Architecture Department/Aga Khan Program Lecture: Wetland: A Future Vernacular

Wael al-Awar
Nominee Principal of WaiWai Design, curator of UAE National Pavilion 2021, winner of Golden Lion with Kenichi Teramoto
Department of Architecture/Aga Khan Program Lecture

Abstract: Can industrial waste produced by our cities lead us to a future vernacular for architecture?
Today, it is clear that we urgently need to question the way we use materials and design space. Faced with an ongoing environmental crisis, architects have a responsibility to explore local resources and seek out possibilities that can help repair the imbalances caused by decades of industrial production and unsustainable living patterns.
In response to this urgency, waiwai was drawn to the UAE’s sabkhas, salt formations in a wetland ecosystem that constitutes 5% of the country’s geography. Wetlands are nature’s laboratories, transitional spaces between land and water where biodiversity thrives. The sabkhas also contain important lessons from architectural history, with notable examples such as Siwa in western Egypt.
Industrial desalination operations in the UAE are a source of large quantities of wastewater brine, which can be used as a structural material just as sabkhas once were. Working in collaboration with a research laboratory at New York University Abu Dhabi, waiwai developed a cement compound using brine as a binding agent and partnered with the University of Tokyo to develop a method of digital fabrication. This prototype was presented as Wetland at the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale and 2021, where it was recognized with the Golden Lion.
In this talk, Wael Al Awar, founding partner of waiwai, addresses the potential for industrial waste to offer solutions for designing and building that also reintroduce local culture and identity into architectural production. This extended research informs waiwai’s approach to projects in the UAE, Japan, and beyond.
Bio: Wael Al Awar is an architect and founding partner of Dubai- and Tokyo-based firm waiwai. After returning to the Middle East from Tokyo, he founded waiwai (formerly ibda design). Wael layers his interests in natural phenomena into an architecture of light, time, structure, and landscape. He seeks to create an architecture that is more than fabrication, that remains open to adaptation. His site-specific designs encourage unexpected experiences. Wael curated the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021, which was awarded the Golden Lion.
waiwai was named among the top 17 architects and top 50 influential designers of the year by Nikkei Magazine in 2019, recognized by Architectural Record's annual Design Vanguard issue as one of the top 10 emerging firms in the world in 2018 and included in Architectural Digest’s top 50 offices in the Middle East in 2017 and 2022. waiwai was a Shortlisted Nominee for the Aga Khan Architecture Award in 2019. The firm’s awards include the AD Middle East Award in 2022, Best Cultural Building; the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021; the Arab Architect Award in 2019; the New York Design Award 2018, Silver Medal; the Hong Kong Design Award 2018, Gold Medal; the First Prize at the AIA Middle East Design Awards in 2018; the London Design Award 2016, Silver Medal; and the SD Review Award, Tokyo, 2015, Shortlisted Nominee.