Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kuwaiti Chasms...


Walking up to Salhiya from the Dar Al-Athar Al Islamyyiah's headquarters at the former Americani Hospital Building by the Gulf Road, one has to cross the work site of the new road extension running adjacent to the Behbehani Complex that will eventually connect the area by the Al Jahra (also called the 'Sheraton') Roundabout to the First Ringroad and the beach side. For a nation that prides itself on its culture and heritage, it's remarkable how unfazed the population seems to be, and thus how seemingly easy it is to 'develop' (it that's the word), these types of drastic interventions without as much as a murmur in protest. What was once a level plane linking the beach side cultural centres, restaurants and gallery by the Behbehani Complex to both the commercial and retail hubs of Salhiya, will henceforth be occupying opposite sides of a unpenetrable chasm which, in its width and depth, will make any type of ambulatory crossing close to impossible. This is a true pity as, even though mostly having functioned as a somewhat ad-hoc parking lot, there used to be a very inherent and natural topographical 'flow' between the various adjacent blocks in the area. It used to be easy to, say, do a bit of shopping at Salhiya, and then walk or quickly drive down to the restaurants with their wide outside terraces for a snack or a drink. Now that option doesn't exist anymore as the urban coherence of this neighbourhood has been fatally interrupted. Unfortunately these types of shortsighted developments aren't unique in Kuwait, as examples abound and exist in most of its residential districts. In Kuwait it seems like neighbourhoods are defined by their flanking highways rather than the other way around. Here the needs of a neighbourhood have become subservient to the demands of the automobile.

What once was one, soon will be two - the multi lane and level route currently under construction in Salhiya...

We need to begin applying a bit more forethought and creativity to the way our city is formulated. Building more of the same will only take us so far, as there are only so many more roads that can be built and only so much more the existing ones can be widened. It was Einstein who said (here paraphrased) that one can's solve a problem by using the same type of thinking that caused it in the first place - as the amount of cars in the city won't change, this extension will, at best, only manage to shift the bottle-necks from one location to another. This type of development is too singular, too limited and one dimensional, in its purpose. The road to be is intended for nothing but cars - it includes no consideration for pedestrians or other means of transport or alternative uses along its extruded pathways. Nor does it show any for of consideration or respect for what existed on the site previously. Cities are more complex than that, they are living and breathing entities that, just like us, react to seasons and weather changes, respond well to kindness and consideration, and will eventually atrophy and disintegrate if not cared for. Thus it is time to begin thinking about alternative means of transport as well as urban patterns within Kuwait. What this might entail, and how such plans could realistically be implemented, needs also to be debated on a wider realm than what our current soap-box polemics allow for. Dubai will be opening its first metro line in a few weeks time (09/09/09), it is going to be interested to see how it is received and used, as it might provide a template for how Kuwait's own metro and train-line related plans (currently scheduled for completion by 2017) should be implemented. In addition to this, however, it is equally important to begin encouraging further alternatives for how one could move around without necessarily having to use a car. This should not only involve designing alternative means of transport (metro lines, trains, trams, mini-buses, etc.), but also how the related, more ground level, planning details, such as sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, parking, bus lanes, access routes, etc. should be implemented. Also, perhaps more importantly, the larger scale urban configurations such as what types of inherent services each neighbourhood needs (co-ops, banks, dry-cleaners, etc.) within its immediate vicinity, and the proportional quantities (and qualities & formats) of residential, commercial, office and other facilities the neighbourhood should include, also need to be thought of. All such considerations, from the micro, to meso, to the macro scale play a fundamental symbiotic role in the creation of a successful, functioning safe and dynamic living environment.

The new extension cuts Salhiya into two, irredeemably disconnected, halves...

On a slightly different, but related, note, lamenting about existing vexations might hopefully impact future ventures (one can always hope?!) - doing something about already existing miscreations is a different matter. Accepting that what has been (semi recently) built will remain for the foreseeable future, how could the overtly apparent shortcomings of the existing highway based problems be alleviated? How could, for example, the beach front, currently being split by the six lanes of the Gulf Road, be more naturally linked to the residential and commercial areas flanking it on the other side? This location is in the context of this query particularly pertinent as it, along its approximately twenty kilometer stretch, doesn't include a single pedestrian crossing (bridge or ground level) to speak of*. The quest thus becomes to figure out a way to create, design and build, this aforementioned connective 'flow' into a program which, without excessively impacting the roads themselves, aim to, if not fully heal, at least manage to lessen and partly camouflage the calamitous affects such developments usually result in? The answer will have to be left to a future date, so as not to veer off the main topic too much. However, based upon some of the projects produced by students of the 'Design 3' Studio at at Kuwait University's Department of Architecture, who just happened to explore a design brief based on the aforementioned criteria last year, the answer seemed to require a semantic shift in what the notion of a 'bridge' or a 'crossing' might entail. In other words, instead of defining the project as an exercise in creating a mere link between two points (a bridge), the assignment became about aiming to design an intervention/ environment/ experience that had its own presence and existed on its own merit. A design that was the protagonist of its own vernacular narrative rather than a sub-plot to the whims of the road. How such aims ended up being interpreted by the students will have to wait for a future blog entry...

*This observation excludes the bridge by the Seef Palace, as it cannot be accessed by the public, as well as the pedestrian connection of Marina Mall, as it is mainly designed to link two halves of a mall, rather than provide a public pedestrian crossing...

Some of the factual info of the text above was based on research conducted by students of last years 'Design 3' studio of the Architecture Department at Kuwait University. I'm grateful to you all...

6 comments:

Aisha said...

The population is 'unfazed' because really unless you're somehow related to architecture/enginnering/planning field you will probably not know anything about it until the project is a GO and is published in the paper.

I remember as a student hearing about it but it was talked about as an old project. Suddenly it was revived,I don't know if there was any consideration to what has developed in the are over the past few years. I think projects like this should involve the community (I'm sure the owners of all those restaurants for example have lots to say) and their comments should be taken into consideration, rather than just tailoring everything to fit the car like you said.

Off topic, it would be interesting to see what your students came up with. It brings back memories of my own graduation project which slightly touched on this as a part of larger design problem.

Thomas said...

Hi Aisha,

Thanks for your comments. I think the term 'unfazed' was used due to the lack of even post-development feedback or commentary regarding the project. As the scope of the development becomes more and more apparent, there still seems to be, at least in the English language press, a surprising lack of recognition regarding what this new traffic link will do - the pros and cons of what it will accomplish. Usually in similar cases elsewhere the debate begins in architectural and development related publications that later 'seeps' into other, more generally read, formats of sources of information (newspapers, etc.). However, as of yet I haven't seen much evidence of this.

It would be nice to try to show some of the projects the students did, as, even thought the project only lasted a month or two, some really interesting notions, and perhaps even foundations for a solution, were raised. I'll have to try to get in touch with them and see if they still have any pictures or drawings left from the project. We shall wait and see...

Tom

sarah said...

Thank you Tom for an exhaustive report and opinion on that area stripped bottoms up with a a sign: Surprise... in a few years when it will all be finished and done.

Thomas said...

Thanks Sarah,

Hopefully with any future developments of this scale there will be a bit more public consultation and debate before it is put forward.

Projects of this scale impact us all and need to be properly thought through before commenced.

Tom

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Thomas,

You live in Kuwait.

Best Regards,
Kuwaiti

Thomas said...

Dear Anonymous,

Yes, I live in Kuwait...

Was that a question or statement..?