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To the Gulf, not in Mississippi

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in Chief

Click here for slideshow.

All photography © Robert Ivy, FAIA

Read more:
• To the Gulf Part III
To the Gulf Part II

Impressions from the first days into the heart of the Persian Gulf, if not to Iraq.

Flew directly from JFK to Dubai-a 14-hour flight. The plane was gliding at 41,000 feet over Iran, with the lights of Tabriz glimmering off in the distance at sunrise. The hills became rugged and bare, then quickly dusted with snow, and then, pouf, we were over water and the Gulf.

Dubai held an unexpected 10-hour layover. I could only see the airport, which consists of an immense shopping mall, punctuated by accents from around the world. People literally fly in to shop, then return home. In Kuwait, because I was later than expected, my arrival escort had left, leaving me without a visa, somewhat dazed from too many hours without sleep (I don't sleep on planes at all), but with a functioning phone. One call and I was rescued from bureaucratic hell, then whisked down spotless highways to the Marriott Courtyard.

The hotel belied its name-not at all like its U.S. kin, the motels of the same name. Actually this was a spanking-new, international hotel. I arrived to find that the jury I was to chair had already gathered and begun deliberations. So jetlagged or not, I rolled up sleeves and pitched in, finishing up in the night. Fellow jurors included a sheika (wife of a sheik) trained as an architect and a new member of the city's zoning/planning arm, two developers (one of whom is an architect), and a young architect who inherited his father's substantial business. All spoke excellent English.

We reviewed 18 projects. After another two hours on Saturday, we split the awards into two parts: first prize ($15,000) to two projects, and second prize ($10,000) to four projects. Next year, the award should garner more entrants, with so rich a purse.

Tarek, the architect who organized the proceedings, toured me through the city that evening and led a tour of the site on Saturday. Kuwait City is awash in oil wealth, Bentleys filled with the Cartier-bedecked are everywhere, and building is fast and furious. Cranes and concrete pours abound. After the invasion by Iraq, the country has rushed to rebuild, aided by the stability that comes from knowing that your archenemy has been stymied. Development money has poured in to the tiny country, abetted by local wealth, which sees real estate as a viable way of turning oil into gold.

Having successfully concluded our discussions and written our jury's remarks on Saturday, the second day's highlights included the opening session of the Directions Conference-a conclave sponsored by the Kuwaiti Society of Engineers to discuss Middle Eastern architecture (separate from the subsequent Aga Khan architectural criticism conference, which will follow). We met in a splendid tent, erected on the grounds of the hotel, spread with carpets and illuminated by crystal chandeliers. Architects and engineers in native dress greeted each other warmly (there is a splendid intimacy in this circle) and made presentations all in Arabic, while men passed tea and fruit juices throughout the proceedings. Some women were covered in scarves, while others were resolutely modern. All were chic.

By Sunday, the Directions conference had moved to the hotel meeting rooms, complete with a translator. Critics and friends were dribbling in from around the world, and all were sprucing up for the evening's gathering-the opening of the trade show highlighting the work of the Gulf architects and engineers, to be opened by His Highness, the Prime Minister of Kuwait. More to come