Transformations: The Emirati National House, an exhibition at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale) by the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates, presents insights into the transformative process of individualisation of national houses at one of the world’s most prominent architecture events May 28 – November 27 .

Outside of the region, there is little awareness of the past of the UAE’s key cities – how the urban landscape prior to the fast-paced development of recent decades. There is even less awareness of the private residences of the Emirati population and how their architecture has taken shape, present and past.

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Transformations: The Emirati National House will feature a range of archival materials, photography, architectural diagrams and scale models to explore the transformative aspect of the housing model of Emirati national houses, also known as sha‘bī (folk) houses. The sha‘bī (folk) houses were introduced across the UAE from the 1970s to offer homes and modern amenities to a fairly transient population. National houses are found in residential neighborhoods of most cities in the UAE. The standard housing typology is composed of a series of rooms overlooking a central square courtyard. The houses were initially designed as a standard model, but over the years, resident families made various architectural modifications to the basic structure, reflecting their changing lifestyles.

Curated by Yasser Elsheshtawy, Associate Professor of Architecture at the UAE University and a noted expert on regional architecture and urban planning; the exhibition will feature historical and technical materials including detailed architectural analysis of a current national house, archival newspaper clippings documenting the initial start of the National Housing program, and 1970s photographs by Dutch photographer, Gerard Klijn. Additionally, the exhibition features a specially commissioned series of new images by Emirati photographer, Reem Falaknaz.

The exhibition offers us the opportunity to share a lesser-known aspect of our nation’s architecture

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“Yasser Elsheshtawy has produced fascinating and detailed research on this unique element of the UAE’s urban and architectural landscape. The exhibition offers us the opportunity to share a lesser-known aspect of our nation’s architecture at one of the world’s most prominent architecture events,” says Khulood Al Atiyat, Manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. “In line with the Foundation’s mission to invest in the future of the UAE by investing its people, we are particularly pleased that this year’s exhibition will focus on the everyday spaces of the UAE’s citizens, developing a new angle of architectural discourse about our country.”

“The exhibition and accompanying publication will share a comprehensive overview of the National Housing project as an interesting architectural experiment where people are actively involved in constructing and modifying their built environment,” says Yasser Elsheshtawy. “We would like to highlight the sha‘bīyaa (folk) neighborhoods as an ongoing living testimony about the resilience of the Emirati people and the extent to which the house, with all of its shortcoming, still plays a vital and important role.”

Presented in the UAE’s permanent pavilion in Venice’s Arsenale – Sale d’Armi, the exhibition will be divided into four interwoven sections conceptualized as a series of scales moving from the regional down to an individual house, laid out on a grid separated by wall panels that draw visitors through the story of the national house.

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History – This section presents archival images, documents and videos that record the establishment of the National Housing project throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It will include aerial photographs captured by British Petroleum, initial architectural drawings, images of sha‘bīyaa (folk) neighborhoods by Dutch photographer Gerard Klijn as well as the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Petroleum Operations Ltd. (ADCO), and archival newspaper clippings from Al Ittihad and other local publications.

Neighbourhood – The section examines the urban fabric of national housing developments at a city-wide scale. An interactive map will provide insight into the landscape of the UAE and the widespread development of traditional residential, or sha‘bīyaa (folk) neighborhoods. It will be accompanied by architectural models at various scales, analytical diagrams, photography and video.

House – This section develops a detailed analysis of the national house at an individual level, through massing models, elevation drawings, diagrams representing individual changes to each building within a contemporary neighborhood and a large scale model of a group of houses.

Central – The centrepiece of the exhibition presents a detailed case study of a single national house and the Emirati family who continue to live there, through a detailed architectural analysis as well as intimate family memories. The section is accompanied by a specially commissioned series of images by Emirati photographer Reem Falaknaz, who has travelled to these neighborhoods to capture the human aspect of living communities.

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The accompanying publication will contextualize the exhibition and associated research, providing a backdrop to the content displayed in the exhibition. It features essays and academic studies by architects, sociologists, conservators and scholars.

The National Pavilion UAE – la Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development. The National Pavilion United Arab Emirates la Biennale di Venezia was established to support the UAE’s contemporary art and architecture practices on an international platform through participation at la Biennale di Venezia, and to promote a cultural dialogue between the UAE and the international community. The UAE’s participation at la Biennale di Venezia commenced in 2009 with a national pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition and has continued in subsequent editions of the art exhibition. This year will mark its second participation in the International Architecture Exhibition.

National Pavilion UAE

Photography by Gerard Klijn & Reem Falaknaz

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