Sunday, September 20, 2009

'Plop Urbanism' – the Tabula Rasa of Kuwaiti Urbanism (let's begin by fixing what's already there)...

Various urban areas and roundabouts from around the world. Clockwise from top left - Tokyo, Dubai, Las Vegas, New Delhi, Luxembourg, Reykjavik, Maputo, Caracas (all images from Google Earth)

Much discussion of late has circumnavigated around various regional developments, mostly in neighbouring states (Foster's Masdar and Koolhas' Rak Gateway), of new sustainable cities that are based on age old wisdoms of how to build in arid climates, but with a contemporary twist and look. However, most of these new cities are conceived as almost glorified objects - i.e. non-contextual entities which aren't linked to any existing neighbourhoods or fulfil established needs for 'organic' expansion. They're thought of as hermetic 'tabula rasa' sites that can be just 'plopped' onto any open area in the region. This form of 'plop urbanism', a term originally derived from the notion of 'plop art' (which in itself is a derivative of the term 'pop art') describes the occasional habit some cities have of 'plopping' public art onto various significant public squares, is here applied to the practice of in one go covering vacant areas with an urban development. In many ways this is a very attractive approach as it doesn't involve one having to deal with any existing and 'cumbersome' history of a place. It allows one to create a 'fresh' approach free of precedents. Examples of comparable development, of various degrees of success, could be mentioned Le Corbusier's Chandigarh ideas derived from Howard's 'Garden City' concept, such as Milton Keynes in the UK or Tapiola in Finland, or some of the New Urbanist approaches such as Seaside or Disney Corporation's Celebration, both built in Florida, which were all built onto unbuilt plots. Alas, as there are limits to how much available land there is for urban expansion, it wouldn't be out of order to begin considering how our existing urban environments – its buildings, streets and public squares - could be improved. Existing built environments have a lot to offer – an existing population, an existing building stock, and a tried and tested empirical understanding of the area's mannerisms and distinctive needs – elements that provide a solid foundation for improvement rather than the guesstimate that building something new unavoidably entails. However, to do so will be, particularly here in Kuwait, a long and arduous process, as changing existing conditions, even when they're not working, always involves resistance. Modifying things in existing neighbourhoods is also much more work, as any decisions have to be customized to existing conditions (designed block by block) rather than applying a 'fit all' template as a solution. But sooner or later something needs to be done, as the situation here in Kuwait will not be sustainable for too much longer. What such actions might be, and how such concepts could be implemented will be debated in future posts, but, rest assured, all such acts will involve dramatic choices by us all, so the sooner we begin implementing these the smoother the transition will be.

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