The fundamental function of architecture is to provide a shelter space. Huts are perhaps the first form of known architecture in human history. Architecture, as history teaches us, has evolved into something far beyond creating shelter space for people. Throughout recorded history, and as far back as the ancient Egyptians, architects, or master builders as they were known at the time, have attempted to do something more; To design structures that go beyond sheltering.
Architecture is, perhaps, the physical manifestation of philosophy and literature, thus a built environment of cultures. In that regard architecture took a role of communicating and responding with its surroundings, and people utilizing it. Many civilizations have created massive structures for worship and huge palaces for kings as a sign of authority. The over-blown scale of old temples in Egypt and the massive pyramids signify divinity and act as a bridge to the heavens. In that respect, architecture was a way to communicate faith, hierarchy and order. Symbols of rules and laws and images of soldiers and ordinary people paying their dues to the Pharaohs further strengthened that notion of communication, and architecture became like a method of illustrating a code of conduct to the ancient Egyptians.
Romans, Greeks, Persians, Mayans, to current empires and civilizations have all assigned such a role to architecture and celebrated its importance. Burj Khaleefa (Dubai) is an illustration of how a super tall structure can symbolize wealth and power. The Islamic empire wasn’t shying away from the importance of architecture of course.
Muslims have contributed rich and diverse architectural masterpieces. We marvel Alhambra palace in Qurtuba, we admire the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, we associate romance with Taj Mahal in India, and of course to all muslims, the most important, most sacred pieces of architecture are the Kabaa in Mecca and the Holy Prophets mosque in Madina.
Modern times have made architecture even more important. Climate change and soaring energy costs means that our architecture should adapt and respond to its environment. ‘Green architecture’ is gaining momentum across the globe and is becoming simply ‘architecture’.
In order to understand better how this is applied, I would sum the role of architecture in three main points and reflect them on the current architectural landscape of Kuwait.
Hardly any building in Kuwait communicates with the public. There are some few examples though, like the Grand mosque with its Quranic verses and the adjacent Seef palace with a written wisdom on its gate. The lack of any kind of communication, whether literal or abstract, is almost non-existent. Even the new national library that is supposed to open soon lacks any indication to its function, the ordinary person won’t be able to figure what that building is.
Architecture reflects the philosophy and ideals of a society. It manifests itself through the traditions of people, and how they live their lives, operate in society, make a living, and entertain themselves. Kuwaiti architecture simply fails in that regard. We have built ill-proportioned, ill-covieved structures that have borrowed and imported misunderstood ideas from across the globe, and to this day failed to reflect on a national local identity and style. Moroccan, Victorian, Baroque, and many other different historical movements in architecture have been turned into ‘styles’ and became a mere decoration on the buildings surface, in complete disregard to our own identity, way of life, local culture and traditions. Our city is a mess of colors, scale, materials and proportions, making it one of the ugliest in the region. With all our money, what this reflects is simple; a lack of sophistication. We as a society are rich with money, poor with education and culture, and that is reflected by our urban-scape. To further illustrate that money doesn’t make one sophisticated, we need not to look further than Beirut to the West and Muscat to the South. Both cities don’t enjoy our riches yet the successful urbanity of those cities is astonishing.
Architecture needs to responds to its location and site, its immediate environment, and the public. It needs to sustain itself, to interact with people, the elderly, the children, the youth, everyone. It needs to illustrate responsibility and sensibility. Kuwait fails with that as well. Though in comparison to cities like Dubai, Kuwait City actually does responds better to its location and climate. We do see buildings turning away from the south-west sun and sheltering it from the heat. We do use thermal insulation when building, yet somehow its just not enough. We suffer from blackouts every summer because of high usage of power, that is mainly because of air-conditioning. Yet, we continue to build glass towers that requires more AC and consumes more power. It is time to rethink our future building philosophy and be more responsible to our selves and our future generations.