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Towards a Critique of an Architectural Nahdha: A Kuwaiti Example

Asseel Al-Ragam
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Towards a Critique of an Architectural Nahdha: A Kuwaiti Example, PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2008

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1The decades from the 1950s to the 1980s marked a period of political independence and nation-building for the Kuwaiti welfare state. In 1952, a socioeconomic agenda was introduced to channel oil revenues into development programs that included a large-scale urban renewal scheme. The dissertation focuses on the urban transformation of Kuwait City, the emergence of the suburb as a modern lifestyle alternative to traditional urban living, and the state operational systems that were put in place to activate this rapid change. The study draws links between societal transformation, Kuwaiti cultural modernity, and architectural and urban space.

2This dissertation offers a critique on the modernization of Kuwait City in order to expand the geographical and temporal boundaries of modernity. Modernity here is understood as the ways in which the new is experienced and represented in modern society. It is located not in the new but in the attitude towards the new. Kuwaiti modernity can be traced through the various, and at times conflicting, definitions of what constituted the modern. In the early 1950s, officials at planning departments (Baladiya) represented modernity through nation-building projects that were based on the privileged “citizen.” Progressive ideologies, trickling into Kuwait through literature and film from neighboring countries, contributed to the evolution of existing traditions. A new Kuwaiti middle class emerged and represented modernity through a progressive understanding of self. Local and regional architects debated a new relationship between modernity and tradition to construct a culturally specific architectural identity. International design professionals proposed solutions that included orientalist visions of the “Arab City” and loftier social ideals of dwelling.

3A new architecture emerged during this process of social and cultural change. Design projects radically different from the traditional architectural vernacular were labeled al-`Imara al-Hadītha (modern architecture). Al-`Imara al-Hadītha was the backdrop and the stage for a Kuwaiti nahdha (renascence). New spatial layouts, building techniques, and innovative façade treatments had come to represent the modern, as did the lack of ornament and the use of concrete, glass, and steel. It differed somewhat from the codified 1930s International Style by the heavy use of shaded fenestration as a means for climate control. For many, al-`Imara al-Hadītha possessed the capacity to visually communicate the character and ideals of a new nation and a sophisticated society. The progressive values associated with the new built form were a direct result of the flexible nature of this space, which lent itself well to a variety of uses. This weighed immensely in assigning the new architectural style great value. But the haste and speed with which Kuwait transformed inevitably ended this romance with the new. By 1964, the celebration of al-`Imara al-Hadītha was overshadowed by a nostalgia for the traditional urban fabric. More productively however, urban planning of Kuwait City proceeded differently. In place of large-scale redevelopment, urban planning projects, during this period, targeted specific areas in order to resuscitate culture, commerce, and social activities in Kuwait City. During this period, various local and international architects and planners tested out different ideas for the city and its suburbs that included preserving and adaptively reusing existing historical markers.

4The objective of this dissertation is therefore twofold; the first is a chronological critique of the multi-layered perspectives on Kuwaiti modernity from the 1950s to the 1980s that were negotiated within architectural and urban space. It maps the contrasting views that led to abandoned projects, uncontrolled development and new experiments in design and construction techniques. These competing narratives were appropriated and, at times, resisted in the popular press that developed as a locus for the debate on a Kuwaiti modernity. The second objective is to document the ongoing dialectic between state invitation of architects, the architect’s role in welfare planning, and the end result of the architectural project. This will be done through a catalogue of some of the state’s commissioned projects. These projects are collected here for the first time and indexed for future studies. During the course of my investigations, a great number of architectural and urban projects in the Kuwait Municipality library were uncovered. It has been my goal to document, and critique, some of the important projects that demonstrate the nature of change in Kuwait. This is not an exhaustive catalogue but it is a first step.


5This dissertation differs from the existing body of literature on Kuwait. Literature on Kuwait can be divided according to two broad themes: political transformation of Kuwait over different historical periods and economic transformation triggered by an increase in oil revenues. These broad themes discuss the societal and physical changes that developed as a result. Monographs on important personalities constitute a large segment of the literature and may fall under both themes. Only within the last decade has there been an effort to document the transformations of architecture and urban form as disciplines in their own right. These studies have taken the form of dissertations and articles on various topics, mostly on housing. This dissertation expands on those previous works and offers another reading on architecture and planning from a local perspective. Projects were collected over a seven-month period from the Kuwait Municipality library, personal interviews, and the Special Collections at the Frances Loeb Library at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. These sources fall broadly into three categories: master plans of Kuwait; architectural projects; and sociological, economic, and geographical studies commissioned by the state and presented by various private consultants. Included in the first category are the 1952 First Master Plan by Minoprio, Spencely and MacFarlane; the 1971 Kuwait Master Plan by Colin Buchanan and Partners; the Master Plan for Kuwait First Review by Shankland Cox Partnership; and the Master Plan for Kuwait Second Review by Colin Buchanan and Partners. The second category covers the works of architects invited by the state, including Alison and Peter Smithson (“Urban Study and Mat-Building”); Banfi, Belgiojoso, Peressutti, and Rogers (BBPR) (“Future Development of the City of Kuwait”); Georges Candilis (“Kuwait: Future Development of the City of Kuwait”); and Reima Pietilä (“City of Kuwait: A Future Concept”). With the exception of Alison and Peter Smithson’s Kuwait City Project, the projects were retrieved, scanned, photocopied, and documented from the Kuwait Municipality library. The Special Collections archive at the Frances Loeb Library at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University holds Alison and Peter Smithson’s Kuwait project. In addition, this category of work includes competitions for important public spaces, waterfront projects, housing, and government projects. The third category of sources includes geographical studies for particular areas within Kuwait City and its suburbs, including neighborhood plans. During the 1960s it was customary for municipal authorities to accompany planning and architectural projects with sociological studies; these are also included.

6With the exception of Chapter 4, which is a catalogue of these projects, the chapters are organized chronologically. The introduction frames the context of the dissertation largely by presenting the societal and cultural transformation that preceded large-scale urban modernization. I have relied heavily on primary sources that examine Kuwaiti modernity as it unfolded. This included works by Kuwaiti historians, poets, and artists that lived through this experience. The dissertation also relies on newspapers and magazines that extensively documented this period of transformation. Kuwaiti popular press played an active role in presenting a more modern architectural vernacular. Articles at first equated cultural modernity with the tectonic qualities of modern materials and their advanced construction techniques. Modern materials and construction technology were presented as symbols of what constituted the modern, while building materials and standardized industrial building elements were made to reflect a cultural nahdha. However with the rise of Arab nationalism al-`Imara al-Hadītha was later discredited for its association with “Western” architects and ideals. A lengthy account of societal and cultural change is presented in the introduction, mainly to establish a connection between this nahdha and the transformation of Kuwait City’s urban fabric and suburban construction.

7Chapter 1 examines Kuwait on the eve of modernity. This chapter is broadly constructed around two parallel narratives—that is, a process of transformation reconstructed using historical documents and critique of that same process. The chapter presents a historical period when Kuwait was faced with a complex set of challenges to its sovereignty that led to a restructured state, headed by Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, to commit to modern reforms, including the engineering of a new capital city. The transformation and modernization of Kuwait City was part of a larger social, political, and economic agenda known as the Development Program, whose effects are also examined. At the outset of this chapter, a brief historical review provides an understanding of conditions in Kuwait.

8Chapter 2 covers the period from 1960 to 1970. This chapter documents, as part of this decade’s historical context, the restructuring of Kuwait’s planning institutions and the development of more comprehensive state planning methods as a result of collaborations between United Nations specialists and Kuwait Municipality-appointed planners. This chapter also examines the re-written narrative of a Kuwaiti history and its effects on several emergent concepts and critiques, including a nuanced design discourse, a particular definition of the Arab City, and a critique of state urban planning provided by the press and by Saba Shiber—a state-appointed chief urban planner. Explorations in architecture and urban models as part of a Kuwaiti cultural nahdha are examined, particularly from the perspective of the Kuwaiti popular press. Finally, Saba Shiber’s role in the transformation of Kuwait City into a Central Business District is presented.

9Chapter 3 examines the proposals of four prominent modern architects and their investigations for Kuwait City. The chapter first discusses the context surrounding the need for renewed planning efforts, particularly the formation of the Kuwait Municipality’s Advisory Planning Committee. This introduction is followed by a description of each project, an analysis of the architectural forms that were proposed, and an assessment of the importance of each plan. These include projects by Alison and Peter Smithson; Banfi, Belgiojoso, Peressutti, and Rogers (BBPR); Georges Candilis and Reima Pietilä. Some of these architects arrived in Kuwait to test ideas developed earlier; others came with the intention to radically alter the urban landscape of Kuwait City. All were invited by the Kuwait Municipality to submit proposals for the reconstruction of Kuwait City. In addition, they were tasked with developing areas according to cultural, commercial, and governmental needs. More importantly, a dialogue ensued about the appropriate architectural forms for some of the constituent parts of the city, a dialogue that continued to be part of Kuwait’s architectural and urban discourse as it matured.

10The analysis in Chapter 3 seeks to avoid the pitfalls of grouping architects into distinct categories in order to ascribe to each one a unique design perspective. The chapter is not an attempt to illustrate in depth the architectural and urban views of each architect, but rather to present the key ideas that were forced upon the designers by the state by the very act of participating in image-making in Kuwait City. The objective is to provide scholars of Alison and Peter Smithson, Reima Pietilä, BBPR, and Georges Candilis insight into their efforts at reconciling architectural form with a wider social, political, and cultural Kuwaiti context. A number of key ideas are extracted from their projects and examined such as the ethical role of the architect/urbanist, mat-building, and mobility as a symbol of a fragmented and modern society. Each architect discussed here contributed to the development of these ideas in varying degrees. A brief introduction of the socio-political context is necessary, at the outset, in order to situate these projects within the broader Kuwaiti historiography.

11Chapter 4 is the only chapter that deviates from the previously described structure. A great number of projects and studies have been retrieved from the Kuwait Municipality library for this dissertation. Thus the format of this chapter is that of a catalogue, in which a title is followed by an illustration that summarizes the main points of a given project. The illustrations are followed by a series of categories that include the commissioning party, the architect or planner, the consultants; political, social, and economic context; date of report, date of implementation, contents of report, illustrations, objective, architectural and urban proposal, population at the time, stages of implementation, recommendations, study area; and, finally, how the project was received by the public, leading inevitably to either the project’s implementation or to its abandonment. Documentation varies from one project to another because of the disparate information available for each study. The catalogue is an important complement to the preceding chapters, as it stands in a dialectic position to the arguments presented.

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Asseel Al-Ragam, « Towards a Critique of an Architectural Nahdha: A Kuwaiti Example »ABE Journal [En ligne], 8 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Asseel Al-Ragam

Assistant Professor, College of Architecture, Kuwait University, Kuwait

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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