The UAE National Pavilion Presents a Cement Alternative

For its 10th participation in the International Exhibitions of Architecture organised by La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale), the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates presented a ground-breaking research into an environmental-friendly cement alternative inspired by the UAE’s sabkha (salt flats) and created from salts and minerals extracted from waste brine leftover from water desalination.

The Curators Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto along with the New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi and other guests at the opening of Wetland. Photography by Frederico Torra.

Curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, Wetland is an environmentally friendly salt-based cement alternative that could reduce the climate impact of the construction industry. A new product that is derived from the waste product traditionally associated with the desert land.

Created from recycled industrial waste brine, the MgO cement has been hand-cast into organic shapes recalling the UAE’s traditional coral-built houses, forming a hand-built 7 x 5-meter prototype structure. The prototype is accompanied by large-scale images created by New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi of the UAE’s UNESCO World Heritage Site-nominated sabkhas (salt flats), which provided inspiration for the research process. A virtual tour of the exhibition is available on the National Pavilion UAE website.

The production of traditional cement generates 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions, while brine, highly saturated saltwater leftover from industrial desalination, is often poured back into the oceans with a significant impact on marine life and ecosystems. In keeping with the Biennale’s overall theme How Will We Live Together, the UAE’s curators Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto are researching a solution addressing both these harmful environmental issues: a MgO-based alternative cement created from recycled waste brine. This strong, insoluble building material was inspired by the crystallised salts and minerals found in the UAE’s Sabkhas (salt flats), which have been tentatively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that the exhibition explores the intersection of an ancient ecological treasure and innovative sustainability research. Visitors can currently visit the Wetland research lab at Alserkal Avenue to see samples of sabkhas, images and material experiments as the curators continue their research in partnership with specialist teams at the Amber Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi, the American University of Sharjah, and the University of Tokyo.

Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, design directors of waiwai , an award-winning multidisciplinary architecture, landscape, graphic and urban design studio with offices in Dubai and Tokyo

Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto say: “The structure of the UAE’s natural sabkhas offers ecological insight into the world’s most vital challenge: climate change. In researching ways to address the irreversible impact of industrial construction and desalination, we have aimed to bring vernacular architecture into the 21st century by creating a sustainable material that could recycle industrial waste and reduce the world’s reliance on Portland cement. Our work with the National Pavilion UAE has provided us with the resources to experiment with this vision through a collaborative process, enabling us to develop a proof of concept showing that locally-sourced salt-based cement is a viable, scalable alternative.”

Artwork by artist Fatima Al Qasimi at the UAE National Pavilion.

Throughout the extended preparation period of this edition, the curators met regularly to develop a manifesto for the future of architecture, generate ideas through dialogue, and investigate new avenues to fulfil the Biennale’s platform for accessible collaboration. To support the goals of sustainability, the curators are working together to share and repurpose excess materials from the construction of their exhibitions, including an open call supported by the National Pavilion UAE for designers to develop a public bench from recycled materials leftover from the construction of exhibitions, which will function as both an architectural statement and public seating that supports social distancing.

Wetland is open to the public at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale until Sunday, November 21, 2021.

All Images are Courtesy National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia.

Photography by Frederico Torra