Al-Sawaber, Architecture, Architecture photography, Art exhibition, Dubai, Kevin Mitchell, Kuwait, Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Third Line Gallery, Urbanism

Artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein documents Kuwait’s 1970s Al Sawaber housing development set for demolition

Kuwait artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s third solo exhibition in Dubai documents the current state of the government housing complex Al Sawaber in Kuwait, which is currently set for demolition.

Th exhibition, entitled ‘Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s Al-Sawaber Series: Dwellings as the Expression of Those Who Dwell Within Them’ is presented by The Third Line gallery, and curated by Salwa Mikdadi.

Al-Ghoussein documents the demise of the housing development, focusing on the idea of forgotten spaces that are specific to a historical moment in the urban development of Kuwait.

Read full essay by Kevin Mitchell which discusses the architectural and urban significance of Al Sawaber: 

Less that 10 years after oil was discovered in Kuwait in 1938 the first shipment was exported, and the proceeds were used to fund state-sponsored programs that provide free healthcare, education and housing for citizens. The country also invested in an extraordinary urbanization project, and the first master plan for Kuwait City was completed by Minoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane in 1952. Although aspirations were ambitious in scope and scale, the approach to planning from the 1950s onward has resulted in sprawling low-density neighborhoods that demand dependence on the automobile and necessitate ever-expanding traffic networks.

Fulfilling the government’s aim of providing adequate housing for Kuwaiti citizens has proven challenging. According to Sharifah AlShalfan,the authority responsible for evaluating applications and providing housing faced a backlog of approximately 19,000 applications in 1980.1The inability to keep pace with demand and recognition that higher densities were desirable due to increasing land values in urban areas led the government to consider alternatives to the single-familyhome. Canadian architect Arthur Erikson was invited to submit a proposal for the Al-Sawaber area in Kuwait City in 1977, and he responded by designing a series of stepped housing blocks arranged to form open linear green spaces between buildings.

Although Erikson provided a novel architectural solution that was well considered in many respects, Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s photographs of Al-Sawaber reveal that the complex now stands derelict and in a state of disrepair. Asseel Al-Ragam, in “The Destructionof Modernist Heritage:The Myth of Al-Sawaber”,2provides a comprehensive account of the problems that plagued the project from the beginning and explains that the proposed density was never achieved because only 524 of the proposed 900 apartment units were built. Additionally, commercial enterprises such as restaurants and stores were not integrated, and Erikson’s original proposal was impaired by the omission of a number of key features when the project was handed over to the contractor.

Beyond the compromises made during the initial implementation of Al-Sawaber, the fact that the space provided in the apartments was only one-third of that provided in single-family homes and the lack of a designated diwaniya–or even the possibility of adapting the dwelling to create a male-only social space to be used periodically –imposed significant constraints. The limited space, at least relative to single-family homes, and the absence of a diwaniya not only affected usability, but also likely impacted the resident’s perception of how they may be viewed within their broader social networks.

Regardless of the shortcomings, Al-Sawaber did fulfill a rentier bargain between state and citizen by providing housing; however, the abandonment by residents reveals that the housing never became home. In Human Space, O.F. Bollnow examines the meaning of “homeliness” and considers how it could be created:

“Thus the dwelling becomes the expression of the individual who dwells in it, a piece of this individual which has become a space. Soit can only be inhabitable to the extent that the person in question knows how to dwell in it. One must be able to sense this even in a strange dwelling. The objects in it must be melted into the life of the dweller by the practice of being looked after. […] the dwelling must not only express an individual, but at the same time reflect a long past, if it is to give us a feeling of security and stability in life.”

Al-Sawaber’s spaces failed as residents could not dwell within them. Bollnow maintains that the objects in a dwelling become part of the life of the dweller by being looked after, and these objects –in addition to expressing an individual –provide security and stability. Al-Ghoussein’s photographs present spaces and objects that were once looked after and, rather than being melted into the life of the dwellers, were left behind. The spaces and objects have perhaps been forgotten by the families that once lived in the apartments but, although they no longer form part of the history of the family, spaces and objects nevertheless remain part of the past of Al-Sawaber and reveal intertwined histories of individuals, families, and government-sponsored initiatives to create a community that ultimately proved to be uninhabitable.

While Al-Ghoussein’s images from Al-Sawaber examine abandoned spaces and objects, the photographs neither aestheticize the decay that results from neglect nor dispassionately document found conditions. At first glance there are similarities between the scenes from Al-Sawaber and Robert Polidori’s photographs of the interiors in cities like Beirut, Pripyat, Chernobyl, and New Orleans. The richly textured images of environments where decomposition has been seen in motion by catastrophe or conflict reveal the care taken by Polidori to locate and compose vivid scenes of damage and deterioration. In contrast, rather than focusing on making images that appear as painterly vignettes, Al-Ghoussein considers the relationship between the non-descript apartment units and the individual expressions intended to provide the security and stability essential for “homeliness”.

Al-Ghoussein’s framing of the interior heightens the tension between the standardized apartment and personalized treatment, and results in subtly ironic images that reveal idiosyncratic attempts to make an undesirable dwelling inhabitable. Landscapes are common in the wall treatments throughout Al-Sawaber, whether in the form of fairy-tale castles against pink skies or floral-patterned prints. In more elaborate examples, such as Al Sawaber_0282, an oddly scaled bird inhabits a maple forest complete with falling leaves that have turned from green to yellow and red at the end of summer; although the telephone jack remains concealed under a faux forest floor, the electrical outlet remains as a chrome-plated reminder that the reality of Al-Sawaber is inescapable.

The proliferation of simulated landscapes throughout the apartments in Al-Sawaber is curious in light of the fact that Erikson’s master plan included a large park-like space that extended throughout the project. However, there was no provision for private outdoor space beyond the small covered balconies that resulted in the distinctive façade. Al-Ghoussein’s images of wall surfaces reveal desires to create a home that perceptually extended beyond the constricted space of the apartment and subsumed both interior and an imagined exterior within the private realm.

The objects collected from the apartments provide an intimate impression of the lives of former inhabitants. By decontextualizing the pieces and isolating them in individual photographs, Al-Ghoussein emphasizes their particular –and often peculiar –qualities. Abandonment of the objects calls into question claims of importance for those who once possessed them. Even though the pieces were discarded, they nevertheless reveal part of Al-Sawaber’s complex history as they were presumably, to use Bollnow’s formulation, “melted into the life of the dweller” in the past.

Al-Ghoussein’s Al-Sawaber project is personal, not in the sense of an immediate connection to the buildingcomplex or its previous inhabitants, but in terms of understanding what one is looking at when looking at what remains of one of the Gulf’s few attempts to create high-density government-funded housing. The vast array of spaces and objects within Al-Sawaber make it a rich site of investigation for any photographer, but Al-Ghoussein’s knowledge of Kuwait is evident in the choice of subject matter, as well as in the manner in which spaces and objects are presented. The project may seem to be a departure from Al-Ghoussein’s earlier work but, when viewed in relation to considerations of what constitutes “home”, Al-Sawaber provides a context for extending the exploration of themes related to transience and belonging.

Al-Sawaber will likely be demolished in the near future. Al-Ghoussein’s work is therefore timely as it provides insight into the lives once lived in Al-Sawaber and serves as a record of an important part of the Gulf’s recent past. More significantly, the Al-Sawaber project presents spaces and objects with a sense of irony that never devolves into condescension, resulting in perceptive depictions of how dwellings become the expression of the individuals who dwell within them.