In 1991, The Gulf war which saw invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army led to a large scale mass destruction of infrastructure, economy, culture and public spaces. Founded in the 18th Century, Kuwait was surrounded by a city wall with five gates which have now been demolished. Most structures employed rubble stone cladded with thick mud plaster and mud bricks as building materials. The country relied on its sea ports and maritime trade before the discovery of oil.
The Gulf war led to downfall in the oil industry where more than 600 oil wells were destroyed and set ablaze which further led to an environmental catastrophe in the country as well. Apart from that houses, institutions, sea ports, sewage systems and road networks were also destroyed.Opposed to complete reconstruction many of these buildings being resilient enough to be structurally sound despite the destruction were restored, refurbished and retrofitted.
“War and architecture have a long and often parasitic relationship; the building and rebuilding of urban centres, the making of enclaves, walls and segregated residential and city zones has been fundamental to urban form and human experience. The destruction of buildings and cities has therefore always been an integral part of winning and losing wars.” – Esther Charlesworth
The destruction that takes place during a war transcends its physicality. Buildings which are of national importance and are viewed as ‘landmarks’ carry the national identities of memory and genius loci of the place. Ravaging or stealing these identities manifested or embodied as physical identities leads to a loss of culture and the daily lifestyle of the inhabitants.
“There has always been another war against architecture going on – the destruction of the cultural artefacts of an enemy people or nation as a means of dominating, terrorizing, dividing or eradicating it altogether.”
Many of such historical and contemporary buildings such as the National Assembly Building by Jorn Utzon, Seif Palace by Reima Pietilae, International Airport by Kenzo Tange, Kuwait Water Towers by Malene Bjoern were targeted and aimed to be destroyed.
For example, Seif Palace by Reima Pietilae, built in 1856 serves as a landmark in the urban fabric of the country. During the gulf war, the tower at the palace was destroyed by a missile along with the dial room. Care was taken to renovate the tower in its exact form by the Smith of Derby Group making use of the exact same materials and techniques of construction.
The post war reconstruction and repair of Kuwait was estimated to be about US $ 25 -30 Billion. The reconstruction process was planned in the form of three phases by the Kuwait Emergency and Recovery Office, a Washington D.C. based operation as follows:
1. Emergency Relief Phase (3-6 months)
The first phase involved clearing of debris and resurrection of the necessary services such as transport facilities and infrastructure, electricity, roadways etc. The phase also involved monitoring the destruction that took place at the various oil wells as it caused a number of natural hazards which needed to be accounted for on an urgent basis.
2. Recovery Phase (3-12 months)
This phase involved assessment of the current standing of various sectors and planning the long term measures to be initiated based on the needs and priorities of the people and the cities at large. The damage assessment phase also included the participation of the government, planners, finance sector, health sector etc.
3. Reconstruction Phase (3-5 years)
This phase involved the actual reconstruction of the various spaces and landmarks which were destroyed and lasted for about five years.
“No new design projects are expected to be commissioned during this period as emphasis will be directed primarily towards the reparation of the damage inflicted on existing buildings. Although architects could participate in some capacity in the rebuilding efforts, Kuwait’s post-war construction market will mainly require the professional services of structural surveyors, civil engineers, construction managers, and interior as opposed to architectural designers.” (Al Bahar, 1991).
“Particularly in the case of Kuwait, reasserting the local identity has lately become a matter of great importance especially after Iraq’s claims in Kuwait and the Second Gulf War.” (Khattab, 2001:56)
The approach undertaken towards the post war reconstruction of Kuwait wasn’t to completely rebuild the city or introduce new globalized architectural styles but rather restore and refurbish the existing, going back to the roots and bringing back the lost identities.
Today, Kuwait can be seen as a country in ‘transition’ still recovering from the long term implications and loss from the war that took place a decade ago. Over the years’ care has been taken to restore the buildings which were destroyed in the form of structural repairs but yet today there is a constant questioning of the relationships between the lost cultural identities and the built environment and the direction in which the new constructions should take place especially since the country is experiencing a construction boom in the last few years. Kuwait has experienced rather dramatic and drastic shifts in its architecture right from the loss of historic context due to rapid urbanization to a complete wipe out and destruction due to the Gulf War. Thus its necessary to design and build in between these linkages of these dramatic shifts i.e. architecture that stems from the existing and yet caters to the contemporaries, creating something that is resilient and timeless.
“The documentary portrays a univocal regret. Every interviewee feels deprived of the past, and the present built environment is generally perceived as an alien intrusion. The majority of interviewees rejects and dismisses modern architecture as non-representative of the local character and people’s aspirations, as well as an inadequate response to the harsh climate.”