Sabkhas inspire National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at Venice - GulfToday

Sabkhas inspire National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at Venice

Marina Tabassum art 2

Material Research at Wetland Lab, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

For its tenth participation in the International Exhibitions of Art and Architecture organised by La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale), the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates is conducting groundbreaking research into an environmentally-friendly cement alternative inspired by the UAE’s sabkhas (salt flats) and created from salts and minerals extracted from waste brine left over from water desalination. The production of traditional cement generates eight per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, while brine, highly-saturated saltwater left over from industrial desalination, is often poured back into the oceans with significant impact on marine life and ecosystems.


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In keeping with the Biennale’s overall theme How Will We Live Together?, the UAE’s curators Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto are researching a solution addressing both these harmful environmental issues: an MgO-based alternative cement created from recycled waste brine. The strong, insoluble building material was inspired by the crystallised salts and minerals found in the UAE’s sabkhas (salt flats), which have been tentatively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning, the exhibition explores the intersection of an ancient ecological treasure and innovative sustainability research.

Visitors can currently visit the Wetland research lab at Alserkal Avenue to see samples of sabkhas, images and material experiments as the curators continue their research in partnership with specialist teams at the Amber Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi, the American University of Sharjah and University of Tokyo. The project will be supplemented by a book titled The Anatomy of Sabkhas, written by urban researchers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib, expected to be released in May. It will explore the ecological and socio-economic significance of these natural phenomena in detail based on case studies, personal essays, and photography. A supplementary volume edited and written by Aga Khan Award-winning architect Marina Tabassum will detail the journey of Al Awar’s and Teramoto’s research for the Wetland exhibition.

Marina Tabassum 1 Marina Tabassum.

Laila Binbrek, Coordinating Director, National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia said: “The National Pavilion UAE provides a high-profile platform for curatorial and research concepts that address international conversations from a distinctive local perspective. “Wetland and the accompanying research put the UAE at the heart of a vital global dialogue about the future of architecture and its impact on climate change and our natural resources.”

Al Awar and Teramoto said that “the structure of the UAE’s natural sabkhas offers ecological insight into the world’s most vital challenge: climate change.

“In researching ways to address the irreversible impact of industrial construction and desalination, we have aimed to bring vernacular architecture into the 21st century, by creating a sustainable material that could recycle industrial waste and reduce the world’s reliance on Portland cement.

“Our work with the National Pavilion UAE has provided us with the resources to experiment with this vision through a collaborative process, enabling us to develop a proof of concept showing that locally-sourced salt-based cement is a viable, scalable alternative.” Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib said: “As renewable energy, climate change and sustainability become the most urgent cause of our generation, we must turn to the natural world for answers.

“One square metre of sabkha can sequester more carbon than one square metre of rainforest; yet our understanding of them is still in its early stages.

Marina Tabassum art 1  Wetland Lab at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.

“Through this publication, we demonstrate that the UAE’s sabkha are an essential part of our ecological order and are vital to plant growth, animalmigration and biodiversity. We ask how we can preserve, study and nurture sabkha from both a rural perspective, looking at their geological networks, and an urban one, exploring humans’ rich historic relationships with the sabkha as a natural resource.”

In line with the National Pavilion UAE’s ongoing role as a platform for dialogue and discussion, the pavilion has collaborated with Dubai Future Foundation to present a series of public talks titled “From Liwa to Mars, The Anatomy of Sabkhas”. The series will expand on themes related to Wetland and the sabkhas.

The project is scheduled to be presented at the National Pavilion UAE at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, May 22 – Nov. 21.

The theme of the Architecture Exhibition, ‘How Will We Live Together?’ calls for pavilions to look at architecture’s ability to engage people and communities across increasing social, economic, political and digital divides.

Binbrek said that “as we enter 2021, this year’s Venice Biennale theme – How Will We Live Together? – has never seemed more relevant. While 2020 was a challenging year globally, the UAE’s creative sector has shown inspiring resilience and we have many reasons to be optimistic about this year. “Of course, while preparations are well underway for the Biennale, we are closely monitoring the global situation and the safety of our staff, visitors and community remains the highest priority”. Hinjal Ashok Kumar, a Venice Intern alumni who now works as an Architect and Production Coordinator at Sharjah Art Foundation, has won the Open Call to re-design the UAE Pavilion’s Venice Internship tote bag. Her design illustrates a Nolli Map of Venice with her memorable experiences during her Venice Internship in 2014, and allows the bag to be used as a notepad for future interns to journal their own experiences, favourite spots and notes from their upcoming time in Venice.

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