Sharjah Architecture Triennial: Advisor Mona El Mousfy on what to expect from the programme

The coastal emirate of Sharjah is the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates and is considered the cultural capital of the country. In recent years, it has seen a rise in the development of art institutions and creative spaces, with various government bodies endorsing the development and regeneration of heritage-focused and art-led projects. The announcement of the inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial is the latest move in connecting the city’s motivations with its architectural past and future, as well as a step towards rethinking its urban and environmental footprint, in addition to that of the wider Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

Launched as a non-profit initiative, the architecture triennial is legally housed under the Sharjah Urban Planning Council and funded by the Government of Sharjah. Chaired by Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the team behind the initiative is formed by its partners including the Directorate of Town Planning and Survey; the American University of Sharjah’s College of Architecture, Art & Design (CAAD); the Sharjah Art Foundation; and Bee’ah.

Mona El Mousfy. Image by Ajith Narendra

Lebanese architect Mona El Mousfy, advisor to the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, plays a major role in the creation and direction of the event. Having moved from Paris to the UAE in 2002, El Mousfy became a faculty member of CAAD at the American University of Sharjah, and, since 2005, has served as architecture consultant for the Sharjah Art Foundation. In this capacity, she has worked on successive editions of the Sharjah Biennial as well as the designs of Sharjah Art Foundation’s galleries in Al Mureijah Square and the Rain Room building in Al Mujarrah, Sharjah.

In 2014, El Mousfy set up her own research-based design studio Space Continuum, which focuses on cultural and social spaces and dwellings, with a strong emphasis on research that engages public and historical investigation. It is this sensibility of research, archiving and public intervention that she hopes to encourage as part of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial.

Radisson Blu Resort, Corniche Street, Sharjah, Architects Collaborative, Inc, 1980. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

“I think what’s important to highlight is if you map all the architecture triennials in the world you will see that this region is lacking – not only the Arab region but the MENASA region as a whole,” she said.

El Mousfy explained that the triennial creates a platform to think and discuss architecture and urbanism in the region, which will lead to questions about its future, environmental considerations, and its social responsiveness.

King Faisal Mosque, King Abdul Aziz Street, Sharjah, Office of Technical & Architectural Engineering & Consultancy, 1987. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

“In the past the construction boom was mostly commercially-driven and I think now is the time to stop and critically reflect,” she said. “The idea here is to broaden the conversation to include academia, as well as government institutions because government institutions play a big role in defining the urban environment. So the idea is to get them all to converse and think about the built environment in a more holistic manner,” she said.

“We want to invite people and entities that may be isolated to come together and share information, material and archives – that is also very important.”

View of Sharjah TV Apartments, Abu Shagara, Sharjah, Professional Group Australia (PGA), 1977. Image by Paul Gorra.

One of the areas of interest for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial is facilitating research, as well as archiving and getting access to various records, which are currently either non-existent in some spheres, or fragmented and difficult to access.

“We want to encourage people to conduct research on the region, whether it is on regional architects or those coming from outside or even students,” she said. “It’s hard to get material, so one of the goals of the triennial is to facilitate that – to facilitate finding archives on the Gulf, and the wider region, and to facilitate getting access to them.”

Interior view of atrium, Radisson Blu Resort, Corniche Street, Sharjah. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

El Mousfy also weighed in on the importance of involving the public. She finds it important for the public to be aware about the architecture that shapes their daily experiences – it’s something she wants to achieve through programming.

“It is also important to create an awareness in which the public can have a say in how and where they live. Through the specific editions of the triennial, we will encourage field research and urban intervention in various communities to get feedback from the public. Whether during a specific edition or parallel to the triennial, we will encourage field research by the participating architects to gauge the ideas of the people dwelling in these neighbourhoods,” she said.

Northwest view of Bank Street buildings, Bank Street, Sharjah, Architects Tecnica y Proyectos (TYPSA), 1977. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

Preservation of existing buildings is another focus for the triennial – a task that is being spearheaded through the initiative’s Instagram account, which highlights various buildings from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s as structures with historical and architectural value.

“When we identify buildings with important historical and architectural value, we try to send red flags against its demolition. Because what happens here is that when a building is no longer structurally sound, the municipality makes the decision to demolish it, and up until now the architecture from the 60s, 70s and 80s was not considered very valuable.

Aerial view of Al Shuwaihean neighborhood, Sharjah. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

“We are creating awareness about the buildings from those specific periods. We are also hearing similar ambitions happening in other emirates where awareness is also growing.”

The theme of the first edition of the triennial, announced by curator Adrian Lahoud, is ‘Rights of Future Generations’, which will look at how the urban and environmentally-led decisions made today are passed on from one generation to the next, and how by addressing and reflecting on these decisions, cities can, in turn, create new social realities.

El Mousfy. Image by Ajith Narendra

“It is a time when, even on a global level, we cannot not rethink our built environment in terms of social and ecological sustainability. I think it is crucial and we cannot continue in this manner. We will need to have a deeper reflection about decisions with regards to these matters,” El Mousfy said. She believes that it is an ambition that can only be achieved through cross-disciplinary dialogue involving architects, urban planners, environmentalists, academics and government institutions.

“For future generations, one should put an economical value to research, to sustainability, to social sustainability. The economy needs to give this value to be able to transform cities.”

Al Saud Co. Building, near Al Arouba Street, Sharjah, Architects Alistair McCowan & Associates, 1978-1980. Image by Ieva Saudargaitė

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