What is it that makes for a worthy winner of the prestigious Golden Lion, the award given to the best national pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale? For me, it’s an exhibition with a message that can be embraced by designers everywhere – something that this year’s recipient, the UAE, has executed perfectly.
Announced as the winner on Monday, the UAE’s pavilion is curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto of design studio Waiwai and looks at the development of an environmentally friendly cement made from brine. The new material has been used to create a structure that pays homage to the vernacular architecture of the UAE. Visitors who walk through the space in the Arsenale exhibition grounds find themselves surrounded by traditional coral walls – except that the coral is in fact this new concrete. There’s also a soundtrack recorded on the country’s salt flats, and complementary photographs by New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi.
When I spoke to Al Awar for our special-edition Venice newspaper earlier this year, the Dubai-based architect explained that he chose to build the structure in a traditional style “to question the role of the architect and the building process”, not just to champion the new material. He hopes that it will underline the fact that a new building technology – even if it is environmentally savvy – still needs to be combined with structures that are respectful of place and in touch with the needs of the people who use them.The UAE’s pavilion is a reminder that while building materials might change, the principles of good design have stayed the same for hundreds of years – and this makes it a worthy winner of the award.