»Intelligence starts with improvisation.«

Yona Friedman

Blog Venice 2014

Constructing Identities

Contributions from Iran, Morocco, and the UAE

  • Honeycomb Housing project by Georges Candilis, Shadrach Woods, Vladimir Bodianski and Henri Pirot in Casablanca, 1952... (Photo © Sydney W. Newberry / Architect's Journal) 1 / 22  Honeycomb Housing project by Georges Candilis, Shadrach Woods, Vladimir Bodianski and Henri Pirot in Casablanca, 1952... (Photo © Sydney W. Newberry / Architect's Journal)
  • ... and how the project was transformed by its inhabitants. (Photo © Jean-Louis Cohen) 2 / 22  ... and how the project was transformed by its inhabitants. (Photo © Jean-Louis Cohen)
  • The Hôtel du Dadès by Patrice de Mazières and Abdeslem Faraoui, built 1979-1982 in Boulemane, Morocco... (Photo © Brian Brace / Aga Khan Trust for Culture) 3 / 22  The Hôtel du Dadès by Patrice de Mazières and Abdeslem Faraoui, built 1979-1982 in Boulemane, Morocco... (Photo © Brian Brace / Aga Khan Trust for Culture)
  • ... and how it looks today. (Photo © Elio Germani) 4 / 22  ... and how it looks today. (Photo © Elio Germani)
  • Agadir central square, designed by Henri Tastemain, Jean-François Zévaco, Émile Duhon and Louis Riou 1961-64...(Photo © Ilyassa Mountassir) 5 / 22  Agadir central square, designed by Henri Tastemain, Jean-François Zévaco, Émile Duhon and Louis Riou 1961-64...(Photo © Ilyassa Mountassir)
  • ... and, again, how it’s been transformed. (Photo © Elio Germani) 6 / 22  ... and, again, how it’s been transformed. (Photo © Elio Germani)
  • Morocco’s contribution combines visionary housing projects of the past, with contemporary ones... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 7 / 22  Morocco’s contribution combines visionary housing projects of the past, with contemporary ones... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • ... placing the models on Saharan sand and projecting day and night images on the ceiling. (Photo © pavilion of Morocco) 8 / 22  ... placing the models on Saharan sand and projecting day and night images on the ceiling. (Photo © pavilion of Morocco)
  • Contemporary utopias look like this: Flohara by X-TU Architects, Paris... (Image courtesy X-TU Architects) 9 / 22  Contemporary utopias look like this: Flohara by X-TU Architects, Paris... (Image courtesy X-TU Architects)
  • ...Stefano Boeri’s Water Tower... (Photo © Stefano Boeri Architetti) 10 / 22  ...Stefano Boeri’s Water Tower... (Photo © Stefano Boeri Architetti)
  • ...or “In Sertum”. (Photo © BAO + Ultra Architettura, Fez/Morocco/Rome) 11 / 22  ...or “In Sertum”. (Photo © BAO + Ultra Architettura, Fez/Morocco/Rome)
  • The Iranian contribution “Instant Past” is a small and very clear installation dealing with how Iran’s history and identity... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 12 / 22  The Iranian contribution “Instant Past” is a small and very clear installation dealing with how Iran’s history and identity... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • ...and was constructed during three different periods in the 20th century, utilising symbolism embedded in modern architecture. (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 13 / 22  ...and was constructed during three different periods in the 20th century, utilising symbolism embedded in modern architecture. (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • “Lest We Forget. Structures of Memory in the United Arab Emirates” basically deals with a similiar topic... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 14 / 22  “Lest We Forget. Structures of Memory in the United Arab Emirates” basically deals with a similiar topic... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • ...collecting evidence of the times when Modernism (and modernity) came to the freshly-founded Emirates. (Photo: Dubai World Trade Center, 1979, courtesy of John R Harris and Partners) 15 / 22  ...collecting evidence of the times when Modernism (and modernity) came to the freshly-founded Emirates. (Photo: Dubai World Trade Center, 1979, courtesy of John R Harris and Partners)
  • Ibrahimi Building, Abu Dhabi, built in the 1980s. (Photo: Marco Sosa) 16 / 22  Ibrahimi Building, Abu Dhabi, built in the 1980s. (Photo: Marco Sosa)
  • Façade detail of the Ibrahimi Building. (Photo: Marco Sosa) 17 / 22  Façade detail of the Ibrahimi Building. (Photo: Marco Sosa)
  • While some buildings in the UAE, like the Blue Souq in Sharjah from 1978, received worldwide attention... (Photo: Marco Sosa) 18 / 22  While some buildings in the UAE, like the Blue Souq in Sharjah from 1978, received worldwide attention... (Photo: Marco Sosa)
  • ...most of the modern architecture that was built at an enormous speed and remained rather anonymous. (Photo: Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, courtesy of Micro Urban) 19 / 22  ...most of the modern architecture that was built at an enormous speed and remained rather anonymous. (Photo: Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, courtesy of Micro Urban)
  • The exhibition presents not only drawings, photos and small models by the architects concealed in archival drawers... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 20 / 22  The exhibition presents not only drawings, photos and small models by the architects concealed in archival drawers... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • ...but also postcard, stamps and photos from Emirati family albums to show how the new cityscape was perceived by normal people. (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 21 / 22  ...but also postcard, stamps and photos from Emirati family albums to show how the new cityscape was perceived by normal people. (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)
  • Make a point of opening all the drawers; their contents are both surprising and inspiring. (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia) 22 / 22  Make a point of opening all the drawers; their contents are both surprising and inspiring. (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)

Modernist architecture is not just the preserve, as is generally assumed, of countries like Brazil, France, Germany and the UK. One of the best aspects of the theme of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale is how it has encouraged so many countries to dig through their 20th century architecture treasure chests and share so many little-known modernist gems. The national contributions of Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco – the latter contributing to the Biennale for the first time – dealt with similar topics, but in very different ways. Circling around the “Absorbing Modernity” theme from Koolhaas, all three countries reflect on the relationships of modernity to memory, and history to identity, creating a range of perspectives on the years when modern architecture first kicked in – and how it has since aged under specific cultural and climatic conditions.

 

The Hôtel du Dadès by Patrice de Mazières and Abdeslem Faraoui, built 1979-1982 in Boulemane, Morocco... (Photo © Brian Brace / Aga Khan Trust for Culture)

Morocco: Fundamental(ism)s
Curator: Tarik Oualalou

Coming from the bright lights and vaulted ceilings of the Cordiere, this space is dark and rather compact. White models seem to glow on their black steles. Above, the ceiling is lit with a projection of the Saharan sky, or projections of the projects on display, transforming the room into a sequence of “days” and “nights”. You can wander around the models, yet nothing really explains them. And the sand on which you walk (which was, says the curator, imported directly from the Sahara) doesn't really help you either. You have to take the little booklet that comes with the exhibition to really get into this great contribution. Its curator, Paris-based architect Tarik Oualalou, claims that throughout the 20th century Morocco was a laboratory of modernity; one which generated a certain radicality in its buildings and structures because of its specific cultural, climatic, political and social circumstances. Half of the models on show represent projects from the past, from 1914-1984. Of particular note are the fantastic Honeycomb Collective Housing Complex and the Dades Hotel in Boulemane. And it's well worth consulting the booklet to explain how these projects have been transformed by their inhabitants. The other half of the room shows some quite nice models of visions from contemporary architects but – just like the sand on the floor – they beg the question: why did you bring this here?

No, it is the look back at modernism's heritage and how it matured under Morocco’s specific conditions that make this exhibition so compelling. Particularly since the collection also includes the Fez Medina, which with its often white-painted walls and inhabited roof terraces, is a fine example of where modernity has continuously and rather casually been absorbed. The desert region of the country is presented as having been the perfect place for where modernism’s radical ideas didn't appear so radical after all, but rather were naturally merged with many existing local traditions and techniques.

 

The Iranian contribution “Instant Past” is a small and very clear installation dealing with how Iran’s history and identity... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)

Iran: Instant Past
Curator: Azadeh Mashayekhi

The Iranian contribution is easy to miss: in a smallish room located upstairs in a newly renovated side building at the end of the Cordiere, the Salle d‘Armi, tucked away between Turkey and Costa Rica. Yet it is well worth seeking out. Iranian architect and researcher Azadeh Mashayekhi, based at the TU Delft in the Netherlands, formulates an interesting response to Koolhaas’ topic of “Absorbing Modernity”. “Instant Past” traces how the history of Iran – and an interpretation of Persian identity – was constructed and amalgamated into bold modern buildings throughout the country. Focusing on three key periods in the 20th century, the show demonstrates how creating a specific image of the country’s history has always been part of Iran’s modern architecture – thus also subtly referring to the political circumstances under which these architectures were created.

 

The exhibition presents not only drawings, photos and small models by the architects concealed in archival drawers... (Photo: Andrea Avezzú / la Biennale di Venezia)

United Arab Emirates: Lest We Forget. Structures of Memory
Curator: Michele Bambling

A little like Iran, the UAE’s exhibition also focuses on how memory and national identity were inscribed in the modern architecture of the region. Embedded in a chronological evolution, the show covers the two decades following the UAE’s foundation in 1971 and the rapid urbanisation which followed. Yet the show, curated by art historian Michele Bambling, also traces the survival of “pre-oil vernacular structures” while at the same time looking at the rise of signature skyscrapers. The simple rectangular box of the display features dozens of black archive drawers. It's well worth rummaging through them all, as they contain wonderful discoveries: not only images, drawings, sketches and little architects' models, but also sound files, postcards, stamps, and photos from Emirati family albums. An accompanying film projected above shows conversations with architects, planners, and “people who experience the modern architecture of the UAE”.

A fascinating pavilion and a wonderful narrative of how modernity came to the desert, the only small criticism being that there’s no place to sit and watch the entire film, whilst meanwhile people around you just keep on opening and closing, opening and closing, drawers...

– Florian Heilmeyer

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