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Working with SANAA and running a Pavilion at the Venice Biennale: the achievements of Sara Alchaar

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2023. Aridly Abundant. Image Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Ismail Noor of Seeing Things-6068

After attending the course Architecture for Landscape in 2022, you worked as an exhibition designer and publication researcher under the Curator Faysal Tabbarah for the United Arab Emirates National Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2023. Could you tell us more about this experience?

I was approached by Professor Faysal Tabbarah in September 2022 about the prospects of being a part of the curatorial team. As soon as I finished my time in Bologna at the Architecture for Landscape course, I started out as a publication researcher for the National Pavilion and mainly focused on regional texts, traveler literature, historical accounts, and official documents dating back to the 10th century C.E. which took place throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Going through so many traveler journals and classifying them gave us evidence of detailed depictions of aridity and vast abundance within regions that were solely portrayed as scarce and futile. 

This research influenced our design thinking of how we can portray all this newfound information in the pavilion space. With that, I started working as an exhibition designer and researcher where we handled ways to portray experiential building tactics, and misfit construction attitudes that were documented during our observations of the land-based practices and techniques found in the UAE’s Al Hajar Mountains. The construction attitudes we found responded directly to overcoming the natural conditions of water scarcity present in the region. The work varied from exhibition design concept iterations, documenting all design work into sections, elevations, and detailing certain connections, lighting, video, and audio conditions. Other team members primarily worked on developing 3D printed material systems that integrated locally sourced discarded stones with 3D printed interfaces that complemented the stone formations. 

The last two months before the opening were dedicated to the production of a large-scale illustration that conveyed the landscape and material culture of the UAE’s Al Hajar Mountains. This was a long process of trial and error; our aim was to construct the painting in a way that would portray eight stories about the tactics and assemblies observed during site visits. Each element in the illustration was influenced by an actual object/scene that we took from real-life observations. The process included drawing, categorizing, coloring, texturing, and finally creating the overall storyboard. This work was done alongside countless test prints on different types of fabrics to achieve the result that was exhibited in the Pavilion. 

It has been a great experience and opportunity to dive into matters that will be relevant not only to our society but also to newly affected environments as a result of the ongoing climate crisis. Aridity is a term that should start to be addressed on a global scale as many communities are now facing risks of desertification, and many more will in the near future. This research made me appreciate the vast abundance that the UAE holds in terms of knowledge, innovation, material, and construction history which is an extremely important base from which we can start to build for aridity. Rather than looking for imported solutions and ways of construction, we can begin to dive deeper into the sustainable practices that have always been present within the region. This is the starting base that would spark innovation and merge contemporary technologies to tackle issues of climate change.

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Image Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Daryll Borja of Seeing Things-0984

It seems like this position opened diverse opportunities for you. For instance, you were chosen to run the pavilion and present the work to visitors. Do you think this experience helped you grow professionally and personally? 

Definitely. Being able to physically see how people interacted with the information, research, and design elements we presented was a great experience. Having worked on this pavilion for 8 months, it was very rewarding to see how the exhibition changed and grew throughout the Biennale, and how thoroughly walking the visitors through the pavilion changed their entire perception of what they initially had from when they first stepped foot in the space. We initially had ideas for integrating living “vegetation” and moving elements such as “water” within the exhibition space to further reflect the environment of the Al Hajar Mountains; however, these elements did not make it through to the outcome. Surprisingly though, being present in running the pavilion allowed me to actually see uncontrolled spurts of life and growth on the locally sourced wooden logs, branches, and Venetian rocks that were used in the pavilion! 

Through this opportunity, I met many professionals in the field, shared ideas, and connected with people of diverse backgrounds and interests. Meeting new people really broadens your horizons and shows you that there is so much more that you can do and that you can always seek a different path within the ever-widening field of architecture and art.

You were also an intern at the SANAA headquarters in Milan. Could you share with us the highlights of that period? 

It was a very meaningful experience for me. Connecting with Francesca Singer during my time at the YACademy, I have not only learned a lot but also gained a great appreciation for her insight and guidance. Therefore, it was an amazing opportunity to work with her again and be given the chance to experience the work culture at SANAA. I have met amazing colleagues whom I am still connected with to this day. I have also been “virtually” warmly welcomed into the SANAA office in Japan and integrated within the team reviews and workflow in addition to sitting in on several client meetings!

I primarily helped with the “Paraventi: Folding Screens from the 17th to 21st Centuries” exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. This included classifying the Paravent screens and artists, to aid in plan organization as well as model making. I also helped with the physical model-making of other projects during my time at the office.

What kind of impression did you get from working with such renowned personalities such as Francesca Singer and Kazuyo Sejima? What did you learn and how did the collaboration with them impact your professional expertise?

I hold great respect and appreciation for them because they have offered me such a beautiful opportunity. I have met Sejima-san on multiple occasions at the office where she would visit to attend client meetings and project updates. It was always exciting to witness the amount of dedication she has towards her work and the constant high standards she maintained in all of her projects even with the firm growing exponentially to what it is now. It was also fun to have her remember me as the “Sharjah Girl” as that is how I was introduced to her the first time, this followed up on conversations about how much they enjoyed their time in Sharjah during the construction of their exhibition “Bubble” in 2013 at the 11th Sharjah Architecture Biennale.

Being introduced to and working with such renowned personalities has definitely left a lasting imprint on my professional career. It has taught me how much constructive criticism is important in the advancement of ideas, how you can never reach a great outcome without the long process of trial and error, and that you have to put everything into a creative act in order for it to thrive and grow.

What are your plans for the future? Would you like to keep on working in the exhibition industry or do you envision yourself in another context?

My main goal during the past two years was to acquire as much knowledge as I could and to allow myself to seek my path, focus, and interest in this ever-widening field. My profound love for architecture, design, research, photography, and city exploration will definitely keep me in this creative field; however, I believe I am still trying to navigate between my interests and the different possibilities of what I can become. Having been able to work as an exhibition designer and a researcher gave me insight into a different perspective within this field, one that I wouldn’t mind delving deeper into in the future. 

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Image Courtesy of National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Daryll Borja of Seeing Things-0879

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