The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
Kuwait City was ahead of other cities in the region in its urban modernization and the growth of its built environment. However, it is now not only racing to catch up with more rapidly modernizing cities, such as Dubai and Riyadh, but is at risk of being left behind.
The city has much potential still unfulfilled, with a plethora of obsolete buildings, unmaintained and decaying structures, and unwelcoming urban spaces. The city’s current state has been shaped by socioeconomic and political factors under the influence of what historians of urban development refer to as post-colonial urbanism. This influence has caused a confusion in the city’s architectural and urban identity. This confusion in identity, in turn, has impacted the city’s development and spatial reality, which has implications for the modern urban experience and longer-term sustainability.
Colonialism in Urban Development
Kuwait was never a colony, though it was a British protectorate from 1899-1961. The British exercised outsized influence and some colonialist accents seeped into Kuwait’s urban development. Kuwait City, in its modern phase, was established after the discovery of oil in the country in 1938, when Kuwaiti officials wanted the urban landscape to reflect the country’s new economic status. The British, along with local merchants and officials, strongly advocated for the demolition of Kuwait’s Old Town in favor of a new Kuwait City.
The native architectural and urban identity of Kuwait’s Old Town was shaped by then-dominant cultural, economic, and environmental conditions. This legacy landscape was then completely repurposed, and a new spatial reality was created, permanently altering the way of life of the Kuwaiti community. The spaces that once served as residential neighborhoods, communal gathering spots, vibrant marketplaces, and political diwaniyas turned into construction sites and were repurposed to fit the new narrative: the modern Arab city.
This globalization and disruption of the spatial heterogeneousness of the Old Town catapulted a small port town into a business metropolis irrespective of its previously diverse and rich cultural identity, all in the name of the Western concept of modernization and progress.
The new city was built rapidly and densely to showcase itself as bold and independent, a version of the “Pearl of the Gulf” emerging, though it never did truly emerge in the eyes of some experts, such as Saba Shiber, an urban planner who worked at the Ministry of Public Works during the process. In reaction to what he viewed as flawed but damaging aspirations, he warned against rapid urban development, fearing it would end up sacrificing the charm of the Old Town and create urban anarchy in its place. He stated that, “Never in the history of mankind has a more costly, more anti-organic urban complex been created with such speed. We try to escape the blazing fires of engineering and architecture, but they are so many and so possessed with momentum, they keep rearing their ugly heads everywhere.” By June 1960, Shiber felt things had gotten so bad that, in his view, “certain urban suicide was at least incipient in the old city.”
When examining Kuwait City now, there is a disconnect between its history and the current spatial reality. There is little to no cultural or historical significance associated with the city’s urban spaces and buildings, having been designed for the most part by foreign architects and urban planners who had little understanding of the local sociocultural context. While this may not be an issue in terms of functionality, it is an issue in terms of identity – urban morphology, the study of urban form, has identified a complicated but powerful relationship between cultural identity and the built environment. For these experts, a city that is designed by those who view it from the outside in, experiencing it while being detached from it, will end up privileging mono-functional urban spaces that are devoid of the true spirit of a city: its people. Asseel Al-Ragam, an associate professor at the College of Architecture at Kuwait University, explained that this disconnect was because, to these foreign designers, Kuwait City was a testing grounds, an experiment in architecture and urban planning, and an opportunity to create a new urban experience.
The Sour Legacy of Urban Planning
Kuwaitis who were born in the 1990s or early 2000s have no collective memories associated with Kuwait City’s commercial buildings. Many have little sentimental attachment to the city. Young Kuwaitis who live in outlying areas tend not to visit it often due to a lack of accessible and efficient public transportation. There is also little incentive to visit the city, because there are limited tourist attractions and leisure activities. The activities that are available are not equally accessible and affordable for all members of society.
Previous generations of Kuwaitis share some fond memories of popular recreational destinations of the 1980s and ‘90s, such as the shopping center Al-Muthanna Complex. Many of these buildings have become obsolete or abandoned, like Al-Muthanna Complex, and some demolished like Al-Sawaber Complex. Regardless of the hold such memories exert, it is unsustainable to rely on nostalgia alone to provide purpose and meaning to architecture and urban space.
Regarding deficiencies, the city lacks spaces that offer scenic views, provoke a deep sense of community, or connect people to their heritage and each other. Instead, a common sight in Kuwait City is empty land plots – some have been repurposed as parking lots and others have become unsightly pits for waste and debris. Another element the city lacks is green spaces and vegetation; this affects both the aesthetic appeal of the city and its sustainability. The city’s barren brown landscape and impermeable infrastructure make it inhospitable and very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
There are some exceptions, such Souq Al-Mubarakiya, one of the oldest souqs in Kuwait, which was left undisturbed by development plans. Also, a project that sparks hope is Al-Shaheed Park, which was built in 2015. It is the largest urban park in Kuwait, and it provides a green space for people to exercise, connect with nature, and learn about historical events. It serves as a good example of an urban space that aims to honor the past (the park name is an ode to the martyrs of Kuwait) and provide a biodiverse and walkable space for new generations. Another positive phenomenon is the refurbishment of spaces in Kuwait City by small businesses, such as cafes, restaurants, and co-working spaces, owned by young Kuwaitis. This improves urban vibrancy and social connectivity and gives the local population a chance to reclaim the city.
A City for the Next Generation
Ragam has argued that, “The historical layers of a city should co-exist together, to be read by different generations.” However, when there is little to read into, there is little that binds residents together. Experts question whether Kuwait City’s current trajectory, on a path without a sense of history, is sustainable, in social, economic, and environmental terms. It also prompts the question of how the city – in terms of a shared sense of heritage – is going to be “passed on” to the next generation.
The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book “The Right to the City” observed that it is often the very people who live and labor in the city who are excluded from shaping it. In the case of Kuwait City, there is an argument to be made that, in Lefebvre’s terms, that “right” to the city was taken from the people of the Old Town and handed over to foreign designers and architects. Bader Bosakher, a senior architect in the Ministry of Public Works’ Department of Architecture, explained that most buildings in Kuwait commissioned by the Ministry of Public Works have been passed on to local design firms. These firms are staffed primarily by foreign designers and the buildings are designed with the aim of pleasing the end user or stakeholder; consideration of local architectural identity is not generally prioritized. Therefore, the architecture and design of urban spaces in Kuwait City continue to neglect local social, environmental, and cultural needs.
Preservation and Sustainable Planning
For people to be able to connect with Kuwait City, and find meaning where architecture and urban space has failed to provide it, a new context and meaning need to be created, through repurposing and sustainable planning. Preservation rather than demolition of the current architecture is a more viable option both economically and environmentally. Repurposing Kuwait City’s neglected buildings and retrofitting them could help revitalize the city. It could also incentivize investment and reduce demolition and the carbon emissions that result from new construction.
Kuwait, with its complex sociopolitical landscape, has a young population that embraces change, while it is also eager for tradition, in the form of a resurgence of the “Pearl of the Gulf.” The expertise of young Kuwaiti architects and urban planners can be enlisted to ensure that the city is continuously being developed and reshaped to accommodate the everchanging sociocultural landscape. One way to encourage this process is for government agencies that play a role in municipal development or architecture in Kuwait City to incorporate smart and sustainable urban planning, prioritizing people and considering social and environmental conditions. Moving forward, Kuwait City has the opportunity to reshape itself to better mirror the identity of its people, to prove that, as the architect and academic Roberto Fabbri put it, the “original sin” of demolishing the Old Town never needed to be committed. It isn’t necessary to erase the past to make room for the future – a sustainable future is built through preserving the present and improving upon it.
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