Scarcity, adaptability and resilience are adjectives frequently found in the context of hardship and adversity — yet practices learned in adversity have much to teach us. Tosin Oshinowo’s curatorial direction has gathered, under the title The Beauty of Impermanence, an array of projects, installations and events celebrating the same innovation that is often driven by want, but which demonstrate richness, gumption and the possibility of real action for the profession, at a time of extreme social, political and environmental urgency.
“The Sharjah Architecture Triennial is not a space for distraction or celebration, it is a space for solidarity.” With this stark and yet heartfelt declaration, Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, welcomed the many architects and creatives convened in Sharjah for the opening days of the Triennial’s second edition, which took place from the 11th to the 13th of November 2023. The statement instantly set the tone for the coming days, and more importantly, the values for which the Triennial stands for as an accessible institution, which at its core has the mission of creating a safe space for experimentation, to carve new, diverse and collective hi/stories. It is these very stories — past, present and future — that the twenty-nine participants and many other practitioners who joined the rich public programme of the opening days set out to unfold, narrate and exchange, curated by Lagos-based architect Tosin Oshinowo under theme of The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability.
“The Sharjah Architecture Triennial is not a space for distraction or celebration, it is a space for solidarity.”
- Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation.
The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability stems from the premise that the current broken contract between humanity and ecology cannot rely on technical innovation alone, as propagated by global perspectives on sustainability, but could rather be nourished by design solutions emerging from conditions of resilience, evolution and adaptation. Whilst we might instantly associate the notion of scarcity with a lack of something, Professor Lesley Lokko, in her opening conversation with Rahul Mehrotra, invites us to question the reframing of the word as an abundance of ethics, imagination and actions. Contemporarily, Sandra Poulson challenges us to consider why it is that when we “look up” we look north and when we “look down” we look south — inviting us to rotate the horizontal line of the equator by 90 degrees effectively turning a device which now divides into a connecting thread which considers these global geographies as a set of proximities. What words must we invent at a time when we don’t yet have the language to describe these paradigm shifts and the world as we wish it to be? As we begin to build a lexicon of hope, the first few days of the triennial in Sharjah have certainly brought to the surface not only stories but also possible actions, which could collectively shift the narrative towards a more sustainable, accessible and equitable future.
The current broken contract between humanity and ecology could be nourished by design solutions emerging from conditions of resilience, evolution and adaptation.
Recognising the importance of using the SAT platform to ensure the rewriting of a local history whilst questioning what is it that we need to enable situations as these, the Triennial stories were made manifest far from the air-conditioned spaces which have become emblematic of progress but rather hosted in a number of repurposed venues throughout the urban fabric of the city. Most notably, the heart of the event was held within the walls, and courtyards of the Al Qasimiyah School, the ubiquitous and standardised design of which, “based on a mid-1970s prototype by the regional architectural firm Khatib & Alami”, is synonymous with educational facilities. As such, the venue represents “a proud period of national investment in education and civic projects across the United Arab Emirates.”
As we begin to build a lexicon of hope, the first few days of the triennial in Sharjah have certainly brought to the surface not only stories but also possible actions.
From container to content: conversations such as those exchanged on the Triennial’s first theme “Renewed Contextual” among practitioners as Ola Uduku, Marwa Yousif Koheji and Esra Akcan in “Baraza* 1” as well as those which took place between Nana Biamah-Ofosu, Bushra Mohamed, Aziza Chaouni with Ola Uduku in “Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa”, unravelled the inappropriateness of colonial canons, imposed pedagogically as a tool to support colonial British rule throughout the crudely generalised “tropical” territories. Professor Esra Akcan eloquently points to this colonial epistemology and how, alongside the dismissal of local traditions, this ultimately led to erratic urban decisions and inadequate architectures. Rather, the discussants explored the importance in the diversification of climate-conscious techniques adapted from “tropical” modernism,recognising contextual solutions from West Africa to Bahrain.
At SAT, materials appear in both natural and heavily processed forms; despite their status, both they, and the objects into which they are repurposed, hold a collective memory, upon which we can build.
For Earth to Earth, Sumaya Dabbagh cites verse 55 of The Holy Quran, Sūrat Tāhā, which the artist translates: “From the earth we created you, and into it we will return you… from it we will extract you another time.” At SAT, materials appear in both natural and heavily processed forms; despite their status, both they, and the objects into which they are repurposed, hold a collective memory, upon which we can build. Through projects like those exhibited in the videos that comprise Back to the Future by the Hunnarshala Foundation, these natural materials are seen as holding stories of indigenous knowledge, whilst symbolically and practically strengthening and empowering marginalised voices in cities and villages across south Asia. In their synthetic and often highly toxic guises, other materials are referenced to express urgent global environmental concerns. Consider the 280 million tyres discarded annually, which make up over 2% of all waste material collected worldwide, or the proliferation of fast-fashion dumpsites in Kenya, Ghana, and Chile, emblematic of contemporary waste colonialism. Defying “privileged” perspectives and embracing the spontaneity of grassroots activism, designers and practices as Wallmakers and Bobby Kolade work relentlessly to reinterpret and repurpose this waste as a resource. Here, Sharjah exists as both backdrop and actor: the city plays a key geographic and financial role in the second-hand clothing supply chain, wherein bales of unwashed, discarded clothing arriving from Europe into Sharjah’s “Free Zones” are unpacked, sorted, and repacked by migrant workers.
In questioning what it means to be local, unexpected opportunities arise for creativity, sometimes leading to what apparently whimsical propositions. Seemingly crude structures made out of wooden poles conceal profound material hi/stories: in this case, the poles bear witness to the modernisation of the city’s communication infrastructure, its transition from wooden to metal utility poles. Just like the exchanges enabled by modern telecommunication systems, the installation Raw Threshold by Al Borde builds upon the already permeable infrastructure of the Al Qasimiyah School in an attempt to weave even stronger and literal exchanges between the neighbouring blocks and the Triennial. This quality — this capacity to connect — is a metric which Mehrotra is quick to define as the primary means by which to measure the capacity of any kind of architecture.
When designing, the stories we exchange amongst “us” are as important as those exchanged with the “other”.
When designing, the stories we exchange amongst “us” are as important as those exchanged with the “other”. Practitioners like Cave Bureau, Adrian Pepe as well as Sharjah collaborators Papa Omotayo & Eve Nnaji, questioned the possibility of co-existence while hoping to find ecologically beneficial collaborations. Through Cave Bureau’s ninth instalment of the “Anthropocene Museum” — an impermanent institution that moves around different spaces of time and consciousness, we are invited to think about what it means to be here today, as a species. Kabaje Karanja is quick to point out how contemporary economic infrastructures govern and connect the “us” and the “other”, selling each identity to the highest political bidder. Located within Sharjah’s old slaughterhouse, the primary protagonists of which are the animals consumed in the city, the eerie site hosts works of artists like those of Adrian Pepe, who explores tensions that lie at the edge of survival and commerce, and which challenge notions of human-animal relationality, the alchemy of material processes, and the fragility of biological existence. Kabaje Karanja and Stella Mutegi encourage visitors to think of life itself as a meaningful impermanence; to view this as an opportunity for reversed notions of growth through introspection and spiritual reconnection. On the other hand, in We Rest at the Bird’s Nest, Papa Omotayo & Eve Nnaji turn to a form of indigenous urbanism to create a moment of pause, articulated as a series of “nesting” rooms (made entirely out of vegetative waste) introduced into the mechanised city to accommodate both humans and the “other”. Here, a moment of pause is offered for and between the “local’ birds that stay and inhabit the ecology of the UAE for longer periods of time as well as acknowledging the region’s status as a significant passage for migratory birds, coming from the northern hemisphere and the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, and sticking with birds, the piece When Parrots of Tehran Confess: a sonic relationship in three acts allows Elahe Karimnia and Sepideh Karami to share stories of resilience and adaptation, as demonstrated by the thousands of non-migratory parrots brought to Iran from India. Rejecting the binaries of exterior vs. interior, and by cunningly fooling humans for many decades, these birds have established a vast and spacious territory of their own devising: private and public gardens are transformed into their own territories, flying above the complex socio-political structure of the city. Through the voices of these parrots, Elahe and Sepideg symbolically represent tales of fleeing one’s home, of separation, of forced exile and longing.
DAAR - Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Concrete Tent, 2023. Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023. Photo Danko Stjepanovic
Further into the desert, in the town of Al Madam, Alessandro Petti reminds us that for Palestinians, the reality of exile materialised in 1948; for the past seventy-five years, it has been been reiterated, turning what was once a temporary tent into a hybrid of permanent temporariness, an embodied in-between condition of mobility and stability. The concrete tent erected at Al Madam does not offer solutions; rather it condenses all the innumerable and very difficult conversations that Palestinians have been faced with on the concept of home, and in the devastated remains of the territory, into a solid, undismissable artefact. For the past twenty years, Petti along with Sandi Hilal has been working on ideas of decolonisation in the Palestinian context through the award-winning practice DAAR, in an attempt to bring value to certain forms of knowledge, to certain people and methods which allow us to understand the world in a manner unimaginable from the perspective of the western canon. The concrete tent speaks to the most evident failure of modern architecture in relation to nature and the imposition of a settler way of life on the local nomadic population. Imagining that such a tent would soon be overtaken by sand dunes, DAAR’s project speaks about our collective failures in Palestine whilst connecting the same to other struggles around the world. When walking into it, an instant viscerality, a palpable sensation overtakes our bodies as Hilal names all the children who have lost their lives in the Palestinian struggle; this work is an attempt not only to give value to these lives but crucially, to claim a time and space in which to mourn them. For several moments, we are speechless. Yet at a time when the voice of the voiceless is being silenced in so many parts of the world, we cannot afford to be without words. Following in the footsteps so clearly articulated and bravely taken by Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari, architectural design must continue to try and craft a renewed vocabulary of both actions and words, with a foot on the earth and a hand in the sky.
Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.