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For its 10th participation in the International Exhibitions of Art and Architecture of La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale), the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates 2021 is conducting groundbreaking research into an environmentally-friendly cement alternative inspired by the UAE’s sabkha (salt flats) and created from salts and minerals extracted from waste brine left over from water desalination. The project will be presented in Venice in the exhibition Wetland, curated by architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto.
The production of traditional cement generates 8% 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. 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.
This strong, insoluble building material was inspired by the crystallized salts and minerals found in the UAE’s Sabkhas (salt flats), which have been tentatively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that the exhibition, named Wetland, 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 the 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 2021. The book will explore the ecological and socio-economical 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 Wael and Teramoto’s research for the Wetland exhibition.
In line with the National Pavilion UAE’s ongoing role as an important 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. Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto will also be speaking at The World Around Summit, a global architecture conference examining the most urgent topics related to the environment, equity and the city, on 30 January, 2021. To register, visit theworldaround.com.
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.”
Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto said: “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.”
Ahmed and Rashid 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 meter of sabkha can sequester more carbon than one square meter of rainforest1, yet our understanding of them is still in its early stages. Through this publication we demonstrate that the UAE’s sabkha are an essential part of our ecological order and are vital to plant growth, animal migration 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.”
(From a press release, 27 January 2021)
The National Pavilion UAE is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the Ministry of Culture and Youth, with a permanent pavilion at the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale – Sale d’Armi. 2021 marks the UAE’s 10th exhibition at the Venice Biennale since 2009 and its 4th participation in the International Architecture Exhibition.
From press information.
© Photos: Courtesy of the National Pavilion UAE - La Biennale di Venezia
© Image top, photo: Dina Al Khatib, Courtesy of waiwai design