The Smithsons’ scheme for Kuwait aims at giving the place “a quality all her own” within a more general “Arab tradition,” which is recognized as something different from “what is fashionable in America, Europe, or Europeanised North Africa.” To fullfil this aim the Smithsons propose “a city with a low profile,” a city which does not consist of individually designed “blocks”, but is conceived as a continuous, low “mat” pattern. To structure the mat visually, the minarets of numerous old Mosques are integrated in the scheme.
As defined, the aim of the Smithsons is in tune with the traditional lay-out of the Arab city. The labyrinthine pattern may be understood as an answer to the problem of dwelling in a desert environment. Usually it is combined with low, horizontally extended buildings. Only the minarets indicate an evidently symbolic, vertical direction. The Smithsons have taken this traditional urban lay-out as their point of departure, and have managed to give it a new valid interpretation. The urban spaces and the scale of their solution conserve basic properties of the Arab tradition, and the general result is positive.
Some doubts however arise when the more detailed articulation of the project is considered. The proposed “demonstration building” is based on a regular grid with stairs towers placed diagonally at 40 metres intervals. “The tops of these stairs are hooded, and the particular design of hood or colour of ventilator vane would mark each particular ministry or faculty. Commercial offices can use them for advertising.” It seems rather dubious whether a “forest” of hooded rowers is in tune with the Arab tradition. The lively silhouette created has rather a European character, an impression which is emphasized by the pointed shape of the hoods. The towers moreover contradict the primary role assigned to the minarets. The formal articulation of the “mat”-building below neither convinces. It is based on well-known clichés from the repertoire of modern architecture, such as pilotis and continuous strip-windows. Elements which may give Kuwait “a quality all her own” within the Arab tradition, are entirely absent.
In general, the Smithsons’ scheme illustrates the present situation of contemporary architecture. It shows that some architects today are able to interpret creatively the spatial problems of a particular place, but that we are far from mastering the aspect of environmental character. Architecture is still conceived in relatively abstract terms, and solutions where the concrete built form creates a locally meaningful milieu are rare.
Lotus n. 19 (1978)