Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | October 20, 2011

Congestion Pricing

A depressing series of studies (here, here and here) seem to indicate that no matter what we do, we will always have traffic. Building more roads, the metro and having more buses will not, it seems, make that much of a difference. People just find it very convenient to drive. The only way to make a real difference is by having a good public transport system coupled with a tough congestion charge.

Anyone who’s been to London in the past few years will have noticed that there aren’t that many cars on the road other than taxis and buses. The reason is that anyone driving in London has to pay a hefty fee in order to do so. That’s enough to persuade most people into taking the extra effort to walk to the bus or underground train. Dubai has a sort of congestion charge (Salik) which is more like a frictionless toll booth. I remember it having a positive effect.

This can never work unless we first build the public transport infrastructure. Without alternatives to driving we will just be punishing people without giving them a viable, safe and efficient option and the traffic will just migrate around the congestion charge zones creating new bottlenecks. I’m just saying that once the metro is built we may have to implement a congestion charge for it to effectively solve the traffic problem, otherwise it won’t do much.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | October 14, 2011

Park Fence Removal

They are going to start demolishing all the fences that surround public parks. I’ve asked for this a couple of times (here and here) and it seems their reason for removing them was mainly to stop people abusing the parks for ‘immoral acts’. I can also understand the concerns of parents worried about their kids. I wouldn’t mind child proofing the kids play areas, where there are swings and activities (maybe have a 1m high fence around those areas?) but I also think those fears are exaggerated. The problem parents should concentrate on is trying to find ways to reduce the speed of cars in residential neighborhoods. That’s the real problem and one which I don’t see much effort going towards fixing it. Still, this is a good step towards improving the walkability of Kuwaiti neighborhoods and every step makes it easier to take the next one and get us closer towards safer, healthier and more stimulating neighborhoods.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | September 17, 2011

Gubei Gold Street

When thinking of what Salem alMubarak Street could be this is what I kept imagining, a great urban renewal project in Shanghai that has almost the same scale and density as SAM Street.

People usually think of buildings without caring about what happens in the space between them. We keep making that mistake in Kuwait.

Before and after shots of the renewal of the pedestrian promenade in Gubei, which I hope is one day replicated in Kuwait:

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | February 21, 2011

Kuwait Metro: New Map

Click image to enlarge (a bit)

I was just sent the redesigned plan for Kuwait Metro. I spoke to some people at KOTU and they confirmed that the metro lines are correct, but they have no idea about the tram lines; they seem to think that those aren’t very feasible and don’t know who added them to this map.

I think these latest changes are pretty great. Some thoughts:

  • No more stupid Gulf Road metro line. A major part of the original design was a line going from Salwa/Fahaheel all the way to Sharq along the coast. Imagine the sea-view in Kuwait being obstructed by an elevated railway. This is now only the case around Belajat Street, which makes sense because that area is already pretty dense.
  • Damascus Street! I’m still not sure how I feel about this, because I can’t be totally unbiased. Qortuba has 3 stations surrounding it! They’re really trying to make me happy. I don’t know how effective the Damascus line would be, though. It won’t work unless the areas undergo a complete ‘walkable street’ transformation with safer sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, bike lanes and shaded streets. As it is, I don’t see it working. The tram lines make a lot of sense to me. I could park my car/bike in the co-op, take the tram to the station and then go anywhere. I’m not sure they can work on some of the existing narrow streets, but it would make the Damascus line much more effective.
  • I’m not sure if Hawalli and Salmiya have been fully served. A lot of very dense areas don’t have a close enough metro stop.
  • They make the distinction between Park and Ride stations and simple metro stops (look for the grey ones).
  • Overall, it seems like a major shift has been made in order to make the Metro geared towards Kuwaitis living in the residential areas between 1st and 5th ring road, and away from the denser parts of Salmiya and Hawalli. I’m not sure if this was a good decision, as I doubt the residential areas will be allowed to increase their density anytime in the future. Salmiya and Hawalli residents, if given the option for a car free lifestyle, have a lot more room (politically and legally) to grow and densify even further.

The diagram I made below shows a 5 and 15 minute walk radius from every metro station. 15 minutes is a long time to walk in the summer, so looking only at the smaller 5 minute circles shows that the vast majority of the dense areas of Kuwait (except for the City) are very underserved. The relatively lower density residential areas (Nuzha, Faiha, etc) are easily accesible by comparison, which makes no sense.

Update: I don’t see why the Damascus line can’t just be a Bus Rapid Transit line, since it’s already on a pretty wide road. BRT is a dedicated lane for specialized buses driving back and forth on a fixed schedule.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | February 12, 2011

Biomimicry

If there was one thing that I would absolutely love to have in Kuwait, it would be the Sahara Forest Project. It is basically a hybrid desalination/greenhouse/concentrated solar plant. It uses concentrated solar energy which reflects sunlight to create heat that boils steam. The steam is forced through turbines and eventually condenses into pure water which would be used to grow crops. The video doesn’t do the system justice. There is such beautiful complexity in the way that every output is used as a resource to create value.

The great thing of course is that it doesn’t use any fossil fuels and has several useful outputs. It doesn’t look at energy production as a linear path, but as a closed loop. I don’t understand why we don’t already have several of these up and down the coast. Of course, the biggest challenge is what to do with the brine (very salty water) that is left behind. Kuwaiti waters are already saltier than normal because of our desalination, so we can’t expect to keep pumping more salt concentrations back into it. That seems to be the missing piece in all this.

Inputs

  1. Seawater
  2. Nutrients
  3. Carbon Dioxide
  4. Sunlight

Outputs

  1. Freshwater
  2. Reforestation
  3. Electricity
  4. Humid Air
  5. Food
  6. Biofuel
Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | February 9, 2011

Bike Lanes

I was surprised to learn that Kuwait doesn’t have a single bike lane. It’s not really that hard to implement if there’s enough density to justify it. The idea is that it be used both for recreation and potentially for commuting. There are a few places in Kuwait where a bike lane can work. Once the metro is in place, I can see a lot more places that can benefit from a bike lane, but for now I think the waterfront, probably around Marina Mall heading south, is the best option for now.

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | February 6, 2011

Silent Jewels in the Desert

I think a cautionary example of what Jassem is describing would be the Freedom Towers debacle. They had a very public competition, in which hundreds of designs were submitted. The winner, Daniel Libeskind, had a really cool looking but ultimately unfeasible design. With the bureaucracy and interests involved pulling the project in so many directions, the end result was an architectural farce. The design was compromised endlessly and it still hasn’t been built, 10 years after the attack. I guess what i’m saying is that even when things are (supposedly) open and in competition, there’s still lots of room for things to go wrong.

Also, my problem wasn’t that these designs are done after an architect is selected and there’s no motive to do good work. That’s not what i’m worried about. Most of the buildings that are the work of famous architects, buildings that are conceived to celebrate the city or the patrons, are usually show-off islands. They don’t integrate well with the city. We have too many bad examples of this in Kuwait, buildings that are surrounded by highways and aren’t really part of something more. They ignore their context, culturally and physically. We have too many silent jewels in the desert. It’s time to start thinking about how make a city that works, not a building that would ignore it.

Posted by: Jasem Nadoum | February 6, 2011

Starchitects and Kuwait

Barrak’s comment on my last post got me thinking of how to prove my point of the importance of world famous architects building in Kuwait. Barrak argues that Kuwait does not need a new iconic building, since we have Kuwait Towers, which is true. He also argues that starchitects do not design anymore once they reach fame status, which is partly true. He also argues that, should a famous architect designs a building, it would end up being isolated, unresponsive to its surroundings, and just out right wrong. Those famous architects would design through e-mail, though I can’t imagine how.

This got me thinking, why would he be thinking in those lines? Why would he and others in the profession, or aspiring to be part of, would think that it’s just about building an icon?

Perhaps neighboring countries have accepted less than international standards of excellence simply because they were seduced by “sexy renderings” and having a well known name that is branded well around the world. Starchitects are now like fashion designers, they are famous and would attract tourists and get good reviews from critics from all over the world. Suddenly a city becomes more sophisticated and cultured once they have a Koolhaas building, it seems. This is how the industry was moving in the past decade. This should not be the case here.

I understand that the image of the previous post, The Dubai Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, looks disappointing. She has simply used the dune formation and turned it into a building. This happens simply because she was not competitive enough. I understand that Jean Nouvel also participated in this competition, but those are only two starchitects with less than inspiring designs.

We must not take things for granted and should not accept underwhelming designs simply because they are submitted by those world famous architects. For that not to happen, we should hold an international competition, that is designed to entice a genuine competitiveness between architects. We should invite no less than 30 architects to take part in this competition.

This would be a stark contrast to the approach taken by Abu Dhabi in Saadiyat island development. They simply gave each starchitect a plot to design something. That was wrong. We need to hold a grand competition, where there would be a winner and a second and third prizes and perhaps two honourable mentions. Once that takes place, the concerned party in Kuwait should hold an exhibition to show case all the designs submitted to the jury so the people of Kuwait would go and see. I think we can get many good examples should we simply approach the project differently than how it is being done in the region.

I agree a name isn’t enough to guarantee a successful and good building, but a competition would most likely will. One must remember that architects are human beings, and get motivated by competitions. They have a name to preserve, specially among other fellow professionals,and the outcome would serve as a great exhibition, learning experience, and an eye opener.

Posted by: Jasem Nadoum | February 5, 2011

Kuwait Opera House

Kuwait is planning on investing in culture and the government has announced that it will be building eight new theaters as part of its economic development plan. It is great news indeed. Kuwait lacks good, modern, and sophisticated theaters. The government also announced that it allocated about 50,000 square meters to build an Opera House.

As controversial as that might be, it should be great news as well for anyone who loves culture, music, and especially for architects. I am hopeful that this Opera house would do something Kuwait in desperate need of, a starchitect building.

In recent years, the Kuwaiti landscape and skyline has changed dramatically. Massive construction took place and international firms like SOM, HOK, KPF, among others have designed and built projects here but not one the so-called ‘starchitects’ has ever designed anything for Kuwait that has materialized.

There is a need for good architecture in Kuwait for both the professionals and students alike. An experience that only a master architect like, Steven Holl, Tadoa Ando and Zaha Hadid could bring to our city. Those architects have earned their name and reputation because they defy the norms, undertake a design process that is research and analytically driven, and are trend setting, if I may dare to call it that. Big firms hardly do that anymore, they tend to deliver great works of architecture, but is short of thought provoking and hardly inspirational.

Kuwait managed to get back to its infancy in architecture, after being a leading country in the region in 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Qatar, for example, have now more buildings of famous architects than Kuwait does.

Kuwait University has an architectural program, and the students need something to inspire them. They, as well as other local professionals, are infants in architecture ,and like infants, we need to observe, imitate, and learn the process all over again. The only way I can imagine that can happen is, either we travel around the world looking into examples, which we can do, or have some examples built here.

I don’t care if a starchitect does a bad job at designing the Opera House, as long as it is design by someone famous with credible work. Someone who is conceptual, analytical, formal, and theoretical. We need a built example, even if it ends up badly, cause that might be the lesson to learn. If we are investing in culture we should invest in its totality, and architecture is the finest of all cultural matters, subjects and desciplines

Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | January 28, 2011

Transit Oriented Development

This video encapsulates almost everything i’m trying to achieve on re:kuwait in terms of transit oriented development and more walkable neighborhoods. It shows in a very concise and simple way how we can create the sort of neighborhoods that I describe in posts such as this.

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