Cover Story

Attempts to Express Identity in Contemporary Architecture of Kuwait

Dec 13, 2017 |

Text & Photo: Brinda Shrestha

Kuwait provides a good example of transformation and struggle of city to the pace of modern development and to return to the roots of its cultural heritage, at the same time. It’s not like European cities, where cities have passed through modern development and dealt downsides of modernism through urban revitalization /renewal and sustainable projects like smart cities concept. It’s neither like growing chaotic cities like Kathmandu, where no planning intervention has been implemented technically, nor it’s like an American city with fast growing infrastructural development and buildings. In my observation, Kuwait is transferring from local vernacular to modern urbanized city. It’s a city, which is preparing itself to be part of modern global world through transformation demanded by time and people. In the past history, Kuwait was inhabited by desert inhabitants from Arab countries, based its economy on sea trade but after discovery of oil in 50’s, Kuwait gained an economic boom and modern pace of development took place after that, which means, more cars, more high-rise buildings, more wider roads, and modern planned city. Kuwait implemented its first modern city plan during 50’s after oil discovery but after the tragic history of Iraq invasion, the country had to go through devastation of their important structures and infrastructures. But today, Kuwait had successfully recovered and overcome from its tragedy but marks will always remain in the hearts of Kuwaiti people.

Historical Background
Kuwait City development went through  important changes and transformation brought through various political and economic changes in the country. Traditional Kuwait City was composed of dense urban fabric of single storey, mud brick houses built around the courtyards (minimum 2 courtyards per household) connected with narrow alleys and lanes and connected roof-scape, in order to create private network of pathways for women. (Bukhamseen, H. Hamed. Kuwait City An Appendix to “Oil and Ink”).

Urban built form in Kuwait passed through dramatic transformations after 1940’s discovery of oil and economic boom that transformed the closed society of Kuwait and paved the way to join the modern world and break the linkage with the past. Followed by discovery of oil, economic wealth (1970’s) economic depression (1980’s) and Gulf war (1990’s), city development process continuously went through changes and transformation with continuous economic, political, regional and global changes. The city architecture and urbanization followed 1950’s master plan of Kuwait, which was mostly inspired by post-war European master plan, with city center as center business district and sub urban areas as the potential site for neighborhood residential development. Single storey vernacular buildings in center were replaced by tall high-rise structures for offices and economic activities, residential buildings were converted to multistory apartment buildings of international style, narrow lanes to wide motorable roads. Kuwait development, then followed the path of “former city walls” in the development of concentric highway system, Ring roads, in order to execute modern day city planning concept.

Importance of Identit y
When Kuwait was transferring from local vernacular city to modern urbanized city, at that period of time, the main intention, the city followed, was to enter into modern world with international style of development and participate in the urbanization brought through globalization. But after Gulf war and Iraq invasion, the issue of expressing identity in architecture has been part of major discourses, as it was later viewed as the architectural defense mechanism to retain city identity against the fast sweeping modern international style. It’s been discussed as a tool to defend and retain city identity in order to relate it with the local environment and suitable for the local community so that city stands strong against backdrop of modernization.

Attempts To Express Identity
The attempts to generate identity in Kuwait City have been observed to be followed by various actors in various ways. Government and state primarily focusing on inspiration from tradition and Islamic principles. Initially, effort to express identity in architecture in contemporary architectural design practice of Kuwait initiated with the attempts of foreign architects who were involved in State and government institutional buildings design after first master plan during 1960’s. (Source: Bukhamseen, H. Hamed. Kuwait City An Appendix to “Oil and Ink”). Parliament Building, designed by Danish architect John Utzon is one of the landmark building of Kuwait. The building which is designed in sole contemporary theme of modern futuristic architecture, has however been inspired by cultural institutions of Islamic culture. Exterior façade of the building resembles Arabian Tent as a symbol of hospitality open to all visitors oriented towards the Gulf. (Source: Dr.Mahgoub Yasser, City of Kuwait Contemporary Conditions) Inspired by Kuwaiti Souk concept, the building is designed around central open space for meetings, maintaining massiveness of the structure. It incorporated the essence of tradition in its contemporary design.

Architect Malene Bjorn, designed Kuwait Tower, the important landmark of Kuwait City. It is a water tank designed by Danish architect and inspired by sculptural form of Islamic tool used to sprinkle rose water (Marash) and imitates the tradition of Arabian perfume container. The water tank consists of three towers, one of
which is light tower. Grand mosque, designed according to Islamic architecture principles and elements as an expression of its function as a religious building. Place of Justice, designed inspiring from Islamic architectural shapes and elements. Al Seif palace reflects Islamic Arab and traditional Kuwaiti architecture in terms of its masses and details. (Source for these examples: Dr.Mahgoub Yasser, Hyperidnetity and Kuwaiti architecture)

While in the other hand, there are many examples of public buildings designed by Architect and developers primarily based on two perceptions of identities. First group, who tries to resist the invasion of modern architecture and uses the traditional Kuwaiti architecture in their design, while the second group believes in blending principle, which blends old and modern concept of architecture through design of building that incorporates new function, new technologies with traditional principles and elements. For examples: Al Kout shopping mall, host modern shopping center which incorporates new technologies constructed on the traditional Kuwaiti Souq (covered market) concept. Elements like courtyards, waterfronts, shaded podium, mashrabiyas (Lattice wooden Arabic window) have been derived from its tradition while building is well equipped with HVAC, technical and communication system.

The Avenues Mall, one of the largest malls of its kind, is constructed with a principle of creating city within the mall concept. The exterior of the mall is designed in modern architectural principle while the interior of the mall is planned on various architectural themes and the international style consisting of neoclassic style to old traditional souk concept. It stands as one of the good example of blending modern architectural and traditional architectural style under one skyroof. It embellishes almost all modern lifestyle trends from high class to average living style of shopping and enjoying city within the mall.

In case of Individual houses, villas and apartments, there seem to be mix reaction of individual citizens towards identity expression from the building and it simply depends upon the agreement between client and architects and simply depends upon client’s desire and architect’s skill and specialization. As a matter of fact, the result is kind of mixture of architectural style. Some people get influenced form what they see during their travel, some are influenced by their cultural and religious background while some shows interest in cultural identity and inspired to add traditional essence like wooden doors and windows, mashrabiyas (Arabic wooden lattice window), diwaniyas (a common gathering room for male) and entrance door.


Reflections :
Like other developing cities, Kuwait City also tries to thrive between two challenges: firstly to break from the tradition and aim high to join the modern world of globalization, with high-tech futuristic and international style of development, that transformed it from vernacular settlement to the modern planned city and secondly, to attempt to express city’s unique ethos, by reasserting traditional principle of thoughts in architecture and built form.

Frampton, K. (1983). Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, Bay press, Port Townsen.
Guardiola-Saenz, L. & Yamada, F.M. (2009). Culture and identity: Culture and Identity: Recasting the Bible for the 21st Century – Workshop at the Book Festival 2009 – ST M, February 7, 2009 Chapter 1, pp. 4–5. Bukhamseen, H.S., Kuwait City , An Appendix to Oil and Ink.
Maghoub, Y. (2006). Architecture and Expression of Cultural Identity in Kuwait. People in Place in People, 1st International Symposium on Environmnet, Behaviour and Society, The University of Sydney.
Mahgoub, Y. (2007). Hyper Identity: The case of Kuwaiti Architecture., IJAR vol.1 no.1.

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