When you think of Kuwait’s urban landscape, you might visualize clean and sophisticated infrastructure of roads, highways and contemporary architecture. For many, it is an image of a modern cosmopolitan metropolis. However for some who look closely, it is in fact full of incomplete projects and poor-quality architectural designs. These spaces are a manifestation of years of government mismanagement and neglect.
In 1952, Kuwait’s master plan sprung the country towards modernization from a small mud brick town into a modern city-state. However, over the years, the inability to fully implement the master plan has enabled other forces to shape Kuwait’s built environment. Competing private interests have initiated a ‘land grab’ of sorts that lobby government agencies to further their agendas and gain multimillion-dinar contracts.
After the demolition of Kuwait’s old town, the government did not rebuild many parts of the city. Today, almost a third of Kuwait City is empty with abandoned plots of land and parking spaces. Moreover, this has led to a chaotic urban landscape, with no harmony between buildings, lack of architectural cultural identity, inadequate preservation of traditional architecture, pedestrian unfriendly, and of poor environmental quality.
It has produced a philosophy of unplanned and random architectural designs seen throughout Kuwait’s urban areas. Random, informal or unplanned space may be defined as something that occurs without method or a conscious decision. This article aims to shed light on some of these unplanned spaces and their impact on people and the quality of the built environment. It argues that it is crucial to restructure the current master planning policy in order to elevate the current urban environment in Kuwait.
Kuwait started its journey towards modernization with its master plan in 1952 designed by British firm Minoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane. The plan shaped present-day Kuwait City and its suburbs. The concept was a network of ring roads and radials extending outwards from the old town. This planning provided the basis of the infrastructure for a modern city; however, it also paved the way for the destruction of the old urban fabric and loss of an architectural cultural identity.
Kuwait City was eventually guided through a series of master plans in almost every decade. However, these plans were not usually realized due to disconnects between the master plan, the realities of Arab Gulf dynamics and incapable local government agencies to implement mega projects. This vacuum has led many in both government and private sectors to enforce their own agenda without an overarching state vision, resulting in a chaotic urban landscape.
After the demolition of Kuwait’s old town, the government did not rebuild many parts of the city. Today, almost a third of Kuwait City is empty with abandoned plots of land and parking spaces. Why did the government demolish the city without completing its master plan? Instead, it focused on the making of Al-Jahra Street, now Fahd Al-Salem St, once the pride of Kuwait’s coming to modernity. Over time, the municipality did nothing to preserve this street, and as a result, many early modern buildings have been demolished or lie in ruins.
Today, Kuwait City has no central district, is not pedestrian friendly, and has skyscrapers that rise without order and harmony. The lack of planning has encouraged the private sector to take the initiative and develop a financial district in the city’s Sharq quarter.
The ‘Green Belt’
Kuwait City’s ‘green belt’, an interstitial space between the city and adjacent residential districts, highlights the consequences of unplanned policy. In the 1960s, it was envisioned as a space full of gardens and parks. However due to government neglect, the municipality sanctioned an ice skating rink, a mall, a large electrical generator compound and parking spaces for nearby offices. Only recently in 2015 did the government through the Diwan Amiri revive the idea of the green belt in the redevelopment of Al-Shaheed Park. However, after completing phase 2, the project stopped due to challenges faced by the state to remove existing buildings and infrastructure.
Kuwait International Airport
Kuwait’s airport is yet another example of random design policymaking, which perhaps magnifies conflicting private and governmental interests. The architecture of renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange has been morphed into a completely different building. In the 1980s, it was considered an architectural masterpiece. However, after the first Gulf War, it underwent renovation, which altered some of its originality and was further transformed when the government allowed the private sector to add a mall and parking structure as an extension. Moreover, the airport has been divided into smaller terminals for local carriers Kuwait Airways and Jazeera Airways. The new buildings are not connected to the old airport and are completely out of context and form. A new airport designed by Foster and Partners recently started construction and it is unclear how the new building will integrate into the current location.
The university campus was originally to be built in Shuwaikh and while construction, used Khalidiya high school as a temporary facility. However, when it was complete, they never let go of Khaldiya, and as Kuwait’s population increased, so too did the university student population. To accommodate this demand, the university started to build new buildings in a small plot of land. This strained local infrastructure, produced traffic congestion with limited parking spaces, and disturbed the peace of nearby adjacent housing. As a result, Kuwait University today is scattered in more than one area and has no coherent urban hierarchy and college landscape.
Cooperative community centers
Finally, the last example of unplanned spaces in Kuwait is closely related to people’s daily lifestyles, which is Kuwait’s cooperative supermarkets and community centers found in almost every residential area. These centers have been regarded as one of the most successful experiments of Kuwait’s modernization. The government grouped the supermarket, commercial, medical and other government services all in one centrally located and convenient space in each area. However, over time, each co-op took a different path as they renovated their buildings to accommodate more commercial spaces.
Furthermore, the Municipality and ministry of social affairs, that oversee the cooperatives, provided permits for new mosques, governmental buildings and banks to be built without any coordination between them and no clear master plan. This chaotic situation led to many supermarket complexes being like a maze of unusual buildings juxtaposed with each other.
There is one underlying theme in all these unfinished modern projects, which is the inability to fully execute the master plan, poor facility management, and failure to foresee future expansion. Thus, vacant public lands have become a potential space for competing and clashing interests, either between governmental institutions, private companies or non-profit organizations who want government support. Allowing unplanned and random projects to flourish created spaces that are aesthetically unpleasant, without cultural identity and poor environmental quality.
What is needed now is a clear master plan, a roadmap, a vision to design our city on every level. What is needed now is to start implementing these ideas and enforce the rule of law rather than waiting for other forces to guide our built environment. What is needed now more than ever is a new architectural language that gains inspiration from our past to meet the needs of the present, in order to aspire for a more sustainable future.
By Dr Yousef Al-Haroun