The Saudi pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale dazzles us… It transports us to a world close to the soul and the mind… It explores and rediscovers the concept of local architecture with a future look, and raises questions about the desired sustainability and the human relationship with nature and its role in enriching it.
At the entrance of the pavilion, we were greeted by huge arches laden with pieces of clay panels printed with three-dimensional technology, inviting us to enter and welcoming us through high aesthetics, as if we were entering a building through its beautiful huge gates. Does it also express the spirit of the Arab environment, does it nod to giant palm trees? There are many perceptions and ideas, but the answers remain with the show coordinators and the Saudi architect Al-Bara Saim Al-Dahr, who takes us on a tour through his work.
flight and destination
We go with the architect to enter the pavilion. He explains to us that the starting point for the work is the title of the show, “Legacy.” He says that it stems from “a quote from a (UNESCO) report that says that traditional craftsmanship is the best tangible embodiment of intangible heritage. This saying made me think of our architectural legacy. ». In his conception of the wing there are two aspects: the material and the immaterial, the past and the future. He explains that the pavilion is divided into two parts, “the journey and the destination. The pavilion represents work that has not yet been completed, as it is in a permanent state of change.” In his answer, he refers to the future of the pieces presented before us, to their next destination, and beyond. We are in a middle stage, the construction relies on a broad legacy of architecture methods, details and basic materials, but the philosophy behind the wing also indicates that what we see before us will be a legacy for those who come after us in the future. The assistant curator, Jawhara Le Babelt, intervenes by saying, “Al-Baraa is very interested in the idea of sustainability and is keen to highlight it here.”
The architect invites me to enter through those arches or gates, as he points out, “Here is a nod to the gates of ancient cities in Saudi Arabia, but here is a contemporary interpretation. We took the basic elements of building here in terms of shapes, materials, and patterns.” The traditional mixes with the contemporary. The arches retain their original idea, but here they mutate and change their shape to become semi-arches in places. The materials used vary between steel, stone, and clay panels that were manufactured using the 3D printing technique.
Looking around us, we see those clay slabs that are distinguished by their natural color. We approach them and see ripples engraved in them, similar to the lines left by the wind on the desert sands. The pieces look like works of art, but they are also architectural blocks. Where is the boundary between artistic expression and practical use? In this pavilion, the fusion seems clear. Architecture is not only stones, steel, and dry materials, but also beauty, spirit, and identity. Here, in particular, the identity seems clear, from the Arabian desert with its colors embodied before us with its different gradations and by combining pieces and building blocks, some of which are made of excavated stone (coral limestone that It is brought from the seashore) used in the old buildings of Jeddah. Saim Al-Dahr points to one of these stones, and we see in it the remains of marine life, fragments and pieces of shells.
He indicates that the dominant earth color in the pavilion “here is more than a variation on the color to reflect the geography of the kingdom. With regard to the clay panels, the texture also varies from one piece to another; We looked at the shapes left by the wind on the sands of the desert and were keen to depict them on the different panels. Here we have 18 groups of clay panels that differ in their texture. Each piece is unique in some way. I see that this is also a nod to the craftsmen who each have their own touch.”
The pavilion offers a wide view of the different architectural styles in the regions of Saudi Arabia, from the sand dunes in the desert to the buildings of the Asir region, passing through the building methods in the coastal regions. This new chapter in the history of Saudi architecture, continuity and development.
Between two worlds
The arched gates are the entrance, and after that we enter through a semi-arched gate to another world. I ask the architect, “The arch here is incomplete, what is the point of that?”
“Everything here is in a state of development. I made sure that it was incomplete. The entire wing is in a state of development. There will be a next stage.”
Half of the earth-coloured arc takes us to a black wall separating us from the other side of the hall. In that wall are geometric openings, reminiscent of the mashrabiya openings in old buildings. These openings give us the opportunity to look at what is to come.
He explains that the wall represents a transitional journey, between the outside and the inside, between land and the depth of the sea, and more broadly it is a transition from the material to the immaterial.
Beyond the Wall is another sensory experience of lighting and scent starring in it; The space is dimly lit, and in its center stands a hollow clay cylinder, which looks like a cylindrical mashrabiya. The openings in it are different and reflect light from within, drawing different shapes on the floor and walls of the hall. A pleasant scent creeps into our noses, about which the assistant valuer, Al Jawhara, says, “This scent is a special mixture prepared for the suite, combining the scent of lavender flowers, myrrh, and incense. The smell reduces memories for each person, and these different elements are closely related to the Saudi environment.”
The immaterial environment provides a glimpse into the future through the lens of tradition: an existential experience that allows visitors to experience something extraordinary, to sense a ‘moment’ in time and evoke a memory of the pavilion that will be different for each individual person. The scent turns into a topic of conversation for some visitors to the pavilion, exchanging stories about scents and memories, in a way that achieves the desired immersive experience and attracts the simplicity and fluidity of the desired interaction from visitors.
The area inside is about space and smell and also about sitting and contemplating, according to Al-Baraa.
At the beginning of his speech, Saim Al-Dahr indicated that the pavilion in front of us is in a stage of a journey of development, and his words take on a clearer meaning when knowing that all the pieces in the pavilion will return to Saudi Arabia to start a second life, as the various gates will be placed in gardens and open spaces, while the mud cylinder will inhabit the bottom The Red Sea to be an extension of the wild life there.
Saim Al-Dahr concludes his conversation with me, summarizing his experience in the pavilion, “We were invited to implement a project that deals with how to develop a distinctive Saudi architectural style. For me, that was the beginning of an exploration journey. We dived into the original forms, history, function and craftsmanship, we don’t want that style to be a copy of the past.
“Aesthetics is part of the message, the audience interacts with it and makes them think first. It is also part of the Saudi architectural vernacular.”
Curated by Basma Bouzo
The two curators, Basma and Noura Bouzo, developed a special vision for the Biennale in cooperation with the architect, Saim Al-Dahr. Basma Bouzo says that the starting point for them was the theme of the Biennale, which is the “Future Laboratory.” She adds, during a quick conversation with her, that deepening the meaning of the phrase led them to explore many things. We wanted to see what our architectural heritage is; In search of the tangible and intangible aspects overlapping with architecture. We began to understand that the heritage of architecture should be dynamic, interacting with materials and the architect, but the third element is the inhabitants of the place itself, who are like visitors to the pavilion.
I ask her about the clear aesthetics in the suite, was the concern for the aesthetic aspect complementary? She says that aesthetics “are part of the message, the audience interacts with it and makes them think first. It is also part of the Saudi architectural vernacular.”
“We are very proud of the Kingdom’s achievements in the cultural field in general, and specifically in the field of architecture and design.”
Somaya Al-Sulaiman, CEO of the Design and Architecture Authority
The conversation brought me together with Dr. Sumaya Al-Sulaiman, CEO of the Design and Architecture Authority, about Saudi Arabia’s third participation in this international forum and its impression of what the Kingdom has achieved in this field.
I start my dialogue with her by asking her about her evaluation of the three participations. She says, “It is difficult, because I cannot compare. Each time the participation was a response to a general theme from the Biennale’s management, but I believe that each participation for the Kingdom reflected a kind of development and maturity at the level of ideas. Each participation It was unique in its own right in responding to the main theme of the biennial.”
She expresses her happiness with the impact she feels in people’s reactions to the commission’s work, and on a larger level, “We are very proud of the Kingdom’s achievements in the cultural field in general, and specifically in the field of architecture and design. I believe our presence in the international community gives us a special platform to be an essential part of the global dialogue. Concerns are common around the world, but the way to respond always has a local aspect, and it is important for us that the thing we produce stems from our origin.
In the general theme of this edition of the Biennale, which is the “Future Laboratory,” she sees the potential for experimentation in the field of architecture, “which is a good thing.”
I ask her about the philosophy behind the suite’s title, “Do you see a shift in the field of architecture and design in the direction of legacy?” Her answer takes me on a journey through the architectural designs in the Kingdom through time. “In the sixties, the focus was on building on the side of modernity, and in the seventies there were attempts to restore the legacy in a contemporary way, albeit sometimes superficial in some projects, but now we are experiencing a cultural and civilized renaissance that has a large part of pride with our identity and at the same time backed by research.” She points to some of the pieces displayed in the pavilion, which are associated with materials that reflect different styles in Saudi architecture. “In the pavilion, we have exhibits made of different materials, all of which are from existing projects. Some are traditional materials and others have a research nature. Our connection to nature and the past does not prevent progress towards the future.” Among the pieces are some building blocks made from the wastes of the petroleum industry, which is the embodiment of the research aspect that Al-Sulaiman talks about. “It has become necessary for us to think about the circular economy by eliminating waste and continuous use. When we think of the remnants of industries such as the petroleum industry, we find that they have the potential to be treasures and materials for other industries. That is why I believe that the research aspect and openness to these matters is very important.