RECKONING WITH PLANNING A POST-COLONIAL LANDSCAPE

Aerial shot of Kuwait City before modernization efforts.

Source: The Architectural Review

[1] Saba George Shiber, The Kuwait Urbanization: Being an Urbanistic Case-Study of a Developing Country (Kuwait: Kuwait Government Press, 1964), 115.

[2] Ibid, 116.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 117.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Asseel Al-Ragam, “Critical Nostalgia: Kuwait Urban Modernity and Alison and Peter Smithson’s Kuwait Urban Study and Mat-Building.” The Journal of Architecture 20 (2015): 4.
[7] Stephen Gardiner, Kuwait: The Making of a City (Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1983), 53.
[8] Ibid, 56.

 

[13] Souk is the Arabic term for market, it is an outdoor open market similar to a bazaar, and includes shading structures outlining its corridors.
[14] “Proposals for Restructuring Kuwait.” 1974. The Architectural Review (London) 156 (931): 180-181.
[15]  Ibid.
1[6]  Ibid.
[17] Ibid, 182.
[18] Ibid, 183.

[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid, 184.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid, 184-185.
[23] Ibid, 185.

 [28] Ibid, 504.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Asseel Al-Ragam, “Critical Nostalgia,” 14.

Kuwait City has been the principal location for the population of Kuwait since the middle of the 18th century. The original urban fabric of the city was built in a vernacular style inspired by neighboring Persian architecture, with the use of wind tunnels and courtyard houses to make life comfortable in the arid desert climate. Pre-oil Kuwait was a protectorate of the British Empire whose economy was for the most part dependent on fishing, pearl diving, and trading. The city itself was full of clustered neighborhoods, each one named for its inhabitants; for example, the Awazim neighborhood was mainly populated by the Azmi family, and so forth. The initial city was not planned, instead growing incrementally with the population.

During the 1920s, three boundary walls were erected to protect the city from attacks from neighboring countries and outside tribes and contain its growth. These were known as the Walls of the City, or Soor Al Madina, and were punctuated with gates that allowed merchants and citizens in and out of the city proper to conduct business and travel. During this time, the American Mission Hospital complex was also constructed, bringing in a new wave of imperialism to the country through American Christian missionaries. These missionaries attempted to disseminate the message of Christ to the population living within the city through medical service and sermons. Yet these attempts were unsuccessful, as many did not convert. The British colonial power subsequently discovered oil in the 1930s, and by 1946, Kuwait came into unprecedented wealth with its first oil shipment. With their new petro-wealth, the Al-Sabahs, the ruling family, developed a vision of a new and modern Kuwait. This vision was implemented through the rapid development of a new masterplan that proposed demolishing the old city, creating future urban planning issues that have yet to be fixed to this day. This paper will examine the first masterplan by Minoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane, as well as mat-buildings and pleasure gardens by the British architecture and planning duo Peter and Alison Smithson, all within a post-colonial context and critical lens of orientalism.

MODERNIZATION


While European influence shaped most colonies, the urban renewal of Kuwait City was solely at the hands of its ruling family. By the beginning of the 1950s, the British empire was waning in strength within the region and sought to maintain power by introducing British consultancy firms as anchors of their influence within the country.  While the ruling family indeed began to exercise more independence and power, what was left of the British empire’s power in Kuwait was their hiring of consultancies. In 1951, British consultants Minoprio, Spencely, and P. W. Macfarlane (MSM) drafted the first masterplan of the city, initially calling for demolition of the old city to welcome in a more modern city. The plan consisted of new road networks, an airport, public parks and sports fields, industry, commerce, education, and residential areas. The inclusion of residential areas was essential because of the inevitable displacement that was going to occur when neighborhoods were razed to make way for the modern city. This first masterplan of Kuwait was the first plan that the British consultants had made for a foreign location – let alone an “exotic” city with an unfamiliar climate.

The focus of this plan was to categorize and zone the city based on land use functions, attempting to adopt Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideals, as was most of Europe in its effort to combat pollution. This planning theory focused on making healthier cities. The functions of the inner city were now to be almost purely commercial, while the educational, health, and industrial zones were isolated to the west of the city and away from the residential zones. Between the city proper and the residential areas stood the wall of Kuwait. In 1957, orders came for the wall’ demolition, and only a few of its gates remain to this day. The wall that separated the capital from the eight newly designed residential areas was replaced by a street known as Al Soor Street, an ode to what was recently demolished. This street became the divider between the city and the newly proposed green belt that separated the financial district from the self-sufficient residential areas. As time progressed, the government began buying land through the Land Acquisition Policy within Kuwait City. The government bought land from Kuwait’s residents above market value to encourage them to sell and move out to the newly constructed suburbs. Eventually, most of the vernacular old city was demolished to construct more modern buildings by international architects.

As this masterplan was implemented, Saba George Shiber, a Palestinian planner employed by the Kuwait Municipality, became increasingly vocal. He criticized the top-down planning and the importation of foreign planners, who were not familiar with the context, culture, or climate of the country. Shiber, a senior planner and architect at the Municipality, critiqued the short amount of time between “old Kuwait,” and “new Kuwait,” – a span of only 15 years – through his book The Kuwait Urbanization. During this rapid modernization of the capital, he noted that old Kuwait was “a walled, close-knit, organic, interstice and typical coastal desert Arab village that was inward-oriented,” and had been recreated into new Kuwait, one that was “outward-oriented, [a] desert cosmopolitan city that is inorganic, a-typical, far-flung in its reaches with boundary walls surrounding nearly every house, establishment, and estate.”[1] 

Within his critique, he also noted that the speed of development allowed for several “basic urban and architectural mistakes to slip by unnoticed.”[2] Shiber deemed that the masterplan created by Minoprio, Spencely, and Macfarlane was basic in development, contradictory to his belief that planning was a complex and sophisticated science. His experience as a planning professional and academic reduced this first masterplan to a “rigid, geometric, two-dimensional [plan],” having it ignore other aspects of planning and minimizing it to physical planning and nothing else.[3] He also noted his disdain for how the old city was treated during the planning process by MSM. Rather than incorporating the existing building stock, they opted to eradicate the old and create a costly plan completely disconnected from the culture and natural environment they were designing for. Arid climates require tight urban planning solutions to create a more comfortable environment for its users, the opposite of what MSM proposed with their wide avenues and streetscapes. Shiber states that “In Kuwait, today, the unique hot climate has not been granted the due consideration in molding the city or its architecture and there is little evidence in the “Development Plans” of Kuwait to indicate that climate was admitted as a factor.”[4]

Through his writings, Shiber outlined critical observations of the first masterplan of Kuwait. His points revolved around the rush to construct a city before proper design and research was completed, the presence of vast sums of money, the absence of planning and architectural professionals in Kuwait in general, and the arrogance of foreign firms.[5]  While the rush to construct and vast sums of money were largely the fault of the desire of the Al-Sabahs to modernize their young country, the lack of proper research and design phases were the fault of the British firm MSM. The lack of proper research relating to climate and culture of Kuwait resulted in a heavily car dependent design of the city, where the urban fabric was no longer dense. The plan favored the car over the pedestrian, making the harsh climate even more unbearable. Streets were no longer walkable, buildings no longer had proper natural ventilation, and society was now forced to bring in expensive air conditioning to all buildings to make up for the shortcomings of the initial masterplan.

Hiring MSM as consultants to create Kuwait’s first masterplan was a final attempt by British authorities stationed in Kuwait at maintaining colonial power within the country. There had been increasing contention between colonial British powers in Kuwait and the ruling family. Within the Gulf, British influence and rule had seen a decline since the Suez War in 1956, and in Kuwait, the ruling family exercised “more power while marginalizing the few incumbent political agents. Even direct pressure from Prime Minister Churchill to install a senior advisor over the ruling Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem was thwarted by the emir.”[6] Towards the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, Kuwaitis were discontent with the MSM plan and its actualization.[7] In 1961, Kuwait became independent from the British empire and free to do its own bidding with how development would be enacted within the country. 

During this period, Kuwaitis who were studying abroad were returning to a professional field that was empty of local manpower. Hamid Shuaib, a Kuwaiti architect and planner, shaped the future of the city. Upon his employment at the Kuwait Municipality in 1965, Shuaib created the urban design division.[8] However, due to not enough local professionals, outside council was still required. In order to repair the mishaps of the first masterplan by MSM, British firm Colin Buchanan and Partners was hired in 1968 to create the second masterplan for Kuwait City. Shuaib put together an Advisory Planning Committee that would carry out the second masterplan by Buchanan.[9] In the end, the Committee had four firms provide recommendations to aid in town development. Peter and Alison Smithson were chosen as one of the four firms that would help develop Kuwait City.[10]

THE SMITHSONS


Peter and Alison Smithson were a part of Team 10 and were considered New Brutalists. Team 10 saw its beginnings within CIAM’s 6th congress with a discussion exploring a new agenda regarding town planning through a more theoretical approach. Here, the Smithsons presented “Hierarchy of Association.” Their work proposed replacing “functional” hierarchy (dwelling, transportation, work, and recreation) of the Athens Charter with “scales unities of house, street, district, and city.[11]

There are two important essays that the Smithsons drafted in regards to Kuwait: “Kuwait Urban Study”, and “Kuwait Green Belt Pleasure Gardens.” As one of the four consultants chosen by the Advisory Planning Committee, the Smithsons work was the focus of the second half of “Proposals for Restructuring Kuwait,” an essay that covered the work by the four chosen firms. This paper began by outlining the issue with rapid modernization of Kuwait, how it led to the demolition of the old city, and how there were issues with the new city that needed to be addressed.[12] All four proposals agreed on developing the waterfront for recreational activities, avoiding the inclusion of a vehicular traffic road; Sief Palace and its surrounding harbor and area should be developed as a “special area;” residential areas should be reintroduced into the city to promote liveliness; the traditional souk[13] is to be preserved and incorporated into the new urban landscape by linkage and expansion of the shading structures to nearby buildings; and the greenbelt located at the periphery of the capital must be developed as a recreational space.[14] 

 

The four firms also emphasized that the government should not develop land within the city based on underdeveloped studies and rushed decisions to modernize.[15] Along with the general recommendations, each firm focused on a specific aspect of the city. The Smithsons concentrated on the issue with office buildings for both commercial and governmental use. Their proposal introduced a system of mat-buildings that would suit Kuwait’s hot climate by providing “easy pedestrian movement across sheltered spaces.”[16] This building typology, according to “Proposals for Restructuring Kuwait,” would create a new standard within planning in Kuwait City. The typology of office buildings in Kuwait followed the European pattern of isolated building blocks,[17] while what the Smithsons introduced was sprawling, interconnected buildings that also shaped the landscape of the city, known as mat-buildings. 

“Proposals for Restructuring Kuwait” then introduced the Smithsons’ essay “Kuwait Urban Study” as “Kuwait: The Smithsons’ Scheme.” Their essay begins by explaining how Kuwait is neither like Cairo or Beirut, nor should it be. The city needed its own distinct characteristics that would be unique to its own history. Their proposal for Kuwait City was to incorporate elements of the past, such as low building profiles and walkability, with the future in mind. The scheme aimed to design an environment that considered the pedestrian before the vehicle, noting shaded walkways uninterrupted by car traffic and the noise that follows suit.[18] 

The proposal was more of a system of buildings that spread throughout the city like a ‘mat,’ rather than designed as separate entities. The system followed a 22.5-degree grid created by inter-sighting the existing mosques.[19] This was a restructuring of the urban fabric, having sprawling structures cover most of the city blocks, being only punctuated by mosque minarets and other existing built structures, as well as old cemeteries, shaded car parks, and pre-existing routes and boundaries.[20] The human scale is introduced within the building through several factors: low rise structure, light wells injecting natural lighting internally, and “sight-lines” created by ornamented mosques. “Gallerias” occupy spaces within the mat buildings at half-grid slices, providing a view to office spaces that surround it without the harsh impact of the desert climate.

The physical structure of the mat-buildings created solutions to the numerous problems that the first masterplan by Minoprio, Spencely, and Macfarlane created. There was a renewed sense of the human scale, creating more walkable spaces with proper ventilation, air circulation, and shading from the arid desert climate. Different issues such as parking and cooling were addressed with specialized districts to house them within the urban fabric, depending on the function, accessibility to the pedestrian differed. For example, the cooling stations were isolated because of their function, while parking garages were numerous and spread out through the urban fabric.[21]

The proposal also noted the “superabundance of road area,” and how it is “too great to be pleasant climatically.”[22] This critique of the MSM masterplan accompanies the Smithsons’ cancelation of some roads within their mat buildings structure, justified by a more temperate climate for pedestrians, saying “the roads retained serve the climate-muting ‘mat’ buildings.”[23] There is a physical hierarchy within this proposed structure, the ground floor is elevated by pilotis, allowing pedestrians more freedom to walk, while the “cells,” or different functions within the grid, are accessible through a “station,” an escalator that leads up one floor. Within each floor accessed, there is an information center at the “station,” as well as other basic services such as restrooms, maintenance, service elevators, etc. The rooftops of the ‘mats,’ there would be special office suites, possibly catering to different ministries and faculties.

This proposal continues with Municipality Park, and how its successful growth boasted the assumption that Kuwaitis want this park extended, or to have more park space within the city.[24] The study is capped with the initial study of the greenbelt, mentioning that it would transform the system of ‘rampart garages’ at the edge of the city to a landscaped garden that would be enjoyed by the public. Maintaining the idea of ‘rampart,’ the garages were then transformed into a garden which would boast mounds that would aid in creating sound barriers against the traffic noise coming in from Soor Street, which it runs parallel to.[25] In the end, this proposal did not actualize due to the government abandoning the project over cost issues.

In her essay titled “Kuwait Green Belt Pleasure Gardens,” Alison Smithson explains their thought process for designing the parks. The Smithsons drew inspiration for this project from their extensive travels in the region, particularly tile work within Iran. Colorful porcelain tiling was introduced into the design as both an aesthetic and function, each area would be a different vibrant color, but also “The tile surfaces would reflect the worst of the sun during the day and would continue to rapidly give-off stored heat as the sun set, which rising currents of air would further cool the surfaces: imparting a sense of air movement to people using the garden.”[26] There would be mounds constructed, devising different spaces depending on their location within the greenbelt. Those east of the belt, near Dasman Palace, are fashioned similar to “castle earthworks,” where a tower may be built.[27] The mounds would provide a visual homage to the historic gates once spread, as the city is now devoid of both its historic gates, and buildings alike. 


Smithson goes on to describe the paths within the rampart gardens, and how they differ from what would be found in Europe in similar circumstances. In Kuwait, they designed paths to be 2.5 or 5 meters wide, more spacious than what is customary within Europe, due to the cultural aspect of a larger realm of personal space within Kuwaiti society.[28] The paths, unlike the colorful walls, would not be tiled. She also noted how pavement within Kuwait is quickly weathered because of the scorching sun, noting that the pavement within the gardens would be “mat, [and] light absorbent.”[29]

Their design of the greenbelt, even after understanding the culture and climate of the region, drew from their own cultural background. The references of the “picturesque” English garden spaces is evident through their introduction of mounds and water features. Their modeling of land emerged from 18th century gardening traditions, focusing on creating natural elements in an “artificial” manner. These themes are present within several of their built designs, such as the circular mound in the center of Robin Hood Gardens. English pleasure gardens are known for their recreational activity spaces, such as concert halls, entertainment venues, and even zoos. Different activities can be enjoyed within these gardens, as some even border on the erotic side as these spaces have become synonymous with men bringing their mistresses for a late evening stroll. 

ORIENTALISM & LASTING IMPRESSIONS


The Smithsons studied Kuwait’s capital extensively, proposing pleasure gardens and mat buildings as solutions to the issues created by the first masterplan created by MSM.  To attempt a design with the context, culture, and climate in mind, the Smithsons immersed themselves within the different cultures of the region. The understanding of architectural elements within Isfahan, Cairo, or Beirut helped shape their understanding of Kuwait and what it would need to form its own architectural identity. At least, that is how their research framed it. Their definition of ‘Arab sense of space,’ according to Al-Ragam, stemmed from a “monolithic narrative”[30] of different cultures throughout the Middle East, and different historical timeframes became broadly painted as Arab. As if Arab culture can be summarized in one specific form, not pertaining to any distinct region.

 

This false image that the Smithsons built mentally of the region and what ‘Arab sense of space’ would look like shaped their designs and outcomes, specifically within their rampart pleasure gardens in the greenbelt. While Al-Ragam is critical of what shaped the Smithsons’ visions and designs, she declared that their work cannot be deemed orientalist, claiming it would be “rather simple to dismiss their work…as orientalism.”[31] This is highly debatable, as the definition of orientalism is a stereotypical representation of Asian and Middle Eastern culture embodying a colonialist attitude. The intentions of the Smithsons when designing and creating are irrelevant to the outcome, while they did not bring colonial designs to their proposal, their own attitudes were heavily influenced of a colonial mindset, compiling different cultures and regions into one synonymous and interchangeable form, titling it ‘Arab sense of space.’

Several lines within their studies pertaining to Kuwait echo orientalism, contrary to what Al-Ragam dismissed. In their “Kuwait Urban Study,” they introduced their vision as “…something new, something which extends what the world recognizes as the Arab tradition, not a mere modification of what is fashionable in America, Europe, or Europeanised North Africa.”[32] The three different locations mentioned within their comparison all relate back to colonialism. Europe is a colonial power, America was colonized by European immigrants, and there is no such thing as “Europeanised” North Africa, this is a euphemism for colonialism. This stripped away the violence imposed on the region by European powers, minimizing it to an architectural style that was imported into the region and now gave it a specific characteristic. 

The Smithsons continue by stating how they would like to form a Kuwaiti identity, away from the European standard of stand-alone tower blocks, affirming that “We are trying to move away from individually designed “blocks” towards the controlled and subtle repetition of the domes in Isfahan.”[33] Once again, this minimizes different cultures to specific motifs that can simply become an aesthetic while formulating the characteristics of ‘Arab sense of place.’ This is also applicable to the greenbelt designs they had proposed. The direct import of English pleasure gardens, along with their landscaping to a completely different climate and culture reflects a patriarchal attitude that Western professionals know what would be best for the region, regardless of reality.

While the Smithsons planned for a recreational space for all to enjoy within the greenbelt of Kuwait, the reality is not within the realms of a pleasure garden. Present day, the greenbelt has been redeveloped by the government into a high-profile urban park. Yet, urban park as a title still does not suit the function of the space. The park itself is a large, beautiful garden where many security guards patrol the area. The activities that come with pleasure gardens or urban parks are strictly prohibited. Park rules include no cycling, no picnics or barbecues, and animals are not allowed. The park authorities contest the no cycling rule, stating that there is a track that runs on the outside of the gates of the park for cyclists. In reality, it is the pavement that separates the park from the street. The architect, Ricardo Camacho, incorporated elements such as the ceramic tiling and mounds from the original Smithson designs into the current execution of the park, but the overall operation of the park is more of a private garden.

The narrative of orientalism within Kuwait’s planning history did not end when the country gained independence. While it started with MSM and the “exotic” landscape they were dealing with, it continues to this day. The notion that a planning consultancy from Great Britain, that has no experience planning outside of their own country, can create a successful master plan for a country that they did not research adequately reflects the arrogance of colonialism. This implies that even with the lack of research executed, the plan would be more successful than if Arab planners had taken on the venture. 

The dependency on Western firms is apparent, even after leaving the British commonwealth, the second master plan was executed by another British firm, Colin Buchanan and Partners, reflecting Kuwait’s ties to Great Britain as still standing. The building codes even dictate that large scale projects within architecture and planning must have an international consultant on the team, reflecting both the lack of specialized professionals located in Kuwait, as well as the forced dependency on the West to guide any development venture.

CONCLUSIONS


This paper juxtaposes the first masterplan by Minoprio, Spencely, and Macfarlane with the work of the Smithsons that was not actualized. The Smithsons were hired by the government of Kuwait, along with three other international architectural firms, to work alongside Colin Buchanan and Partners on developing the second masterplan. Their proposal for the mat buildings was never actualized due to cost, however  the greenbelt has seen several developments over the years, none of which are the exact designs of the Smithsons.

Colonial British influence can be seen within the different proposals and implementations within Kuwait’s capital. No matter the intention, there is an underlying colonial impact on the country. While the Smithsons themselves were struggling with identity in a post-war Britain, they also had preconceived notions on what a Kuwaiti space should look like, an inaccurate medley of different neighboring cultures and characteristics blended into one theme titled ‘Arab sense of space.’ This, by no means, is a comprehensive look at the impacts of colonialism on Kuwait post-independence from the British empire, but it offers a compact glimpse into orientalism within a planning and architectural context. 

Nour_BW.jpg
Nour Jafar is a second year Master of City Planning candidate specializing in Housing, Community, and Economic Development. Between writing her thesis, arguing with strangers on the internet, and making an obscene amount of bread, you can find her rolling her eyes at academic articles exploring post-colonial planning, gentrification, and workforce development policy.

By Nour Jafar

Aerial shot of Kuwait City after the implementation of the MSM master plan

Source: The Architectural Review

Perspective sketch of the pedestrian walkways between mat-buildings.

Source: Smithson, Alison and Peter Smithson. “Kuwait: Studi Sulla Forma Urbana Per La Parte Antica Di Kuwait, 1968-1975/Kuwait: Urban Form Studies for the Old City of Kuwait, 1968-1975.” Lotus International 0, no. 18 (Mar 01, 1978): 126.

[9] Asseel Al-Ragam, “Critical Nostalgia,” 8.
[10] Ibid, 9.
[11] ”The Emergence of Team 10 within CIAM (1953-1959).” Team 10 Online. http://www.team10online.org/team10/meetings.html#3 (accessed December 28, 2020).
[12] “Proposals for Restructuring Kuwait.” 1974. The Architectural Review (London) 156 (931): 179.

Ground floor site plan of Kuwait City's Mat-Building proposal by the Smithsons.

Source: Lotus International

First floor site plan of Kuwait City's Mat-Building proposal by the Smithsons.

Source: Lotus International

[24] Ibid, 186.
[25] Ibid, 190.
[26] Alison Smithson, “Kuwait Green-Belt Pleasure Gardens.” 1975. Architectural Design 45 (8): 502-503.
[27] Ibid, 502.

Mat-Building model proposed by the Smithsons to the State of Kuwait.

Source: The Architectural Review

[31] Ibid, 15.
[32] “Proposals for Restructuring Kuwait,” 183.
[33] Ibid.

Conceptual sketch of the Greenbelt Pleasure Garden proposal, illustrating a built-garden of decorated tile mounds.

Source: The Architectural Review