the dominant color and provides an effective visual impact of the seriousness and professionalism: without yet being able to take a look at the project itself, it quickly becomes clear the commitment and perseverance of a growing country, always in transformation, that is not afraid of change and is willing to accept the challenge of modernity with its head high, chest out and stomach in.
Under a pergola woven with the thread of hemp once used by Bedouins for their curtains in the desert, the exhibition was developed along two walls facing each other, a summary of the history of the UAE from 1914 to 2014 and, in parallel, the other countries of the world: it is thus very evident graphically the creative and economic surge of the Emirates in the last hundred years and their amazing contribution to the history of architecture.It shows very well the development in the UAE with that of the rest of the world – an explosion of architecture all to open, browse, touch, and imagine.
Under the timeline, the curator has made many drawers that visitors can open at their leisure to discover samples of materials, vintage photos, documents, national history, and even a “relic” curious flask containing the first oil extracted in Dubai; models, drawings, photographs, and oral histories complete the picture.At the helm of the exhibition are the architectural buildings – not the architects – and this is a very important thing: all energies are channeled to fully understand what is contained in those drawers.
The result is a historical and social narrative of the three main cities of the Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, a reality that goes far beyond the iconic architecture known to the general public. The whole is not a conservative, but to draw that relationship with the land and its inhabitants is necessary for sustainable progress, in addition to the mere power of visually appealing skyscrapers. In this regard, indeed, Michele Bambling, curator of the Pavilion of the UAE, stresses the importance of safeguarding the modern heritage:”The contemporary buildings that are being built today are very different from the modern ones on which we focus here. There are people which consider important to preserve the heritage and tradition of the modern, because the two can co-exist side by side.”
Everything is illuminated
During this month, I experienced the Pavilion as an every-day-housewarming party and I got the impression that for many people it was the same. Several times I have had the pleasure to witness visitors sitting in the Pavilion after visiting the exhibition, while others stayed hours scribbling sketches of an inexplicable bizarre dream. I could see that not all visitors who go to the Biennale do it with the same spirit: some, the most passionate,mostly adults,grab everything they see and observe EVERY SINGLE piece of the exhibition with their eyes glittering a sense of satisfaction. Others are attracted by technology, so much that they try to get selfie with our media player (ahh, youth!) and they turn away embarrassed when they are kindly asked not to touch the screen – they would be ashamed for a whilebefore laughing and leaving: they know – in their hearts – they still have to face so many editions of the Biennale before they can truly understand the wonders contained in it;then there are also mini-visitors, kids! Whether exploding volcanoes, quiet butterflies dressed in pink or quarrelsome brothers ready to raze the hall, they feel the inside of the playground and want to know everything that surrounds them. The parents apologize for their sticky little hands on the drawers, and for them instead the pavilion United Arab Emirates is a Pandora’s Box that they do not see to uncover the time, a gingerbread house without evil witches inside.
I think Our Pavilion has been appreciated by anyone who has had a question and has given many the opportunity to find the answer. I think the strength of the structure, its way of being so orderly, so geometric (if I may say so) has transmitted to visitors the calmness and confidence you need to walk in the United Arab Emirates with the assurance to be part of it even if only for half an hour. I think this is a complex project but full of immediacy, and I am sure that all those who have asked me with excitement and happiness for the exhibition catalogue or the link to download the timelines think the same thing.
We have collected great compliments and this could not have happened by chance. It was a pleasure to work here. I feel a little bit sad now, but I hope I would be able to tell everyone how great and powerful Our Pavilion is.