In the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, at the Venice Biennale, Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) unveiled its plans to develop the Libyan Sahara for tourism. The project, titled Almost Nothing, showed that Koolhaas has not been commissioned to build a thing: ‘It’s preservation,’ he explains, if one begins to imagine mechanized buildings rising from the sands. ‘We don’t always want to build. We’ve found ways other than building to address situations.’
To safeguard its natural assets and towns from the avarice of a global tourism industry, Koolhaas believes the Libyan Sahara can focus on offering ‘almost nothing’. As opposed to resorts that offer the world, it can hold on to the ‘weakness’, the remoteness, lack of facilities, a foreboding culture and nature that would traditionally preclude mass tourism. The proposal had much in common with the Golden Lion-winning Bahrain Pavilion – where fisherman’s huts were transplanted wholesale from the Persian Gulf to the Venetian Arsenale.
In Arabic, Bahrain means ‘two seas’, referring to the presence of freshwater springs beneath saltwater oceans. Host to the infamous Gulf Pearl and a rich, ecologically diverse seabed, the shallow waters have been systematically infilled and destroyed by offshore steel dredgers continuously scavenging sand for landfill and reclamation. The impact has been enormous, once clear waters and abundant seabed are turned into muddy underwater wastelands covered by kilometre-long dredging silt plumes. The resultant land reclamation has broken the Bahrainis connection with the sea and in some cases pushed the coastline several kilometers further out.
This separation from the sea is profound in a place where, once, many Bahrainis learnt to swim before they could ride a bike. Minister of Culture, Sh. Mai Bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa asks,’ where is the sea to be found today? And where are the coasts that live in our memories but have physically vanished from our maps, replaced by the urban sprawl that has robbed us of our cherished sea?’
The preservation of the Bahrain coastal front was a mandatory clause for the timely 2005 inclusion of the Qal’at Bahrain site on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This was rapidly followed by the completion in 2007 of the Bahrain 2030 National Planning Development Strategy to celebrate, protect and renew 75,000ha of the remaining fragile waterfronts. A key recommendation of the National Plan was the need to regulate the Kingdom’s fishing communities, setting limits to prevent over fishing and preserve the fishing industry. Traditional industries of fishing, international trade, pearl diving and recreational boating have all created a close and critical relationship between Bahrainis and the open water. The cutting off of traditional fishing villages from the waterfront by rampant land filling of commercial, hotel and residential developments has spawned a modern phenomenon of seaside squatters living in ad hoc, self-built huts. Described as ‘portable cabins’ by the Gulf Daily News the huts symbolise the public reclamation of the newly constructed, privately owned waterfronts.
Harry Gugger, ex-Herzog de Meuron partner and chair of the Lausanne-based EPFL Laboratory for the Production of Architecture chose to install the humble fisherman’s huts in the Venice Arsenale to symbolise the plight of Bahrain’s cultural heritage and it’s declining connection with the sea. Titled Reclaim, the exhibit of three huts represents the first official national participation of a Gulf State at the prestigious International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
The Bahrain Pavilion at first seems odd and intriguing, the poignant absence of water, except for the sounds of an unseen nearby Venetian canal, trigger memories of the sea followed by the sense of loss in the voices of local fishermen, who, in documentary interviews, are seen lamenting the demise of the Bahrain coastline and the rampant development, relocating and privatising the coastline, moving it ever further away from the fishermen’s huts and out of bounds to public bathing.
For Gugger, in collaboration with curator Noura Al-Sayeh: ‘having been dismantled in Bahrain and resurrected at the Arsenale in the exact same way, the shacks talk of another interesting topic, architecture without architects.’ Essentially, they allowed the theme of the Biennale, People Meet in Architecture, to emanate from the exhibits that retain their authenticity because Gugger and his team have managed to conduct painstaking research to identify and harness the essence of a project. This demonstrates Gugger’s interest in dilettantism, the application of the ever-enquiring mind of the amateur where ‘keen and profound interest’ exists to challenge the way architects are ‘limited by their professionalism. If you are an architect and you design museums, then you pretend to know what a museum is, rather than base your approach on a love of museums and a love of art.’
The bilingual (English / Arabic) catalogue supports the fish hut ‘experience’ with quantitative analysis charting the historic impact of landfill on the urban, social and economic. In its clear portrayal of detailed research the catalogue feels typically Swiss and reminds one of the deliciously printed ETH Studio Basel / Herzog de Meuron ‘Switzerland – An Urban Portrait’. Gugger is quick to distance his work at LAPA from the more ‘phenomenological, abstract analysis’ practiced by the competing ETH. Since 2005, Gugger and LAPA has been using the latest digital technologies to expand the production of architecture in both frontend urban planning and, at the opposite end of the scale spectrum, the fabrication of 1:1 prototypes. By embracing new digital technologies Gugger believes the role of the architect can become broader and more far-reaching than ever before in the history of the profession.
In contrast, and transplanted inside the Arsenale, each hut creates a condition that curator Noura Al-Seyeh describes as ‘The awkwardness of their situation, disconnected from their coastal scenery, relates to the discomfort vis á vis our coastline. This architecture without architects, through the immediacy of its architectural form, speaks of the quest for a more direct relation to the sea. In line with the theme of this year’s Biennale, it offers visitors a chance to experience rather than observe architecture and, through a series of interviews allows them to engage with the anonymous architects and fishermen of these huts as they speak about their relation to the sea.’
The rising loss of social identity is represented in Suha Matar’s qualitative research who when interviewing recently graduated Bahraini realised that ‘although they all condemned reclamation, there was an overall indifference to the sea’s integral role to the island’s livelihood and identity. None had seen the oyster beds, knew of the dangerous sea life close by, nor could recognise the pearling songs of yesteryear.’
It could be argued, though, that preserving the Bahrain fishing huts celebrates cultural heritage, appeals to global tourism and enables further waterfront development. It is here that the similarity with Koolhaas’s approach to the Libyan desert becomes most apparent – in both cases modernisation can be employed to preserve the authentic and the natural. OMA’s proposed temporary Desert Stations in Libya make new construction less urgent, while cellular communications lessen the need for unsightly pylons and make possible a contemporary nomadism, where protected ‘do nothing’ areas allow the sands and nature to rehabilitate mistaken development of the past.
For Bahrain, the three fishing huts at the Biennale are transient forms of architecture presented as devices for reclaiming the sea as a form of public space. Their detailed record, removal and elevation into museum artefacts seems to sanctify a new era of waterfront development, not of ad hoc fishing huts but of modern fishing harbours, marinas and restaurants to cater for the massive expected rise of regional migration and to regulate the fishing industry. This is Bahrain proudly promoting its cultural heritage in theMiddle East and responding to exponential growth in regional air travel. Bahrain International Airport is building new terminals for completion by 2013 to cater for the expected tripling in passenger capacity, up to an estimated 15 million passengers a year.
Like the Victorians used to ‘take the waters’ in Britain to escape the everoverpopulated cities, the members of the monied and mobile Middle East are being drawn to a new global seaside to escape the densification created by rapid regional development. For Gugger the fishing huts, ‘embody public and private space and asks what is our relationship with the waterfront after allowing too much real estate?’
On reflection Gugger says, ‘I knew I did not want to do an ordinary exhibition. The location of the huts in Venice is site specific. In any other context they would be void of meaning.’
It’s easy to see what he means. The land reclamation of Bahrain has been fuelled by the addition of thousands of hectares of land, in and around the islands and cities of Bahrain over the last 80 years. It is reminiscent of the land reclamation that has guided the development of Venice since the 9th century.
A recent initiative to establish a Bahrain public coastal walk has been hugely popular and it seems that, within Venice, is a glint of optimism for a 21stcentury Bahrain.