Saudi Arabia Pavilion, the legacy of materials: towards new artistic horizons

The interview with the curators of the Saudi Arabia pavilion which presents “IRTH إرث”, a project suspended between tradition and modernity

by Manuela Dragone

Architecture as a distinctive trait of a given part of the world but also as an ideal bridge between the cultures of Saudi Arabia and of the West. This is the goal set by sisters Basma and Noura Bouzo, curators of the national pavilion of Saudi Arabia present at the 18th Architecture Biennale and co-founders of an important creative consultancy firm in Riyadh. Represented by architect AlBara Saimaldahar, founder and creative director of the Dahr design studio located in Jeddah, the pavillion features a project called IRTH, a word that in Arabic means ‘heritage’ as well as ‘treasure’. It is an experiential journey, suspended between tradition and modernity, which tells a story made up of perfumes and scents that lead the visitor back to a past that has never been buried. The search for innovative materials, starting from basic ones from the land of origin and from organic ones, represents a merger between past and future, between a careful defense of traditions and a gaze towards new artistic and cultural horizons.

Curatorial team, from left to right: Cyril Zammit, Joharah Lou Pabalate, AlBara Saimaldhar, Noura Bouzo, Basma Bouzo, 2023, courtesy of Ministry of Culture, photo Alvise Busetto

The Saudi Pavilion will mark its third participation at the International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. What does this new and prestigious goal represent to you?

This participation represents the solidification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s goals and visions for the future – amongst which is to amplify our culture and its resurgence within the country to the international community. For The Saudi Pavilion to be consistently present at La Biennale di Venezia continues to show the importance that the Saudi Ministry of Culture, represented by the Architecture and Design Commission, has placed on Saudi Arabia’s role in the  international architecture scene. 

Let’s start with the name of the project, “Irth,” or “legacy”. Why did you choose this name and what are the messages?

The reason we chose the title “Irth” is twofold, in Arabic, it can mean either priced possession or legacy—and with this year’s Biennale theme, “The Laboratory of the Future”,  it provoked for us the idea of a dynamic legacy. As we explored materiality (and with that immateriality) and the work that is being done, be it going back to earth materials or exploring how bio-derivative building blocks and experimentations; its clear that the future is driven by the practitioners and the inhabitants. The name, “Irth” aims to capture this collaborative effort while at the same time recognizing the priced historical and traditional context of architecture in Saudi Arabia. The 18th International Architecture Biennale chose the laboratory of the future as its theme and for us we believe that in order to contribute to a promising future, we have to first build upon and learn from the most basic material that was and continues to be our legacy. 

IRTH إرث , National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the 18th Mostra Internazionale di Architettura – La Biennale di Venezia, 2023 @venicedocumentationproject, courtesy of Ministry of Culture

How does Saudi architecture stand out? What differences are there with European architecture?

Saudi vernacular architecture is quite diverse, it varies depending on the region and is very responsive to its environment and is influenced by the civilizations that inhabited a particular moment in time. Saudi Arabia consists of varying topographies and this is reflected in the architecture – be it in the highlands, main lands, the coastal lines, and the desert plateaus. In a way, you can see this reflected in the built-in environments and the choice of materials, where earth and natural material were dominant. In the same principle, European architecture cannot be summarized into singular points of comparison with other regions. It is dictated by the generations of inhabitants and their anthropogenic needs. Different time periods created varying school of thoughts in architecture, dictated by the precepts and demand of each era out of the architect. We think more important today however, is not necessarily the contrast, but as we’ve tried to highlight in the pavilion, the similarities, the common interests and finding solutions that can be shared as best practice across cultures and sectors. 

A very important function is the proposed design, between tradition and innovation. Can you tell us about it?

As the visitors enter the Saudi Pavilion they are flanked with dramatic arches reminiscent of traditional arches. These vernacular arches were traditionally handmade of mixed local earth material. Here, upon closer inspection, the visitor will realize that the earth material that makes up the arches have been innovated and more specifically made through 3D printing and mixed with different local materials to ensure its sustainability as well as its prolonged preservation. 

In addition, the central piece is a further testament to this, 3D printed, the installation is a destination anchor with the pavilion right now, but after the Biennale, it finds itself serving a long-term purpose in the Red Sea, adding to the marine habitat, and stimulating further development for interspecies design. Lastly the olfactory experience itself is the fusion of cultural resonant scents to build that sense of nostalgia and connection with the pavilion, it marries tradition with the innovation to create an imprint or memory that will be perceived uniquely by each visitor.

What is the role of organic materials used?

The role of organic material is in everything. As mentioned, pavilion examines the combination of different material with local traditional earth building blocks as well as different techniques in producing the traditional material. The immaterial also plays a very important role at The Saudi Pavilion. As the visitors gravitate towards the center of the pavilion, they are immersed with a traditional Saudi scent. The scent represents the memory of a place and the lingering essence that is created by the lives that breathe life into architecture. 

© AlBara Saimaldahar, Mud and Stone Facade, 2022, courtesy of Ministry of Culture

What criteria did architect AlBara Saimaldahar use for the exhibition Saudi Pavilion?

The pavilion design encapsulates the interplay of cultural legacy and progress through the intricate wood and earth artefacts. It takes traditional patterns from Jeddah’s old town, a coastal city west of Saudi Arabia. It morphs these elements into fluid forms in an attempt to challenge the evolution of heritage as a progressional trajectory with a singular point of arrival. Instead, it purports a disruption of linear inclinations towards a more pluralistic and adaptive perspective that accounts for the intangible as much as the tactile and apparent. The design is anchored by two volumetric typologies. The journey within it crosses a series of arched gateways that lead to a central, immersive node, represented by the coral skeletal sculpture. It traverses tonal differences between inland and coastal regions, from the earth of Saudi towards the Red Sea. The earth is both a structural element and a cladding layer. The tile’s textures and varying densities follow the lines of sand dunes. While wood continues a consistent dialogue between earth and timber in the history of architecture, be it for structural or decorative purposes.  

Saimaldahar combines the language of craftsmanship and that of architecture. How does he succeed in this operation?

It is within this conceptual stream that craftsmanship floats as a pivotal notion explored in its vernacular potency. UNESCO describes traditional craftsmanship as the most tangible manifestation of intangible cultural heritage, and architecture presents itself as one of the arenas where this reverence of the past can be manifested and actualised as a viable tool in the laboratory of the future. With the theme “Laboratory of the Future” as the starting point and moving closer toward the themes of materiality and immateriality, the architectural design concept combines ideas of nostalgia, legacy, craft, and ongoing adaptation. It is within this conceptual stream that craftsmanship floats as a pivotal notion explored in its vernacular potency. Architecture presents itself as one of the arenas where this reverence of the past can be manifested and actualised as a viable tool in the laboratory of the future. 

What impact will this participation at the Biennale have toward Saudi culture and art?
This participation will have a great impact on how local architects and creative practitioners view the importance of materiality and re-evaluate the role of the materials they use not just in its immediate brief but the lasting implications of such decisions and factor. We hope that the pavilion also introduces the world to the architecture that was and is evolving in Saudi Arabia, and those who are contributing to its future.