The UAE comes to the Biennale

At the UAE's first appearance at the Venice Biennale, efforts were made to celebrate architecture more ancient than the Burj Khalifa

Gondolas arcing down canals lined with imposing palazzos, couples strolling through the Piazza San Marco... if there’s one city with an eye-catching view around every corner, it’s Venice. So its Architecture Biennale, a celebration of the built environment featuring a central exhibition and national pavilions from around the world, is very much at home here.

The five month-long event, now in its 14th edition, is also becoming increasingly important as a means by which a country can showcase its prosperity and culture through its architecture - this year 65 nations are exhibiting in Venice, including ten for the very first time.

One of the debutants is significant. The UAE is at the Biennale, its intimate space devoted to 100 years of UAE architecture, and accessed through thick black walls designed to signify traditional courtyard living.

People know about the Burj Khalifa, but I want them to see what came both before that, and after the arish and coral stone houses of the early 20th century

Michele Bambling, Pavilion Curator

“People know about the Burj Khalifa,” says Pavilion Curator Michele Bambling, standing next to one of the interesting pull-out drawers stacked with drawings, photographs and artefacts from UAE’s history. “But I want them to see what came both before that, and after the arish and coral stone houses of the early 20th century. There’s a whole middle period of modernism and commitment to interesting buildings which is really a result of the vision and enthusiasm of the UAE leadership.

“Participating in an international event like this shows what a vital part the UAE already plays in the global architecture environment.”

Visitors to the UAE pavilion certainly seem to share a sense of surprise that UAE has an architecture tradition beyond skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab. And that mood of confounding expectations is repeated again and again in Venice. The captivating photography in Argentina’s pavilion recasts the South American country as one constantly aspiring to change and reinvent itself. Bahrain’s effort is rather generous, celebrating architecture from across the Arab world in selecting 100 structures from 22 countries that best represent the sense of nation-building.

The UAE comes to the Biennale
One of the photographs that inspired the curators' approach to the idea of an 'ancient' United Arab Emirates

Elsewhere, some participants are more abstract but no less thought-provoking: the Kosovan room is made up of a modern circular tower of traditional wooden stools, in a bid to connect a past of upheaval with a more positive future. Estonia’s “Interspace” is a digital public square beamed onto the floors and walls, which not only reflects the national culture of a country under the influence of external powers for much of the 20th century, but its desire to look confidently forward.

The Venice Architecture Biennale, then, is an interesting barometer for a nation’s self-image. As one German visitor to the UAE pavilion remarked: “what this space does so well is deconstruct the perception that everything is big, brash and super-modern in UAE. It tells the story of a culture, a heritage, through layers of history and memory. And through that, you see its people. The UAE story is, I now understand, a compelling one."