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House that?
Muhammad Yusuf June 23, 2016
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Yasser Elsheshtawy, curator, the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates (UAE) la Biennale di Venezia and Associate Professor of Architecture at the UAE University, Al Ain, is currently presenting ‘Transformations: The Emirati National House’, an exhibition highlighting the transformations of the Emirati National House, also known as Sha’abi (folk) house in Venice, Italy (May 28 – Nov. 27) at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia.

The focus is on how a basic housing model was adapted by residents to individualised homes, thus reflecting their culture and life style. 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.

Elsheshtawy was responding to the call of Alejandro Aravena, curator of the 15th Architecture Exhibition la Biennale di Venezia, to present examples of how the built environment can improve people’s quality of life. He presents case studies that provide useful lessons on how constructing an adaptable and flexible typology, as seen in the instance of the Emirati National House, can be used to address the universal concern of providing adaptable social housing.

National houses are found in many residential neighbourhoods of cities in the UAE. Initially designed in the 1970s, they were implemented throughout the 1970s and 1980s, to offer homes and modern amenities to a transient local population.

The standard housing typology is composed of a series of rooms overlooking a central square courtyard, and has proved to be highly adaptable as Emirati families’ lifestyles evolved. Many National houses today show evidence of a cumulative accretion of various architectural elements over the years, a process of transformation from a basic model to individualised homes, which have become an important component of the etymology of the UAE’s built environment.

The government of the United Arab Emirates allocated to nationals houses, irrespective of their income. Sometimes more than one house was given to a single family.

The original building consisted of rooms, kitchen, ‘majlis’ or the sitting room for guests, dining room and a garage. The building is located in the middle of the area and in the back, is an open area used for planting and another open area for sitting, called ‘dekka’. The rooms opened directly to the exterior.

In the first major change, the ‘dekka’ was closed to make an interior, and some rooms and bathrooms were added as well. Most national families had their own domestic animals such as chickens and goats or cows. At the back, they built a closed area in concrete for the animals. Inside the building, instead of building a wall for separation, they built an aluminium door. They also added a tent inside the walled area for family gatherings.

The Sha’abi houses were also known as “people’s” houses; it was introduced by the late Founder-President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed in the late 60s to settle bedouin and give them facilities of town life within the country.

The structure was simple and functional: a single story compound consisting of a few rooms, square-shaped with an inner courtyard and a fence. There are undoubted echoes here of the arrangement of bedouin settlements.

The homes were to be found in abundance in cities like Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah. But the residents made their own little adjustments in their compounds: they planted gardens or subdivided them to reflect changing family demographics.

For Elsheshtawy, the Sha’abi house exemplifies a time of architecture on a human scale in the UAE, where modern housing drew inspiration from the past and was flexible enough to be modified by the humans who lived in it.

“This exploration of Emirati Sha’abi housing responds to the Biennale’s theme, which reflects on the ways in which the built environment can be formed to improve people’s quality of life”, he says. “Through the provision of a flexible model, inspired by older and existing buildings and their specific layout, the initial architects enabled residents to modify their homes to fit their needs. Changes occurred in allocated plot size and detailing but the basic framework remained the same.

“These houses proved to be highly adaptable with residents making a series of changes so that these models could be made more compatible with their lifestyle and local culture. Moreover, by focusing on such neighbourhoods, the architectural discourse in the UAE moves to one that is concerned with the everyday spaces of its citizens”.

Elsheshtawy has tried to live up to Aravena’s exhortation that “there are several battles that need to be won and several frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life.

“This is what we would like people to come and see at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition: success stories worth to be told and exemplary cases worth to be shared where architecture did, is and will make a difference in those battles and frontiers”.

The UAE has also tried to keep in mind what Paolo Baratta, President of la Biennale said, that this is “a Biennale that convenes the architects, and is dedicated to the exploration of the new frontier that demonstrates the vitality of architecture, a frontier that spans across various parts of the world and shows architecture engaged in providing specific responses to specific demands. This Biennale intends to react once again to the gap between architecture and civil society …”

“For our second participation in the International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, we are proud that the National Pavilion UAE will explore the evolution of this element of local architectural heritage”, said Khulood Al

Atiyat, Projects Manager – Arts, Culture & Heritage at the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. “As the UAE emerges as a global centre for arts and culture, the National Pavilion UAE la Biennale di Venezia continues its commitment to further the arts and architectural practices of the UAE by facilitating a dialogue with the international community through its exhibitions”.

The inaugural participation of the UAE at the International Art Exhibition at le Biennale di Venezia commenced in

2009 and has continued in each art exhibition. 2014 marked the UAE’s first participation in the International

Architecture Exhibition in its 14th edition, with an exhibition titled ‘Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE’,

curated by Dr Michele Bambling. The 2015 exhibition, ‘1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates’, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, was a retrospective on contemporary art exhibitions in the Emirates over the last 40 years through a grouping of over 100 works.

The 56th International Art Exhibition at la Biennale di Venezia ran May 9 – Nov. 22, 2015, and received over 500,000 visitors.

Elsheshtawy’s work focuses on the city, aiming to capture the urban experience of city dwellers. Specifically, his scholarship deals with urbanisation in developing societies - informal urbanism, urban history and environment-behaviour studies, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern cities.

He has authored more than 70 publications in leading international journals and publishing houses which includes ‘Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle’. Additionally, he edited ‘The Evolving Arab City and Planning Middle Eastern Cities’.

He has been invited to present his research at numerous international institutions such as Columbia University, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the ETH/Zurich, the Louvre Auditorium/Paris and the Canadian Center of Architecture/Montreal.

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