No Boxes, Please

By July 26, 2009 8 Comments

I’m beginning to be concerned about a very bad trend in Kuwaiti residential design. Clients are asking for a ‘modern’ look and style without really understanding what it is they’re asking for. To most people, it means a cold, boxy, straight edged look with lots of rectangular windows and expensive furniture. Modernism is not a style, it’s a process. You can change the frosting on a cake, but it’s still going to be chocolate on the inside.
The most important thing, especially for residential architecture, is that the space improves the quality of life of it’s inhabitants as much as it possibly can within the available budget.

Belinda George Architects

Clients are demanding that they not live in boxes. When you ask them to articulate the reason for this, they usually end up arguing that everyone is building boxes and it looks boring and not very ‘creative’. I think that they’re worried that the boring shape represents a boring inhabitant. Who cares? Why should the outward appearance be the primary goal of a design? Homes are not something to be looked at. You live in them.
What I try to emphasize as much as I can is that the quality of life is the most important element; not the number of rooms or floor space. Those are just ways for developers to sell houses, they really are meaningless in reality. What’s the point in having more rooms than you need if they all face the neighbor, are badly lit and the furniture doesn’t fit right? Why have a grand entrance foyer if you end up living most of your life upstairs and hardly ever spend time on the ground floor? The opportunity cost of such a frivolous waste of space is enormous. People just can’t visualize the alternative and ultimately that is the architect’s failure because it’s our job to help illustrate what can be and should be done.

Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye is a supposed masterpiece of modernism. Designed by Le Corbusier, it was hailed as a symbol of modernity and of the international style because it was completely new and different. It can be placed anywhere in the world. A machine for living. In truth, it was a disaster. The architect demanded that the roof be flat, because he believed that was how a modern roof should look. The roof leaked. The architect demanded that no furniture be added to his design. There are many good ideas to be taken from the Villa Savoye; the piloti mode (how the house was raised one floor on columns to free it form the ground plane), the wonderful interaction between the spaces and the courtyard on the first floor. The problem was the architectural vanity that allowed style to supersede practicality. As a result of this, modernism has gained the reputation of being impractical. In Kuwait, I see the same with people building homes with giant windows facing the sun. Of course they’re not practical, but hey, it looks Modern so the people living in them must be cool.

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Marzouq says:

    The one thing people don’t do is really think about the living space they want. Standard in Kuwait is everyone wants a big recepetion and dining room that they never use. I really feel bad about a house which has an area which isn’t used.
    I want an office with a computer area for my daily computer needs, but I know how and why I’m going to use, but that might not fit everyone’s needs…
    The boxes that are being built in Kuwait are horrendous, they literally built every square meter possible of the land to the point it looks like a small apartment complex. That is what I think is ugly and they have some revolting style to them. I think a large majority of Kuwaitis lack any taste in building design, they should at least make it so it doesn’t make you want to throw up when you look at the building.
    Another point is the large windows, they have no idea that they are turning their house into oven from these windows. There are ways to get natural lighting without having to make it like that, and if you don’t have an external view at least create an internal view for you and the family to enjoy.
    Sorry for the long comment!

  • Jasem Nadoum says:

    Marzouq, that wasn’t a long comment, you’re more than welcome to say what you want.
    In the case of building boxes, I have noticed a trend in trying not to build a box, because the people now understand that this is becoming an ugly house. They are now demanding something different yet what stops them from doing it is the price of land, which in Kuwait is outrageous.
    I can’t blame anyone who wants to make the most out of his investment, however, i put the blame on us architects for not providing a better alternative for creating spaces.
    Perhaps courtyards aren’t ideal for every family, this is a point of disagreement with Barrak, cause I think we can do something else. The openings of the houses or buildings in Kuwait are least of concern for a simple reason, cheap energy. They can consume as much electricity as they desire cause it costs almost nothing.

  • Marzouq: Yeah, what I was trying to say is that there’s nothing really wrong with the box if what’s inside works. In fact, seeing as how land is so scarce, I’d rather all houses in Kuwait be boxes that fill up the entire site; with neighbors sharing walls for shared insulation and to lower maintenance and cleaning costs.
    Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t mind if a house in Kuwait completely shuns its outward environment and is completely introverted. Yeah, maybe i’m just that kind of guy… Example:
    What I don’t like is how people often justify their dislike of ‘boxes’ without really having a good reason other than style. I don’t buy the aesthetic argument. We don’t have the luxury to do that (land values). But at the same time, people have to understand that good design has more to do with proportions and materiality and detailing than whether it’s a Moroccan or Spanish style house.
    Also, boxes don’t have to be ugly. What I mean by boxes is that the house takes up as much volume as the building code allows. Then you start subtracting spaces from the inside out, sculpting internal volumes that are playful yet private.
    Jasem: Energy: You’re right, electricity is cheap; but AC systems and maintenance are not. Also, I really don’t think that it’s such a good excuse, to be lazy and have a wall of glass on your west facade. There will come a time when energy is not so cheap. How will we cope with that change?
    Courtyards: You know how much I love them. They’re perfect in every way. I heard they cure cancer too.

  • Budour says:

    Keep up the good work! I have been enjoying reading your blog for quite awhile now. And how I wish we all go back to our courtyard houses!

  • yikez says:

    Really enjoy ur blog too! Keep it up!

  • Shaclads says:

    I was born in Kuwait and lived in the same apartment in Sharq for 40 long years. Unfortunately this place which I called HOME was demolished in 2007 and I have moved to Hawally ever since.
    Well we can never expect to see the same size of the apartment that was prevalent 30 years ago in Kuwait. All the rooms are small but the rents are high !!
    Secondly I cannot fanthom the following :-
    1) Why do we need two staircases ?? One normal (which nobody takes) and second one being an “Emergency staircase” !! (seldom used except to keep the garbage and items that do not fit into the itsy bitsy apartment).
    2) What’s happened to “Window Airconditioning”? I could switch off the a/c in my room whenever I felt like. Nowadays I have to suffer in cold silence !!
    This could also be a super saver on the electricity consumption.
    3) Balcony – Joke – 2 little kids playing – one kid to another – I found a condom on the balcony today. 2nd Kid – Hmmm…. what’s a balcony ?
    My old home had a balcony as big a kitchen found in present apartments 🙁
    4) Last but not the least – where do I park my car ?? Have’nt the municipality heard about UNDERGROUND CAR PARKS ?? I mean why give a sanction for a 40 apartment complex when u can only park 10 cars in front of the bldg ?

  • Faysal says:

    Barrak, you are a little unfair in your critique of Villa Savoye. Le Corbusier did not want a flat roof simply to satisfy his whim, ego, or to carry over Garnier’s dream. The flat roof was first and foremost a function of the developing technologies of the time. In fact, all of Villa Savoye is an expression of technology, hence, a house as a machine to live in. The flat roof had been advocated since at the end of the 19th century in France, perhaps more importantly in Tony Garnier’s La Cite Industrielle. Villa Savoye (and, I am not saying it’s perfect, I acknowledge it’s many weaknesses) was simply the logical culmination of over 30 years of discourse that had emerged all over continental Europe (remember the exhibit -weissenshaft somethingorother- that mies van der rohe curated, inviting Gropius, Taut, Oud, Corb and others). Yes, the roof leaks, the windows are probably not well sealed, but that’s absolutely natural, to be ground breaking one has to expect failures. If Villa Savoye is a failure, I’d really like to have a similar experience).
    Stylistically speaking, aesthetics are forever the result of technology (amongst other things, but not necessarily simultaneously, context, the vernacular, available resources, culture, politics, etc etc). Villa Savoye is exactly that, and, contemporary housing should also be.

  • I havent’ got a single stylistic bone in my body…but I enjoyed reading this blog…and look forward to catching up on the various other sections, where I can find ‘do-able” answers to current problems.
    Well done.

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