Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

Updated 25 May 2018
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Saudi Venice Biennale debut follows Cannes

  • The Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future
  • Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion

VENICE: In its debut appearance at Italy’s leading architecture fair on Thursday, Saudi Arabia unveiled a sweeping exhibition exploring the country’s progress over the past five decades. 

Holding its own among the 65 national pavilions at the 16th Venice Biennale’s International Architecture Exhibition, the Saudi pavilion illustrated the evolution underway as the country embraces a new era of change, powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the future.

It is the first time the Kingdom has had a presence at the Venice event, which is considered one of the leading forums for international architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe to the city.

At the heart of the display in the Venetian Arsenal — the historic shipyards that house some of the most prominent pavilions at the fair — a set of screens on opposite walls flash clips of Saudi cities showing people wandering along the Jeddah Corniche or drinking coffee at a Bujairy Park cafe in Riyadh.

The reels illustrate the way urban sprawl has unfolded across the Kingdom, where rapid urbanization resulting in settlement-driven growth has skipped over spaces in Saudi cities, leaving vast lots vacant between buildings.

With more than 40 percent of urban land unused, communities are dispersed, creating a sense of fragmentation between neighborhoods connected only by cars.

“The vacant lot is a highly prevalent typology in Saudi cities: anyone passing through them will notice the empty tracts of land everywhere,” said architect Turki Gazzaz, who co-created the pavilion space – which is named “Spaces in Between” — with his brother Abdulrahman Gazzaz.

The duo, who founded Jeddah-based architectural studio Bricklab, beat 70 other entries to secure the commission to create the Kingdom’s first biennale pavilion, which shows the role design can play in restoring the social and structural fabric of Saudi cities.

While outlets for creative expression have previously been limited in the Kingdom, attitudes toward design-led solutions are becoming increasingly favorable. 

“People are becoming more conscious about these critical issues that exist within our urban fabric … this is beginning to spill out into our society and affect it in a positive way,” Abdulrahman said.

Recent reforms rolled out under Vision 2030 have created a channel for creativity to fuel the country’s growth as it looks beyond the oil sector — a turning point highlighted by the pavilion’s use of resin, which is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

This has been mixed with sand — a material that both symbolizes Saudi Arabia and links it to the rest of the world — for the giant curved screens that frame the exhibition.

Inside, projections show digital maps of the Kingdom’s main cities, beginning with aerial perspectives that convey their fragmented growth before moving down to street-level snapshots of everyday life in the city.

These pictures have been drawn from social media and most are taken from cars, the dual axis of urban life for city-dwelling Saudis.

Below, old mobile phones, a walkie-talkie and broken motherboards are showcased beneath a glass panel of fragmented electronics to “create a conversation about consumer culture” and comment on the “virtual public space” that people increasingly congregate in at the expense of public places, said Abdulrahman.

Speaking to Arab News at the launch of the Saudi pavilion in Venice on Thursday, Dhay Al-Dhawyan, project manager at the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs, described the need to “humanize” Saudi cities, something Vision 2030, and the more immediate targets for 2020, are moving toward.

“We want to bring back city centers, walkability, accessibility, connectivity and rework the visual aspects of our cities to make them more lively and functional,” he said.

The overall theme at this year’s biennale is “Freespace,” selected by the Irish curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara to encourage architects to explore how “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity” can contribute to the urban environment.

Tapping into this ethos, the Saudi pavilion curators have compiled a display that blurs the boundaries between development and desert, city border and boundless expanse.

In demographic terms, Saudi cities have always been diverse, but in many cases they lack the infrastructure to encourage interaction, said Jawaher Al-Sudairy, one of the exhibition curators and director of Nahda Center for Research as well as senior program manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

“There are public spaces, but they are under-utilized, so that’s where the conversation should be.”

Communication is the overriding aim for the creators behind the Saudi pavilion, which invites visitors to explore the evolution taking place in Saudi Arabia’s skyline and engage with the social shift underway as the Kingdom steps on to the world stage.

“We’re tackling a global issue here; this is not unique to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sumayah Al-Solaiman, the other half of the female curatorial team at the exhibition.

In keeping with the spirit of the biennale, literature distributed at the Saudi pavilion errs on the side of the aloof and arty, but the experience created by the exhibition is firmly grounded and accessible.

The teams want visitors to identify with the issues raised, which have a global resonance in an era defined by rapid urban growth. “We’re more similar with other nations than we are different … and this is a great way to have a conversation that is not necessarily bound by national boundaries,” said Al-Solaiman, dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University.

“The Venice Biennale is an excellent platform to start a conversation around architecture and how were designing and building, and we want to have this discussion with other architects around the world.”

“Our participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is an unprecedented moment for Saudi Arabia’s creative community. It’s an opportunity to bring pioneering Saudi thought to an international platform through our creative vernacular,” said Ahmed Mater, executive director of the Misk Art Institute, which organized the Saudi pavilion.

“Coupled with the allocation of an incredible pavilion space, we are very excited about our presentation this year at the Biennale Architettura, but are also looking forward to future years and presentations and what they will draw on from our own community.”

For Al-Sudairy, one of the most interesting projects on the horizon is the Riyadh Metro, which she believes will change a lot more than mobility in the capital. “I can’t wait to see how it changes the way people move around … it’s going to transform the city physically and socially.”

The Metro is one of many large-scale projects underway in the Kingdom that aims to bring a sense of cohesion to the country’s urban environments and unite diverse communities.

The Saudi pavilion opens to the public on Saturday, May 26.

 

The Saudi pavilion exhibition ‘Spaces in Between,’ above and top. (Valeria Mariani)


Solar boats and electric buses: Take a ride on the UAE’s eco-friendly transportation

Updated 16 min 25 sec ago
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Solar boats and electric buses: Take a ride on the UAE’s eco-friendly transportation

  • The UAE is starting to power its public transport with renewable energy, setting a sustainable example for the wider Gulf
  • Dubai is home to the first utility-scale solar project in the Middle East

DUBAI: Want to take a trip to the future using eco-friendly transportation? In the UAE, you can enjoy a ride on a solar-powered abra on Dubai Creek, or hop on an electric bus in the capital. 

While Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week is shining a light on big renewable energy projects, some more practical uses are already underway in the UAE, serving as a taster of the ground-breaking initiatives the Gulf is expected to witness as it moves toward a sustainable future.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority has just launched an electric 20-seater water taxi, powered by a 20-kilowatt (kW) motor with solar panels on top. 

It has 87 percent lower emissions than regular abras, with expected operations on Dubai Creek, Jumeirah Beach, the new islands and the Dubai Water Canal. A total of 61 boats are planned by 2020.

Back on the road, work is underway in Dubai on two solar-powered bus shelters as part of a trial for shelters in locations off the electric power grid. 

The solar power generated will be used to operate lights, air-conditioners and billboards.

In Abu Dhabi, Masdar has launched the first electric passenger bus in the region. The Eco-Bus will serve a six-stop route between Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Central Bus Station and Masdar City, with a free service until the end of March. 

Seating 30 passengers, it has a range of 150 km per battery charge, with solar panels used to power its auxiliary systems.

An abra awaits passengers on Dubai Creek. (Getty Images)

With experts predicting that global solar installations will grow steadily in the coming years — by 5.2 percent annually between 2017 and 2022 — the combination of batteries, solar and other renewables is expected to cause a dramatic transformation in the world’s energy markets. Some of this is already trickling down to street level.

“Buses, taxis and other fleet vehicles are driven continuously, contributing more to urban pollution than vehicles of similar engine sizes,” said Stephen King, lecturer in media at Middlesex University Dubai and a UAE-based member of the Climate Reality Project, a non-profit organization involved in education and advocacy related to climate change. 

“Providing electric options for these vehicles is a positive step in improving air quality, which is a key issue (in the Gulf).”

According to the Climate Reality Project, several studies show that electric vehicles are likely to cost the same as, or even less than, regular internal combustion vehicles within the next decade, even without incentives. 

A February 2017 report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found that the unsubsidized total cost of ownership of battery electric vehicles will fall below that of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2022. 

From there, the report projected a steadily increasing rate of adoption, reaching global sales of 41 million — 25 percent of the total market share — by 2040. 

“Solar is quite suitable for meeting small local loads without a grid connection, and electric buses are increasingly popular around the world because their running costs are low compared with internal combustion engines,” said Jenny Chase, head of solar at BNEF. 

“Solar power can take on a role in mostly bulk energy generation in the daytime. Solar photovoltaics (PV) is now one of the lowest-cost generation options in sunny regions, with prices below $25 per megawatt (MW) in sunny areas, where political stability makes the cost of capital low.”

Chase said it is now possible to generate energy without significant carbon dioxide emissions, for close to — or even less than — the cost of generating from fossil fuels. 

“This will be incredibly attractive to utilities and governments. The Middle East (is likely to) build solar power plants for a large chunk of its electricity demand increase in the future, at least until the daytime need is well met,” she said.

“Electric vehicles for public transport are also likely to be used increasingly, possibly lagging adoption in oil-rich countries where the fuel costs are less.” 

Masdar’s electric passenger bus is a first for the Gulf region. (Getty Images)

China, for example, already has 400,000 e-buses. “Some batteries will probably be used for shifting demand to the daytime, and e-vehicles will be encouraged to charge in the daytime,” Chase said. “There will also be some rooftop solar adoption where government policy supports it.”

Saudi Arabia also sees the potential in solar. The Kingdom’s Renewable Energy Project Development Office plans to tender 11 PV power projects, with a combined capacity of 2,225 MW this year. 

The Kingdom’s solar target for 2023 has been increased from 5.9 gigawatts (GW) to 20 GW, and set at 40 GW for 2030. 

Last year, the Saudi Electricity Co. signed a deal with the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Takaoka Toko Co. for the first electric vehicle pilot project in the Kingdom. As part of the agreement, fast-charger stations will charge vehicles in 30 minutes. 

The potential is high. Experts in 2002 tipped that the global solar market would grow 1 GW annually by 2010. The actual growth in 2010 turned out to be 17 times that. 

“The world installed a record 98 GW of solar PV capacity in 2017, far more than the net additions of any other technology — renewable, fossil fuel or nuclear,” King said. 

“Although solar energy technologies have been around for decades, it is only in recent years that installations have really started to take off,” he said. “Falling costs, technological improvements, increased competition and government incentives have been key drivers of this growth.”

Global solar capacity is said to have surpassed 400 GW for the first time in 2017. Although countries such as China, Japan, Germany, the US and India have historically been the largest players, solar growth in coming years is expected to depend increasingly on middle-income countries and emerging markets. 

“Clearly, what was once a niche technology is now firmly in the mainstream,” King said. “Solar has a lot of potential in the region and around the world, and a number of important projects have been initiated in recent years.”

The BNEF report also revealed that the global energy storage market is projected to double six times between 2016 and 2030, rising to 125-305 GW per hour. 

“This is a similar trajectory to the remarkable expansion that the solar industry went through from 2000 to 2015, in which the share of PV as a percentage of total generation doubled seven times,” King said. 

“Energy storage, both utility scale and behind the meter, will be a crucial source of flexibility throughout this period, and will be essential to integrating increasing levels of renewable energy.”

But when it comes to achieving six hours of full electricity production per day, challenges remain. 

Kyle Weber, an associate at Evera, which aims to identify and address key sustainability gaps in the mobility sector, said: “It is a resource that requires a lot of understanding to utilize well.

“In the case of an electric bus, you need to store the energy between when it’s generated and when it’s utilized, which means more cost, complexity, and things that can go wrong.”

On buses, Evera is looking into charging batteries outside a vehicle slowly during the day, before swapping them in and out of the vehicle while it is being used. 

“Solar is also great for things like process heat. Heat can be used to do all sorts of things from cooking to generating steam, and desalinating water to powering a pump or producing clean hydrogen,” Weber said.

* * *

 

The solar projects in the region

The Gulf is wholeheartedly adopting solar power to meet some of its energy needs. Several projects are underway across the region, including the UAE, where there are plans to increase power-generation capacity by around 21 GW, and where solar capacity is expected to contribute
26.1 percent of the total additional generation capacity. 

According to the Climate Reality Project, the world’s largest concentrated solar plant is due to be completed by 2021 near Dubai and is expected to have a 1,000-MW capacity. 

Dubai is home to the first utility-scale solar project in the Middle East. The UAE has 5.45 GW of new solar projects in development as of March 2017, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park is expected to be the largest concentrated solar plant in the world when it is completed in 2030. 

Dubai aims to produce 75 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2050, and its target energy mix for 2030 consists of 25 percent solar.

The Moroccan Solar Energy Plan aims to install 2 GW of solar power by 2020. On completion, the concentrated solar power complex will generate more than 500 MW of renewable electricity for 1.1 million Moroccans by 2018, reducing carbon emissions by 760,00 tons annually.

By 2020, Egypt aims to develop 40 solar parks of around 50 MW to meet its 2-GW renewables target, with clean energy accounting for 20 percent of the country’s energy mix. Its first utility-scale solar plant, credited to the government-sponsored feed-in tariff, will generate power for up to 15,000 homes. 

Decoder

What is an abra?

An abra is a small traditional wooden boat, almost like a raft, in the Gulf. It comes from the Arabic word “abara,” which means “to cross.” In Dubai, the Roads and Transport Authority uses motorized abras to ferry people across Dubai Creek.