Monthly Archives: February 2010

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.

SAM Street: Winter only?

By | SAM Street, Urban | 3 Comments

Mayor Bloomberg just announced that the Times Square pedestrian pilot project will become permanent. This means that it’s now a completely pedestrian only street all year round from now on. This is great for tourism and public health and safety. They’ll start designing permanent landscape architecture and services to accommodate the change. It’s a great decision and one that should be used as an example for SAM street here in Kuwait.

Times Square, NY City

I’m wondering if maybe converting SAM street into a year round pedestrian promenade might not be fair to the tenants. Nobody will really be walking there all day during the hot summer months. What if the pedestrian street becomes seasonal? It can be done in a way so that it transforms into a pedestrian street with very little adjustment, maybe just installing retractable bollards to stop cars from driving in. The landscape architecture would have to be designed to not restrict cars in the summer, but that’s a realistic design problem and can be solved. So what we end up with is a pedestrian street during the cooler months (November to April) and a normal street during the hotter months (May to October). A seasonal transformation is a politically feasible solution for SAM street.

Qortuba Public Park

By | Neighborhood, Qortuba, Social | 8 Comments
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKiBAN8obAg&hl=en&fs=1]

I shot that video today walking through the park. It’s just as filthy as when I last saw it. It’s a shame, because the park itself is pretty decent. You can hear the birds and the trees are healthy. What would it take for the park to be successful? First of all, how would we define success? I think it has to be a place full of kids and families, a place that they feel safe going to and enjoy being in. No litter and graffiti. The park has to be well lit at night, not with stupid floodlights that blind people who look in their direction, but with subtle lighting that does its job without being irritating.

It really wouldn’t take much of an effort to make that all happen. I still think the Facebook page idea is a good one and is the best way to get the community involved and ‘own’ the park for themselves. It’s a very achievable goal. I’ll probably do the Facebook page myself in a few weeks and I hope it turns out as well as I think it will. Any ideas?

Things we can do to fix it:

  1. Clean-up program with local kids (litter removal and painting over graffiti)
  2. More rubbish bins (one near every BBQ grill and seating area, people want to throw stuff in bins but they’re too far away or full)
  3. Cover the sand around the playground and wherever there’s sand with mulch. It’s safer and stores the nutrients in the soil. Mulch can be anything, but I suggest rubber mulch.
  4. Take out all of the stupid floodlights. They ruin the atmosphere and blind people who look near them. They’re the wrong choice.
  5. Install ground lighting around the running track and lights under every bench. The seating areas have to be individually lit from within as well as the circulation that leads to them. No dark spaces, but no annoying mega-lights either.
  6. Hire a maintenance guy and a security guy. The facility is there and it needs to be fixed. This is critical.
  7. Change the boring and unimaginative signs outside the park. They’re not inviting.
  8. This is a personal preference, and I understand the reason for having it, but I would demolish the wall and slowly expand the park outwards filling up all the dead space that surrounds it.
  9. The Facebook page.
  10. Plant a much wider variety of plants and flowers. There’s too much of the same thing and variety attracts more birds and is visually appealing.

Edit – I know i’m dancing around the topic, but I would LOVE to redesign the park…

Note: Please ignore the actual design, the image is mainly to illustrate the point and to show the potential program that can be in place.

Wasted Space

By | Neighborhood, Qortuba, Social, Urban | 4 Comments
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPkalOtT6i4&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]

A wonderfully simple video about efforts to retrofit suburbia. There are a few things we can take that apply to Kuwait. We don’t have the problem of having to ‘fill in’ the gaps, because most of our suburbs are very densely packed. The thing I found most appealing in the video is the notion of the ‘third place’.

The first two places are your home and workplace. The third place is where you go to hang out and is very important for a younger generation (like ours). We have lots of third places, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. The problem is that they’re usually really far away from where we live.

I’ll use Qortuba again as an example of an opportunity to create something. Here it is again:

In the middle is Block 5, a service block which has the shopping center, park, a couple of schools and some other services. On the corner, though, there’s a dead space. It’s huge, but it’s been deserted forever. Sometimes we have Eid Prayer there, but not last year, so we can cope without it. What can we do with this dead space?

The best opportunity is to expand the park to fill up all the sand. We can’t move the big boxes, as they’re power transformers and such, but we can still use them. We should build small boutiques and selected restaurants, all anchored by a large, outdoor fruit and vegetable market. These would all be attached to the existing walls of the power buildings.

The feel of the place would be one of ‘healthy living’. You go there for the health related shops, to enjoy the green space and nature, to run in the track (the brown thing) or just hang around in one of the coffee shops. You can take your kids out for a walk and to enjoy the playground in the park. The point isn’t that this stuff can’t be found in Kuwait. Places like this exist, but they’re too far away. I want people to walk to here. There’s lots of parking, anyway, but I still want people to walk.

The co-op would make money renting out the space and the residents will enjoy the new ‘third place’ in their lives instead of staring at the dusty nothing that was there before. What would it take to make something like this happen? The land is already zoned for commercial use (I think). Who owns the land?

Edit- I took a few photos of the site:

Click to embiggen

Facebook Activism

By | Neighborhood, Qortuba, Social | 11 Comments

I was strolling through Qortuba Public Park this afternoon. The place is actually pretty decent, there’s a fair amount of benches and lots of trees and grass. The problem is that it was filthy. There was litter everywhere. The bathrooms were disgraceful. The security guard quarters were abandoned (I don’t think a security guard works there anymore). Graffiti was on every surface and half the lights weren’t working.

I thought about what we could do to fix things and I realized the answer was internet social media; Facebook.

I propose that we create a ‘Qortuba Public Park’ Facebook page. The purpose of this page is to do two things:

  1. To act as a bulletin-board for activities that residents of Qortuba would initiate; fostering a stronger sense of community and being a safe place for young kids to meet new friends and play.
  2. To serve as a forum to identify and act on negligence on behalf of the authorities. If you see litter in the park, you can access the page to find the telephone number of the people responsible for cleaning and you can complain. If enough people do that they will fix things. If you see graffiti you can photograph it and upload it to the page and demand they paint over it. It’s basically a way for local constituents to reach the people responsible and is a way for us to be empowered.

(photos taken a few months ago, when the park was much cleaner)

On the page we would have the contact numbers of all the people responsible for the maintenance and security of the park; specifically the names and telephone numbers of the local government of Qortuba, and the people responsible for them in the Baladiya (in case they don’t answer the phone), as well as the numbers (and photographs of) the actual workers who work on the park.

Once a large enough number of people sign up to the Facebook page, the first event would be a mass clean-up/education event held in the park. Families would be invited to join in and paint the walls, clear up all the litter and then celebrate with games for the kids to get to know each other. This would help teach the kids about responsibility and get them to develop a sense of ownership towards the park. It becomes theirs.

After that anyone can then propose an event on the page, and there’d be a schedule of things to do. For example, I could schedule a football tournament for boys aged 8-12, with teams from every block competing, and I could referee. People want to be involved in their communities, but there was never a viable medium to spread information to people quickly and spontaneously. Facebook changes that. With one quick invite, you could create an event and get it together without much hassle. Spontaneous book swaps, art events, bake sales, you name it. The park becomes the heart of the community. I hope and have a feeling that young mothers would really get into this and make it work. It has to happen naturally and in small clusters where people feel responsible to each other and to the park itself.

Of course, this would be replicated for every area in Kuwait. People always complain about the government, but this is a way for us to combine and focus all of our voices to do something good one small step at a time. I would love it if someone would take this idea and run with it, but I wouldn’t mind doing it myself for Qortuba first.

Jazeera Magazine

By | Other | 2 Comments

A few months ago Jasem, Amenah and I were interviewed for an article in the in-flight magazine of Jazeera Airways. The issue is now in print and is on all of their planes. Thanks again to Lara Dunston and Terence Carter for taking the time to interview us.

Qortuba Block 2

By | Qortuba, Social, Urban | 5 Comments

I’m going to try a quick redesign of Qortuba Block 2. First, here it is as is:

I’m going to restrict myself into not altering the inlets to Qortuba, and leave the institutional buildings on the main road as they are. What I can change are the street layouts and the density and location of the residential plots. The goal is to turn it into a self-sustaining, livable and walkable area while still having a similar number of homes as before, which is about 750 villas. Right in the middle of Block 2 is a strange little island of commercial properties along with a large Kindergarten that I attended as a kid. The first thing I would do is take that island out and spread it in a linear fashion along the perimeter, where the heavy traffic is. It doesn’t make sense to hide it the way it is now.

I’d also expand the green belt that surrounds the block further in, and restrict the residential block to a squarish element that runs parallel to the main roads of Qortuba. The commercial strip would have ample parking at the front and back. I’d imagine a long line of cafes, grocery shops, hair dressers, laundry, daycare centers and lots of other stuff that you need close to home. Most people will be able to walk to these from where they live. The green belt would have lots and lots of trees (it already does!) and would be open to the public. This means that it’s no longer considered an ‘irtidaad’ the way it is now. There would be a long well lit place to run, maybe a caged football pitch and lots of benches.

Now this is where it gets tricky. I would design two different street widths. The main perimeter streets are two-way, while the interior streets are one-way. The point here is that since streets take up so much space, having them be one-way means that you save half the space. The interior streets would alternate directions, with odd number streets being one direction and even numbers in the other. This means that every home is only accessible from one direction, but I think this is an inconvenience worth having for the sake of saving space.

The slices are pedestrian streets. They will chop up the boring boxes into weird little triangles. These ‘in-between’ spaces are what gives each neighborhood its own distinct character. This is how people would walk to the commercial strip or to the green belt. The slices sometimes create an awkward space. This doesn’t go to waste. It can turn into a simple playground, or if it’s big enough, a mosque or a library. The purpose is to layer a pedestrian network over the street, so that people don’t always feel as if they’re subservient to cars. In order for this to work there has to be a reason to go out to walk and place to walk to; the green belt, the commercial strip and the little things to do in the awkward spaces.

The homes themselves would be very dense and they would all be attached to each other, separated only when a pedestrian street slices through them. This would further intensify and direct people into the pedestrian streets as it’s easy to identify them. The reason why I want the house to be attached is because you save lots of space and they shade each other.

Efficiently Electric

By | Energy | 5 Comments
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSdnycHfLnQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0x006699&color2=0x54abd6]

Please watch the above 10 minute video about electric cars and the smart electric grid.

First of all, I don’t really care about climate change. I’m not a denier, but I think it’s not the best ‘call to action’. People generally respond more to financial incentives rather than moral obligations. I believe that if we prioritize efficiency, then everything else will benefit as a result of that; climate change, Kuwait’s economic output and an increase in societal health and safety.

How should we implement the smart grid? Electric cars are critical. The batteries would be owned by the state, or a state owned company, and are then leased to consumers. This is how Israel and Denmark are doing it, with Better Place. The advantage is that the up front cost for consumers is much less, since the batteries are very expensive and will need to be constantly upgraded. So you just buy the car. When you go to ‘fill up the tank’ (recharge) all you do is drive up to a gas station, and the empty battery will be swapped out and replaced with a fully charged one. The process takes as much time as you would filling up your tank with gas.

Having the infrastructure set up is the first step. Next, we obviously need to abolish the fuel and electricity subsidy, gradually. It should be loudly advertised that the subsidy is going away and that people should invest in more fuel efficient cars and smart homes as soon as possible. People will start to shop around for the best deal and many will see the value in electric vehicles. Go Nissan Leaf! Of course, the government can help by subsidizing the more fuel efficient cars. That way you can entice the auto dealers to help instead of fighting the change. Taxis and government vehicles should all become electric first and this sudden shift in demand will make the dealers fight for this new market, driving down costs.

Of course, no comprehensive energy/transportation solution is complete without having the Kuwait Metro. More options for people and less dependency on one mode of transportation.

The beauty of having a fleet of electric cars parked and plugged in to the grid is that they become a sort of electricity demand buffer. As you can see in the video, people will be able to sell surplus electricity automatically back to the grid during the high demand hours. This is good because that will be when prices are highest. The cars will automatically recharge during the low demand and cheap hours, probably late at night. This is all controlled by your home smart meter which is what communicates with the grid.

This all sounds very nice, but the fact is that it works. It works in Denmark and it works in Israel. We can benefit in so many ways by being ahead of the game and progressive about energy and transportation. Kuwaitis won’t change just because they’re asked nicely; Tarsheed proved that. People need easily understood incentives that punish waste and reward good behavior. Money talks and financial incentives speak louder than words.

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.