Material. An interview with Wael Al Awar

by Cristiano Luchetti

Compasses Magazine

Material. An interview with Wael Al Awar

The following text is an excerpt from the conversation between Cristiano Luchetti , Compasses Associate Editor for the Middle East, and Wael Al Awar co-curator, with Kenichi Teramoto, of the National Pavilion of UAE for the 17th edition of the Architecture Venice Biennale. The research and the consequent installation called Wetland were awarded, during the biennial, The Golden Lion. You can read the integral version of the text in the upcoming Compasses 37.

CL: I must kick off by offering the warmest congratulations for an exceptional result. The Golden Lion at the Architecture Biennale indeed represents one of the most coveted awards in the architectural profession. I believe that the prize holds even more value because it coincides with the first time the UAE pavilion’s curatorship is assigned through an open call. I assume that the celebrations are now over; therefore, I ask you, with a cold head, what are your thoughts on this year’s Biennale? How did you experience the various phases that characterized such an uncertain and peculiar edition? Did you have time to reflect on the whole experience?

WAA: That is a great question, actually. The UAE pavilion gave the chance to participate in the call to architects within the UAE or representing the UAE. The call offered an equal platform for all to submit their ideas. My Japanese partner and I were already working on the proposed research because we are practicing architects. You may be familiar with some of our buildings and works in Dubai, ranging from Al Warqa mosque to Hai D3, the container project in Dubai design district, to the Jameel Art Center and Al Jaddaf waterfront public space. As practicing architects today in the 21st century, knowing about the climate emergency, an alarm that is beeping so loud, we feel that we have to respond to that. We can no longer say this is not our problem, not our responsibility.

As designers, we have to be held responsible for the materials we use and their ecological impact on the environment. Unfortunately, in the UAE, we are limited in terms of material palettes. The available palette exists mainly for the modern material available in the market: cement, steel, glass, etc. However, it was always difficult for us to find something we could relate to the vernacular. In this time of such climate crisis, many architects worldwide, including fellow curators, like those of the Nordic pavilion or the Philippine pavilion, are turning toward vernacular material present in their original territories to stop using modern materials that are harmful to the environment. In the UAE, we cannot do that. We were looking for what we could turn back to. For instance, Arish, the palm frond leaves; it is not a material that can be used in construction to a modern scale or level. One could build a wooden house or even a multi-storey building, but I still doubt turning to vernacular as the primary sustainable strategy. With the increasing world population from 7.5 billion to 10 billion by 2050, we have to house two-point something billion people in the next 35 to 40 years. How will we do that? Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a report about this issue. Their report states that we will have to build the equivalent of one New York City every month for the next 40 years to meet this growing population by 2050. The UAE now has a population of 10 million, and the projection is to become 20 million by 2050. 

So how do we build for these people? In a way, we have the research agency already in place. We are looking at these issues and thinking, how can we address these subjects and build our future cities concerning our planet, making sure we have a world to live on at the end of the day? Because I think the way we are going, we will not have a planet at the end of it. As I said, we were already exploring this ongoing research. The open call came, and it was an opportunity for us to address some questions. One of them was: we have a construction system, but we need a new system, the one we have does not work. What could be this new system in the Gulf, specifically in the GCC? I mean, if other countries can turn to their vernacular, to their other sustainable methods, the Gulf does not have that luxury. So, we thought about the idea of looking at industrial waste as the new vernacular. Even if we had a vernacular to turn back to, the process of extracting material would still consume resources. 

Then, why not looking at industrial waste? That was the proposal we submitted to the open call, specifically looking into the reject brine of desalination water.

We knew that this highly saturated salt material might offer us a solution. We knew that some regions use salt as their vernacular, such as Siwa on the border of Libya and Egypt or Chatt Al Jerid in Tunisia. Lars Homstead in Star Wars is built from the local salt flats / Sabkhas. We knew that salt flats existed in the UAE, and we thought we could start looking into that, but we could equally look into other industrial waste. 

In essence, this was our proposal for the Biennale.


CL: From the very beginning, I was very interested in knowing more about your research and its possible outcomes. The subject of the investigation perfectly aligns with the theme chosen by the curator of the Biennale (How we will live together). In addition to proposing a critical reflection on the use of materials and their environmental impact, I believe that the UAE pavilion stimulates a discussion that extends to the entire notion of architecture. Because, for me, it questions the very concept of what architecture is (or could be) in the contemporary world. I will try to explain.

While, in other fields, research informs innovations that follow one another at ever-higher speeds, the technological processes applied to architectural construction methods, and material production seem to evolve slower. After many years of in-lab or small-scale experimentation, the applications of digital technologies are becoming reality. They mainly concern parametrically generated structures or envelopes, sometimes entirely 3D printed buildings, not only components as in the recent past. However, it is indisputable that when touring cities around the world, construction sites still appear, at least from the outside, very similar to those of 50 years ago. Furthermore, despite years of discussions, even if the awareness of traditional construction methods’ impact on the environment is now higher than in the past, fully sustainable solutions are yet to become conscious and shared practice. A generalized effort to convert the most polluting construction processes and rethink the sustainability of their materials is still to become a reality. Therefore, your research is definitely contemporary. It fits into the abacus of human actions that we must now peremptorily deem “necessary”. On a closer look, though, the installation inside the pavilion seems to have stopped its development immediately before facing perhaps the most difficult challenge. That is, to reach the status of a phenomenological spatial entity, a unique morphological datum generated by the specific properties of the material, the desalination’s waste turned into a new kind of concrete. To better explain my point, I could mention, for example, how the ancients thought about and built vaults. They are structural types generated using discreet elements such as bricks or stones. Alternatively, from the spatial point of view, we can define them as forms achieved by exploiting the physical opportunities offered by their own materiality. 

Therefore, do you think that the installation in this year’s UAE pavilion achieves the status of an architectural statement? In other words, is the production of new material, however sophisticated, innovative, and sensible to the environment, sufficient to identify and define an architectural concept? If so, what is then the difference between architecture and materials science? Ultimately, when and how do you think materials become architecture?

WAA: Yes, I think that is a great question. As I said before, we had a system that was definitely not working; therefore, we had to rethink it. Once you do that, you also have to rethink the production of space. I am trying to say that yes, we do have a cementitious material that we cannot use in the same way we use Portland cement; it is not possible because of many factors. Together with the production of the prototype, we raised many questions: what is the architect’s role today? How do we produce space in the 20th century? How do we bring back culture and identity? How do you bring specificity and context in the meaning of a building?


Author: Cristiano Luchetti, is PhD and Researcher at Università Politecnica delle Marche. He is a registered architect with vast experience in leading the design of large scale projects in residential, commercial, and hospitality sectors in Europe, China, India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Photo Credits: Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia. Photography by Frederico Torra for PLANE-SITE. 1970




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