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U.A.E. Pavilion Wins Top Award at Venice Architecture Biennale

DUBAI— The National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at Venice’s 2021 Biennale Architettura has been awarded the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation for its exhibition featuring an environmentally friendly salt-based alternative to cement.

The Emirates’ pavilion, titled “Wetland,” presents a prototype structure  made from MgO cement, an innovative product using recycled industrial waste brine, which could massively reduce the harmful impact construction has on the environment.

Curated by the architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, the large, modernist structure stands 2.7 meters (almost 9 feet) tall and is 7 meters by 5 meters in width and depth.  The construction material was hand-cast into organic shapes as an homage to the U.A.E.’s traditional coral-built houses.

Inspired by the crystallized salts and minerals found in the Emirates’ salt flats, or sabkhas, the U.A.E. pavilion explores the intersection of an ancient ecological treasure and innovative sustainability research.

“It’s time we hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make, or there will be no planet left for us to inhabit.”

Wael Al Awar
An architect and co-curator of Wetlands

“It’s time we hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make, or there will be no planet left for us to inhabit,” Al Awar said.

Absorbing Carbon Dioxide

Traditional Portland cement, the type commonly used in making concrete, accounts for 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The alternative magnesium-oxide-based cement, or MgO cement, absorbs carbon dioxide, which is what gives it its structural strength and stability. It absorbs more carbon dioxide per square meter than one square meter of rainforest, turning a rejected material from an industrial desalination process into a valuable resource.

The Wetlands structure, prototyped at Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue arts district before being created in Venice, captures the blend of nature and modernity, says Al Awar, and its designers hope it can pave the way for a more sustainable future in arid environments such as the Emirates’. (See a related article, “Researchers in Qatar Seek to Restore Fish Habitats in a Warming Gulf.”)


Al Awar said: “The structure of the U.A.E.’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.”

He said that working with the Emirates’ National Pavilion has provided the team with the opportunity and resources to experiment with an idea which now seems a viable, scalable alternative to cement.

Answers From Nature

The Emirati urban researchers Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib have been working alongside the project and exploring its potential as a model for the Middle East. “As renewable energy, climate change and sustainability become the most urgent cause of our generation, we must turn to the natural world for answers,” Rashid bin Shabib said.

The exhibit, which is on display until November, is accompanied by images from the Emirati photographer Farah Al Qasimi, who had chronicled the landscape which inspired the project. (See a related article, “For Emirati Artist Farah Al Qasimi, Her Photographs ‘Filter’ Her World.”)

The scenery of the sabkha sites, which have been tentatively listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, present the tension between industrialization and the environment, Al Qasimi said in a written statement.

The Wetlands project brings to the fore a real-world challenge in the relationship between waste and production, according to the head of the Biennale Architettura’s international jury.

“On and below the earth, the sabkha is a serene living environment with many layers of water, sand, salt and micro-organisms which have evolved in harmony to create a delicate ecological system … but directly above this natural phenomenon are high-tension voltage cables running to massive industrial facilities nearby, emitting an ear-splitting electrical buzz.”

A Real-World Challenge

Kazuyo Sejima, president of the Biennale Architettura’s international jury, said the Wetlands project, which brought together architects and academics from institutions including New York University–Abu Dhabi and the American University of Sharjah, was chosen for its bringing to the fore a real-world challenge in the relationship between waste and production.

Ensuring the exhibit’s legacy continues, Al Awar is participating in an initiative called the Curators Collective, a collaboration between fellow national pavilion curators to develop a manifesto for the future of architecture.

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Under the goal of sustainability, the curators are now working to share and repurpose excess materials from the construction of their exhibitions, including an open call for designers to develop a public bench from recycled materials that will function as both an architectural statement and public seating that supports social distancing.

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