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Nov/Dec 2014 issue:

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by Fanny Singer


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by Céline Browning










ACQUIRING MODERNITY:
KUWAIT AT THE 14TH INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE EXHIBITION


Text / Desi Gonzalez


A national pavilion curated by a group of young creatives takes Kuwait City to the Venice Biennale, but the project doesn't end there. The Pavilion of Kuwait is an ever-growing, multi-disciplinary entity for research, experiment, and practice that transcends the limits and duration of its installation—and sets an international example for the potential of collaboration.



Unveiling a drawing of the Kuwait Towers designed by Swedish architect Malene Bjørn


The Kuwait National Museum is a site many Kuwaitis know about but few visit. Described as "a shadow of its former self" on Lonely Planet's online travel guide, the museum—a cluster of buildings united by a central courtyard that features camel saddle-inspired columns and a gridded canopy—is underused and overlooked. Only one exhibition remains: an antiquated diorama display of life before the discovery of oil that catapulted the tiny country into modernity in the years after World War II.

Within the museum complex, however, are reminders of a larger Kuwaiti history. The aforementioned exhibition recounts the pre-oil life of Kuwait's pearl divers and desert nomads. A quick walk across the museum's courtyard fast-forwards visitors 70 years into the future: once home to the renowned Al-Sabah collection of Islamic art, this building has been empty since the Iraqi invasion of 1990, its floors covered in debris, dust, and pigeon excrement. The Michel Écochard-designed complex hints at the midcentury utopianism that followed the discovery of oil, in the wake of which Kuwait hoped to compete on a global scale, borrowing the architectural visions of Europe and North America. This particular vision of Kuwaiti modernity has since been forgotten, however. As artist-curator Alia Farid explained in conversation, "Among different architectural communities, the Kuwait National Museum is regarded as Écochard's masterpiece, and yet in the local architectural scene he's practically unheard of."

Last year, 29-year-old Farid was selected to curate the Kuwaiti pavilion for the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. She assembled a scrappy team of 23 researchers, architects, artists, filmmakers, and writers to design Acquiring Modernity, which opened in Venice in June and runs through November 23, 2014. The exhibition's title refers to the overarching theme prescribed by the 2014 Biennale director, Rem Koolhaas: "Absorbing Modernity," an ostensible call for participating nations to consider how they have been shaped by the last century of modernization.

In March, a trip to Kuwait City organized by the Art, Culture, and Technology program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Farid's alma mater—put me in the care of Farid and the Biennale team. There, I not only experienced the buildings, public spaces, and structures that the pavilion takes as its subject, but also had the opportunity to witness the team at work and at play. For a country just starting to dip its toes into the international art and architecture scenes (this is only the third time Kuwait has been represented at Venice, having participated in the 2012 architecture and 2013 art exhibitions), this year's Biennale team marks a defining moment in the development of a creative community in Kuwait, both through its collaborative philosophy and in the quality of its execution.




The Kuwait National Museum under construction, 1979 [courtesy of Al Qabas Newspaper Archive]


Perched at the north end of the Arabian Gulf, Kuwait City—historically a gateway between East and West—served as an important regional trading port in the late 19th century. Its seaside settlers also found economic prosperity in pearl diving; farther inland, Bedouin nomads inhabited the desert. With the invention of cultured pearls in Japan, and as the Great Depression's impact spread around the world, Kuwait declined in economic importance in the late 1920s, leaving most of its inhabitants impoverished.

The 1930s brought renewed hope. On the eve of World War II, drilling revealed that the harsh desert climate of Kuwait—which has a small area, equal to that of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined—was home to some of the largest oil fields in the world. The period between 1946 and 1982—from the end of World War II, when Kuwait was finally able to capitalize on its oil reserves, to the major Souk al-Manakh stock market crash in the 1980s—has been dubbed by some the Golden Era of Kuwait. In 1961 the nation declared independence from Great Britain, under which Kuwait had become a protectorate in 1899. A particularly telling symbol of the country's newfound wealth was the sheer volume of new construction—and with it, destruction—Kuwait underwent during this period. A master plan to revamp the old Kuwait City went into effect in 1952. To implement this design, Kuwaitis were moved from the city center and given a plot of land on which to build houses in the new suburbs, effectively and permanently decentralizing the nation. An eagerness to shed the traditional mud-brick building of their Bedouin heritage resulted in the removal of the city walls, which were turned into roads for the automobiles that would soon come to dominate the country's infrastructure.

As the old city was torn down, skyscrapers and monuments designed by European and North American architects came to take its place. This is where the exhibition title, Acquiring Modernity, becomes resonant: Kuwait became modern by importing Western buildings. Erected in 1965, Sune Lindström's army of blue-and-white striped mushroom water towers was a physical manifestation of Kuwait's dominance over seawater, which could finally be purified and supplied to its residents. The following decade, in 1977, the country inaugurated the Malene Bjorn-designed Kuwait Towers—giant spindles punctuated by mosaic-covered spheres. Kuwaitis affectionately compare these structures to ones in The Jetsons, a testament to the futuristic fervor of the nation's Golden Era.



"Why work when we're rich," magazine clipping portraying the Kuwait Central Bank,
designed by Arne Jacobsen, found in the Al Qabas Newspaper Archive
[images courtesy of Al Qabas Newspaper Archive]

When I entered an apartment in Al-Sawaber, a Kuwait City condominium complex built in the mid-1970s, I encountered fragments of former lives: Polaroid photographs, empty water bottles, fake flowers, unraveled spools of ribbon, and overturned potted plants were strewn across the floor. From the outside, the buildings were regal, even mythical in appearance, their tiered structure reminiscent of stepped pyramids. Inside, they looked as if they had been looted. During my visit, our guide, Dana Aljouder—a member of the Biennale team—told me about a friend who used to live there. He had to move out after years of flooding and disrepair that went un-tended. As we left the complex, a pair of women driving their SUV out of the parking garage told me about the building's fate: residents have been evacuated over the last few years, in preparation for its imminent demolition.

Designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, the Al-Sawaber project was conceived as a way to bring Kuwaitis back into the city center and revitalize the downtown area. Now, Al-Sawaber is just one example of Golden Era projects that have been abandoned or demolished—not so much as a result of a rejection of modernist architecture and the ideals that came with it, but as a consistent favoring of the new and the shiny.

The Biennale team credits many factors for this phenomenon: among them are misunderstandings between the Kuwaitis commissioning the buildings and the Western architects designing them; the sluggish bureaucracy of a government supported entirely by oil; and a general, deeper lack of concern for heritage—a feature of consumerism the world over, perhaps. Today, Kuwait's oil industry is nationalized like those of most countries in the Gulf. Government jobs are widely available to citizens; ones working in the private sector receive a government stipend in addition to their salary, though none of these benefits extend to noncitizen residents, who make up 64% of the country's population, according to a 2011 census. Still, among the nations of the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait is also widely considered the most democratic—a sentiment shared by the Biennale team—its government a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system.

Samer Mohammed, a member of the Biennale team, told me that he likes to describe contemporary Kuwaiti life as driven by what he calls the two Rs: "restaurants and real estate." The former corresponds to the popular social gathering model that replaces bars and nightlife in a country where it is illegal to dr ink alcohol. As for the latter—apart from oil, real estate and property development is the most prominent business. The use of the term "real estate," as opposed to "architecture," reflects the building culture in a country characterized by its highways, shopping malls, and particularly in the last decade—with the death of Saddam Hussein symbolically assuring Kuwaitis that they've moved past the Iraqi invasion—rapid development. Opened in 2011, the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill-designed Al Hamra tower and other skyscrapers in Kuwait City aspire to the glitz of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. In a climate driven by profits and consumerism, what pervades is a sense that it is easier to demolish and rebuild than it is to preserve or renovate.




Michel Écochard, Kuwait National Museum, axonometric drawings
[courtesy of Aga Khan Foundation]


When Farid was approached by the Kuwaiti National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters about curating the 2014 pavilion, she decided to take an unconventional approach. Farid, of Kuwaiti and Puerto Rican heritage, eschewed a one-or-two-curator, singular-vision model and instead assembled a team. This strategy was one she picked up during her time living and working as an artist in Puerto Rico, and through her involvement with the San Juan nonprofit organization Beta-Local. In that environment, she explained, collaboration was key; spontaneous communities would quickly form around creative projects.

Farid's recruitment tactics for the Kuwait pavilion were also grass-roots. She called on artists she had known for much of her life and reached out to individuals she found via word of mouth. The result was a crew of scholars, architects, writers, filmmakers, designers, and artists, divided into three subsections: research, fabrication, and a final team dedicated to writing and producing a film that would continue the legacy of their work after the close of the Biennale.

The team consists primarily of Kuwaitis, with a few transplants, such as expats involved in architectural practices and scholarly research in Kuwait. As Farid explained, a lot of the members are "Kuwaiti-and-something-else"—Kuwaiti-Puerto Rican, Kuwaiti-Iranian, Kuwaiti-Palestinian,—many of whom attended university in the US, UK, Canada, or Australia, and brought back with them an understanding of the global art and architecture worlds, as well as a critical distance. The team convened every Saturday for a year. In her essay for the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, artist Dana Al Jouder describes the tracking down of lost archives as "forensic"—an obsessive research process, through which came realizations of personal growth. Aisha Alsager, a Kuwaiti who did her graduate work in architecture at Columbia University, confessed to me that she never knew Kuwait was so rich in architectural history until she began working with the Biennale.

There were, of course, growing pains: according to Farid, the collaborative model was something that had to be learned, and attracting administrative support from the National Council, getting bills paid on time, or securing a place to meet was, according to other team members, like "pulling teeth." Although the Kuwaiti administration recognized the international prestige in participating in the Venice Biennale, it is unclear whether its members knew precisely why that was so.

Initially, the team worked out of an abandoned theater; they enjoyed the creative energy of the space, which mirrored the theatricality of the Venice Biennale—an event described by Farid as "staging one's country in another country." When I visited the team's headquarters, it had been moved to an empty office complex. In a multipurpose room of sorts, boards were set on sawhorses for tables, and maquettes of their planned installation dotted these surfaces, while photos, diagrams, and a cardboard version of the National Museum's faćade were taped to the walls.

Écochard's museum had come to symbolize their cause. The institution's five buildings served as the framework around which the (beautifully written) catalogue would be structured. The individual structures' ambiguous names—Administration and Cultural Section, Man of Kuwait, Land of Kuwait, Kuwait of Today and Tomorrow, and the Planetarium—became the titles for the catalogue's essays, each paralleling a particular theme that emerged from their research: the maladministration affecting everything from Kuwait's architectural projects to governmental action, the country's relationship to and dependency on water, its transformation from a pre-oil society to a post-oil society, and its capital city's series of failed master plans. More generally, the concept of the museum itself, as an institutional model, became central to the team's message. Just as a museum acquires works to build its collection, Kuwait acquired modernity by commissioning buildings and structures from Western architects, contributing to a new cultural legacy. Adding to the museum metaphor is the idea that the minute you "museify" something, you distance yourself from it. The National Museum's heritage exhibition put the inhabitants of the mud-brick city of yore—the bead-maker, the date seller, the bride on her wedding night—into static diorama boxes, sending a clear message: "We do not live like this anymore."

In her contribution to the exhibition catalogue, Farah Al-Nakib, assistant professor of history at the American University of Kuwait, reflects upon the effects of this historical passage:

Truly remembering what and where Kuwait was then and what it was working towards forces us to face up to the shortcomings of our experimentation with democracy, to address the fact that we have become much less culturally open and accepting than we were in the early oil years, to deal with the reality that our city is collapsing under its own weight due to the fact that no master plan since the 1960s has ever been implemented, and to acknowledge that corruption, maladministration, and a lack of productivity still exist within state institutions .... To return to the built environment, only making room among the new [21st-century] skyscrapers for pre-oil heritage [sites, creates] a direct link between then and now while eliminating everything that happened in between, evoking a straightforward image of progress. If we forget how progressive and optimistic Kuwait was back then, and if instead of comparing ourselves to where we were fifty years ago we continue to contrast our present with the pre-oil past as we did in the sixties, then things would not look as bad as they do now.






Pavilion of Kuwait installation at the
14th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia [courtesy of Alia Farid]


Four months after my visit to Kuwait City, the idiosyncratic camel-saddle columns of the National Museum were re-created in the maritime buildings of the Venice Arsenale, courtesy of Kuwait's fabrication team. To walk into the Kuwaiti pavilion is to enter a refuge from the busy, high-tech experiences of the neighboring exhibits of Malaysia and Estonia. On the white walls of the room, the facades of the museum buildings are rendered in grayscale, through unerased pencil markings exposing the installation's own design process. Stenciled letters indicate the names of each building, echoing text on Écochard's original drawings. The exhibition also includes a replica of the museum's planetarium and a soundtrack recorded in Kuwait. Taped onto an inconspicuous corner of a wall is a faded color photograph of Écochard's courtyard, taken around the time of the museum's opening. Creases on the picture's surface expose its age.

Kuwait's exhibition has a bigger footprint than its neighbors', but it is not ostentatious—especially compared to the high-polish pavilions of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the other Gulf nations on view. This aesthetic is a result of the DIY attitude of the Biennale team—and a reflection, perhaps, of evolving and distinct relationships to contemporary art and architecture in the region: recognizing the cultural capital that comes with the art world, leaders in the UAE are importing large, name-brand museums such as the Louvre and Guggenheim, whereas Kuwait's National Museum remains empty.

The Biennale team infiltrated the Giardini—the old public gardens and the most prestigious area of the Biennale—in a poetic nod to the influence of Scandinavian architecture on Kuwait. Swedish architect's Lindström's water towers are Kuwait City icons: their blue-and-white stripes have made their way onto plastic water bottle labels, and their mushroom shape can even be seen in the designs of private homes. Most noticeably, they serve as models for water fountains placed around the capital, allowing passersby to drink or to wash their hands before mosque. The Biennale team installed one of these sabils—ordering the fountain straight from a Kuwaiti manufacturer—in front of the Nordic pavilion. (Farid collaborated with the curators of the Nordic pavilion in this endeavor, and told me that they were initially skeptical of the kitschy, manufactured fountains.) Replicated as a functional miniature, Lindström's design persists as a unifying national symbol, and a success story of Kuwaiti midcentury modernism.




Muneera, 2014, production still [courtesy of Oscar Boyson]


After the grand opening of the Biennale in June, the Kuwaiti pavilion served as a set for Farid's film crew. Based on and named after "Muneera" (1929), a short story written by Khalid Al Faraj and the first thing of its kind ever published in Kuwait, the film is indicative of the reciprocal philosophy of the curatorial team: its members, in addition to bringing the Kuwait National Museum to an international audience, have created a product to bring home with them, too.

The film is only part of the continuation of efforts to have sprung from the Biennale, and Farid intends to push forward with the team's research and goals. In April 2014, NCCAL and the Pan-Arab Consulting Engineers (Pace)—an architecture, planning, and engineering concern based in Kuwait City—announced plans to revive the National Museum. And Pace, in turn, has reached out to Farid and her colleagues to put their work for Venice back into the institution that inspired it. From their repurposed office space, the Biennale team conjured a vision for a far greater project than a finite exhibition destined for Venice. The pavilion, the catalogue, and even the film are the by-products of a wide-reaching body of work—that of a new, committed creative community, with its own credo.




Desi Gonzalez is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She previously worked in museum education at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

A repository for the Kuwait Biennale team research can be found at:
www.acquiringmodernity.com




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