The green dune

by Ivan Parati

Compasses Magazine

The Abwab initiative is one of the highlights of the Dubai Design Week since its inception in 2016. It was previously a curated commission of a pavilion that would shelter a selection of the regional talents’ products, a foreword of the creative agenda in the Middle East, for the coming season. Looking back at precedent editions, we could point out a special care for the environmental aspect of the project. While this is rather obvious in any other context, in UAE this should not be given for granted, considering that, just a few years back, the local sensibility towards “green” issues was quite contrasting with its longing for glamorous stuff of luxury and excesses. In the 2006 WWF’s living planet report, UAE was the country with the highest ecological footprint per person, at almost 12 global hectares. For a country that prides itself on excelling in many fields, this particular Guinness World Record – being listed among the most wasteful populations – was a stain to remove at any cost. Since then, many steps ahead have been taken by the government to curb the ignominious primacy, working with Global Footprint Network, the promoter of the above-mentioned index, to draft the roadmap that, in the following years, could steer the country toward more sustainable practices. According to the latest available statistics in 2017, the index was already below 9 global hectares and nowadays you feel that there is a public interest towards sustainable practices, becoming the latest cool things along with fitness, veganism, electric alternatives of anything, and other healthy practices. But still, there is a lot to do.

After being among the countries with the best response to the global pandemic, the United Arab Emirates is approaching a new season of resuming international fairs and events, attracting people from all around the world to flood quantities of events, with a consequent strong ecological impact. Some events will last just for 3 days and host humongous pavilions from multinational corporates that end up in the landfill at the end of the event. I was always concerned about this impact, always incorporating sustainable objectives in my courses of exhibition design at the university. My direction usually involves modular and collapsible structures to extend the life of the stand that could be dismantled and stored very efficiently, repaired, upgraded with new graphics, and utilized to participate in a new exhibition.

This year the winning proposal of the 2021 Abwab commission, Nature in Motion is going to be the most closely related to sustainable practice. For a few years, the pavilion design is bounded to an open call, and designers are pitching their ideas responding to a theme embedded into the brief. This year, regenerative architecture and restorative design were the focus, and responders to the call were asked to implement biophilic design, circular economy systems, and biomimicry in their proposals and investigations, by incorporating nature as a central component. Ahmed El Sharabassy, the author of Nature in Motion is not new to winning competitions, his first success was when he was just 19, when he envisioned a pedestrian bridge that was defying the common notion of static architecture. Moving forward with his career he always maintained a similar disruptive approach with a range of projects that seems to reconcile rigorous tradition and dynamic organicism. Ahmed is leading a prolific architectural practice with a presence across the Middle East and North Africa, but he never abandoned his original marvel in front of the wild creative dreams of children, that he channels through his widespread educational programs.

As expected from an attentive creative, his design for the Abwab pavilion takes inspiration from the context, referencing the constant everchanging dialogue between the desert and the inhabited city. Rather than addressing the struggle of the local community to overcome the hostility of the extreme climatic conditions, it celebrates through a dynamic still frame the evolutionary wave of the city, from a bunch of nomadic settlements to a global display of modernity and efficiency.

The structure is an organic fragmented mesh built with recyclable materials of sustainable sources, bamboo is indeed one of the most renewable construction materials, certain species can grow at an incredible rate of almost 1 meter per day, its wood is particularly suitable in a moist environment, and it surpasses steel in tensile strength. For all these reasons it is clear why bamboo is still in use across the whole tropical area as a preferred material for scaffoldings and building purposes. In China, it is not rare to witness high-rise buildings being scaffolded in bamboo. The choice is wise and would be even wiser if bamboo would have been sourced locally. The posts are even used to integrate nature in the design with climbing plants attentively selected to stand the local climate. 

The fabric implemented on the top of the construction is light and durable as well as sustainably sourced with special attention to balancing its performances. This «translucent cotton canvas» has to shade enough to create a comfortable microclimate, but its density can affect the weightage, and also it could act as a wind sail making it unstable especially during November showers. All of the above warns about the structural capabilities of the pavilion, that the designer was able to address with unexpected mastery.   

In conclusion, it ticks all the boxes of Nature in Motion and its Instagramable appeal goes well with the tone of the festival, but it is not going any further beyond D3 premises, it certainly won’t be a model for the event industry in the region, especially considering the challenges to implement it at industrial scale. Building with bamboo takes time and certain craftsmanship expertise, and if construction takes longer than operational life then it won’t be that sustainable anymore. It will be desirable, as part of the initial brief, that the design is kept on-site for a time longer than the festival, to balance its embedded energy, and, if left to its course with the plants populating the whole structure like a massive pergola covered in foliage, it could become a well-shaded multifunctional space. Let’s see if it could stand the proof of time, kids climbing capabilities and…November showers.

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