Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | October 17, 2009

An Anti-Mall

Why do we have so many malls? People seem content to walk inside them in circles. Lots of people walking, but only a few with shopping bags. They’re there for the experience. People attracting people who attract people. The mall itself seems almost irrelevant in all this. It’s just the excuse, the agreed upon destination for this gathering to happen.

Without the crowd the mall is useless, but without the mall, can you still get the crowd? What’s wrong with malls anyway? They seem convenient; lots of shops, restaurants and girls. What more do you want? Well, a shopping mall is very efficient at serving itself by segregating and isolating spaces within the city. It is a self-sufficient island detached from its context.


flickr- Toomz

Let’s look at a successful mall such as The Avenues. So many people are attracted to it every day, yet the space beyond its border hasn’t changed at all. It’s as if you freeze a puddle of water and you get one shiny ice cube surrounded by dry nothing. If the city is filled with ice cubes, we all end up living in the dull emptiness between them.

What we need is a hip and trendy node that energizes and regenerates its context. A good example is that strip near Seif Palace with all those cool shops and restaurants. They’re not in a mall, nobody owns the street, yet people love it there. The problem is that it has a well defined boundary that confines the space, and that discourages exploration beyond it. Still, it is part of a public space. Someone can go there with a guitar and just play; no one will stop them. If three guys stand around in a mall, the man with the walkie-talkie will get them to move along. A public space means it is owned by the public. No one can tell you what to do.


Souq Waqif, Doha, Qatar

Kuwait, I think, has been recently blessed with a wonderfully innovative generation. We are all part of a burgeoning creative class. Artists, musicians, actors, designers, film-makers and architects. There is so much talent out there that is not fulfilling its potential. What we need to do is find a place that can welcome this burst of creativity and allow it to flourish into something special.

The only way for that to work is if you develop the density first. Maki proved with its first restaurant that you don’t need to be in a place with a built in customer base to succeed. It was in the middle of a dirty street with nothing near it, yet it was a great success. People will flock to good stuff no matter where it is. It won’t take much for this node to develop and organically grow into the cultural heart of Kuwait City.


I imagine the place to be a very dense, crowded and linear pedestrian-only promenade that has lots of very successful restaurants and cafes. Street performers fill the place, there’s always some kind of live music playing. Street vendors and artists everywhere too. There are little alleyways that lead to small nooks that have niche boutiques and art galleries. Theaters that house small productions of local plays. A small cinema that shows Kuwaiti films and has a drama school upstairs. People that go there love to explore the place, always discovering something new by accident. You meet people there, because the place induces conversation. I can imagine lots of marriages that trace their origin to an accidental meeting there.

This cannot happen at a mall. It’s too messy and unpredictable and they’ll never allow it. It has to be a publicly owned pedestrian promenade. People own the shops of course, but anything can happen in the street and alleyways. There will be security, the place has to be kept safe and clean at all times, but it has to allow for casual spontaneity. The place has to be as hip as the people that made it and the only way for that to happen is if it emerges naturally and free. Kuwait has the potential to be the creative capital of the region. Let’s not suffocate this opportunity because we fear the challenge. Kuwait deserves more than malls.



  1. I love the idea of “A small cinema that shows Kuwaiti films and has a drama school upstairs.”. I can also imagine the smell of hail, za3faran and baked cinnamon balls in such alleyways in the midst of industrial buildings. You can go there and read in daylight, feed pigeons in a pigeon-only bricked feeding area, listen to “oud” instrumental playing and eat Kunafa bil Jibna. I’ll run a small bookshop there. If only people would go there to genuinely have a good time instead of check each other out to the point where it makes you uncomfortable lol.

  2. I enjoy the concept of “publicly owned pedestrian promenade”. I would love to have a Portobello road or a Covent Garden square in Kuwait. Unfortunately in London, when it’s heavily raining, Portobello road clears out, and the musicians in Covent Garden leave. What I’m trying to say is that the weather has so much control over public spaces. Europe is so fortunate to have a bearable weather, so outdoor events are amazing there.

    There are a few issues I disagree with in the above article. I’ll mention them in points:
    – Before the Avenues, I have never been or heard of this area. Now, if a shop opens next to the Avenues (say True Value), it will have customers. Also, the shops behind Marina Mall were dying until the mall opened.
    – I think the chance of socializing in open air public promenade is the same in controlled air private mall.
    – even in an open air public space, you’ll still have the frozen puddle, except that the edges will be melting rather than sharply cut.

    My opinion is that generally a mall is regarded as a complex that has facilities like restaurants, shops and cinemas. Where you can go there to get what you need. In Kuwait (and by the way all other GCC countries), a mall is more than a building with facilities. It’s more like a bubble that shelters entertainment, socializing and shopping in an air-conditioned weather with controlled lighting and music.
    I think we have to look at malls in a “new” perspective. A mall is not only a building, it’s a Culture.

    P.S. When the weather is good at night (soon), you should check out the old restaurants in LiMbareKiya.

    • Amna, I think you misunderstood my point. It really doesn’t matter if it’s outdoor, or indoor (although I prefer it to be outdoor). The whole point is that it must be a publicly owned space. You can never have that sense of spontaneity in a privately owned building.

      – Al Rai has always been the same, before and after The Avenues. I don’t think it added any sort of value to the place, and if it did, it was nowhere near what the real potential of it could have been. The regeneration is trivial at best.

      – I disagree completely. It’s just not the same. You can’t explore in a mall. You don’t discover hidden treasures. You don’t have accidents and chance meetings with strangers. Everything is so planned and controlled and they don’t want you to break the rules.

      – The point I was trying to say with the (admittedly awkward) ice metaphor is that malls are usually self-contained islands that don’t interface with their context at all. There are some exceptions, but most are like this.

      Marina mall is a good exception, it does interface beyond its site on both ends. I want more of that. I want less of the Al-Bahar mall in Hawalli, AlRaya and the disaster that is Souq Sharq. These giant buildings only serve themselves and add nothing to the city. You might say that they don’t have an obligation for community growth, but the end result would actually benefit their bottom line immensely! They will make lots more money if they engage with their context. They seem afraid to do that for some reason, and I don’t understand why.

      Also, the weather at night has been good for about a month or two now. 🙂

  3. wayed e3jbatni fekrat wa7ed masek guitar … 7adda ya36ey jaw 7ag el moakaan . . . yat fatraat kanaw yesawonha eb mojama3 el rayaa .. china 7azat ermuthan ayeboon wa7ed yedeg 3ood .. wayed ya36eey jaw 7g el mokan

    o 9a7 klamik 3la maki .. mo elmawqe3 ele yesabeeb naja7 el mokan

    bss blnesbaa 7ag salfaat elshare3 well ehtmaam fee tara a7naa 6ool el seen 7ar o ghbaar .. ohmaa shahraain or 4 max ele nestanes fihom bl jaw .. fa y3ni fekraat el outdoor street activity .. matwaqa3 tamshey , !! ella ether you mean enna yesawon indoor street !! bekoon shay 7loo !

    • I think 2 or 4 months of bearable weather is HUGE overstatement. I’d argue the opposite, that only around 4 months are unbearable during the daytime. Even in those months, you can control the weather at night using passive and mechanical means to make it very pleasant. I want us to get out of the habit of fearing the sun and dust that always paralyzes any attempt at outdoor activity. You can control the sun using so many ways that we talked about before. You can minimize the dust by planting trees, having grass and fountains to absorb the dust that collects on the ground plane, and by having buildings shelter the open space from the North and West (the prevailing wind direction). If you don’t design the space well and forget about these things, sure, you’ll have an awful space that gets hot, humid and dusty, but you can design to avoid that.

      I’m sorry if this sounds critical and personal, but its because I hear it so often. It’s simply not true and people just don’t realize the wasted potential.

      Edit: I just paid a quick visit to your blog; Santa Monica Promenade is exactly the kind of place I’m talking about; but maybe at a smaller scale and with more alleys that branch out. I remember being there when I was a kid and loving the energy and the feeling that anything can happen.

  4. The problem Barrak again with what you’re trying to say is that Kuwait City simply lacks density for any good thing to happen. We need to fill up the city first for any kind of accidental opportunities to happen. I agree with both you and Amnah on several point.
    The reason why Marina Mall made its surroundings a success is not because the mall reached out to them, but also because of the existing urban fabric that made it possible to mesh the mall with its context.
    I see that we need to build up the empty plots so we can rediscover our city creatively again.

  5. Yeah, you’re right, but there are pockets of high density that are simply not utilized very well, in Hawalli and Salmiya especially. I don’t see why we need to wait for the city to catch up before we try to inject these ideas.

  6. Hawally is a disaster zone. We need to talk about it soon over here. Salmiya is a great starting point, too bad it is not the Capital City.

  7. Great post Barrak. I’ll admit that I also fantasized about a space exactly as you described. I’m also sure many of your readers did too or had dreams of realizing their little boutique shop idea or opening up their own local cafe brand or establishing their creative atelier space on a mezzanine level overlooking all this lively public activity.

    Here comes my pitch, can we turn this post into a calling for such a space to happen? I’ve talked about this with friends and it never went beyond an hour of discussions, but here you gather like-minded individuals and I see a potential for a fruitful discussion that can lead to something! You did say it must happen naturally and I couldn’t agree more, but you have to light the fuse for this chain reaction to occur.

    Are there any potential/candidate spots for this space? One where we can slowly acquire shop fronts and licenses and slowly infect the surrounding area by attracting other local-franchise businesses. You can get the building owners on board and I am quiet certain they will be more than happy with any proposal that would liven their immediate areas.

  8. Hmm the anti-mall…Barrak I think your comments to Amena are on target…a mall simply can’t substitute a publicly owned area. I read a book on manufactored spaces in Los Angeles a couple years ago that described a “life style center”, (euphemism for an open air mall) that tried to mimick a typical US main street…they even put built into the concrete gum wrappers, coins etc to give it a “real” feel. However, it had a private security force that patrolled the area to make sure that anyone standing still more than so-many-minutes would be told not to loiter.

    This brings up the point that Barrak mentions, private areas do not substitute public areas at all: they are hyper-controlled spaces. In the Avenues try laying a blanket down on the floor and having a picnic? Try skateboarding? Try sitting down with a canvas to paint? These areas completely guide our behavior and restrict our actions to a tiny few.

    In Kuwait, you have a rising number of independent boutiques, local restaurants, creative businesses and cafes, but I always wondered why you can’t get these young local entrepreneurs to locate beside each other strategically to create at least one street or strip in Kuwait that is as the descriptions people posted above. The closest thing I can think of for now is the buildings that are along the Gulf Road near the Parliament building that house The Exhibition, Sliders, Falafel, etc. but its just a couple of businesses, not anything that can really be considered a thriving community.

  9. Isn’t this where SAM St. (Salem Al-Mubarak Street) comes in..?! A central location, an area currently without a defined purpose, a place with the ‘bones’, even in its current somewhat dilapidated state, to become a pedestrianized district, an area big enough to accommodate the required variety of endeavors, and a history (somethings none of the malls have) remembered fondly by multiple generations of Kuwaiti inhabitants…

  10. I think we certainly have more than 4 months of bearable outdoor weather!

    I really do wish the vision you present in this excellent post comes true. I recently decided that I will try never to pick any vacation spot where I need a car all the time because I miss walking so much in Kuwait.

  11. Faisal, that sounds great. I’m not sure how to start doing that. I’m not sure how to respond really, let me think about it some more and i’m sure i’ll come up with a game-plan.

    Victoria, that’s hilarious. They faked the gum? Yeah, its all about freedom. That’s the key. We need a space where people feel free to do anything they want (as long as its legal, of course). A safe, clean, climate controlled (passive or mechanical) space that is fun, explorable and engaging. Malls are not free.

    Tom, I felt like I was mentioning SAM street far too often, but yeah, that’s always been the image in my head. The potential there is phenomenal.

    1001Nights, even if the weather is bad you can always manipulate it. I made a diagram in one of the earlier posts that showed the mean temp. of Kuwait, and it really is only May->September that are extreme.

    Kuwait Temperature

    edit: Here it is. It shows how even in the worst months, the temperature drops by 10-15 at night. Its still yucky, but its not unbearable, and you can manipulate it.

  12. Tom, SAM st is a great choice (interesting acronym btw) despite the traffic. If you were to chose one node of the street to kick start the process where would it be?

    I’d propose for it to be at the center where the streets u-turn and loop back, in between a plaza. Here’s a Google maps link to the plaza, its at the center of the image. The place is a short walk away from a multistory parking building which adds even more appeal to the pedestrian experience of this wide open green space.

  13. Sorry forgot the link here it is:

  14. I think SAM st. is a good starting point. Though I wish it was in the actual city but we should work with what we have. I can see so much potential in that street, so many different experiences, and many different activities.
    Perhaps we should propose something there now.

  15. I think there a couple of places in Kuwait where these issues are explored, but with SAM its definitly easier because its part of a larger context with a built-in infrastructure.

    Amenah, I agree that a lot of people were not familiar with that area. Thats partly why The Avenues is so successful, it showed that you change people’s perception about a place and attract an entire nation! I personally would have liked a project of that size to be more mixed use. I believe that was part of OMA’s proposal but don’t know whats become of it.

    With regards to weather, you can only manipulate it so much. My only concern is how dry the winters are becoming which in turn has been giving us these sandstorms early in March and April! Sadly, our weather is changing, and that is a reality we have to deal and design with.

    Barrak, I think this is a ‘mall’ you’d like. These particulart pictures don’t do it justice but I’m sure you’ll get it.
    The photos don’t do it justice, but it is a are not great

  16. Ooops…ignore that last line!

  17. Hehe. This is funny: “As the various banks merged into one it was suddenly found that the entire area belonged to one entity.” I’ll try and find more info on it, but from what little info there is on there it seems exactly like what we’re talking about.

  18. Interesting… I think the notion of a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, i.e., to translate it (roughly) from German, a ‘collective art work’ would be an interesting analogy for what this, still hypothetical, area could be – a place where a hybrid of various art related activities, from architecture, design, urbanism to music, performance and installation, could all exist in unison and would benefit each other. Such syncretic activities could hopefully become, with a bit of planning, design, encouragement and luck, a truly dynamic place to visit and be creative at…

  19. Some points grasped me to realize how the context (a mall) makes an action to its people, while the people are the source of energy and act. If you appreciate the accidental events to meet with strangers in a street you can design an event in a context which requires people to interact with.

    The quality of a successful environment comes from the ability of that environment to give people chance to cooperate and integrate. But the question is…do people need that??
    Our cultural background molded us to act as strangers not short from the culture but from the amount of events and actions surrounded us. If our society wants to change we should provide them a shopping mall with amphitheater or a mall with a reading library.

    Architects should inject an action in a context to achieve people response. Shopping malls in Kuwait grasped people because of a reason we don’t know …. So its our chance to grasp them to some thing good and healthy instead of walking inside them in a circle.

    Sorry i did’t Introduce my name is Amna and I’m an architect..

  20. Hello Amna, and welcome.

    “The quality of a successful environment comes from the ability of that environment to give people chance to cooperate and integrate. But the question is…do people need that??”

    I know what you’re saying, but I think you’re generalizing far too much. Not all Kuwaitis are like that, and especially not the creative class; people who need to inspire and be inspired by each others work. Creative people do need to have that sort of casual environment. Something like the Google offices.

    What we lack in Kuwait is a public space that gives creative people the freedom to be themselves without fear of censorship (both in terms of how they act, and in their work). Its not just the simple act of providing a space for them to ostensibly ‘do their thing’. It’s all about giving them the freedom to do what they want. The place can be anywhere, really; but shopping malls have an almost fascist fear of freedom. I guess what i’m trying to say is that you really can’t do this in a private mall. I think it has to be somewhere public.

    Edit: I should have thought of this earlier, as it’s so obvious; Malls are very autocratic. What we want is a democratic urban environment. A place where good ideas compete with each other and everyone has a chance to contribute and be heard. It’s not a political distinction, but a purely sociological one.

  21. Hi everyone, first comment here. Never thought somethin like this exists and jus wanted to say that i seriously LOVE this blog and the ideas thrown around
    anyway my 2 cents : what do u guys think of mahboula mangaf area? alot of places r opening up there.. Apartments with pools, good restaurants, alot of expats that r yearning for somethin new or exciting. I think theres a biv market there and we can re-direct the young people away from salmiya or wherever. Plus theres gulf road there and looks like it has alot of potential. What do u guys think?

  22. Malls are examples of ‘private space’ with the appearance of being public and here is the camouflage.
    Malls can not be public, but bazaar can.

    Bazaars are permanent market, usually consisting of shops or stalls in alleys, and capable of being locked after hours. On occasion, a mosque and madrasa would be erected associated with a bazaar, and financed by the rent paid by shopkeepers. Even if the idea of having shopkeepers sounds autocrat but bazaar still own to public.
    High-class shops in Italy especially in Rome their doors open forward a street with a man selling corn next to Prada entrance. We still can have it in Kuwait but we need to freeze a puddle of water or at least we cool it. To do this we need a responsible real state company or a creative governmental idea, which can create a livable social context, with great benefits for both merchants and users. otherwise shopping malls will remain as shopping machines.

  23. Sprung, thanks a lot! I’ve never been there in person, but I have been following It seems interesting, but given that its a green-field project (starting from scratch) I would have though that they could do far more with it. A small step forward is better than standing still, I guess.

    Amna, that’s very true. In fact, they sometimes go out of their way to market the space as a public square, even inventing a history for it to sell the brand. I’m not sure why you would want to lock the place, though. That assumes that there are only a few controllable exits; when in fact the charm of these places is usually in their porosity and ambiguity.

  24. bazaars used to be locked by merchants, … but alleys and streets remain open to the public.
    this feature you can not get it in a shoping mall…

  25. I think what some of us seem to be forgetting, me included, is that a Mall is not supposed to be a public area, nor doesn’t need to create some kind of public identity. Their job is to generate money. That’s it.

    A bazaar on the other hand is more versatile in its purpose.
    -Bazaars would ring around the most important building to take advantage of the foot traffic.
    -A means in which the inhabitants could learn about the outside world.
    -A place of political, social, or religious discussions.

    The purpose of a bazaar is almost limitless. A mall on the other hand needs only to generate cash.

  26. Hi Blackbarook,

    That’s not actually true, well, elsewhere…

    Usually in the process of applying for planning permission from the council or city, particularly for a development the size of some of Kuwait’s malls, there is almost always a set of stipulations set by the authority that need to be met for the development to proceed. These usually take the form of, say, that in exchange for the permission to build on a particular site the developer commits to building a quantity of (not for profit) low cost housing units, or perhaps that any development proposed has to include a substantial public realm component (which is distinct from the more commercial elements)…
    This is one way a city manages to get some of the necessary, but often tricky to finance, communal features that make up any more successful urban environment…

    All developments, regardless of scale or purpose, have to be considered in the context of the bigger picture. Commercial interests, as important as they are, should never take priority before the more communal needs of an urban vernacular are met…

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