Interview // Yasser Elsheshtawy, UAE Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale

Interviewed by Heba Najada

HKZ had the chance to meet Yasser Elsheshtawy, Curator of the UAE National Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition; la Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale) and Associate Professor of Architecture at UAE University since 1997.

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Elsheshtawy’s academic work focuses on the city aiming to capture, describe and analyse the urban experience of city dwellers, he also runs UAE University’s Urban Research Lab, his. He has authored more than 70 publications in leading international journals and publishing houses. Additionally he edited The Evolving Arab City and Planning Middle Eastern Cities His work is widely cited and he is considered a leading authority on urban planning and architecture in the region.

He has been invited to present his research at numerous international institutions such as University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, University of Macau, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the ETH/Zurich, the Louvre Auditorium/Paris and the Canadian Center of Architecture/Montreal. Additionally, his multimedia work has been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City at the “Participatory City” exhibition, and will also be shown in an upcoming exhibition at New York University. Elsheshtawy’s online initiatives include uaemodern.com, a blog exploring the modernist urban and architectural landscape of the UAE, and dubaization.com, described by The Guardian as one of the world’s leading urban blogs.

How does your proposal for the UAE pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale respond to Alejandro Aravena‘s thematic directive entitled “Reporting from the Front,” and how does it look at the socio-economic realities of UAE’s architectural landscape?

Aravena’s theme “Reporting from the front” engages in a series of issues and can be read in a number of ways. For me what was of particular interest is the social agenda implied in the theme. In other words architecture is not seen as a purely formal exercise, focused on the spectacular and the iconic but one which is concerned with the well-being of its users. To that effect the focus on the social housing program of the UAE from the 1970s seems to be a perfect fit for this theme. Given the modesty of its architecture and the extent to which it evokes a simpler approach to building it represents a kind of counter-point to the prevailing notion of the UAE as a land of glitzy and spectacular architecture.

In terms of socio-economic realities the UAE is a country with a diverse population both ethnically and with respect to economic background. The Sha’abi housing project caters to an Emirati population and is quite different in terms of its architecture from the more luxurious developments being built. It thus adds to the richness of the UAE’s architectural landscape which encompasses a wide variety of styles and features.

Away from ‘Dubaization’, you have chosen to highlight UAE’s social housing program, the ‘Sha’abi housing’, which began in the 1970s and continues on to today. What are the key notions of this housing program that have shaped your thinking for the pavilion?

The key aspects related to the Shaabi house are its simplicity, adaptability and continuation as a viable housing model. Regarding simplicity the basic structure of a sha’abi house is a very simple courtyard typology overlooked by a series of rooms. Utterly modernist in appearance it suggests a kind of housing and architecture that moves away from the clichéd views of traditional and historical models. In terms of adaptability the very notions of simplicity and modularity, and the fact that many of these houses were constructed from prefabricated units, allowed for their expansion and adaptability to changing needs. This in turn made the house compatible with changing needs and thus became a true expression of Emirati culture and lifestyle.

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An act that avoids ‘the spectacle’ you have decided to focus on a project that spans over more than 30 years and share the architectural manifestations of ‘the everyday’ of its dwellers. What architectural elements do you think allowed for this?

The specific architectural element that allowed for this focus on the everyday lives of house dwellers is the simple overall formal structure that did not force certain behaviors or activities on its users. Rooms were quite simple and basic thus enabling modification based on changing needs. Additionally the modular, pre-fabricated elements used in the house allowed for additions and extensions; the straightforward geometry further helped in this. Moreover, certain features such as enclosing fences, doorways and parapets were all easily modifiable to accommodate privacy requirements, the need for individualization and the like. The presence of outdoor spaces, which were an integral part of the initial design of these houses, enabled residents to plant gardens which became an integral component of the house’s architecture, in addition to having an open space for placement of such elements as an external majlis (seating area).

You are currently living in the UAE and you are Egyptian. The international demographic make up of Dubai has created a complex mix. How do you merge these cultures and in what way did it influence your work?

In many ways the UAE has been a perfect fit given my background – raised in Germany and Egypt; my connection to the USA through family and my current residence in the UAE which is home to more than 200 nationalities.  How to merge these cultures is an interesting question although I am not sure if this is necessarily an architectural issue, but it can potentially be an urban one. It did however influence my work since I am interested in city spaces that become a meeting point for the various ethnic groups in cities such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi. I am fascinated by the extent to which residents carve out a space which they can call home – even if it is temporary. For instance an area in Abu Dhabi which I called Little Bangladesh which has become a meeting point for low-income workers from Bangladesh; or my investigation into the cosmopolitan setting of Nasser (or Baniyas) square in Dubai with its extraordinary mix of nationalities and local residents. I study these areas through the general framework of informal urbanism.

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How do you think a social housing program responds to the socio-economic and situation in the UAE, and do you believe this will offer an imaginary of alternative solution to the architectural status quo?

The socio-economic situation in the UAE is quite different from other parts of the world. This is due to a number of reasons. The UAE has a relatively small population and its GDP/capita is one of the highest in the world. Housing is a right that is provided by the state – although the extent to which this is actually achieved varies. At the moment there are a variety of options that allow for the provision of housing ranging from loans, land allocation, and subsidized housing units – all are large villa types which are far removed from the modesty of the social housing program which is the focus of our exhibition. In some instances such houses are being abandoned and in other cases they are demolished to be replaced by high-end real estate ventures. The call for the death of the Sha’abi model maybe premature however. Economic realities such as lower oil prices, sustainability issues necessitating higher density housing as well as walkable communities and the like require a revisiting of these older housing models. In their architecture and urban layout they have the potential to offer a model for sustainable living that may mitigate any change in the economic situation of the country.

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