Saudi Arabia’s first-ever exhibition at the Venice Biennale will offer space to think about the future

Updated 17 March 2018
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Saudi Arabia’s first-ever exhibition at the Venice Biennale will offer space to think about the future

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Venice Biennale, in both its art and architecture sections, has long been a dream of many people working in creative fields.
The dream will begin to come true this year, when the Kingdom officially hosts a pavilion at the The Biennale Architettura’s 16th International Architecture Exhibition, alongside countries from around the world. It is being organized by MiSK Foundation, through a project that highlights the experiences and expertise of young Saudi men and women. In addition to shouldering the huge responsibility of presenting the country’s first exhibition at the global event, the participants will share a vision for the future of urban development in the country.
The Saudi national pavilion will interpret the overall theme of this year’s event, Freespace, through a project called Separated Spaces. It is being coordinated by architectural researcher Jawaher Al-Sudairy, and the dean of Faculty of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University, Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman. Brothers Turki and Abdulrahman Gazzaz, the founders of architectural-design consultants Brick Lab, will examine in an exhibition the social effects of architecture.
The main idea behind the Saudi pavilion is that empty spaces create many opportunities, since they attract passers-by, visitors and tenants, and provide them with many options. The investment in and rapid development of free spaces has led to the growth of residential suburbs surrounding cities. This makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the border of a city and the surrounding areas.
Al-Sudairy, the exhibition’s coordinator, told Asharq Al-Awsat, a sister publication of Arab News, that the Biennale theme of Freespace has many layers.
“Our interpretation and vision of the theme is all about exploring the idea of urban expansion we are witnessing in our cities, as a result of the population growth in Saudi cities causing the fragmentation of some parts of society,” she said. “The pavilion will explore the separated spaces and address the idea of containment”.
The official announcement of the pavilion emphasizes this and points out that urban centers in Saudi Arabia have experienced rapid modernization during the past four decades, while rural migration has led to the development of pockets of suburban residential areas. This has created disconnected neighborhoods in which residents rely on cars for transportation. As a result of this fragmentation, more than 40 percent of land in the expanding city remains vacant. These empty spaces separating isolated residential areas undermine social ties and exhaust natural resources, leading to the creation of so-called social bubbles.
The Gazzaz brothers will present in the pavilion a vision that explores the social effects of this urban architecture. They aim to have visitors explore changing Saudi cities and urban architecture, in addition to the effects of this urban expansion. The exhibition will feature interconnected units in the form of cylinders of different sizes, representing the idea of the space between these separated spaces, and themes such as empty lands, urban expansion, isolation and social integration. The cylinders will be made from resin to shed light on oil being the element that has encouraged and fueled the rapid urban expansion and modernization in the Kingdom.
“We will be using sand from different regions along with resin, which is semi-plastic,” said the brothers. “These materials cut short the spaces between cities in the Kingdom and reflect the economic state of the country.”
The exhibition will also highlight the relationship between space and architecture, and explore the possibility of creating greater interaction by rethinking designs and adopting different styles. Displayed structures will range from roads and public places to flexible spaces that unleash their inherent potential.
“This project is very exciting for us and we were very happy when we won the competition that determined which project will be representing Saudi Arabia in the Biennale,” the Gazzaz brothers told Asharq Al-Awsat. “We are also very happy for the opportunity to work with the coordinators, Jawaher Al-Sudairy and Sumayah Al-Solaiman, and the rest of the team. It is a very important project shedding light on Saudi Arabia in its current state, and we love that we are part of it.”
They added that an important aspect of the project for them is “the interaction with the audience and conveying a picture of the state of urban spaces in three Saudi cities: Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. We try to present the concept through infographics, along with using spatial spaces through which visitors will pass.”
The description of the exhibition begs the question of whether it will compare the past and present of the cities.
“The work relies on the narrative of how these cities were and how they are nowadays,” said the brothers. “The project is vast and includes many different layers of information in addition to the experience. History is one of the elements, along with the effect social media has had on communities in Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Solaiman added: “The Kingdom’s first participation [in the Biennale], under the title Separated Spaces, focuses on the social aspect of architecture and urbanization since they have an important effect on people’s lives, through helping or setting obstacles in the face of the best social relations, to provide people with a better well-being”.
She also said that the interconnected exhibition could be considered “a gesture to educate society and unite it in re-imagining our cities, providing a space for dialogue to make the quality of life better in Saudi cities through architecture and urbanization.”
The Biennale Architettura 2018: 16th International Architecture Exhibition will take place in Venice from May 26 to November 25 2018.


One woman’s quest for a driving license in Saudi Arabia

Updated 5 min 8 sec ago
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One woman’s quest for a driving license in Saudi Arabia

  • One year after women were allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, the ranks of aspiring female drivers just keep swelling
  • Women could begin to think of driving in Saudi Arabia only since Sept. 26, 2017, when a landmark royal decree was issued

RIYADH: No sooner had the royal decree of Sept. 26, 2017 lifting the ban on women driving been issued than excitement filled Saudi Arabia. Women began to gear up for the big day when they would get behind the wheel without breaking the law.
I remember waking up my two young sons on the day the decree was announced with the words: “Well, gentlemen. It looks like I’ll be getting to drive before you both.” They looked at once stunned and delighted.
The royal decree took effect on June 24, 2018. It has been one year since women in Saudi Arabia were first allowed to drive, and the ranks of aspiring female drivers just keep swelling.
I had been hearing horror stories about the Saudi Driving School (SDS), located in Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, so I decided to put on my journalist hat and find out the truth. What I saw was somewhat different.
On May 23, I signed up for the driving placement exam, which allows women with prior driving experience to skip the mandatory 30 hours of lessons and settle for 12 or 6 hours, depending on an evaluation by a driving examiner.
I had my exam scheduled a full month later, but I had heard of exceptions being made, so I asked the officer concerned to set up an earlier appointment. My request was considered: I was evaluated in two weeks’ time and advised to take 12 hours of driving lessons.
Men in Saudi Arabia know from birth they will be able to drive on the Kingdom’s roads one day. Women, on the other hand, could afford to think likewise only since 2017. The goal of the SDS, according to its operations supervisor, Aseel Al-Saleh, is to “give women the confidence to overcome the fear of being on the road.”
She added: “When you take the final exam, wear your seat belt, say Bismillah and drive as you would do on the streets and not as if it were an exam you have to pass. No examiner will fail you if you succeed. Our pass rate is 90 percent.”
Although it opened its doors only a year ago, the SDS has already issued 40,000 driving licenses. After complaints of long waiting periods, the administrative process has been streamlined. With the staff working 12-hour shifts six days a week, help and guidance are always at hand for Riyadh’s aspiring female drivers. “Our motto is to teach them how to drive safely,” said Nora Al-Dossary, supervisor of marketing and PR at SDS.
For mothers with little children, the SDS has a high-quality nursery with a playground and a toy driving track. Kids can spend time there learning about road safety and getting their own “driving license” while their mothers finish their lessons.
Amira Al-Maliky, a lecturer coordinator, recounts the case of an elderly man who came to the office gates to tell her he had one daughter and a son who was in jail. If the daughter could drive, life would be different for him and his family. Al-Maliky said seeing the young woman’s learning process through to the end became a personal mission for her.
“The joy we get from helping people is what keeps us going,” she said. “We are trying our best to help all female applicants gain the confidence and the skill to take to the country’s roads.”
Of course some customers don’t have grumbles. Some applicants express frustration that they have to take lessons even after a full year of practice. Also, as Al-Dossary said, there are applicants who express surprise they have to take the full 30, or 12, hours of lessons despite having driven for a year without a license - and without “following the rules of safe and correct driving.”
At the same time, “the SDS recognizes unique Saudi talents and we are proud to have them as part of our school,” she said. She was referring to two instructors who have taken part in international racing. One of them, Jawaher AlZamil, who is now an examiner, was a rally racer who competed in the VMAX race in London last March. “My dream is to see Saudi women in the highest of positions” Al-Zamil said.
On June 20, I passed my theory exam. Now I am looking forward to the practical lessons, clearing the tests and joining the growing ranks of Saudi women who have a license to drive.