The National Pavilion UAE has earned a top architecture prize in Venice for a “bold experiment” that uses a byproduct of desalination to change the way one of the world’s most energy-intensive compounds is made.
When the Biennale Architecture 2021 jury awarded the Golden Lion Award to Wetland out of 60 pavilions vying for the prize, the panel’s president, Kazuyo Sejima, a Pritzker prize laureate, called it “a bold experiment that encourages us to think about the relationship between waste and production on a local and global scale, and opens us to new construction possibilities between craft and high-technology.”
Wetland, curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, presents to the world something entirely new: an environmentally friendly salt-based cement alternative made from recycled industrial waste brine. This material celebrate the Unesco World Heritage Site-nominated sabkhas, or salt flats. If put into use, this material will reduce the impact the construction industry has on the environment.
The curators were originally inspired by large-scale images of the UAE’s Unesco World Heritage Site-nominated sabkhas (salt flats), created by New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi.
“We are very proud and humbled as we continue to spotlight potential solutions to global issues and move towards the future,” said Al Awar.
Laila Binbrek, coordinating director of the UAE’s pavilion, called the award a testament to the country’s evolving art ecosystem — and pointed out it was apt that it should come just as the country is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“Wael and Teramoto have put forward a notable contribution at the heart of a global conversation surrounding sustainable building,” she said.
The curators worked with specialist teams at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Amber Lab, the American University of Sharjah’s department of biology, chemistry and environmental sciences, and the Tokyo University’s Obuchi Lab and Sato Lab to develop the chemical formula for their new form of cement.
The ecological and socio-economic significance of their work is included in The Anatomy of Sabkhas, which was written by urban researchers Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib, co-edited by the curators, and features case studies, personal essays and photography. Aga Khan Award-winning architect Marina Tabassum details Wael and Teramoto’s research journey in a supplementary volume.
The National Pavilion UAE is commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the ministry of culture.
Cement is the world’s second-most consumed material, which is why the cement industry accounts for eight percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Al Awar and Teramoto were also driven by an interest in exploring compounds found naturally — and plentifully — in one of the UAE’s richest geological features.
“We have a deep and profound interest in the UAE’s geography, as our work as architects is always inspired by natural landscapes and the environment,” explained Teramoto. “As part of our explorations, we’ve been learning for a few years now about the UAE’s sabkhas, which are uniquely large and well-preserved salt flatlands. Abu Dhabi’s sabkha, which is among the largest in the world, has been nominated as a Unesco World Heritage Site as a reflection of its ecological significance.”
The sabkhas occupy five percent of UAE territory and are found in every emirate except Fujairah, explained Al Awar.
“For this project, we particularly studied the sabkha at Al Ruwais and Liwa in Abu Dhabi emirate, because these areas present a vast scale of salt flats with many different textures,” he said. “This offered us the opportunity to research different varieties, investigate and understand their natural physical composition. Through our experimental process we’ve learned that these salt compounds can be developed into a renewable and sustainable potential building material.”
The energy-intensive process of making Portland cement, the most common version of cement, involves mining, heating and mixing raw materials including sand, gravel, calcium, silicon, aluminum and iron.
“Our ambition is to create an environmentally friendly, renewable building material that can be used as an alternative to Portland cement on a commercial scale,” said Teramoto. “That means it needs to have similar properties to industrial cement, including scalability, strength, durability and cost.”
When the pair first started, their aim was to recreate naturally occurring salt compounds in the lab.
“This means there is no need to extract salt or other materials from the sabkhas themselves, making the mix fully renewable,” Al Awar said.
He added: “We are especially pleased with the development of using brine, the waste byproduct of water desalination, as the salt basis for the compound. Brine is typically disposed of back into the sea, which has a significant negative impact on the environment.”
So how likely is it that their award-winning work will make it into mass production?
“Although our research into this salt-based material is still new, the results have been promising. More studies and further research will be necessary to see our proposed cement mix become a viable solution and we look forward to continuing the project,” said Al Awar.
Al Awar is principal architect and founding partner of waiwai, a Dubai-based multidisciplinary architecture, landscape, graphic and urban design studio; Teramoto, also an architect and founding partner of waiwai, most recently founded the Office of Teramoto in Japan.
Wetland is the region’s second-ever country pavilion to win the Golden Lion, following Bahrain’s win in 2010.
• Wetland will remain on display in Venice until November 21, 2021. Portions of this article were originally published in 2020.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.