To drive through contemporary Kuwait today, you could hardly guess the context. Sitting stalled in traffic on the ring road, a thoroughly contemporary highway more reminiscent of Palm Springs than Desert Storm, there is little memory of the area’s Bedouin past or its recent history, especially of the early morning of August 12, 1990, when Iraqi forces rolled into town with violent force. Except for the occasional checkpoint at a sensitive government site, there is also little realization of another Iraqi war, just over the border.
Instead, today’s Xanadu-like Kuwait City, a metropolis of approximately 1 million, seems to be thriving, running on a river of oil down to a sunlit sea (with apologies to Coleridge). This prosperous, tiny state, which controls a staggering 10 percent of the world’s oil wealth, is translating black gold to concrete, banking on the real estate of its capital city as economic anchor for the 21st century. Kuwait City’s emerging character serves as a case study for all architects, engineers, planners, and clients, because Kuwait City is rebounding from invasion, with equal, liberated force.
International architects have made the trek up to the crux of the Persian Gulf before, in the construction frenzy of the late 1970s. That was when the Swedish-designed, blue-button-covered tower trilogy that defines the skyline appeared. The market peaked, and waned, as did Kuwait’s stock market, which rose and then fell with a thud in 1982, prompting an exodus of construction capital from the capital. In the absence of another Iraqi threat to Kuwait’s sovereignty, the money has returned.
Examining the skyline from the highway, the view appears vaguely Americanized and totally new. Major design houses from Europe and the United States, together with their local counterparts, have each contributed tall buildings that stand in ribbons from north to south, with large gaps in between. At the human scale, the lower-scaled remnants of a 1950s city peer out at random, lively witnesses of a modified International Style, layered in neon and paint. Where are we, anyway?
The Kuwait Society of Engineers, a group that includes its architects, recently convened a symposium on Middle Eastern architecture called “Directions” to address such questions. The conference asked, what values do we want our cities to reflect? What are the formative constraints on architecture in a distinctive culture: climate, people, economy, myth, and belief system? What is the role of ornament (in this case, geometric Islamic ornament)? Of craft? Examples within this forum dissected distinctive historic patterns within the Arabian Peninsula, reminding audiences how tight-knit social systems produced clustered housing with clearly differentiated public and private zones and interconnections through internal passageways. Today, standard lots with large freestanding houses or apartment blocks seem derived more from Desperate Housewives than from a people’s deep memory.
While drawing no firm conclusions, the conference—and a simultaneous gathering of architecture critics sponsored by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture—produced discussion on the potential role of a cluster of factors such as climate in shaping a new architecture, one more appropriate for a new Kuwait. This energy-rich nation can theoretically lead others toward a more sustainable architecture, where climatic response helps shape the buildings of the future.
Simultaneously, a competition for the downtown node near the city’s historic post office and Salhia Plaza demonstrated that the time has come for freewheeling growth to be channeled into authentic, three-dimensional urbanism. While conceptual, the competition provided a new vision for Kuwait City’s downtown that may spur urban planning for other Middle Eastern cities.
Since the trip to this distant country demands 14 hours of hard flying time from the United States, it might be easy to dismiss the professional ruminations of a group of architects or engineers on the far side of the globe. What does this desert have to do with California’s? Kuwait proves how quickly cities can change, as well as the existential crisis such a recovery can provoke. In our new, interconnected world, with man-made and natural crises abounding, what becomes of Kuwait City—in its search for meaning, for an appropriate urbanity, as well as for its sense of self—bears meaning for the rest of us.