1- Building Codes
Jassem: Building codes needs revisiting by the authorities. We are building way too much on a small piece of land. I can’t think of any reason why someone is capable of building a 40 floors of apartments on 3000 sqm. Where are people are suppose to park their cars? How efficient are the roads leading and surrounding such buildings? If one area has several buildings of similar density, how congested is that area? How is that congestion being handled? In case of fire, how will the fire department can handle such fire?
Barrak: I don’t see it as a problem that we’re building densely. What worries me is the lack of transportation alternatives and an infrastructure that can cope with the density, like you said. Very few people in Manhattan, London or Hong Kong have cars and that’s because there are viable transportation alternatives. We don’t have those. I’d also prefer us to spread out densely instead of concentrating into a few skyscrapers with open space around them. It’s better for shading and creating a more inhabitable ground plane, similar to the old pre-oil Kuwait. So I don’t think the building codes are so much a problem as it is the lack of comprehensive city planning. I guess that’s an even bigger issue.
Jassem: Comparing Kuwait, as a country to cities like Manhattan or London is a joke. Kuwait building codes allows developers to construct massive buildings anywhere in the country as long as they are in accordance with the codes. This means that someone with the right size of land can build up to 40 floors high of apartment building, with complete disregard to the actual density, or the actual need of the site. These codes are there to allow developers to make more money by building more on their small or large plots. Kuwait does not have the proper infra-structure to accommodate all this, should everyone decides to take advantage of these codes. You are right however, Barrak, that we definitely lack proper city planning which should be a more of a reason not to build so much. At least not before we zone, plan, build proper infra-structures that can suit the demands.
2- Residential Overcapacity
Jassem: Same thoughts with residential houses. Do people realize that they are building beyond their needs and means? Why do we need a basement, ground floor, first floor, second floor, and something extra on top? What for? How many occasions does a single family have to be hosting so many people in so many different rooms annually? Did the authorities think about the infrastructure of residential areas? Is our sewage network capable of handling such a population? Are the streets wide enough to accommodate the extra traffic?
Barrak: People have their needs. We can’t dictate to them what they should want. Especially not when the land is almost twice as expensive as the house they’re building on it. That makes them feel that they have to utilize every legally allowable space they can afford. It’s a sane response that I can understand. I’d prefer if residential codes were even more relaxed, as long as there was a very strict enforcement of traffic violations. Build as much as you want, but if you park on the street, your car gets towed. If that’s how the rules are enforced then people will end up adding parking within their premises and not abuse the public space. Again, I don’t think the building codes themselves are to blame, it’s a matter of enforcement and what people think they can get away with.
Jassem: The building codes have allowed people to build too much for their own houses. Prices of lands have soared as a direct response to such increases in buildable areas. What has happened is some rich people have started to buy lots of plots and constructing mini residential towers, with huge profit margins. I totally understand that some families are building to house their sons when they grow up and decide to get married, but on the other side, the amount you build adds to the value of the land. Imagine, a 400 sqm land in Khairan residential city costs an average 65000-70000 KD’s, and that city is near the southern boarders of Kuwait, this is outrageous. That is making lands everywhere less affordable to average people.
Jassem: It is great to de-centralize the city, because it makes it more efficient and sustainable. Massive construction is underway in South Surra governmental district. Have the authorities thought of the massive traffic those building would generate when they’re operational? Did the people living think about that? Especially when they are paying a premium to purchase a house there? Looking at the streets surrounding those buildings, it is clear to me that traffic jams will be happening on a daily basis and it won’t be a day-time thing. The massive hospital being built, along with the huge shopping mall would make sure that the traffic jams continue until nightfall.
Barrak: We don’t really have a decentralized traffic system. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of that. The streets are interconnected within the areas, but to get from one area to the other you always have to enter a highway or a major road. There are always bottlenecks. A decentralized traffic system means that there are multiple ways to get from one place to another, so traffic tends to disperse around areas of actual concentration instead of being restricted by the flaws of the highway system.
Jassem: This point I agree with you on, mostly. I totally agree with the notion of different transportation systems, with the metro as being prime, however, people will always use their cars. For as long as the automobile is a relatively cheap, people will always opt for it. Having different transport systems alone won’t solve our problems.
4- Large Parks
Jassem: How come there aren’t any massive parks in Kuwait? Every major city in the world has one, at least. Dubai has Zabeel Park which is split into two parts connected with a pedestrian bridge. Don’t the authorities think it’s important to improve the quality of life of people living here?
Barrak: Why would you want a massive park? I’d rather break that up into thousands of smaller parks and have those spread out everywhere. Our climate isn’t really suited to the large park typology, where you usually have large open spaces for people to play in. There are a lots of empty pockets of land everywhere and i’d prefer if we do something with those to benefit the local area around it, where they can walk to it every day if they choose, instead of ‘destination’ parks like the new one in Salmiya where you have to drive to it.
Jassem: I have not said that we don’t need smaller parks everywhere. I just said a massive park, which is what you have already proposed here on this blah a few years back with the first ring road green strip, which constitutes a huge park. I agree our weather is not the best for such things, however, there are many trees and many other vegetation that can work nicely in our climate. What is wrong with driving to a place, any place? How many theme parks can a city have? How many hospitals? Again, traffic will persist regardless, unless we make the vehicle expensive, allowing for alternative modes of transportation to take over.
5- Parking Structures
Jassem: Why aren’t there enough parking buildings in the city? People are suffering from the lack of sufficient parking and its the main reason for most traffic jams in the early hours of the morning. Why can’t we simply build multi-story, multi-function parking structures that would house vehicles, offices, and shops, like what Kuwait was doing back in the 1970′s and 1980′s? Isn’t that desperately needed now?
Barrak: I think they’ve started to build a lot of new parking structures, but it’s never going to be enough. The easier it is to drive to the city and find a space the more people will want to go there. There will always be more cars, so it won’t ‘fix’ the problem. Again, we need to have an alternative network (metro, pedestrian, trams, etc) to help disperse the traffic and add variety. Park and rides around the periphery of the city might be a way instead of having the parking structures right in the middle of the city, especially since the highways narrow considerably once you’re past the first ring road.
Jassem: Again, for as long as the car is relatively cheap, people will opt for using it. The only solution is to make it expensive.
6- Residential Styles
Jassem: Why are people fascinated with Moroccan, European, Islamic and whatever style for their houses? How are we in the 21st century related to such styles? What is it that connects Kuwait with Europe that we need to copy them? Why can’t we invent our own “style” that reflects our own way of life? People don’t realize that architecture is a reflection of our thinking process and philosophy, it is our heritage for future generations, do we want to leave behind a legacy of copying other civilizations? What’s our input? What do we make of this world we live in today?
Barrak: The old Kuwaiti style looked the way it did because of the materials and building methods that were used. We don’t use those anymore and what we have now are anonymous concrete blocks that are pretty ugly to look at, usually. I don’t blame people for trying to add a personal veneer to give it a look that represents their individuality. It can get out of hand sometimes, but I don’t think it’s really our place to dictate what people should do with their lives. They should have the freedom to build the ugliest houses they want as long as they’re happy with it. More freedom to them. I don’t want someone dictating to me how I should live my life, either.
Jassem: I am not talking about how people used to build, because that’s a different era with different circumstances. We need to encourage contemporary means of representation. Architecture should reflect our times, our own values and traditions, our own habits and climate. I know people have different tastes and opinions, it is our job as architects to show them the correct path, not to passive about people ignorance. We must educate them, much like what we are doing here, I hope. I wonder Barrak, have you ever designed a thematic house? Moroccan, or Andalusian style villa?