Cultural Poverty

By January 31, 2010 20 Comments

It occurred to me while writing the earlier post that we should stress on one point that we have missed all along; Kuwait lacks culture. We design according to our locality and our traditions, and we end up with mediocre architecture that is ill-proportioned or borrowed from another country. How can architects help?
What ignited this was a meeting with a potential client. As she was explaining to me her ideas for her new home, she asked what was it is that I did exactly? Much to her surprise, I told her I am not an engineer, I am an architect. To her mind it seemed that was not a reassuring answer. She kept on asking about what is it exactly that we did? What is design? As we reached the critical moment of any meeting with any client, we discussed our fees, and that made her jump. To her, I am sure, the fee wasn’t justified. I am not an engineer, so what justifies this payment? It was obvious that she thought we were trying to con her, and she felt she was out-smarting us. It was a sad misunderstanding as she never understood what architecture is. To her mind, and to most people in Kuwait, engineers design houses and buildings.

This thought process is not new to me, I faced this over and over again. People simply don’t understand what I am supposed to be doing. This is at the heart of our struggle, as architects, in Kuwait and the rest of the region. Kuwaitis were introduced to modern architecture in the 1960’s through the British. At the same time, Kuwait University opened its doors to students, and had an engineering faculty. Until perhaps the 1980’s, Kuwaitis were reluctant to join this faculty due to its “supposed” difficulty and toughness. They preferred much more lenient disciplines, such as finance, which was seemingly more relevant to our economy.
So, people here admired those brave young men and women who entered the engineering school and graduated, and for about 30 years or so this fascination grew. Architecture as a discipline, was introduced in Kuwait in 1997. This doesn’t mean that there were no Kuwaiti architects, there were a few of them, but most of them never even tried to work in this field. This leaves us with a difficult situation. We need to first educate the people of what architecture is and why it is important. But we can’t do it alone, not architects alone.

Sharbika (2003), by Ghada alKandari

Kuwait is now a country that imports everything, and has very little genuine things to offer. We have no philosophers and thinkers that contribute to the development of the country. We have no authors and writers that make us run to purchase their books. No painters or sculptors. Although I am generalizing a bit, because there are a few, but its sporadic and chaotic. In a society that is used to importing everything, even people that come to serve us for a short while and then leave, these things never appealed to the general public. I think we are simply too lazy to discuss and argue and read. I mean here the majority of the society.
We need something of a movement, a philosophical, cultural uprising. We as Kuwaiti architects and designers need to come together and collaborate with kuwaiti novelists and scholars in different cultural forms. I believe if only 1/3 of Kuwaitis truly understand what architecture is, we’d be the greatest country in the Arab world.
It all starts with the mind. As that client showed me, no matter what kind of portfolio you have, it is a mind set that needs to be fixed first and for that reason we need to be vocal to incite change.

Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • I’m not so sure if share your pessimism, Jasem.
    I’ve had bad clients, but i’ve also had really great clients. You get this everywhere, although the ratio of good to bad might be worse in Kuwait than in more artistically mature places. I just don’t see it as being such a paralyzing impediment.
    Of course, i’d love it if everyone had a sudden appreciation for design and architecture, and i’m sure with time people will realize the cultural, economic and spiritual advantage of good design.
    As for the ‘cultural uprising’ I think it’s already happening. You can feel it in the air at Pecha Kucha. We are blessed in Kuwait with a surprisingly large cultural class; artists, musicians, designers, architects, poets, actors. Especially when compared with our regional rivals, we’re really not that bad. Of course, maybe that’s not the best yardstick to measure our progress, but it’s still something.
    After visiting the architecture department at Kuwait University, and seeing the incredible progress being done by the students there, i’ve become far more optimistic about our future than I ever was. My first few years working in Kuwait was met with a lot of friction because most of the established architects, and the people in positions of power in the government were all engineers or misguided architects. Believe me, things are changing. This new, young generation of architects are something special. You can trust them to make the change you want to see happen.

  • zaydoun says:

    I’m with Barrak on this one

  • Jasem Nadoum says:

    Barrak; I know things are changing and people are getting a better exposure to architecture and design simply due to the fact that this discipline is now being taught at Kuwait University. I know we are better that our regional rivals as you put it, we have always been ahead of them. We do have pioneers in the arts, sports, theatre, and design, and we have our our pieces of literature and poetry.
    All of that above will, like you pointed out, take years before it materializes into something physical not because of lack of willingness or facilities, but rather because of an ignorance due to the lack of good communication.
    All of the above aren’t communicating well enough, even us here at rekuwait, with the broader public. We have created this invisible shell around us and we’re almost ignoring everyone who doesn’t speak our language. You see the problem with that client isn’t that she was bad, it was that she was never exposed to what we do before, and to her mind that was not comprehendible because no one educated her or her peers about it.
    We don’t see sculptures scattered around our streets, we don’t have museums and art galleries with the attention and focus needed for such institutions.
    As much as we have architects now, without proper channels of educating the public, most of our hard work will remain in vein. We need to be, like you once wrote, vocal about our profession, and for this to happen we need to be organized, collected and focused, which is something not happening now, regardless of all small events.

  • Again, I don’t think I agree with you there.
    Building museums and celebrating art in general isn’t really the way forward. I don’t think what’s holding back the ‘great cultural awakening of Kuwait’ is a simple lack of facilities or events. There are events and there are lots of museums and things going on.
    The problem is that the vast majority of people just don’t care.
    That’s why I think the way for us to progress is through better education at all levels. We can’t simply blame people for not appreciating art if they haven’t been taught the basics of critical thinking and the ability to question authority. That’s what’s missing in our society. The vast majority of people don’t think for themselves and don’t question what they hear or read.
    I know you agree with me on this, and i’m not trying to assume that you don’t. I just don’t feel that blaming people or artists for the lack of a fertile creative environment is really a productive way of approaching the problem.
    What we can do now is try to foster an honest and real sense of peer critique between the creative class in Kuwait. I hate it when people just fake admiration for each other and only say good things about the work. Critique! It’s not personal and it’s a lot of fun, so to all the creative people out there, stop being so damn nice and say some mean things once in a while. Trust me, it feels good.

  • Mr.Mo says:

    LoL nice one Barrak, I just want to say that Barrak and I were in school together long ago (KES) and I always knew that you would one day become someone important because of your uniqueness and your creativity. I think what you’re doing here is not only inspirational, but also revolutionary and inshalla one day people will wake up and realize that something is indeed missing.
    Keep up the great work Barrak, you truly inspire others 🙂

  • Hah, I hope that was sarcastic, seeing as how I just asked for people to be mean to each other!
    Thanks a lot for your kind words, Mo. I really do appreciate it. I’m definitely not important but thanks anyway.
    Let me turn the tables around and ask you what you think of the creative atmosphere in Kuwait. How do you feel about the lack of ‘things to do and see’. Do you feel that its just people that don’t bother going, or is there just a real lack of things to do?

  • Mr.Mo says:

    LoL let’s start off on a positive note and then the harsh critique will follow 🙂
    You are important Barrak (stop being modest) any sane man going through this blog will realize that. The metro idea, the idea about malls and incorporating more of the outside atmosphere rather than being inward and isolated…genius!!
    Anyways about your question, after living in Kuwait for the past 23 years of my life, I certainly do NOT believe that there is a lack of things to do in Kuwait, anyone who claims that is either in denial or blind. I personally have not experienced a month go by without events, exhibitions and gatherings taking place. I personally believe that the majority of people in this society have a lack of awareness when it comes to appreciating things like art, poetry and architecture.
    People just don’t bother going, and if they do go, they will not appreciate what they see. But I have hope in the upcoming generations because they are growing up very fast and things are changing quickly. They are more appreciative and aware of the diverse fields that exist.
    A friend of mine who works as a representative for a university in England told me recently that an increasing number of students from Kuwait are continuing their studies abroad studying music. I was honestly surprised when I first heard that. But that tells us something important. Kuwaitis are choosing fields of study that weren’t popular 30 years ago but are brave enough today to pursue it as a serious career rather than a hobby years before.

  • Still waiting for the harsh critique.
    (Also, what you’re mentioning; Metro, passive cooling, courtyards… this is all basic architecture stuff, I haven’t thought of anything new. I think it just goes to show that maybe we need to be more vocal about the value of design)
    That’s an interesting thought. One of the most common reactions to Pecha Kucha was ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Kuwait!’. You’re right, there are lots of things going on, but nobody’s noticing. I think Facebook is going to help a lot in that regard, and it already has. It cuts out the middleman, there’s no need to go through traditional media to get your message across.
    There’s always going to be people who make the wrong career choices (picking Business because they want to ‘make money’) or being pressured into something they don’t really love. However, I think I agree with you, there are a lot more people now who are pursuing their passion in life. I don’t know why it’s happening now, maybe the internet has widened horizons at much younger ages, and people are exposed to so many new things that its easier to find what you’re good at.

  • mohammed says:

    Nice topic …
    Let me say that I am not necessarily a very optimistic person … but when I attend such events as pechakucha, scan through bazzar or attend lectures here and there .. I feel really proud (and 🙁 ) .. and from the people in my surroundings and their ways of thinking … I know that the problem is not with educating people here .. because they are educated … and the fact that there are people who don’t appreciate architecture or creativity ( which i realized recently that its subjective) does not necessarily means lack of education …. yes, i do hope that there are more people on the other side (meaning my side) but the fact remains that people will always have different views, beliefs, likes and dislikes …. and its ok
    However, the problem is (are) that in Kuwait ( or the majority ) don’t believe in differences … (and I experienced it personally when dealing with decision makers (supposedly)) … meaning that we all have to live the same, enjoy the same things, drive the same cars etc.. they don’t believe that yes we can have a building that the majority might not get but a good few will appreciate … that we can have areas in the city that may cater to a specific group of people …
    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 …
    One last point … i met many architects here in Kuwait … and many good ones with great skills and knowledge … but to be honest … only few that I met were very creative in their designs and ways of thinking … my point is … its easy to be an architect (if ur willing to put 5yrs of work) or a photographer, or even an artist … and you can do a great job doing so … but to me, if you are not creative in nature … you’ll not be unique… and the prior type of Architect is what most people deal with in here and thats their understanding of Architects..
    Thanks for the chance … and although communication may not be my best skill … hope you got atleast some of my points…

  • Jasem Nadoum says:

    mohammed I agree with you. Barrak Building museums and placing art works on the streets makes our built environment more friendly, creative, and inspiring. We need examples to learn from, and need past experiences to teach us how to move forward. I completely disagree with you that the lack of events is not holding. Its exactly that what makes this culture of peer critique none-exisitant. You actually contradict your self when you mention Pecha Kucha night. It’s an event night for the creative class of Kuwait. We need good buildings for a reason, to show examples for people on how good design is effective.
    I am not a pessimist, and that article I wrote wasn’t meant to be, but all I’m saying is that, despite our best intentions, our message isn’t reaching out to the broader public. Once we are able to speak a language that is comprehendible to most people, then we can start changing our way of live, our thinking, and our priorities.
    I will write about how important in a country like Kuwait is the built environment.

  • Good buildings are one thing, and we need those. I was talking about the specific example you mentioned: “We don’t see sculptures scattered around our streets, we don’t have museums and art galleries with the attention and focus needed for such institutions”
    I think that’s the product of an open-minded, well adjusted society that has a grounding in art and design and knows what to look for and critique. Making those things won’t change society. Maybe we can do that to complement the structural changes in education that we need, but I doubt it will make a difference. Most people will dismiss it and laugh at it, too.
    Mohamed, I didn’t mean that Kuwait lacked education, meaning people are just dumb and ignorant in general. I just think that the way we educate is mostly wrong. It’s a top-down, traditional, authoritarian model. You learn a lot, but you don’t learn how to think. Being creative doesn’t mean you’re smarter than anyone else, it just means that you can think for yourself and that you see the world as it is and how it could be, and you begin to think critically about the world around you.

  • SSD says:

    Interesting. The other day, Aseel Al-Awadhi was talking about how the government should set up cultural centers and theaters in every district in Kuwait. I think this a great idea since even though there a handful of cultural events, they only cater to a specific group like Mohammad (above) said. The vast majority of this group is the educated upper-middle and high class. These cultural events need to spread out in tribal areas and not just the urbanised (7adhar) areas. Childern and the youth in those areas would start taking more interest in these things, making ideas (like urban design & architecture) more relevant to the population. This , imo, would help decrease a lot of negative social stuff in those areas, especially religious extremism (which I think, one of the reasons for it being on the rise here, is due to the cultural decline in Kuwait).

  • bumo says:

    I like this post, every few lines would kinda pull me further and further down the page.
    We are on the brink of a cultural revolution. Next few years to come are going to be very interesting.
    But i cant help but think regarding the last comment… the last thing we need is for the government to set-up and control cultural centers, i think there should be cultural centers in every corner of the country but each set-up by the town inhabitants. That way the people can do what they want and how they want it without the place going to waste in the governments hands with cultural centers with a shitload of culture that nobody wants…
    Down SAM St in front of AUK and Salmiya Palace on the intersection with Badriya Mosque is an old abandoned privately owned primary school which from the looks of it was abandoned during the iraqi invasion (further investigation by a friend of mine for his graduation thesis revealed else), anyways the point is if you take a walk around the gutted building with the glass shards, bottles, broken bricks and whats basically a demolition site lying around you can see the graffiti that’s on display, some of it is good and some of it is just shit but it shows the effort some of the kids give for a little fun and expression… and i know its a little cliche but the place was wicked! Me and my friend would spend hours in it documenting it for his graduation thesis but recently within the last few months it got blocked off, every broken wall was closed of with fences and you cant get into the place anymore.
    Regardless, my point is, i doubt the place is really abandoned, the owner is probably just waiting for Symphony mall to open up for the property price to go up but if a place like that would get turned into a cultural centre, something like Bayt Lothan just run better and with less discrimination and less of a school like atmosphere but something more fun then im sure it would be a great outcome for society! Think about it! The place is right across the street from AUK, its on SAM St. so its already in a really really really “cool” location and its in Salmiya, a place where kids love, its next to schools and easy walks distance from the nearest malls and the Scientific Center and marina mall’s basketball courts and skate ramps.
    If the government were to subsidize the creation of mini-cultural centers or lets say something like a social center where kids can just go to “hang-out”… pretty sure its gonna spark something great… either that or a shitload of drug trafficking but hey its like two birds with one stone, rake in the kids and drug dealers trying to sell to them.
    The problem is wizarat alawqaaf oo ilhay2a il3ama lilshabab wa alriyatha can only think of either God or sports as culture.
    But seriously, i hope something happens soon…

  • Jassem, I think we agree on what the outcome should be (an artistically engaged society that appreciates the value of design). Our point of disagreement, I think, is how to reach that stage.
    It seems a little easy to say that if we shock them with thought-provoking sculptures and send school kids to museums and art galleries, that they will ‘see the light’ and evolve, artistically.
    I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. Maybe for a few, it would, and maybe i’m being naive in thinking that it can be more than that, but why not? I guess i’m not really disagreeing with you about building museums and promoting art in general, just that I don’t feel that’s enough.
    Do they still teach art and music in public schools? When do they stop? High school?
    Something I wrote in an earlier post: “Sadly, Kuwaiti youth now define themselves by their material possessions. ‘I am what I wear and what I drive’. What if every Kuwaiti identifies themselves not by their outward image but by the ideas they generate from within?”
    I think that’s a symptom of our cultural poverty. I won’t discuss that here, since it’s another topic, but it’s a direct result of them not having the ability to see more than what’s in front of them.
    But I agree with Bumo, there are hopeful ‘green shoots’ that seem show that the times, they are a changin’.

  • abdulla says:

    I sort of disagree with you Jasem. If anything, Kuwait has alot of culture compared to other countries in the region. The problem is that Kuwait is not lacking, it is losing. Why is it losing it though?
    We all realise that music, theatre, cultural events, and overall artistic taste have gone down in relation to the good ol times. (Buildings are a good example of artistic taste). This trend or phenomena “ma ya min 3adam.” Things just do not happen without having a starting point; they are a buildup of events over a period time (like an earthquake i guess).
    I liked Alawadhi’s proposal for cultural centers. I do not want to sound pessimist: the idea is great, but does any of the posters really believe that the buildings will end up being artistically designed? An artistic design will only be adopted if it is free because of CTC approvals.
    I pass by megwa3 alshargy regularly *sigh* all these old looking house would be great art galleries/restaurants and cafes instead of more alucobond towers and rundown cheap accommodation.

  • lolcat says:

    I just read the above post and not the comments.So I am just replying to the post.
    Well you do mention facts and behavior of your people regarding the appreciation of Architectural value and things.There are building,villas in Kuwait that are designed good and that are designed bad,there are many architectural design influences in Kuwait like from Italy etc….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 cause (they are not ignorant here,they just want a villa style,no blaming them, the customer is always right),Kuwait was lacking an identity to begin with in the way that no one really build any houses in the desert for a long time.Not
    that I am blaming them for not having it.Well again you do not define
    what a customer wants, a customer has a choice and a budget, no use
    blaming them.In modern times money has a major role in what you build
    and not build around the world not only in Kuwait.And I do not think that
    the Kuwaiti people are any different from any other when it comes to
    You can educate and make people aware.People who are curious and would like something different would already have done there research.
    You have to give your customers choices and you should evolve accordingly.Not charge them a hefty fees for some idea that they can’t digest what ever it may be.

  • No, the customer isn’t always right. That’s the problem. Design isn’t just a reflection of style or taste. It’s the process of solving a problem.

    “In modern times money has a major role in what you build
    and not build around the world not only in Kuwait.”

    So what? How is that relevant to making good decisions? Good design is not expensive. If it is, then it’s probably wasteful and not particularly “good”.

    “.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…”

    No, they don’t know what they’re doing. You can’t just plop a design from somewhere else and expect it to work. It won’t work programatically, environmentally or culturally. I’m not talking about how it ‘looks’ but how it works. Architecture is NOT about how the building looks like on the outside. It’s about how the building works; functionally and formally.

    “You can educate and make people aware.People who are curious and would like something different would already have done there research.
    You have to give your customers choices and you should evolve accordingly.Not charge them a hefty fees for some idea that they can’t digest what ever it may be.”

    No, you’re wrong. It’s not about ‘choices’. We’re not selling products, we’re offering solutions. Evolve accordingly? I hope you don’t mean ‘dumb yourself down’ and just give them what they think they want. That sort of lazy unprofessionalism is the reason why Kuwait is infested with bad architecture. If a client can’t ‘digest the idea’ then maybe they need to go see a doctor and get their stomach fixed.

  • lolcat says:

    The customer is always right !!! That is the first rule of Business.Design is not always about solving problems.
    Money influences design.You don’t expect every body to build a Taj Mahal do you?
    What do you need for a building to work?
    Proper Electricity,Heating,Insulation,Ventilation
    And standard rooms,arrange them how you like.
    Plus the furniture and int deco.You don’t need Architecture for those.
    You do not offer solutions you stick to the plan.The first rule of Architecture is that you do not talk about Architecture, the second rule of Architecture is you do not talk about Architecture.
    You are selling ideas and charging money and then how is your idea not a product?? Well I didn’t mean dumb your self down but If that’s how you feel well I can’t help it.I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.

  • Your comment is so perversely wrong it’s actually making me angry.
    The customer is not always right, not in this field, simply because they’re not a customer. They’re not buying a product, no matter how deluded you are. They’re buying a service. The end result is a solution to a problem, not a set of pre-made plans or ideas you can market endlessly.
    Taj Mahal? What? How is that relevant? People should know by now that good design is not expensive. Hiring good architects costs money because in the long run, they save you money by making sure everything works and is exactly what you need. An (honest) architect isn’t just there to make the building ‘look nice’, but to provide a comprehensive solution to a set of problems.
    “What do you need for a building to work?
    Proper Electricity,Heating,Insulation,Ventilation
    And standard rooms,arrange them how you like.
    Plus the furniture and int deco.You don’t need Architecture for those.”
    I hope that’s a bad joke. You’ve probably never been to a well designed space, or just assumed that it’s expensive and there’s no way to implement it into your life. You’re dead wrong. I can try to explain the differences between a shelter and a beautiful space all day, but eventually you have to be in one yourself to truly appreciate the difference. It’s an illuminating experience.
    Let me ask you, if you had the choice of living in a well designed, well lit, functional, beautiful space or in an ordinary, drab, boring, typical shelter; and they both cost exactly the same. What would you choose?
    “You do not offer solutions you stick to the plan.The first rule of Architecture is that you do not talk about Architecture, the second rule of Architecture is you do not talk about Architecture.”
    And the third rule of writing is to avoid boring cliches from movies that are over a decade old.
    “You are selling ideas and charging money and then how is your idea not a product??”
    Is a psychiatrist selling you a product? He charges money yet you don’t walk away with a ‘product’. How about a lawyer? Or a dietician, or a any other kind of consultant? They offer services. Not products. Architecture is a service oriented business. The customer is not always right because the customer (client), by definition, doesn’t know what he wants, or doesn’t know how to achieve his vision.
    “Well I didn’t mean dumb your self down but If that’s how you feel well I can’t help it.I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.”
    I don’t even know how to begin to respond to that last defeatist sentence. Are you saying that we should just ‘go with the flow’ and churn out plan after plan just because people aren’t really demanding more thoughtful work? Would you say the same thing to doctors? “Why do research!? Just do what our ancestors have done, and let the chips fall where they may.” That’s really not a good way to run a society or even a life. I hope you don’t really mean what you’re saying and that you’re just trying to get me riled up.
    You’re doing a good job of that, by the way.

  • […] Arrogant Architect Building on Jasem’s post a few days ago, i’d like to talk further about the responsibilities of an architect in Kuwait […]

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