Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | May 25, 2009

Office da

Contrasting with the abomination of Aswaq Al-Qurain (which is close to completion) is a highly successful proposal in Sharq by Boston based architecture firm Office da. The project is a mixed use residential district in the heart of Kuwait City.

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At first glance, the cynical amongst you would say ‘Hey this looks just like the other one, but with towers. It even has palm trees’. Yes, it does look like it because the renders both have white boxes and palm trees. So what’s different?

“The Sharq District is developed as a multi-purpose neighborhood containing civic, retail, commercial and residential programs. As such, it is conceived as a self sufficient district as well as a point of destination for others in the Kuwait central city area.

The housing occupies two paradigms: matte building and tower. The matte building benefits from courtyard conditions which offer exceptional value to each household: open space, light, air, views and privacy all features conventionally absent in this class of real estate. Towers define the silhouette of the Sharq district, anchoring the site from different approaching perspectives.

A retail spine connects the Al Shuhada Park to the City on the east-west axis. This axis will house a variety of amenities that will furnish the district with its daily needs (supermarket, hardware store, etc), but will also make available a range of other retail environments.”

-Office da

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As you can see, the current site is occupied by low rise warehouses and run down residential units dating back to the 70s. The site is, in my opinion, one of the best locations in Kuwait. Right across the street from the Shuhada Park, great access to the First Ring road and the Fahaheel Expressway, walking distance to Al-Raya and the new dense high-rise zone that’s coming up there. It’s just incredible. Such a high potential space for redevelopment. The only major downside to the site is that giant graveyard in the middle. (Why aren’t graveyards green?)

sharqqurain

The difference in size of the two projects is frightening. I still cannot fathom the absolute vulgarity of the vastness of Aswaq Al-Qurain. The size comparison alone is enough to differentiate the two sites. One is a relatively human scale area that is surgically integrated into a larger urban fabric, and the other is an enormous square that looks so heavy and has such visual gravity that it makes everything around it shrink one order of magnitude smaller.

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The developer seems to have rights to build on almost the entire block of land, except for the graveyard and that bottom left corner plot. Also, it seems like that plot in the top and middle isn’t part of the project either. We can see that most of the original street structure was maintained on the left side, but completely redone on the right side. This would mean additional infrastructure work is needed, but the design narrative justifies this.

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This diagram shows how car circulation is defined in the project. As you can see, there are no meandering, crisscrossing lines and there are 15 access points around the perimeter of the site. This is far more than what developers usually have (the original site had 6), even though they end up with just as much real estate being taken up by streets. What this means is fewer bottlenecks. I would also expect the narrower streets to be one-way so as to have a more efficient system for parking. Also evident in the diagram is that most of the streets cross the project in one direction. The point of all this is to have an easily walkable space and the only reason there is a street in the first place is to simply get you to your house. The design parameters call for every house having access to the street and that the streets take up as little real estate as possible. This is the most efficient way to do it. You don’t see roundabouts do you? You don’t need them if you just drive in a straight line.

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This diagram shows pedestrian circulation. The axis that runs down the site is the main feature of the project. It provides a walkable space that links the Shuhada Park with the rest of the city. If you start at the top left of the project, at the roundabout, you will see a line of shops along the main road. This line continues until it reaches the axis where it then turns right and into the site. This major shift is what will draw people in. Pedestrians walking alone the road will follow the line of shops into the site, where they will walk through a shaded promenade of shops, cafes, green spaces and a small football pitch. This procession will continue along the axis and transition into a bridge that takes you over Soor Street and down into Shuhada Park.

This is what makes this project special. Not floor space calculations. Not nice glittering renders that show people in dishdashas mingling with supermodels. Not a high-end advertising campaign that shows families enjoying a picture perfect life. Good architectural and urban design is understanding the parameters of the site and program and devising a strategy that best solves the problems at hand. I didn’t even mention the towers, the underground parking system, the way the housing units are raised a floor above grade to have a continuous network of courtyards on the ground plane. The space is rich and livable. This is good urban design. We need to make this.

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Location: Al-Sharq, Kuwait
Architect:
Office da

Design Team:
Ghazal Abbasy, Matt Johnson, SGH, Arthur Chang, Nader Tehrani, Anna Goodman, Sean Baccei, Kurt Evans, Monica Ponce de Leon, Ahmad Reza Schricker, Lisa Huang.


Responses

  1. What I find missing in Office da’s presentation is the treatment of the project at different scales. Your post shows the strategy employed on the “urban” scale, and that almost negates the importance of the next level of scale with respect to the performance of the scheme. What I typically find with these projects is an overall homogeneity that is a result of both, the sheer number of units that have to be designed, and more importantly, the stylistic approach that is adopted at face value, without exploring the possibility of differentiations within a singular stylistic approach.

    The only hint I find to prove what I am saying is the last set of images, where repetition seems to be a dominant strategy, both, within the typologies themselves (i.e low rise housing), and secondly, across typologies (spatial/formal similarities of the low-rise and high-rise buildings). How does all this affect the street-scape, which is smartly played down in Office da’s description.

  2. You are absolutely right. The presentation in its current form does not express the design decisions (if any) that have occurred at the architectural, human-scale. I would assume that as a design proposal, such a level of detail would be beyond the scope of work; and seeing as the project was never built this seems to have been a good decision (or maybe the lack of richness and variety killed it?).

    I understand where you’re coming from. There is definite potential in the proposal to explore human-scale spatial possibilities. Still, the perfect should never be the enemy of the good; and i’d rather have it the way it’s expressed than the dump it is now.

  3. I’ve seen this project a while ago on the architect’s website, I recall wondering whether this is another great idea on-paper only!

    Do you have any clue as to who is developing this? My knowledge of this area is that most of the parcels are owned by different people/companies, so how would it all be consolidated into this one big master plan?

  4. @Faisal: I believe the client was Villa Moda, back when they were progressively inclined. I’m not sure about who owns the land, though. It was surprising to be that in the proposal, several plots were not part of the project (such as that bottom left corner). This would indicate that the land is privately owned and subdivided. Still, it’s a shame that such a wonderful location is wasted like that.

  5. @Faisal @Barrak

    Actually, the client is not Villa Moda. This was part of a early schematic proposal for a private developer. I believe it was one of these situations, where the developer would come with a proposal to try and get the various landowners and municipality on board (like an old proposal by Al Salhiya Real Estate for Fahad al Salem St years ago).

    There is another design by OdA for Villa Moda; for an entirely different project. They won a closed competition (between a few selected firms) that Villa Moda held so that they can bid for BOT project in the in the Kuwait Sports Shooting Club. A few months after they won the competition, the parliament called for an investigation in BOT contracts; and so Villa Moda never proceeded with the project. Its fascinating, and OdA even got a P/A award for it.

  6. @Aisha: Yes, I know of the Kuwait Sports Shooting Club project, and I just assumed that they were the same clients for this project as well. My bad. I’m curious to know the reasoning behind the landowners (or municipality) rejecting a proposal such as this. I’d imagine anything would be better than the dilapidated conditions the site is currently in. Are they just waiting for the zoning laws to change so they can build commercial towers?

    • Barrak, I know that the project was for a private developer (he’s since passed away) and was developed a few years before Villa Moda. I was hypothesizing that it might be a situation where a developer presents a scheme to the municipality because like you said earlier there are several plots and not all plots were incorporated in the design. There a lot of interesting developer initiated projects presented to the municipality every year, why they don’t ever see the light of day is beyond me. Not all of course are of the same calibre; but I think if only one thought provoking, socially conscious project is developed, developers would up their game! I think the municipality is just interested in green lighting more and more malls.
      I think you can already build towers on that site, no? You can go up to 100 flrs in Kuwait City.

  7. I do understand a developers’ hesitance to create complex projects that incorporate social and environmental challenges. They see them as superficial extras without any real benefit to them, but we all know that’s not true. It’s very easy to dismiss anything that isn’t quantifiable as being a frivolous expense (especially these days). Yet a socially conscious and environmentally sustainable project will almost always recoup whatever extra investment was needed, and will also result in a much better project for everyone and for a longer period of time.

    Zoning issue: My office is in the block next to the site of this Office da project (it’s actually in the shadow of the new Al-Hamra tower, right next to Wow). The building owner can only rent to tenants with an investment license (istithmari) and not commercial (tijari). I don’t know why this is, but this makes a huge difference in rental prices and desirability for both tenants and developers. Why build a tower if you can only rent it out to people who would pay less? There’s talk of the zoning being changed after Al-Hamra is completed, but i’m skeptical. Let’s wait and see.

  8. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a developer when I still in school. At the time they had a lot of projects but most did not have any value other than that they were located on ‘prime real estate’ land. I brought up this very issue with him: isn’t it time that a thought provoking, socially and environmentally sustainable project be developed? I was surprised at how much he and I agreed–I was still a naive student ha! It was long overdue, he told me but at the moment with no government incentives (to put in photovoltaic panels, for example)he would not get his shareholders on board. Like you said, it was frivolous expense. So, they were simply building new unsustainable towers that they didn’t necessarily like because they would guarantee their bottom line.

    But I do believe if only one individual/corporation does take that kind of risk…it will do a LOT to alter the decision making process in this country. Its especially true, because you do see Kuwaiti developers making those kinds of decisions elsewhere.


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