Sunday, June 3, 2012

Use of traditional elements in contemporary architecture in Kuwait - استخدام عناصر مستمدة من العمارة التقليدية للتعبير عن الهوية الثقافية



Use of traditional elements in contemporary architecture in Kuwait.
 2010
Dr. Yasser Mahgoub
Abstract:
The use of elements derived form traditional architecture to express a cultural identity is noticeable in many parts of the world. While some view it as an authentic effort to relate contemporary architecture to its locality, others view it as a fake attempt to mask contemporary architecture with covers from the past. This paper examines the use of traditional architecture elements in contemporary architecture in Kuwait. It investigates the current attempts to utilize elements derived from traditional Kuwaiti architecture in the design of contemporary architecture. The aim is to understand these efforts in the context of Kuwait, where architecture passed through dramatic transformations during the second half of the twentieth century as a result of economic, regional and global changes. The views of architects and non architects are considered as well as the different strategies used in expressing cultural identity. Interviews and questionnaires with architects and non architects were conducted and examples of projects were surveyed and analyzed. The analysis of data illustrated the views of architects and their perception by non architects. The study concluded that, on one hand, architecture who use traditional elements employed several strategies as an attempt to express an architectural identity in their work. On the other hand, architects who don’t attempt to use traditional elements in their work assert that cultural identity is constantly changing and that it is a product of authentic practices and design. While this study is relevant to other Gulf countries that share similar conditions with Kuwait, it is also relevant to other countries in other parts of the world in their attempt to search for an identity in architecture.
ملخص
من الملاحظ في كثير من بلدان العالم استخدام عناصر مستمدة من العمارة التقليدية للتعبير عن الهوية الثقافية. وفي حين يرى البعض أنها محاولة أصيلة لربط العمارة المعاصرة بجذورها ، يرى آخرون أنها محاولة وهمية لاستخدام قناع يغطي العمارة المعاصرة بعناصر من الماضي. تبحث هذه الورقة استخدام عناصر العمارة التقليدية في العمارة المعاصرة في الكويت و المحاولات الجارية الآن للاستفادة من العناصر المستمدة من العمارة الكويتية التقليدية في تصميم العمارة المعاصرة. والهدف من الدراسة هو محاولة فهم هذه المحاولات في الكويت، حيث مرت العمارة بتحولات هائلة خلال النصف الثاني من القرن العشرين نتيجة للتغيرات الاقتصادية والإقليمية والعالمية. تناقش الورقة آراء المعماريين و الاستراتيجيات المختلفة التي يستخدمونها في التعبير عن الهوية الثقافية للعمارة الكويتية. وقد تم عمل مقابلات واستبيانات مع المعماريين وغير المعماريين وجمع أمثلة من المشاريع وتحليلها. وقد خلصت الدراسة إلى وجود عدة استراتيجيات يقوم من خلالها المعماريين باستخدام العناصر التقليدية في محاولة للتعبير عن الهوية المعمارية في عملهم. ومن ناحية أخرى فان المعماريين الذين لا يستخدمون العناصر التقليدية في عملهم يؤكدون على أن الهوية الثقافية في تغير مستمر وأنها نتاج لممارسات أصيلة في التصميم. قارنت الدراسة بين آراء المعماريين وغير المعماريين للتعرف على العناصر المشتركة والمختلفة في رؤيتهم لاستخدام العناصر التقليدية في العمارة المعاصرة. وفي حين أن هذه الدراسة مفيدة لدول الخليج حيث تتشابه ظروفها مع الكويت ، فهي ذات أهمية للبلدان الأخرى في أنحاء العالم في محاولة للبحث عن الهوية في العمارة.
1. Introduction:
Arab architects are in a continuous process of criticizing their own versions of modern and post modern architecture and the prevailing contemporary practices. Within their criticism, discourses always suggest the recycling of traditional architecture and its elements as a way of establishing and imposing a distinguished character in the contemporary city. Typically, this takes the form of either refurbishing old palaces and public buildings, or establishing visual references—borrowed from the past—and utilized in contemporary/modern buildings. (Slama, 2009)
The use of elements derived form traditional architecture to express a cultural identity is noticeable in many parts of the world. While some view it as an authentic effort to relate contemporary architecture to the roots of the place, others view it as a fake attempt to mask contemporary architecture with covers from the past. This paper examines the use of traditional architecture elements in contemporary architecture in Kuwait. It investigates the current attempts to utilize elements derived from traditional Kuwaiti architecture in the design of contemporary architecture in Kuwait. The aim is to understand these efforts in the context of Kuwait, where architecture passed through dramatic transformations during the second half of the twentieth century as a result of economic, regional and global changes.
2. Theoretical framework:
The beginning of the 21st century is marked by increasing globalization and the affirmation of a singular identity that is in constant tension with traditional local identities. This trend has started after the spread of the international style, during the second half of the 20th century, and intensified as a result of the spread of globalization as a dominating world view at the end of the century. As a reaction to this sweeping trend, the phenomenon of expressing local cultural identities in architecture is observed in many parts of the world. As Castells put it, “cultural identity is the process by which social actors build their own meaning according to cultural attributes.” (Castells, 2004)
The question of whether architecture should express a cultural identity is being investigated by many researchers in many parts of the world. Gospondini argues that “in the process of economic and cultural globalization, European integration and the blur of national identities in Europe, place identity emerges as a central concern of both scholars and other people.” (Gospodini, 2004, p. 225) In Singapore, architects vigorously adopted, transformed and integrated traditions to reflect contemporary realities such as fast evolving cultures, values and lifestyles. The notion of contemporary vernacular was developed. It can be defined as a conscious commitment to uncover a particular tradition’s unique responses to spatial arrangements, place and climate and thereafter exteriorize these established and symbolic identities into creative forms. (Lim, 2004)
The general debate on the representation of cultural identity in architecture was initiated by Frampton and others in the 80s by introducing the concept of critical regionalism. Kenneth Frampton’s theory of critical regionalism received much attention as it seemed particularly relevant to developing countries faced with the onslaught of Western media, commodification and globalization (Frampton, 1985). The architecture of critical regionalism makes reference to the site, the “genius loci” on a more abstract level. Rather than dealing extensively with the region itself and a particular regional style, Frampton’s concept of regionalism mainly focuses on the relationship of a building to its site and location in a sociological context. However, the concept of critical regionalism has since been challenged by many critics, particularly those who question its relevance for more advanced economies. According to Lim, “the concept of regionality depends on it being possible to correlate cultural codes with geographical regions. In modern societies these regional differences are largely obliterated, or as I would add, hybridized.” (Lim, 2004, p.19)
Although this concept was developed in the context of industrialized countries, it has also been applied to contemporary architecture in developing countries. However, it seems that it overlooks fundamental differences and neglects important factors underlying the postcolonial development of architecture in these countries. Specifically, it does not reflect the diverse and dynamic nature of the emergence of local identities. It superimposes a rather static and narrow notion of local vs. universal, traditional vs. modern concepts. As an analytical approach it seems inadequate to capture the products of "local architecture" and their perception by theorists and the general public. (Tzonis et al, 2003) In many developing countries identities can hardly be localized and many places show composite patterns with more than one identity. In addition, the works of architects labeled as contributions to promoting "local identity" seem to have more in common with the developments in other countries than with the characteristics of the place where they have been erected.
In the Arab region, the phenomenon of expressing cultural identity in architecture became significant during the seventies as the influence of modernization started to be more apparent in creating completely different architecture than the traditional Arab city architecture. El-Sheshtawy et al (2000) argue that third world cities - especially those which have witnessed rapid growth within the last two decades - are moving towards a "co-existence" model which takes into account forces of modernization and change (globalization) while at the same time responding to the preservation of traditional elements within the society. They concluded that an examination of the viability of this model and its suitability for other cities is recommended and they argued that in a world dominated by forces of globalization the current discourse on the "loss of identity" needs to be reconsidered. Salama (2006) argues that, “in the Arab region, issues that pertain to identity, character, and architectural trends of the built environment have been in debate for two or three decades, more so because of this region’s cultural uniqueness and plurality. However, it is this cultural uniqueness that has made it a tough quest and has – in many cases, culminated into sacred symbolism that is painful to behold or comprehend.” (Salama, 2006) Saleh points out that climatic, social, topographic and economical aspects were important factors in the formulation of regionalism in Saudi Arabian cities. He argues that these factors are now weakened by two controversial trends in planning and design of place known as the traditionalism and modernism. He asserts that the professionals use their skill in the incorporation of historical as well as new images of the physical place and structures to enhance their identifiability and recognition in the city. The image represents a cultural significance which tie it to culture. (Saleh, 1998) Al-Naim explains the cultural hybridity that characterizes built environment in the Gulf countries as a product of two main ideological views: the futuristic and traditionalist, “while the first group rejects historical heritage, the second considers the past as the only valid evidence that should be considered to shape the present. They both accept the use of technology as a necessity that cannot be avoided.” (Al-Naim., 2005:105) He concludes that “when a local culture borrows shapes and ideas to be utilized in the built environment, several processes occur to ‘resist’ the ‘new’.” He calls it “the mechanism of cultural resistance in the built environment.”(Al-Naim., 2005:116)
3. The Context:
Architecture in Kuwait has passed through dramatic transformations during the second half of the 20th century that were the result of economic, regional and global changes. Starting with the discovery of oil during the 1940’s and the economic wealth generated by its sale, the execution of the first master plan for the country during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the economic boom during the 1970’s following the dramatic increase of oil prices in 1973, the economic depression during the 1980’s following the stock market crash, and finally the second Gulf war and the experience of invasion and liberation by foreign countries during the 1990’s. Architecture reflected all these layers of rapid political, economic, and cultural changes.
 Figure 1. Kuwait timeline of events since the discovery of oil. (Source: the author.)
Attempts towards expressing cultural identity in Kuwaiti architecture has started during the 1970s by foreign architects who were invited to design landmark buildings after the implementation of the first master plan in Kuwait during the 1960’s. (Shiber, 1964) For example, Jorn Utzon was invited to design the Parliament Building and Reima Pietilae was invited to design of the new Sief Palace are examples of landmarks designed by foreign architects expressing a cultural identity. (See Gardiner, 1983, Vale, 1992 and Kultermann, 1999) (See figure 1. and 2.) While these attempts were made by foreign architects who were commissioned to design projects in Kuwait due to the lack of Kuwaiti architects, the appearance of architecture that attempts to reflect cultural identity by Kuwaiti architects is a different phenomenon.
Figure 2. Kuwait Parliament Building. (Source: the author.)
 
Figure 3. Kuwait Water Towers. (Source: the author.)
The appearance of architecture that attempts to reflect cultural identity by Kuwaiti architects is a different phenomenon. As described by Khattab (2001), "particularly in the case of Kuwait, reasserting the local identity has lately become a matter of great importance especially after Iraq's claims in Kuwait and the Second Gulf War." This was reflected on the architecture being produced in Kuwait by local and Kuwaiti architects in their attempts to recognize and acknowledge the heritage of traditional Kuwaiti architecture during the 1990s. (See figure 3.) The famous Kuwaiti architect Hamed Shuaib (1999) reiterated the question posed by many conferences and seminars held in the Gulf area: “When will we, in Kuwait and other Gulf countries, have modern architecture suitable for our community, environment and heritage?” Several practicing architects expressed the same view in a documentary titled: Kuwaiti Architecture: A Lost Identity. While this question is paused by practicing architects, it is also paused by academic researchers in the field.
Figure 4. Example of projects by Architect Saleh Al Mutawa. (Source: the author.)
4. Research Method:
For the purpose of this study, data was collected using the following methods:
·        In-depth interviews with architects and non architects were conducted.
·        Questionnaires were developed and distributed to collect relevant information from architects and non-architects.
·        Examples of projects using traditional elements were collected surveyed and analyzed.


5. Analysis of data:
          5.1. The Architects’ Views
The analysis of data illustrated the views of architects regarding the use of traditional elements in contemporary architecture. It also illustrated the perception by non architects of the same phenomenon. Architects who use traditional elements employed several strategies as an attempt to express a Kuwaiti architectural identity in their work. On the other hand, architects who don’t attempt to use traditional elements in their work assert that cultural identity is constantly changing and that it is a product of authentic practices and design.
There are commonalities and differences between the views of the architects regarding the sources of Kuwaiti architectural identity. There is a general agreement that the climate and the environment have a major influence on the culture of the people and the architectural identity. Environmental response to the climate is a key factor in reflecting the identity of the country. Located in a harsh desert region, Kuwait suffers from long hot summer months that dominate the image of the weather of the country, overshadowing the moderate weather of the winter months.
Many architects employ the metaphors of the pearl shells and boats making in their buildings. The impact of the religion on the culture is very significant and essential for understanding the needs of the individual for privacy, family members interaction, and space configuration and orientation. These needs are currently being modified under the influence of higher economic standards and globalization. Religion is also viewed as a unifying force of the individual with nature and society, a notion opposite to the current trend towards individualism and show-off.
There is an agreement among architects that there are elements, vocabularies, proportions, and materials that distinguish traditional Kuwaiti architecture, but there is no agreement on whether they should be used again or not. Some architects think that the reuse of these elements and vocabulary is essential to achieve a distinctive architectural Kuwaiti architectural identity that relates contemporary architecture to traditional architecture. Others believe that it is not a necessity to use these elements and vocabularies but it is essential to respond to the climatic conditions and the specific needs of the Kuwaiti people.
Figure 5. Bait Al Badr embodies many traditional elements. (Source: the author.)
There is recognition among Kuwaiti architects that buildings alone are not sufficient to convey the cultural identity. The context of architecture provides an important background against which architecture is understood. The traditional city spaces provided an important dimension to the experience and provided a meaningful reading of traditional architecture buildings. When placed against modern streets and buildings, traditional elements and vocabularies read more like Disney World than authentic architecture.
 5.2. The Views of Non-Architects’
The results indicated that there were important differences between the views of architects and non-architects regarding the meaning and importance of expressing a cultural identity in Kuwaiti architecture. There was a significant difference between architects and non-architects views regarding the expression of cultural identity in contemporary architecture and environment. While architects considered that architecture is always an expression of contemporary culture and life style, non architects believe that cultural identity is only expressed in traditional buildings and environments. Architects considered cultural identity to be expressed mainly through the urban context while non-architects considered that cultural identity to be expressed mainly through individual buildings.
Another important difference was found between the views of the architects and the non-architects regarding the role of the client in positively contributing to the establishment of a cultural identity. While architects considered the client as an important contributor in encouraging the architect to design buildings that reflect a local cultural identity, non-architects considered the architect as the sole responsible entity for the promotion of cultural identity in architecture.
6. Conclusions:
This study revealed that there are commonalities and differences between the views of the Kuwaiti architects regarding the sources of Kuwaiti cultural identity. The use of traditional elements is contemporary architecture is a reaction to rapid changes that Kuwait went through during the second half of the 20th century that included dramatic transformation from traditional to modern environment, the traumatic impact of 1990 invasion and globalization . The use of traditional elements is not recognized as an attempt to return to the past but as an attempt to recognize the past as starting point for present and future developments. Architects and non-architects realize the impracticality to relive in traditional buildings, but both groups recognize the need to have a distinctive identity that is related to a distinguished past. As Slama put it:
Societies tend to re-evaluate the meaning and desirability of built environments rapidly. The search for an architectural identity, the rise and fall of ISMS (movements and tendencies), and the continuous debate on symbolism and character issues in architecture are derived from this fact. That search seems to be a preoccupation with countries that have cultural richness and multi-layers of history. Architects and designers in those countries find themselves dealing with a paradox needing to project a certain image of themselves through their built environment. (Salama, 2007)
While this study is relevant to other Gulf countries that share similar conditions with Kuwait, it is also relevant to other countries in other parts in the world in their attempt to search for an identity in architecture. The use of architectural elements derived from traditional architecture is noticeable in many Gulf countries. They are used on the scale of individual buildings, i.e. doors, windows, parapets, etc., and large developments, i.e. urban planning, streets patterns, traditional villages, etc. There are also growing debates to reconsider cultural identities in France and other European countries. Globalization is pausing a threat to distinctive cultural identities and the use of elements derived from traditional architecture provides a mean to relate contemporary architecture to the past in order to create a more meaningful environment.
References
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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Dr. Yasser Mahgoub, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Department of Architecture, College of Engineering and Petroleum, Kuwait University. Received B. Sc. in Architectural Engineering degree from Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt in 1978 and Doctorate in Architecture degree from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA in 1990. Taught at Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt from 1978 to 1993, United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain, UAE from 1993 to 1999, and Kuwait University from 1999 to date. Research interests include social and cultural aspects of architecture, sustainable architecture, architectural education and the impact of globalization on architecture. Teaches architectural design studios, architectural research, and architectural professional practice courses. Practiced architecture as a practicing architect in Egypt and as a consultant for Kuwait University Vice President for the New University City Campus.