Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | December 23, 2010

Measuring Success

Malls, skyscrapers and suburban living are western ideas that have been introduced into Kuwait. They haven’t evolved as a response to our climatic, social or urban concerns. They are foreign ideas, in every sense of the word.

Yet when asked, many people feel a strong sense of pride looking at our towering skyline and they point to malls being commercially and maybe even culturally successful. Why is that? Is it because they are a form of liberation from our nomadic/arab/islamic/’uneducated’ past? What does it mean for a city to be successful?

Have malls, skyscrapers and suburbia really improved our quality of life? Shouldn’t that be the ultimate measure of success? Happiness?

Kuwait City by hassan-q8


Responses

  1. Happiness is ‘a’ measure… not ‘the’ measure!

    Whilst malls and concrete did not evolve from our culture, I think there are some great examples of adapting them to fit perfectly within our norms and provide us with the convenience and comfort.

    As far as pride is concerned, to me that comes from education, freedom, creativity and many more factors of the population of our great country – not just the (ugly) skyscrapers.

  2. Well, of course education and health are more easily quantifiable, but aren’t they ultimately pursued to increase happiness?

    Maybe happiness is the wrong word, maybe a better one is contentment, or satisfaction.

    What I was trying to say is that what we’re doing is not really helping us pursue happiness, and the world we’re building for ourselves is making it harder to be happy. Traffic, pollution, materialism, advertising. There is another way.

    Can you name some examples of malls being adapted to our culture? A mall being a sealed environment that is inward looking and privately owned.

  3. I agree with the notion… and the fact that many factors come into what is essentially happiness.

    I think malls are dreadful places. However when I look at the Avenues (not on a weekend night), the amount of natural light that comes in is simply unattainable anywhere else in Kuwait. I’m more of a sit-in-the-garden kind of guy, but when it’s dusty and 50 deg c outside, I like the protection of the large mall and the convenience of being as close to the outside as possible.

  4. My concern with the mall culture in Kuwait is that they’ve become such seductive spaces that they’re basically filling the need for public spaces.

    You see people excercising there, walking around aimlessly, having a good time. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s happening because we have a severe poverty of public space. You don’t do that in Barcelona or New York or Copenhagen or wherever, because you can walk around comfortably and pleasantly in public spaces.

    The difference between a public space and the Avenues for example is that it’s privately owned. There’s a security guard and a behavior protool. Everything is commercial and designed to make you spend money. That’s fine if this is what our culture is all about, but is it really?

  5. Let me rephrase that. I don’t blame the Avenues or any developer. They’re filling a need and people are responding.

    The reason i’m worried is that it seems that the government has abdicated it’s responsibility to design and create pleasant, safe and exciting public spaces. They just decided that it’s not something they’re interested in doing and are happy enough to let the private sector do that. A good example is Salmiya Park. This should have been a national park in the style of Central Park in NY or Hyde Park in London, a free, public space where everyone is welcome. I’m not sure if Salmiya Park will be a gated affair, but i’m worried that it might in the future. Anyway, what I was trying to say is that people feel comfortable in malls because they have no other similarly comfortable and safe place to go. Not because of any magic inherent in the idea of a mall.

  6. Malls and skyscrapers are certainly not the only Western architectural ideas that have invaded and conquered this region. Where has the once ubiquitous courtyard house gone? Front lawns, backyards, wide roads are the only typologies being designed and built anymore.

    The utterly useless “front lawn” came into Kuwait during the colonial period of the Middle East, and the results of its clash with the local culture is readily viewable in places like Ahmadi – designed as a typical English village.

    When the Arabs were allowed to move into Ahmadi finally, they boarded up the gardens with the corrugated steel fences that now pervade it – yet if you go to any house in Surrah or Mishref you’ll find the same useless typology.

    The traditional Middle Eastern forms like courtyard houses, ornamentation, inward oriented homes (as opposed to outward orientation of western homes), narrow streets (to provide shade), the mixing of social classes – that is all long gone.

    Having said that – yes, you’re right. People fitness-walking in malls is a sign of a wider problem. But then again, Kuwait could be heaven on earth if resources were used correctly. Unfortunately, it is far from that. This stems from a wider cultural problem of how resources are allocated to Kuwaiti nationals, and the cures for this lay more with the nationalization of the foreign Middle Class than anything else.

  7. Thanks for your comment 6ariq. I agree with you wholeheartedly about everything you mentioned. I’ve talked about all that before but I was just curious about the way that people seem happy and proud of malls, skyscrapers and living in a big, detached ‘American’ house.

    I’m a big believer in a structural explanation of events and phenomena. I think we have chronic traffic and pollution problems because it’s so cheap to own and use a car. If we make owning a car more expensive then people will use alternatives, but those alternatives have to exist first (Metro, pedestrian infrastructure, etc)

    I’m an architect and i’ve noticed that more and more clients are asking for courtyard houses. They understand that a ‘traditional’ and inward looking house can be both modern and rooted in our culture and climatic context. I do feel a wind of change passing over us.

    The problem is that the system is so profoundly misguided that it’s hard for good ideas and solutions to emerge naturally.

  8. “I’m an architect and i’ve noticed that more and more clients are asking for courtyard houses. They understand that a ‘traditional’ and inward looking house can be both modern and rooted in our culture and climatic context. I do feel a wind of change passing over us.”

    That’s great news. It’s about time we started re-learning some of the teachings of our ancient architectural history.
    I’m also an architect, although still a student. A few years ago I stopped by Kuwait University to speak with the head of the architecture department. I told him I was interested in taking some summer classes in traditional or vernacular Middle Eastern architecture.
    He stared at me in surprise and said, “we don’t teach that here!”
    So I asked him, “well….what do you teach?..”
    His response was, “We teach Mies Van der Rohe, Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, etc.”

    That was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.

    But on a more promising note, I have a friend writing her final thesis on the contemporary architectural history of Japan. After Japan opened itself up to the West, it began to directly copy Western architecture. It went through a period of literal copy/pasting whatever was being done in the UK and France.

    Then with architects like Kisho Kurokawa, a big group of Japanese architects began to question their own traditions and culture, and began to alter what they were building. Kurokawa’s famous book “Architecture of Symbiosis” was a big influence on that.

    What I’m trying to say is that I hope we’re beginning to enter the same phase in a natural progression. There have been several great Arab architects in the past few decades, like Hassan Fathy, Kamal El-Kafrawy, Mohammad Makkiyah, Jaafar Tuqan, and Rasem Badran, but none of them were able to achieve any wide acceptance.


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