Arabic Botanical Treatise, undated, Princeton University Library, Islamic Manuscripts.
Microclimates dug in the Erg Oasis to inhabit the desert in the Algerian Souf region. Source: The Water Atlas.

Stereotypical Western representations of desert regions depict them as dead, empty landscapes—impossible to contain, with little vegetation and no water. Becoming Xerophile (from the Greek xēros ‘dry,’ and philos ‘loving’) proposes to appreciate plants that thrive in dry areas. Reimagining the role of desert plants, and challenging the idea of the desert as a bare landscape, Becoming Xerophile is an ongoing sensing experiment, with a view towards developing a new model for non-irrigated urban gardens in Sharjah, UAE, and other cities in arid environments.

Moringa peregrina growing in its new microclimate, built with rubble from the nearby construction site. Covering the ground with permeable materials is an old technique to retain soil moisture and protect roots from the sun, allowing for hydration with just stones.
The new desert garden comprises nine microclimates. Each one has a bowl shape with different slope angles, diameters and depths. Desert species from the Gulf were planted inside and outside of each bowl. On-site sensors track the performance of the trees assessing how the new topography contributes towards reducing water stress.

CLIMAVORE proposed a new topography carved outside the former Al-Qasimiyah School in Sharjah. Nine sand bowls create a series of microclimates to enable ‘watering without water’ and ‘watering with stones’ by reinterpreting ancient techniques of cultivation. The landscaping makes use of local soil and rubble from the school’s renovation. The garden was planted with over 40 desert plant species that are not necessarily considered as ‘ornamental’—but have been used for centuries by people living with the desert. Many have been used by bedouins in the region for edible or medicinal purposes. In collaboration with local agronomists, the plant selection process included propagating rare desert species from the Gulf for the first time at such a scale.

Through their materiality, shading, depth, and positioning, the sand bowls optimise air humidity and moisture seepage from the water table. The conditions of the trees inside and outside the sand bowls is sensed and monitored through a series of devices to understand the role of solar radiation, soil moisture, and wind speed in reducing water stress. Accompanying the installation, a CLIMAVORE menu serving desert foods was devised for a local restaurant based on edible desert plants that grow with little or no irrigation, as well as salt-tolerant species from the Gulf, including moringa, desert truffles, jujube, tamarind, and cactus leaves.

The project expands a previous iteration presented at the March Meeting, 13th Sharjah Art Biennial, 2017. On that occasion, a set of dining surfaces replicated the geometry of a labyrinthine pattern that vegetation had adopted at 12°44’0.28”N, 3°05’40.47”E. They exposed how plants organise themselves collectively in order to decide where to grow and where not to: by optimising the amount of gaps between them, these unusual geometric formations reduce the frictions of soil-water systems, becoming more resilient towards water scarcity.

These kinds of geometric patterns around the world’s deserts are currently being researched in order to forecast the next drought or inversely, the regeneration pace of groundwater aquifers.

The installation awaiting a CLIMAVORE performative meal, featuring desert plants resistant to either extreme temperature variations or high levels of soil salinity. The dining surfaces are shaped by the labyrinthine geometric pattern that desert plants follow to optimise scarce groundwater in a determined area. CLIMAVORE: On the Movement of Deserts. Cooking Sections, 2017. 13th Sharjah Art Biennale, March Meeting.
The new dining table provides a space to appreciate desert foods of the Gulf; an essential practice for living with arid landscapes.
A large microclimate in the garden houses ghaf, miswak and sidr trees. Built with recycled aggregate blocks from local demolition sites, the new enclosure can also be used by humans at different times of the day according to the shade. The base of the microclimate is 60cm lower than the surrounding site so that the trees can better reach groundwater in their early stages. A variety of smaller size desert plants propagated from specially collected seeds populate the hollow blocks.

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