Matthew Barac’s postcard from Sharjah
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Matthew Barac’s postcard from Sharjah

Matthew Barac is Director of CUBE: the Centre for Urban and Built Ecologies at London Metropolitan University, and researches city life in Africa and its implications for architectural culture.

Matthew’s career in architecture has included stints in practice for Colin St John Wilson on the British Library, in journalism at the Architectural Review, and more recently in academia.

His return to academia came about because professional practice – working on infrastructure projects in a South African township where life was frequently precarious – had exposed him to the interface between informal and formal dynamics of urban development.

Matthew attended the three-day launch of the second edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial (SAT), curated by Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo and entitled – The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability

Here, he reflects on what he heard, saw, and discussed, and what it might mean for the future.

1. Another Map of Architecture

If one of the lessons learnt at architecture school has to do with understanding context, how should we interpret the context of a global architecture event in Sharjah? How is this regional anchor represented and reflected in the curatorial character of the Triennial?

What SAT does is draw a different map of relationships between not only the UAE and Nigeria, but between West Africa, the Middle East, and the world.

Although imbued with the cultural politics of power – including the enlightened patronage of Hoor Al Qasimi, a member of the emirate’s ruling family – this new map offers a counter-cartography to the commercially driven vision of design that usually dominates global events.

The new architectural compass that emerges combats cultural marginalisation – much like that described by Neil Pinder in his Postcard from the Venice Biennale last year.

01_General_Courtesy-Sharjah-Architecture-Triennial_1 Courtesy Sharjah Architecture Triennial

2. Catching the Breeze, Following the Shade

The settings selected for the exhibition and associated events spoke to the Triennial’s themes of adaptive reuse, and a renewed appreciation of climate-responsive traditions.

Serving as the launch hub, the Al Qasimiyah School’s architectural form learns from the traditional connected courtyard. An oversailing roof, lifted at the edges to promote ventilation, shaded the main outdoor stage where delegates – including Lesley Lokko and Rahul Mehrotra – gathered for the plenary sessions.

This was just one of five destinations, with exhibits installed in repurposed buildings including the old Al Jubail vegetable market and slaughterhouse, Industrial Area 5, the Sharjah Mall, and Al Madam – a ‘ghost village’ on the desert outskirts of the city.

3. Convivial Conversations

Framed by Oshinowo’s three organising themes – Renewed Contextual, Extraction Politics, and Intangible Bodies – three panel discussions anchored debate.

These were pleasantly free of academic formality; each discussion was introduced by the Swahili word ‘Baraza’ to imply a conversation that speaks openly to human concerns.

Informal chats on the bus, alliances brokered in the departure lounge, at the outdoor cinema, and over lunch, captured an atmosphere of creative networking at the heart of an event that sought new correspondences in the architectural canon.

The speakers are too many to mention, but a few key voices capture the spirit of debate.

I was delighted to chair a session in which the incomparable Ola Uduku reminded us that history, with its feet on the ground, is only what we make it. Mpho Matisipa’s consummate capacity to listen, and to find the back door to a question many take for granted, led to insights regarding the premise of poetic and structural characteristics of ordinary dust.

This is both the Angolan dust that artist Sandra Poulson put to work in her installation at the Al Qasimiyah School, and the dust that inspired ‘dust mote’ reveries – orderly reflections towards a logic concerning the philosophical dimension of an architecture of scarcity, adaptation, and cultural value – delivered by legendary cultural theorist Hélène Frichot.

06_General_Courtesy-Sharjah-Architecture-Triennial_2 Courtesy Sharjah Architecture Triennial

4. An Artistic Medium

Much like the Venice Biennale, SAT prioritises artistic expression over explicitly architectural content.

Artistic vs architectural method dominates much debate about places today, but also significant is the prevalence of metaphor and transformation as themes that help us unpack the challenges of cultural adaptation and deterritorialization that we face.

Digital and poetic reconstruction of lost visions of our world provoked intense debate – Miriam Hillawi Abraham and Olalekan Jeyifous both brought us visceral visions of proxy imaginaries that would be impossible without their hybridised technical know-how.

Cave_bureau presented the ninth edition of their project, Anthropocene Museum, offering an alternative temporality into the space of SAT’s intellectual debate.

5. Triennial Temporality

Lesley Lokko’s keynote explored how events like SAT serve as a vehicle for the ongoing reconstruction of what we often refer to as the ‘architectural canon’.

A watershed in the recalibration of the canon, the Venice Biennale 2023 was brought into focus by Lokko’s conceptual framework that draws on ideas such as Achille Mbembe’s call for an ‘Afropolitan’ outlook.

Tosin Oshinowo’s curatorial provocation – her call to reuse, recycle and repair the history and theory of architecture, as well as its technological capacities – points to an ethos of unlearning our discipline, while auditing our capabilities and affiliations.

This is a constructive environment in which we give ourselves and each other permission to tear down the bastions of knowledge, while protecting the values and reputations of those who helped us become a creative community of generous thinkers and makers.

In the opening session, Lokko took a moment to remember Jonathan Hill. His untimely death serves as a reminder to treasure those thinkers and teachers who help us connect with our creativity.

Many commentators today herald the ‘Africa Moment’. Certainly, a real phenomenon, but emphasis on its ‘momentousness’ can downplay the real history that underpins not only the alliances at the heart of the networks clustering behind these events, but also the content itself.

The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability, in Sharjah closes in March 2024 – find out more.