A City without a Shadow: Historic Preservation in the Built Environment of Kuwait City

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Welcome to Kuwait, a small royal emirate comprising one of the many oil-rich monarchies along the Arab Gulf.  Funded by petroleum revenues and built on the backs of migrant workers, Kuwait has emerged from a tiny series of village settlements sustained by a simple economy specialized in boat-making and pearl-diving into a formidable, sophisticated and urban state.

As someone who has always been interested in urban development and globalization, spending time in Kuwait has truly been a learning experience for me.  While there are many discrepancies about the country that I continue to be unable to wrap my head around, the one missing piece hindering my ability to comprehend this state is the lack of historical evidence and heritage to be found in the built environment.  Kuwait has no a historical district, and there are hardly any preservation efforts in Kuwait’s seemingly exponential urbanization.  This urbanization is not just a simple spur of construction projects; rather this is a transformation so radical and sudden that it has completely altered the skyline in the last two years since my last visit to the country. 

While the path of Kuwait’s future towards skyscraperdom seems clear, one of my obsessions while here has been to try to discover the ghosts of Kuwait’s past—old photographs, historical buildings, the way of life sixty, forty, even twenty years ago, sound and video bytes, vintage relics in markets—and the task has been daunting.  Much of Kuwaiti’s knowledge of “the way we were” is carried on informally by word of mouth, given that archiving efforts pertaining to Kuwait’s history, from what I have seen, have largely centered on documenting the royal family rather than on remembering everyday life of the country’s denizens. 

Nonetheless, for me the ability to feel a connection to a place, to fully understand and recognize its character, is dependent on immediate and tangible access to its cultural artifacts.  Much like the wrinkles and birthmarks that characterize a face, cultural preservation in the urban design of a city is necessary to capture its personality, roots and a unifying sense of identity among its residents.  This is all the more important in a city that is not only the capital, but the only urban aggregation in the country.  The urban design of the city thus becomes the cultural vessel for the collective consciousness, social legacy and historical memory of the nation-state.

The fact is that Kuwait’s population is at an inflection point.  The last living generations of elderly Kuwaitis who remember life in the country before the discovery of oil in the 1930s are reaching their final days.  At the other end of the demographic spectrum, the first generation of Kuwaitis to be born in the post-invasion state is coming into adulthood, enrolling into college to soon pick a career path.   With the passing away of this elder group of citizens, I fear that the last vestige of a physical link among younger Kuwaitis to manifestations of their country’s history will be lost. 

Firstly, hardly any historical sites in Kuwait remain to serve as a footprint of the country’s origins.  The scattered traditional courtyard houses and remaining buildings serve more as educational, yet museum-like experiences removed from a more relevant, functional role in the city’s urban lifestyle. For example, the Kuwait National Museum hosts a replicated, indoor wax-figure heritage village.  Secondly, Kuwait’s urban policy favors a raze-and-rebuild approach rather than one of restoration.  Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the city upgrades itself drastically every ten years or so to fulfill a futurist chimera largely dictated by a fancy for high-end luxury and born from a cosmopolitan folly.  Bulldozers and construction cranes on every corner are a more common sight than trash bins.  Finally, despite the efforts to preserve some historical sites and even experiments by architects to design new buildings incorporating traditional elements, a city is not just the sum of its buildings.  Rather, it is the relationship of these buildings to each other, and there has been no holistic attempt whatsoever to properly maintain any old districts or neighborhoods.

There are two lost voices in the way Kuwait’s story is written in the current urban landscape.  Firstly, there is no remnant of the Kuwait of the pre-oil state.  Kuwait’s first municipal plan in the early 1950s demolished many of the traditional style houses, gutted the narrow alleys and streets, and tore down the city’s mud walls in 1954. Once again, and largely in the wake of the liberation from Iraqi occupation, Kuwait began a fury of development projects focused on reinvention rather than reconstruction.  Thus, stretches of streets that had been popular open-air promenades for shopping in the first decades of the oil boom, such as areas in old Salmiya, are being abandoned for the advent of the enclosed megamall into Kuwaiti society.  Really, municipal planners are repeating the past’s mistakes due to an inability to refurbish the past and link it actively to the present. 

Moreover, there seems to be a lack of concern about carrying things over, which is of upmost importance once a society realizes that preserving and reusing the built environment is not just a matter of sustainability and efficiency.  It is an acknowledgement that the built environment also serves to reflect a society and is unique, and that each of these historical sites has a story that when strung together create a narrative about a city or a nation’s people.  My critique does not stem from a value judgment on whether Kuwait should modernize or not, but from  two simple questions: why are there no historical districts in Kuwait and what influence would this missing aspect have on generations too young to remember anything but the post-war, modern Kuwait?

The alarm bell on the rapid urbanization in the Gulf countries tends to revolve around the catchphrase “environmental sustainability”, however, I believe that the demolition culture in Kuwait might pose just as great a threat to the state by being culturally unsustainable.  The definition of this concept vis-à-vis urbanization to me is the failure of one generation to responsibly transfer important cultural relics which give clues to the past and origins of a society to its future generations.  In a one-city state like Kuwait the country’s cultural sustainability is strongly tied to municipal policy decisions made regarding the urban built environment.

I find myself, perhaps prematurely, comparing the situation of young Kuwaitis to my experiences growing up in the United States.  I was always horrified by the mall culture permeating in the United States, but in a general sense, I feel that one did not have proximity to a Main Street to know what the significance of Main Street as a fundamental concept of Americana meant.  I wonder if there is such an equivalent for Kuwaitis or if even making such an analogy is relevant.  Not having grown up in Kuwait, I only have a superficial understanding of the city’s stages of growth, and it is up to young Kuwaitis themselves to fight for and save the elements of the urban landscape that they have attached meaning to and cherished while growing up.

A couple of months ago, I visited Failaka Island, located about twenty kilometers off the Kuwaiti coast, whose name dates back to the ancient Greeks—one of the several civilizations to inhabit the island over time.  During the post-oil, pre-invasion state, the island was once home to several Kuwaiti families, with residential neighborhoods, luxurious seaside villas, a handful of schools, and even a television station.   During the Iraqi occupation, the several thousand inhabitants were expelled, the beaches mined, the buildings got used as target practice for soldiers, and the infrastructure was damaged to such an extent that it remains irreparable to this day. 

Now Failaka, for lack of a better word, is a ghost town.  In a sense, this has served to capture these two lost voices in at least some manifestation.  The abandoned and unlocked houses and the left-behind furniture, littered objects and even literature found inside them are a time capsule.  Each house, as I exclaimed during my trip, revealed a secret about the post-oil, pre-war Kuwaiti life.  Later while driving through the island, our party came across an aggregation of rubble, looking more like barnacle rocks than their former structures.  Looking with a more judicial eye at the design, size, shelves and items we realized that the area had been a series of small shops or a market of some sort.  There was no sign, indicator or descriptive marker to point this out to us, but these ruins and debris of a market spoke a thousand more words about Kuwait’s heritage than those that the recreated, theme park version of a traditional souk in the Kuwait National Museum attempted to express. 

Unfortunately, some of the most historical sites in Kuwait remain abandoned, without restoration or government intervention, and in crumbling ruins—traces of dusty footprints of the country’s ancestors that are rapidly vanishing in the sand.

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