Public Space in Bahrain at the Venice Biennale I

The Arts


Accounts of modernization and urbanization in Manama and Bahrain are notably lacking – perhaps with the exception of the modern settlements in Hamad Town, Awali and Isa Town, roughly designed in modern Western standards and setting the pattern for new developments in Bahrain – but a contemporary account from 2008 gives us a picture which more or less fits the reality of what one would see on a first-time visit to the island:  “Mixed scenes make up the landscape of present day Manama, along the new highway, the driver passes empty plots, dying palms groves, a few remaining historic buildings, and modern glazed towers, with views of the sea never far away.[1]”  


Travelogues from the 19th century and more or less contemporary explorations are not very helpful, as they reproduce the Orientalist cliché of colonial officers and offer a binary opposition between tribe and state, obscuring the role urbanization played in the rise of modern Bahrain[2]. One of those accounts is limited to saying that merchants and pearl divers live in Manama, the aristocracy in Muharraq and that there are two types of dwellings: Merchants imported the Saracenic architectural style of the neighboring coast of El Hasa, while on the other hand, divers and slaves lived in bamboo huts along the coast[3]. Nevertheless Manama grew exponentially between 1818 and 1905 because of its role as a port city in the Gulf[4].


From this period on, the city reflected this transnational cosmopolitanism and as many cities in the Muslim world of the 19th century was administratively divided into quarters; albeit the absence of a city wall reveals its contemporary foundation[5]. We learn that: “A regional economy based mostly on maritime activities determined Manama’s destiny as a port town and then a port city, several mutually supportive activities – fishing, pearl-diving, shipping, shipbuilding, and trade – reflected this.[6] The importance of the Sea cannot be stressed enough and a great deal of the folklore of Bahrain, including Fidjeri – the vocal music of the pearl divers – reflect this (Bahrain Musical Atlas was released by UNESCO/EMI in 1979).


It is the decline of this Sea culture what was at the heart of Bahrain’s first national pavilion at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition – Venice Biennale (2010) that earned the country a Golden Lion for best national participation. The project was a collaborative effort between Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, the Bahrain Urban Research Team, photographer Camille Zakharia and the Lapa Studio in Lausanne. The exhibit built and documented in Bahrain traditional fishermen huts and then transported them to Europe, in order to highlight not only the ecological impact of Bahrain’s modern transformations but also the value of the Sea as a public space.


Public spaces arrived late in Bahrain with the construction of Bab Al Bahrain but once again, the omission of tribal structure as a state-builder and the assumption that it was only after oil that the Bahraini state and bureaucracy emerged, obscure the significance of trade, cosmopolitanism and contestations between the urban and the rural as building blocks in the configuration of statehood in the Gulf[7]. The extensive artistic intervention, Reclaim, tackles the socio-political changes effected in the island as a consequence of land reclamation projects and question the disappearance of Bahrain’s old cosmopolitan society in favor of urban homogenization that transformed the setting of public places into a heterogeneous but abstract public space.  


Land reclamation projects in Bahrain significantly affected the surrounding ecosystem of the island and its social setting but contrary to popular belief, they’re not simply driven by economic motivations of the modern state. It was a combination of factors: A chaotic policy of land registry limited the amount of land available for public projects, a scheme was provided by the British government already in 1903 and health reasons also played a role: The necessity to expand a city rather overpopulated to avoid the risk of epidemics. Reclaimed land, although used for private developments too, has been largely used for public projects with uneconomic use and for expanding the now insufficient space provided once by Bab Al Bahrain[8].


Urban transformations in Bahrain and the entire region are continuous and the deterioration of old city centers to be replaced by hyperspaces along coastal lines is a trend. These spaces provided by new architectural practices have caused shifting mutations in the concept of space itself – as something ungraspable and of likely impossible dimension to the human eye – that is hardly matched by social and cultural perceptions. The mutation of space – as seen in Manama between the Old City and the new diplomatic quarters – has not been accommodated by a mutation in the social subject[9]. The new definitions of space (distant from the traditional “home”) seem to diminish the stature of man as it simultaneously enlarges and shrinks the living space we occupy in the world, making it geographically promiscuous and sensorially empty[10].


In Bahrain, the continuous trend added to space shortage and high-population growth tends to an increasing shortage of the distance between Manama, other cities and remote villages, which in turn will generate a conurbation phenomenon that will make all of Bahrain into a single metropolis and land will continue to be reclaimed into as far as the depth of the sea permits[11]. The “Reclaim” project at the Biennale however does ask the question of how the effects of the global trend continue to re-make the social fabric of the Gulf’s first modern and metropolitan city. The Bahrain Action Plan for Marine World Heritage (2009-2014) shows that there’s an interest – albeit belated – in preserving the physical qualities of the ecosystem, and an ambitious project in 2012 to create artificial reefs to make up for previously eroded sites has proven successful. No predictions can be made, nevertheless, about the social fabric.


As a part of the artistic intervention, the documentary “Sea Interviews”, directed by Bahraini filmmaker Mohammed Rashid Bu Ali, features interviews conducted by the Bahrain Urban Research Team along the coastal areas exploring the relation of Bahrainis to the Sea and documents the social changes as much as their aspirations for possible improvements. His short film The Good Omen (2009) explores through traditional Bahraini symbols, the complex relationship between rural and urban, place and hyperspace in a curious tale about fishermen.


Modernity has proven to be the most flexible social and urban dynamics thus far, nevertheless it holds an increasing risk to solidify itself at a certain stage; the risk of this procedure is all too visible already in a country that modernized early – for the Gulf – like Bahrain. The trend seems irreversible but “Reclaim” is yet an acute and perplexing look at this process.



The Good Omen (AlBishara) from Mohammed BuAli on Vimeo.


In the next installment, I will discuss "Background", Bahrain Pavillion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition - Venice Biennale, 2012.



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[1] Mustapha Ben Hamouche, “Manama: The Metamorphosis of an Arab Gulf City” in The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development, ed. Yasser Elsheshtawy (New York: Routledge, 2008): 206.



[2] Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 1-2.



[3] J. Theodore Bent, “The Bahrein Islands of the Persian Gulf” in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, No. 1, January 1890: 2.  



[4] Mustapha Ben Hamouche. 2008: 191.



[5] Mustapha Ben Hamouche. 2008: 191 & 200.



[6] Mustapha Ben Hamouche. 2008: 189.



[7] Fuad Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1980): 1-13.



[8] Mustapha ben Hamouche. 2008: 196-198.



[9] Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. Clive Cazeaux (New York: Routledge, 2000): 288.



[10] Hannah Arendt, “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 2006): 260-274. Agnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999):185-199.



[11] Mustapha ben Hamouche. 2008: 212. 



Bahrain, Middle East, Urbanism