Category Archives: Architecture

Desert Architecture

By | Architecture | 6 Comments

Kuwait is a desert, yet you wouldn’t know this by looking at our architecture. What does it mean to design for a desert climate? The most important thing is to understand three basic rules:

  1. Understand the movement of the sun
  2. Know how different materials react to the sun
  3. Be aware of our physiological reaction to uncomfortable environments

It really amazes me that so much of the recent architecture built in Kuwait does not follow these basic rules. You see villas with giant windows facing west. Skyscrapers with glass facades on every side. It’s crazy. The only reason they can get away with this is because electricity is so cheap and they can afford to pump in chilled air all day long.

The image above is the building where my office is. The glass facades are facing south and west, which is where the sun is from noon until evening. The problem is made worse by the fact that the thermostats are deeper inside the building and so the space gets really hot during the day and suddenly, after sunset, it becomes very cold.

Good desert architecture should be able to reduce the daily heat gain inside a building to a comfortable level with as little mechanical cooling as possible. We can do this by respecting the sun. Another way to do this in residential architecture is to have as much shading as possible and to use materials that are natural insulators and reflect a lot of the heat. Most of the heat is gained through the roof, so having a well insulated roof that is white and reflective will help out a lot. Another idea is to build underground. This takes advantage of the insulating effect of the ground that will surround the building, like a blanket. It will make it cooler during the summer, and warmer in winter.

That’s why I believe a sunken, courtyard house design is the most practical residential model for Kuwait; both in terms of the environmental aspect as well as the cultural advantage of having absolute privacy. An inward looking house would allow you to have as big an opening as you want without having to worry about people looking into your house.

Fences

By | Architecture, Qortuba, Urban | 19 Comments

Why are Arab architects and engineers obsessed with fences? There’s always a big fence surrounding every building, usually around the site perimeter. I can understand a fence around a prison, maybe a zoo, but why everywhere? What’s the point?

It don’t think security is a valid reason. It has a false sense of security, sure, but anyone can jump a fence if they want to. The reason why i’m so against the idea is that, by definition, it keeps people out. This limits the usable public space to the leftovers. There’s no gray area, no semi-public space. Urban flow is cut off because there’s always a clear and physical barrier between the areas where you are allowed to be and those where you are not welcome. Architects start getting lazy and design buildings as isolated and independent islands without caring about integrating the project into the existing urban fabric. They can’t, anyway, because the neighbor has a fence.

I bet this is all a big fence-maker conspiracy to sell more products.

An Arrogant Architect

By | Architecture, Education, Social | 9 Comments

Building on Jasem’s post a few days ago, i’d like to talk further about the responsibilities of an architect in Kuwait and the perception people have of our profession. Here are a few of the comments from that post:

“Another problem we have here (this is in regard to the client’s response …. maybe) is that our way of life and the rules we have in Kuwait encourages a conservative , practicle buildings for us to live in … since many families are jammed under one roof … you have no option but to think SPACE! … and hence the box house…. it is not that people may not appreciate the beauty and creativity of Architecture … but that it has a small room in their life …”

-mohammed

““.Who every designed those house knew what they were doing and who every wanted them liked them, they just wanted a piece of say Italy in Kuwait…””

-lolcat

In Kuwait, as with the rest of the world, there are good clients and there are bad clients. We may have far more bad ones than the rest of the world, but there’s a reason for that. Kuwait is a young and immature country. Think of it this way, when Kuwait was a baby in the 60’s it needed protective foster parents to dress it and feed it. The British. The first batch of modern homes were stunning statements of architecture that still stand proud today.

When the baby grew into a kid it started to assert itself more and began choosing what to wear. It rejected some of the ideas it was taught because they were boring and incomprehensible. They started experimenting with strange designs that really didn’t make any sense. The parents were too busy with work to care and left the kids all alone without guidance or discipline.

Today, Kuwait is a rich, awkward teenager. These are weird times. Some kids don’t care how they look and just want to eat and be entertained. You can see these obese houses everywhere, the big, boring boxes that line almost every new street. Then there are the self conscious teenagers. They don’t know who they are and are looking everywhere to find themselves, changing their look often, not really know what they’re doing. They sometimes do something profoundly stylish, usually by accident, but the experiments are mostly awkward and obscene. You can see these strange, incoherent houses here and there. Mismatched materials, spaces completely out of scale and a total mess of architectural language.

Image (and nightmares) via Z District

The good thing is that the next step, adulthood, is usually accompanied by a strong sense of self-awareness and control. Kuwait is still a young and brash teenager. We can’t expect it to settle down and explore a rich, vibrant, Kuwaiti architectural language. It still hasn’t found itself, and to do so it needs time.

As good parents we should guide the child into a happy, safe and secure adulthood by encouraging the potential and fighting the excess. A good education helps, and that’s why we need to keep on exploring architecture here in a way that everyone can easily understand. In the end, though, growing up needs time. We can’t be arrogant and demand instant change and reject ignorance as a sign of permanent failure. Everyone makes mistakes. Especially teenagers.

Sun Orientation

By | Architecture, Energy | 6 Comments

When deciding to buy a plot of land or a new house, never forget to bring a compass. You always need to know the orientation of the site to know where the sun would be. The sun predictably rises from the East, arches high across the South, then drops low and sets on the West.

This is one of the first things an architect thinks about when starting a project. Direct sunlight is the enemy, for reasons of heat gain and light glare. However, i’ve met many people that come to me after buying the plot or the house and I have to explain to them that the site is in the worst possible orientation. You can manipulate the harsh sunlight through design, but it’s easier to just avoid the problem by picking the right site to begin with. Here are a few guidelines to follow when looking at a site:

One Street:

This is the easiest to deal with, and also the most important, since you only have one facade and you will face many problems if it’s in the wrong orientation. The best possible choice would be a North facing site. That is the optimum, as it will let in absolutely no direct sunlight. This means that the walls are always cool and you can have as many openings and have them be as large as you want without worrying about heat gain and glare. The neighbors will shade your house from the sun. Perfect.

The worst orientation is South West. The problem here is that you have to worry about a hot high sun and a hot low sun that will penetrate deep into the house. The way to control high sun is different from low, and having both problems at once will increase the design detail.

Two Street:

The best orientation is having the opening on the North/South. This means that the neighbors will shade the low, hot Western sun, which is harder to deal with. Controlling the high South sun is easier, and mainly involves horizontal overhangs to shade the openings.

A house on a West/East axis will have lots of light penetrating the house. This would be a good thing for a cold climate, but in Kuwait it means lots of heat gain in the house. Spaces will quickly shift from being cold to hot depending on where the sun is. It’s harder to control low sun as you need vertical elements to shade the openings.

Corner:

The best location for a corner site is one facing North and East. The Eastern sun is good, it’s mild and it feels pleasant waking you up in the morning and flooding the spaces with light. It’s not hot yet, and by the time it starts getting annoying it will have already turned the corner and gone away.

The worst location is a South and West facing corner site. This has the worst of both extremes. Climate control must be a major factor in the design process for such a harsh site to be successful. The walls will be hot and the sun will pierce deep, but there are design options to help fight back.

Of course, like I said before, it’s always better to solve the problem right from the start by picking the right site. It may not affect the price of the land, but the benefit is priceless.

Event Recap: Pecha Kucha

By | Architecture, Metro, Neighborhood, Other, Social, Urban | 14 Comments
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6dtbe-w7PA]

 

There was a huge turnout at PK#4, more than #3. I’m guessing it was over 300 but I could be wrong, it might have been more. Thanks to Dr. Aseel and all the organizers for their wonderful job, and I hope the next one is even better. For those that were there, thanks for coming and i’m sorry I had to read it from my iPhone. I couldn’t wing it, and since there wasn’t a podium I couldn’t bring notes.

For those who weren’t there, i’ll post the entire presentation:

People tell me that it’s just too hot to walk in Kuwait. That there’s no point in designing outdoor spaces because you can’t use them. I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse. I believe that the way we built the city has forced us to think like that, and not the other way around.

If you look back at all the major developments of the past 20 years, you’ll find that they’re mostly private shopping malls. The problem is that they’re very inward looking. They don’t interface with their surroundings. We end up with great looking buildings but isolated buildings. They’re not part of an urban fabric and they’re very self serving. You can pick them up and plop them anywhere and it wouldn’t make a difference.

It’s now a sort of virtual city where every place is a destination but there’s nothing in between. Just a transitory haze you see outside a car window. So we begin to ask ourselves, for a nation so wealthy, why is our public space so impoverished?

All of these small decisions accumulate and start to develop into a sort vicious cycle. Places are isolated and you can only get there by car. You have to drive now to go anywhere. This makes the city car dependent which encourages more driving. The cycle goes on and on forever and we no longer have a choice.

A good example of this design mentality is Arraya. The face of the building is entirely wasted. They ignored what I think is the most important part of the building. There’s actually a service corridor behind that wall. The space looks nice, but it doesn’t really do anything. It’s a wasted economic opportunity.

What if they decided to open up the wall to the shops and restaurants inside? You’d have a similar sort of experience as Salhiya and the Slider Station strip and it would have been a wonderful place to be this time of year. The action is an alluring invitation.

Our residential neighborhoods are slowly turning into glorified parking lots. Sometimes you’re forced to walk on the street because there’s no room. People have become anonymous within their own neighborhoods as there’s no public space to meet and for kids to play and no room to walk and exercise.

That’s because there’s a sort of uniform density in most areas that imposes just one dwelling type to exist; the large family home. The problem now is that so many people want to live in those areas that the density keeps increasing. More people and cars are filling up the same space and it’s reaching a critical mass where it no longer works.

What if we go back in time. What could we have done differently? What would Kuwait be like?

An important step would be to introduce a way to have two different dwelling types to exist and compliment each other. We would do that by having a varied density to the residential areas. In the middle, instead of the shopping center, we would have a high density core.

Surrounding that would be spaces that have much lower density. There would be wide, green public spaces with large front gardens and a long strip for walking, separate from parking. Most importantly, there’s now enough room to have trees lining every street on both sides.

This would create shade and filter the air the air from dust. There’s room for kids to play and people to meet and exercise. In the dense core, we would have a mixed-use urban park, with restaurants and shops and green areas surrounded by a few apartment towers. Most of the apartments will have people from the neighborhood living in them, people that want to live close to their families but can’t afford to buy a house.

So instead of building a floor on their existing home and ruining it and adding more cars, they could just live a few blocks away in a comfortable apartment. So now we have two dwelling types that are sharing the same walkable space; single family homes and apartments. Two modes of living that accommodate different lifestyles and budgets.

Another thing we would have done is build the Kuwait Metro. This project has been in the planning stages for decades, and I hope now that Dubai has beat us to it, that we might start getting jealous and build one ourselves. Kuwait can benefit a lot more from a metro, because we already have somewhat walkable areas, such as parts of Hawalli, Salmiya and the City and linking them together gives people the option of living a car free lifestyle.

As you can see, all of the major university campuses, malls and ministries have a metro station. I’d also have one at the urban cores of the residential neighborhoods, so you have a stop in Qortuba, Keefan, Al Nuzha, etc. This would mean that all of our urban cores are now linked together. A dense network of walkable spaces will start to emerge around each metro station. You would now have the option of walking anywhere you want.

All these decisions will start to accumulate and a virtuous cycle now starts to form. More walking encourages safer streets, which encourages more people to walk, and people attract more people and it keeps getting better and safer.

What emerges from that is a dense, rich, urban ecosystem where multiple modes of transportation interact to compliment each other. The city will feel far more alive and nourished. You can encourage social and economic progress through good urban design, and simply saying that it’s just too hot to try isn’t really good enough. We can do a lot better.

Shamiya House

By | albabtain|design, Architecture | 9 Comments

I’m becoming very encouraged because of a perceptible shift in attitude towards outdoor space in Kuwaiti clients. People are finally understanding the outstanding value that a well designed roof garden or courtyard can provide. Maybe it’s just a reaction to the wonderful weather, but it’s a good sign of progress. A recent project of ours at albabtain|design is an example of this desire for change. A modern home for a small family on an exceedingly small 250m2 plot of land on which the client insisted on privacy with abundant natural light and green spaces.

The design calls for a building that is 8.5m wide and has a narrow private garden on the first floor. The front facade has no discernible ‘windows’ yet the spaces inside are all very well lit through the use of large openings behind a series of louvers and vegetation (the L shaped thing on the above image). This residual space filters the harsh light while also creating privacy.

The client values privacy and natural light and this solution has achieved both through the use of the private garden on the first floor. A small water feature adds to the material palette of the space as well as acting as an ambient noise generator to dampen the sound of the street.

The image above is the view from the master bedroom. A sliding door allows access to the private garden to create a natural ventilation current and to merge indoor/outdoor. The louvers are fixed and allow light to get in, but prevents the neighbor from looking through. The garden space is around 2.5m wide and becomes part of the main living space once the sliding glass doors are opened.

The image above is a transition space before entering the home on the ground floor. We talked about body shock and the need for this kind of entrance before. Most home entrances in Kuwait are simple doors, when in fact an entrance has to be a space. This allows ones body to gradually adjust to the temperature, light, sound and humidity differences between indoor and outdoor without being subjected to body shock. The project is currently under construction.



Residential Density

By | Architecture, Metro, Neighborhood, Social, Urban | 8 Comments

One of the main aspects of Kuwaiti residential neighborhoods is that they all have a sort of uniform density. There is really only one thing you can build, a house on a 400+ m2 plot of land. This would be more than enough for a single family to live comfortably in, with a large garden and all the things that make it feel ‘suburban’.

The problems arise when families feel forced to build larger homes to accommodate more people living in the same house; Kids get married and move into an ‘apartment’ above the house. In the past few years, most newly built homes have been designed as mini apartment buildings. This is because there is no other option. Land is so expensive that they can’t buy a house and they don’t want to move far away from their families.

What if we decided to create a residential block that has a varied set of dwelling types? Think of a generic residential area (something like Qortuba, Adailiya, etc). Most of them have a large complex in the middle, which is usually a big mess of shopping center, mosque, parking and government buildings. What if we demolished all of that and built a huge urban green park surrounded by several 15 to 20 floor apartment buildings? These would be well designed and sustainably built. On the ground plane, we could have shopping and entertainment and underground parking for all the residents. Imagine this being built in every major residential area in Kuwait.

Linked Towers, by Steven Holl

So who would live in these towers? I suggest that for the first few years, only people who already have family living in the same area be allowed to rent an apartment. This would give young couples an affordable option to live close to their family without having to alter their original house and still have the flexibility to easily move out in a few years. The active lifestyle afforded by having a dense cluster of towers around a park/entertainment urban plaza is also something that young people would love to be a part of. Another advantage is that everyone living outside the core now has someplace to walk to and visit that’s close by. As a result of the lowered density there will be far fewer cars lining the roads. Sidewalks can be much wider. We can plant trees to line both sides of every street to shade the whole thing and filter dust from the air. We can’t do that now because there’s no room. If we soak up the density from the entire area and concentrate it in the middle, we can make space for all of this.

We could even take this one step further and link all of these mini urban cores together with the metro. This would allow the people living in them to have the option of living a car-free lifestyle. They still own a car, but they don’t have to use it every day. People always say to me that only migrant workers would end up using the metro. This can be a very good solution to make it easy for Kuwaitis to find great value in using the system too.

Neighborhood Identity

By | Architecture, Neighborhood, Social, Urban | No Comments

This is the final post discussing the 13 points of good neighborhood design as described by the Congress for the New Urbanism. All of these ideas aren’t meant to be a guide for how to build new neighborhoods. There is nothing in the list that we can’t really do now in our existing neighborhoods. All it takes is for us identify the problems and offer solutions for this change to happen.

12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.

This makes sense also because it provides people with a frame of reference. Some neighborhoods look very similar and it’s easy to get lost or simply get bored with the lack of urban character. Having an easily definable building or space is great for quickly calibrating yourself and understanding where you are. The uniqueness also embeds a spatial character and identity onto the community that will grow with time and memory.

13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.

This is very, very important. We have to harness the menacingly powerful Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) mentality. Having the neighborhood be self-governing means that nobody feels powerless to change even the most minor thing. It would be fertile ground for grass-roots activism and provides a great opportunity for anyone to have their voice heard and participate. Today, the decision-makers don’t live with the consequences of their actions. If they do, they will have taken much more care in designing and maintaining our public spaces and urban character. Every neighborhood will, with time, begin to represent the values of the people who speak up. This in turn will attract people who think the same way and drive away the few that don’t.

We have to force accountability and the best way to do this is to delegate the local decision-making to the residents of the community. That’s really where democracy happens; not just the big national issues, but whether to build a wheelchair ramp to access the park toilets. If we don’t speak up, nobody will.

Residential Variety

By | Architecture, Neighborhood, Social, Urban | 7 Comments

Most of our residential neighborhoods can be described as a sprawl of very large houses packed fairly close to each other. Why is there such little variety in the type of dwelling? Even when people attempt to create a dense living arrangement, it is usually by refitting a house to become a mini apartment block. Are zoning laws and building codes the reason why this has happened?

3. There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles, and families, the poor, and the wealthy may find places to live.

This is quickly becoming a critical issue for Kuwait. Young people really have nowhere to live. More and more people are having to renovate and reuse space in their homes to accommodate their grown children living with them. This should not be happening. Finding a place to live should not a privilege, it’s a right. Most young people don’t mind living in smaller spaces, but they would rather be closer to home. Why can’t there be a variety of dwelling types in, for example, Qortuba? Why can’t there be apartments and rowhouses that compliment the standard 500m2+ house? Heck, why not a tower? It’s not as if we have a timeless architectural history to protect. This simple issue of re-zoning would solve so many problems and all it takes is a signature.

Qortuba 2.0

By | Architecture, Energy, Qortuba, Social, Urban | 17 Comments

I’ve lived in Qortuba all my life. There is something very wrong in the way it has evolved. Like all modern Kuwait, it’s a planned residential development. First, the government divided up the land and laid roads and power lines. People built their homes on plots that range from 500m2 to 1000m2. With time, land began to subdivide into even smaller plots, with people living relatively densely.  The priority given to automobiles and the lack of rules that govern parking spaces and car ownership has resulted in a serious problem. There is no room to walk! People have no choice but to use their cars and drive, even if they can walk and the weather is fine. Today is ‘girgai’aan’ in Kuwait and it was heartbreaking to see children being driven from house to house collecting candy.

qortuba_street

Current number of homes in Qortuba:

Block 1: 466
Block 2: 750
Block 3: 535
Block 4: 636

Total: 2387 homes in Qortuba

If we assume that each residence is home to 6 people, that would mean approximately 14,322 people live in Qortuba, which has an area of 2.7km2 giving it a urban density of 5304 people per square km. This is comparable to that of Madrid and London (source). There is no lack of urban density in Kuwait’s residential areas. This is a good thing, as suburban sprawl is a crippling problem in lots of major developed countries, specifically in the United States. Are we really utilizing this density in beneficial ways? It seems to me that we are building densely yet living in a delusional suburban fantasy. We are taking the worst of both worlds and not getting anything good in return.

Dense Urbanism:

Advantage:

  • Walkable neighborhoods.
  • Social awareness and strong community values.
  • More people living closer together because of expensive land value
  • Public transportation
  • Mixed use neighborhoods
  • Closer to the city

Disadvantage:

  • Noise
  • No room for children to play outside
  • Smaller homes

Suburbanism:

Advantage:

  • Larger homes
  • Private front garden
  • Wonderful views and peaceful environment
  • Cheap land

Disadvantage:

  • Long commute
  • No community
  • Single use zoning (shopping far away)
  • Drive to go anywhere

Qortuba:

Advantage:

  • Close to the city

Disadvantage:

  • No community
  • Single use zoning (shopping far away)
  • Drive to go anywhere
  • Noise
  • No room for children to play outside
  • Smaller homes

roads

The residential model of pre-oil Kuwait was far more successful in providing better advantages than what we enjoy in our current urban condition. The automobile is an essential part of modern life but we have to stop giving it complete priority in urban design. I find it very disturbing that the first decision made in ‘planning’ Qortuba (or any other area) was not creating a walkable ‘fireej’ with a mosque as the community anchor, or a series of mixed use nodes that would allow for residential neighborhoods to organically emerge based on topography and microclimates. No, the first thing they did was to create a nice, symmetrical street plan. I don’t mind having streets alongside every house, what I do mind is that it all seems so arbitrary. I can imagine a lonely planner sitting in a dusty government office sketching those street plans 40 years ago, not knowing that his decisions will have an negative impact on the lives of thousands of people. What are the alternatives?

qortuba

Qortuba, Kuwait

florence

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy is one of Kuwait City’s official sister cities. They, like most of Europe, have a program to limit the number of cars inside their dense neighborhoods. This leaves more room for gardens and space to walk. Looking closer, Masdar City seems like a good place to start. What if Qortuba was a car-free zone? How could that work? What if pedestrian priority and a Fireej mindset were the most important elements? We have to create walkable islands, each with a local mosque and all the essential amenities within walking distance (groceries shopping, daycare, beauty shops, etc). No central ‘jam’iyah’, or shopping co-op. We have to decentralize the idea of a central shopping building as it simply doesn’t make any sense.

It would be a self-sustaining town with courtyards at both scales, green roofs, grey-water recycling, smart metering and localized energy production (solar and wind). Kids would bicycle to school and couples would walk to restaurants and cafes. Teenagers would play in football pitches and basketball courts which are visible to all pedestrians.

We are trapped in a way of life that is not Kuwaiti or modern. To break free, we have to know ourselves first and agree on what we truly believe in as a community and as a country. Only then will we ever truly progress.