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A History of Arabia in 100 Buildings: Bahrain's Biennale Pavilion

In its third contribution to the Venice Biennale, Bahrain’s surveying of the Arab world through 100 buildings presents an optimistic and timely sense of shared identity

Bahrain first contributed to the Architecture Biennale in 2010, immediately winning the Golden Lion with an exhibition on the decline of its maritime industries. Subsequent pavilions have consolidated the country’s reputation for curatorial flair and an impressive candour about the urban challenges it is facing. This year’s exhibition represents a collaboration with the Arab Centre for Architecture in Beirut and the Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, acting both as co-curator and as the installation’s designer.

That international perspective is reflected in a show that has been conceived as a survey of architecture built across the Arab world over the past century. Staged in the Arsenale, it is dominated by a vast United Nations-style circular table, onto which a map of the region has been printed locating 100 buildings, each representing a year. The table’s rim charts the socio-political developments that the region has witnessed during that time: a story that is further illuminated by first-person accounts relayed by headphones. But the focus of the curators’ efforts has been the production of a substantial catalogue, where the 100 buildings are presented in detail. A run of high timber shelves encircles the table, stocked with copies that visitors are free to take away.

The survey makes clear the common conditions that have shaped the architecture of many of these countries: their emergence from colonial rule, the impact of the discovery of oil and gas, and the environmental challenges that they have recently begun to address with varying degrees of commitment. The political upheavals that the region is now experiencing also form an important point of commonality. At a moment when national allegiances − and potentially borders − are in flux, the tabling of a conversation about shared experience and identity could not be more timely. 

Fundamentalists and other Arab Modernisms

Photographs by Andrea Avezzù

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