The discovery of oil in Kuwait around 1940 was almost immediately accompanied by a loss of cultural identity. For instance, a traditional Arabian port—that was originally used for pearl diving and selling local goods—was now put to the service of a prospering city. Architects raced to win big, lucrative contracts, while the rushed masterplans of the inexperienced government were at best haphazardly developed, as they were competing with other oil-rich countries in the region (like Dubai) to develop Western-style buildings and spaces. In this mad race, both the architects and the government overlooked the preservation of local cultural identity.
Kuwait’s colourful markets and bazaars were thus turned into Western-style shopping centres, leaving the vernacular urban fabric—and the ‘cultural identity’ expressed in Islamic and Arab architecture—almost utterly destroyed. The architectural identity of Kuwait was based on a culture and tradition of the Gulf region that included elements like courtyards in houses (al-housh), reception areas and gateways (dareehz), the men’s receiving and social room (diwaniyah), and the colonnade (liwan). The rapid economic and political changes that followed the discovery of oil resulted in the transformation of the humble Arab village into an Arab metropolis. Its buildings now reflected individualism, whilst demonstrating foreign modern methods of construction. According to Yasser Mahgoub, these cultural transformations created a new hybrid hyper-identity that was concocted from disparate cultural elements without reference to a broader context. An ironic example would have to be the Kuwait Towers, which, despite being crowned as the symbol of Kuwait, cannot represent the city or the Gulf region. Sadly, as a result of the forces of globalisation, foreign architects adopted a culture of ‘cut and paste’, where an ‘international culture’ seemed to be the only answer to creating a modern and thriving city.
From my own experience, Kuwaiti culture is known for its lively bazaars, markets and souks, capturing exotic smells, sounds and sights. Kuwaiti culture is dynamic, and if it is to nurture this continuous change, the city needs to maximise its human capital and create opportunities for participation. The challenge lies right here—how can architects cater for a lively developing city and enhance its regional cultural aspects without resorting to a caricature of ‘foreign exotica’. If regional culture could be integrated in the modern urban development, the city would both retain its soul and its immunity from the ever-changing international fashions in architectural styles.
In 1968, the Emir of Kuwait invited four foreign firms to propose their masterplans for the redevelopment of Kuwait. Architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s rejected scheme proposed the most considerate development for the climate and culture of Kuwait. The British architects created a ‘mat-building’ that enabled pedestrians to wander in all directions, whilst retaining their visual connection with the most important elements in the cultural identity of the city—namely, the mosques and minarets.
The Smithsons interpreted Kuwait as a ‘loose-fit’ city whose urban organisation and access routes posed a degree of ‘interchangeability’. Their mat-building materialised as a low-profile form raised on pilotis, thus allowing a seamless pedestrian walk in the shade. It was also a form that avoided all the traffic noise in a city where most citizens use their private cars. Aiming to offer something different from what was ‘fashionable in America’, the Smithsons integrated existing structures of the city in their design proposal. The inseparable relationship of the individual with the city was also emphasised through a series of ‘galleria’ that enabled ‘intervisibility’. Last but not least, the main street that framed the views of the minarets, was conceived as the ‘skeleton’ of the mat-building, connecting with other important elements of the scheme, like existing buildings, old cemeteries, or even shaded car parks.
According to Kapila Silva, “it is usually the whole building fabric, rather than individual buildings that matters most to the identity of a setting.” In other words, it is not only iconic structures, like the Kuwait Towers, that must govern the identity of a city, but also its overall masterplan in all its economic, political, ecological, religious and cultural dimensions. The result from the assertion of a singular ‘archetypal’ identity and piecemeal order was in no way Arab. If it had taken place, the mat-building masterplan by Alison and Peter Smithson would have helped recover a lost identity, suggesting a critical regionalist approach that could have formed a foundation for similar developments in the future. It is now up to the future architects and planners of Kuwait to recover some of its lost cultural identity that will allow the city to shine again as bright as its minarets.
Image Credits: Kuwait Towers photo by Malene Bjørn, composite montage perspective and axonometric of the Smithsons' scheme drawings reworked by Raphaé Memon (based on the original Smithsons images published in AR, 1974).