Perspectives 01.09.2019

An Adventure to La Biennale di Venezia: From Saudi Arabia, to Los Angeles, to Italy, and Back

By Norah Altwaijri

The renowned La Biennale di Venezia in Venice, Italy provides a platform for architects and designers to share some of the most cutting-edge, thought-provoking, and significant work from around the world. At the most recent Biennale this past summer, there were 65 countries participating with pavilions, some included: Argentina, Croatia, Mongolia, South Africa, Switzerland, and, for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia. Norah Altwaijri, an architectural designer in our Los Angeles studio and Saudi native, joined Saudi Arabia at the Biennale as a docent. Here, Norah shares her whirlwind adventure through the historic landmarks of Italy, and her empowering return to the changing social landscape of Saudi Arabia:

How it all started: Jan 18, 2018

My story begins in Saudi Arabia, where I was visiting for my brother’s wedding. I was amidst what is called “the new Saudi Arabia,” where women were months away from driving legally and youth empowerment initiatives were gaining momentum. I decided spontaneously one afternoon to visit MiSK Foundation. MiSK was established by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to develop and support leading youth initiatives. I wanted to go and introduce myself as an emerging professional Saudi woman, currently working at the global architecture and design firm Perkins and Will. I went in with the hopes to network with the foundation. Little did I realize at the time, I had opened a door to one of the best opportunities in my early career: They invited me to Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia to represent the country as a docent for a month!

Arriving in Venice: July 16, 2018

Fast forward to July, specifically my birthday. After flying out of Los Angeles, I landed in Italy for the first time, thinking to myself, “Wow, this a sign from the world, alright!” As an architecture graduate, I had learned about the architectural wonders in many cities, and I knew what to expect on my arrival to Venice, but my amazement at landing at an airport surrounded by water was something you can only truly experience. Having spent my childhood in the desert landscape of Saudi Arabia, staying in a city on water with a transit system of boats and ferries was both foreign and exciting.

First day at the la Biennale di Venezia: July 18,  2018

It was time to visit the Saudi pavilion and get my La Biennale di Venezia badge. MiSK sends two docents at a time; for July through August it was myself and my colleague Hadeel Al Sayed. Our Italian coordinator picked us up from the residence, stopped for coffee (as a true Italian does!), and walked with us to the Biennale. Coming from Los Angeles, it seemed like we were walking forever, people in Venice walk, walk, walk, and walk some more.

As I approached the Biennale I kept thinking, “Wow, I never thought I would visit the Biennale this soon, let alone work here, at my national pavilion where Saudi Arabia is participating for the first time!” It was surreal to enter the Arsenale gate and walk through all the pavilions, knowing I’d be here working for a month.

To share some context, Saudi Arabia is becoming the “new Saudi,” with a masterplan in place called Vision 2030, initiated by the Crown Prince, to move Saudi’s economy away from solely depending on oil. One of these initiatives is more involvement in the architecture and art world, which led to its participation for the first time at the la Biennale di Venezia. As a young Saudi woman, to enter the Saudi pavilion for the first time, I felt inspired by the youth and women behind this space. The pavilion is designed by Saudi brother duo Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, selected among many designs in an open call. And, it was curated by two Saudi women Jawaher Al-Sudairy and Sumaya Al- Soliman.

Working at the la Biennale di Venezia: July 18 – August 20, 2018

Rapid urbanization has transformed Saudi’s metropolitan centers, leading to disjointed neighborhoods connected by highways. This fragmented state leaves 40 percent of city land vacant. As a result of the expansive sprawl characteristic of urban centers in Saudi Arabia, communities are left fragmented, isolated, and largely disconnected. In the pavilion exhibition, titled Spaces in Between, architects Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz examine the relationship between these spaces and architecture.

As docent, my day-to-day work included looking after the pavilion, giving tours to visitors, talking with the media, and, in general, being a live representation of Saudi Arabia. I took my role maybe too seriously, some days I would go in Saudi traditional dresses, but the days I did that were the days I got a lot of requests to take pictures of me with the pavilion. My proudest moments were the conversations I had with people that never met a Saudi, especially a Saudi woman, and that interaction allowed me to break many stereotypes that are made about Saudi women.

Visiting Giardini: August 7, 2018

I think I woke up this day channeling my inner fashion model. I donned a Saudi traditional dress to visit the Giardini della Biennale to take some pictures with the pavilions. The Giardini was the house of the Golden Lion, winning pavilion Switzerland’s Svizzera 240: House Tour. The space had plain white finishes to mimic the new housing trend in apartment communities, and played with scale ranging from very small fixtures to large, making you feel like you were Alice in Wonderland.

One of my favorite pavilions included Germany’s Unbuilding Walls. This exhibition questioned the effects barriers and fences have on cities and countries. Netherland’s Work, Body, Leisure, was a Narnia-like world where each door took you to a different installation, while questioning the age of technology and robots capacity to replace humans in certain jobs. Spain’s Becoming explored the changes in the Spanish architecture community, where women are outnumbering men and there’s a demand for change in learning environments. Belgium’s Eurotopie, was a bright blue amphitheater that questioned a lot of the problems facing Europe, including Brexit and rising nationalism.

Traveling Italy: Rome, Florence, Pisa and Milan: August 8 – 14, 2018

Since we had two docents at a time, we would work in shifts to squeeze trips in here and there. My best friend from graduate school, and currently my coworker at Perkins and Will, Miguel Morgan, was able to come visit me in Italy. We were two architectural peas in a pod, running around Italy, drinking coffee, talking architecture, and most importantly, visiting buildings and monuments.

First stop: Rome 

I have always dreamt of the day I would go to Rome, ever since I was 12 and saw Marisa Tomei and Robert Downie Jr. in Only You. After that movie, I decided I would go to Rome and find love! Well, I went there and instead of finding love, I found pasta! I had pasta around the clock, my favorite being Cacio e Pepe. I also found my favorite cappuccino in Italy, a place right by the Pantheon called La Casa Del Caffe Tazza D’oro.

Find yourself a friend that is crazy enough to follow your plans. We were on a mission to see and eat everything in our 48 hours in Rome. We started at the Spanish steps and made it all the way to Sistine Chapel, all the while smiling ear to ear.

Second stop: Florence and Pisa

Florence looked like a painting. The sky, the sun, the architecture! We had 48 hours in Florence as well, and we ran under the Tuscan sun from one place to another: David at the Academia Gallery, the Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence Cathedral, Ponte Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo. 

I found a local small restaurant named Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori. They had the most basic hand written menu outside of their doorstep, and on the right side of the menu, clear rules: “NO PIZZA, NO ICE, NO CAPPUCCINOS, NO TAKE AWAY.” The menu changes daily depending on what fresh ingredients they have that day; Miguel and I were so overwhelmed because all the dishes around us looked amazing. We ordered a caprese salad, duck pappardelle, fried chicken with zucchini blossoms, and finished off the meal with an amazing Tiramisu – it was by far and away, the best meal I have ever had. We also had the best pizza in all my life at a Napoli pizza place called L’antica pizzeria da Michele. To quote Miguel after his first bite “I’m in a relationship with this pizza.”

Third stop: Milan

We arrived in Milan during Ferragosto’a major holiday that also meant for us, “No one is open, come back in September!” Almost everything was closed and we spent most of the time walking around the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II where I drowned myself in Lavazza’s coffee. Visiting contemporary architecture, we also checked out the Apple store designed by Norman Foster and the Bosco Verticale designed by Milan based studio Boeri Architects.

Leaving Italy and Going Home to Saudi Arabia for Eid: August 20, 2018

Before I knew it, the end of my time in Italy had come around and it was time to go home to Saudi Arabia. After spending over a month in Italy it was a bittersweet moment to leave. As much as I wanted to be home to spend Eid with my family after missing out on the celebrations with them for four years, I found that I would definitely miss Italy, and most importantly, their coffee, food, and architecture.

While I was home, I was determined to get a Saudi driver’s license, as licenses for women had just become legal. Appointments were fully booked for months as it was still fairly new, and everyone told me it would be impossible to get one during my short stay. One evening, I was checking the website and an appointment was available for the following day. THANK YOU to whoever was responsible for cancelling that appointment. I jumped to book it and prepared all the paperwork I needed within hours.

The next day I woke up, got ready, and drove to the Ministry of Interior’s Traffic Department with my mother. I had grown up riding through these streets, but always in the passenger seat. Driving my mother for the first time was overwhelming and monumental – in a good way! I couldn’t believe I was a woman driving the streets of Saudi Arabia legally. Within an hour I had my Saudi license. Even though I was already driving with my California license for four years, having a Saudi license, and as the first woman in my family to get it, meant so much. I felt empowered.

I am grateful to work at a company that sees the importance in offering the time and space to grow as an emerging professional in the field of architecture. There are already plans for Saudi Arabia to be in the Biennale for years to come. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a role in the 2020 la Biennale di Venezia?

Grazie a mille to everyone who made it possible!