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Urban Playspace as Freespace: The Heartwarming Story Behind Pakistan’s First Pavilion at Venice Biennale

How one design studio conceptualized + self-funded Pakistan’s First Pavilion at Biennale – and why it’s catching the eyes of architects and designers


Responding to the Venice Architecture Biennale’s theme of “freespace,” the Pakistan National Pavilion is presenting, “The Fold,” a thoughtful design concept that encourages users of its playground structures to interact and play together. The concept considers new definitions of confined space in crowded urban contexts – the pavilion’s swing and seesaw-like structures function only when used cooperatively. These riffs on playground elements that universally signal childhood add an extra dimension to the architectural installation, forcing conversations and laughs among international strangers as everyone works together to figure out how to operate the play elements.

“We’ve designed a space which works only when people are in agreement with each other, and does not work when they are not in agreement, because I believe that is the basis of anything, any culture, any society,” says Salman Jawed, partner and founder at the multi-disciplined Coalesce Design Studio in Pakistan. “It’s how you choose to be together.” Jawed and his team were on hand during the Biennale’s press preview opening weekend in May, as globally established starchitects convened to exhibit designs for national pavilions. The extent of interaction and laughter that Coalesce’s installation generated provided an opportunity to acknowledge the strong ideas coming from emerging architects and firms representing countries outside the well-trodden lanes of activity. As Pakistan’s very first national pavilion, “The Fold” will remain on view through November 25 at the Palazzo Michiel, presented by the European Cultural Center in conjunction with the official Biennale.

Tall, bearded and dressed in traditional, breezy white garbs with paired with sleek aviators, Jawed conveys the feeling he is a rising young architect with ambitious plans. Among them: raising the profile of architects in Pakistan and using his own resources to bring young architecture students to experience the Venice Biennale.

His firm, Coalesce, started about 10 years ago and is made up of six partners who work with architects and designers on projects ranging from commercial to residential, from interiors to installations, and from product design to branding. The firm’s proposal propelled Pakistan to its selection to join 100 participants in the international exhibition and 63 national participants in the star-studded architecture celebration.

“It’s an honor to be here and we are really excited,” says Jawed. “We wanted to make sure that we got Pakistan here, although we got no support from the government, we had to raise funds for this, we had to design it, and construct it, all of the things ourselves.” But more than a passion project, Jawed explains that his firm aims “to be at the top level, and I think that this is the best level to be exhibiting.” Overall, he believes, “this is a great opportunity and it puts Pakistan on the map as far as design is concerned.”

According to Jawed, the Coalesce team, in partnership with Antidote Art & Design, dissected the concept of “freespace” within the context of Pakistan specifically. From there, they decided to focus on Karachi, which Jawed notes, “is the largest city in Pakistan and one of the largest cities in the world.”

“With a population of more than 20 million, and 62% of these 20 million, or more I believe, are living in irregular and informal settlements, which take up only 8% of the total land. So, you can understand how much density there is there,” he says.

When Coalesce started exploring “freespace” in Karachi, Jawed realized, “we could only find the narrow streets that were there, and apart from that, all of these developments are going vertically and there is a lack of ‘freespace.’ The corridors start acting as the ‘freespace’… When you look at those spaces, you feel like they’re so evasive, they’re so constrictive, they’re so confined.”

“Yet,” he continues, “they house all these activities — they house events, people are coordinating, people are playing on the streets, there are elderly people sitting on the streets. They become like a step down to a more urban space, and that is only the streets.”

Jawed further explains, “We’re looking at two conditions — one is the physical condition, which is confinement. And the other is the social condition, where people — when they start using the space and they coordinate and they connect — that is the beauty of it, and that is how it works.”

This insight led Jawed to create an outdoor pavilion clad in irregularly spaced vertical linear panels. Taking a closer look between the panels, one discovers an unusual swing set. The vertical members themselves actually comprise a folding system that defines a space for those inside, while also creating a reveal-and-conceal effect that plays off the irregular settlements of Karachi. Inside, engaged visitors activate the interior space of “The Fold” with movements that require coordination of direction and pace to release the freedom of play.

“We’ve placed four swings, which are all overlapping with each other on this axis. The only way they can work is when people are cooperating,” he explains. Four visitors take a seat, each facing the side of the next person. The goal is to swing into each other, only timing it just so in order to avoid collision. If everyone works in unison to time and balance each swing’s movement forward and backward, the swings (and users) never touch. If people are only looking forward and not responding to the nuanced activity of the others around them, it throws off the experience for everyone. And to get back on track requires some dialogue and adjustments – keeping the conversation and journey in a constantly unpredictable state.

Nearby, a smaller wood bench that was inspired by a seesaw moves right to left, up and down, with weight and balance determined by its users. “I think there is something so democratic about a seesaw. It’s like an agreement between two people,” Jawed reflects. “A lot of our inspiration comes from our childhood,” he says, pointing out that the playful pavilion is nevertheless “creating awareness. This is a very political statement as well, where we are highlighting the issues of the lack of government… And yet, we are showing it in a very playful manner, where we want people to understand.”

Coalesce’s design raised awareness of the conditions of urban life in crowded, poverty-stricken areas, especially in Karachi, but also left a lasting impression on visitors to the exhibition with its heartfelt approach and fresh eye.  For this, Jawed gives credit to the Biennale’ curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, citing their “freespace” theme as “so open-ended, yet it had so many things we could take from it, especially the point of generosity of spirit, which is something that was also in the back of our mind when we started this.”

To browse more projects by Coalesce, visit their online portfolio. The installation “The Fold” is open through November 25, 2018 – to learn more about the exhibition, visit the European Cultural Center website.

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