DUBAI: The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale Architettura, selected by curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, is “Freespace.” It’s a topic that is open to multiple interpretations, but the curators of the Saudi Arabia and UAE pavilions have chosen to focus on a particular aspect suggested by Farrell and McNamara — “a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda.” It’s a theme particularly pertinent to Gulf countries, in which cities continue to grow at a remarkable pace, but often without any real sense of any over-arching plan beyond ‘Get big, fast.’ Which doesn’t leave much room for consideration of the needs of the populace.
“Our main objective was to choose something that was genuine and comes from a real experience that Saudi can share through the Biennale. We didn’t want to do something passive,” Jawaher Al-Sudairy, co-curator of the Saudi pavilion and exhibition, entitled “Spaces in Between,” told Arab News. “So we chose to focus on the social side of freespace.”
As Al-Sudairy explained, ‘freespace,’ in the Kingdom is normally seen as “a mode for spontaneous expansion — expansion of cities, expansion of neighborhoods, expansion of scale.” In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, urban growth over the past four or five decades has been astonishing, as has the volume of migration to cities. But, as Al-Sudairy pointed out, that growth “wasn’t really centralized in any one place.”
“This expansion has significant impact on the social experience,” she said. “I think anyone who’s visited Saudi would tell you that it’s a very fragmented place that’s hard to penetrate. It’s hard to move around. Movement is really limited; you’re always in a car. Saudi is a massive country. The majority of the population lives in a few cities and the expanse of those cities is massive. People have long commutes within their own city.”
Al-Sudairy stressed that, in recent years, there has been a commitment to reverse the fragmented sprawl of Saudi cities and create more density to encourage people to move closer to city centers and to build more; to use vacant land. Or, in other words, to inhabit the “Spaces in Between,” which, in the Kingdom, are vast.
“So you see the taxation on vacant land, the building of the metro and a transportation infrastructure that hopes to re-orient the city around the center, converting vacant land to parks, creating more pedestrian spaces,” she explained. “There’s been a lot of effort, and success has varied, but we wanted to explore these experiments, and I think the discussion of whether you really can reverse sprawl and re-orient a city and culture that has evolved around a car to become more pedestrian, isn’t just relevant to Saudi, the Gulf, and the region; it’s relevant to a lot of cities. It’s a very rich discussion.”
The global relevance of that discussion is something that the curator of the UAE exhibition — “Lifescapes Beyond Bigness” — Dr. Khaled Alawadi, also highlighted when speaking to Arab News.
“What happened in the region is very typical to what happened in the rest of the world; the different phases of urbanism. The late 60s and 70s was more geared towards the human scale and daily necessities and walkability and other things. But then you had suburban expansion due to the rise of technology and automobiles and other things. That was a common transformation. Maybe in the UAE it happened later than (in the West), because most of (it) started after the discovery of oil. But then you had this opening up, welcoming the international community to live in the UAE as it became a hub. All of these dynamics changed the topology of our cities.”
Alawadi and his team spent months documenting and mapping “human behavior as well as the physical environment” in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain for their research, which focused on four main categories: The neighborhood, the urban block, streets and alleyways, and natural landscapes.
One of Alawadi’s main goals was “to look at stories and themes that are not commonly presented about the UAE.” To go beyond the glitz and glamor usually presented in the media to take a look at areas where “bigness” isn’t the main focus, and the human scale is still important.
“There is a (widely held) perception that the UAE is this place for huge buildings,” he said, “but there are so many other stories. Despite this mega-approach to urbanism, there are places that offer people freespace where they can practice their cultural expressions. And this can make a very important contribution not only from the theoretical point of view but also from the practice point of view of architectural planning in the region.”
Both curators say that one of the main aims of their respective participation at Venice is to spark a conversation, regionally and beyond, about the importance of considering what Alawadi describes as “the human scale” when planning urban expansion; the need to create inclusive public spaces.
“There are a lot of different reasons why some public spaces are successful and some are not, and I think that’s really where the discussion should go,” Al-Sudairy said. “The catalog that we have for the pavilion explores a lot of these themes. We want to offer a platform to architects, designers and planners to start this conversation. There are certain ideas that have been replicated in cities around the world. And it’s good to compare them and understand why they’ve had this outcome in, say, Riyadh versus other places.”
And both stressed that starting a conversation, asking the right questions, will be an achievement in itself. Al Sudairy cited a recent conference organized in Saudi Arabia from which “the main takeaway” was just how important such events were “because we’d just met each other for the first time.” By expanding dialogue to include as many interested parties as possible, solutions are more likely to be found.
As Alawadi explained, “I’m not saying we should abandon bigness. I’m not saying we should abandon suburban growth. What I want to say is that we need to start considering the human scale in all of these developments. It’s really important to consider the human aspect and human movement. I think the human scale should come first in any development.”