It is apparent that, since 2003, the skyline of Kuwait has changed dramatically. Where once there were crumbling buildings, there are now gleaming towers. As dramatic as the change has been, it is true to say that not every change has been for the best.
I made the point to Haitham and Alia that whilst design and construction has taken place, it has done so without reference to the cityscape that surrounds it. “What cityscape?” challenges Haitham immediately. “There is no cityscape in Kuwait, only rubbish. The buildings, and I mean particularly the older buildings here, were nicely built at the time, but they have had no maintenance. So, while they may be standing, they are poor reflections of what their original architects and planners dreamt of”. Worse still, when buildings reach the end of their lives, they are torn down to leave empty lots which attract countless dumpster and the detritus of an immature society.
He continued, “Look at Al Hamra,” an undeniably stunning design for what we be a remarkable and iconic building for the region, “it’s built in the centre of an essentially residential district. It’s surrounded by houses”. Haitham recalls reading planning documents as far back as the early 1990s which called for the rezoning of the area. The well-considered rezoning plans for this area exist, but are being over-ruled.
Alia added “You know, the ironic and funny part is, where we talk about the municipality and their strict guidelines, as a developer you’ll be given a brief of what is and isn’t allowed. You’d think that this way you’d end up with a homogenous and well-integrated area. In fact, despite all of this, Kuwait still fails to have anything this is in fact homogenous or well-integrated”.
Who is at fault here then? If the rules exist, but are being ignored - is it the fault of the developer for flouting the rules, or of the municipality for not enforcing them?
Alia comes down on the side of the developer. Involved, as she is, with The Avenues Mall project on behalf of Mabanee, she has experience of working through the maze of municipality rules.
Haitham speaks with passion against the current system when he talks of the development of an area in Salhiya which was to have been (to use those words again) homogenous and well-integrated, but which was scrapped simply because the municipality could not agree on the zoning of a small strip of ground. Without this the project collapsed and the area seems doomed to experience more of the piecemeal construction witnessed across much of the Capital Area.
“The problem in Kuwait is the bureaucracy,” Alia feels. “You need to go through long procedures in order to satisfy so many departments and their rules. It is as if everyone is trying to show that they are the ones with the power to stop or allow your project to continue”.
“Today we have people in the decision making positions that do not understand design, that do not understand concepts”, says Haitham. It is true that these ill-informed and unqualified people are blocking the way of progress.
So, where do we go from here? When Haitham and Alia look around Kuwait today, which are the buildings or projects which fill them with hope for the future? There must be some good news. One project they both speak highly of is not, in fact, a new project at all. It is one that was completed several years ago, yet due to the nature of its design and integration into its surrounds has almost taken on a timeless feel, as if it has always been there. The Scientific Center on Salmiya’s Gulf Road.
“It fits so well into the place it stands. So does the Marine Science Center in Fintas” Haitham says. A unifying factor between these two buildings is the architect – Cambridge Seven Associates. Another critical detail in the success of the execution is that the designs made it through the construction phase essentially unaltered. They were designed so well that there was no opportunity offered for those on-site to feel that they knew more about the buildings than the architect.
It is also this respect for architects as a profession which has been an issue over recent years. Now things are changing, but until recently anyone describing themselves as an architect would have been considered by most as an engineer.
Alia – “Architecture is the art of creating the space”. Herein lies the true value of Kuwait and it’s architects. Only when architects are given the freedom to create unhindered by an overbearing officialdom will Kuwait finally re-emerge from what will, I’m sure, in time be looked back upon the ‘Dark Ages of Architecture’.
With young-bloods like Alia and Haitham amongst their ranks, Kuwait’s architects have a strong and creative future ahead of them. Freed from the shackles of bureaucracy and we shall surely see them, and others, blossom for a beautiful Kuwait.
First published in Men's Passion issue #12 April 2009