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To the Gulf, Part II:
Ahitects and critics find common ground in Kuwait

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 I

Another day rolled around: time for another tented ceremony. Chandeliers were blazing the night we met the Emir, actually the Prime Minister of Kuwait, who came to open the trade show for the Kuwait Society of Engineers on Sunday, December 4. The students and young architects who had won the competition for redesigning part of downtown Kuwait City were present, beaming beside their boards, which were mounted in the adjoining hall. Oddly, there was little protocol, and virtually no formality with the Emir-all was a swirl of movement, talking on cellphones, and photographers swarming around under the cloudlike canopy. The cloud moved again, and he was gone.

It may not have been strictly royal, though regal applies. On Monday, architect Tarek Shuaib took me to an inner sanctum few get to see--the inner councils at the Arab Fund Building, which had been constructed by PACE (the Pan Arab Consulting Engineers), the firm his father founded 20 years ago. The building, reminiscent of the Fort Foundation Headquarters in New York City, allows each Arab nation office space within the structure and each nation contributed craftsmanship to its completion. Egypt, for example, offered a large conference room lined with cedar, fitted without nails or glue, rather like a sculptural, aromatic cedar box. Moroccan tiles were displayed to magnificent effect in a wall 10 meters tall, down which water rolled in a single sheet. An engineer, who has devoted the last two decades to the project, including its upkeep, took us through secret passageways, opening hidden doors to expose the resident mosque, where local workers had paused for prayer, the chaste modernism drenched by the late-afternoon light of stained glass.

That evening, the lights shone in another quarter of the city. This Sheik, the Assistant Minister of Defense, trained as an architect, invited all the participants to his private Diwania, or entertaining house, where the group witnessed a vanished world. On entering this 1950s-era building, we were welcomed with fruit drinks and tea, then ushered into a covered courtyard, where local musicians played music and the jewel-bedecked crowd swirled in hospitality and conversation. Dinner followed, set on a lavish dining table that must have been 20 meters long (60 feet). Again, formality seemed banned as all relaxed and visited in the afterglow.

Members of the Aga Khan Seminar for Architectural Journalism had joined the Kuwaiti Society gathering by this point in preparation for their confab. Among the participants were well-known names from international critical circles: Joseph Rkywert, the historian, attending in his capacity as head of the International Circle of Architecture Critics (CICA); also from the UK, Dennis Sharp, architect and Vice President of CICA;Rowan Moore, head of the UK-based Architecture Foundation; Peter Davey, former editor of Architectural Review; editors (and one major publisher) from journals in India, Iran, Turkey, Argentina, Pakistan, Indonesia, Spain, Mexico, France, Canada, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, Italy, The Netherlands, Kazakhstan, and Kuwait. And of course the United States, including Michael Sorkin, Hani Rashid, and this writer. Almost everyone spoke English or Arabic. (and French, of course).

As might be expected, the conversation, rather than wine (a dry country in more ways than one), flowed, provoking controversy, debate, and promises of more to come. The critics and journalists conferred on the state of the profession, with one lot decrying the powerlessness of critics and architects (but emphasizing its value nonetheless), to those who considered the critic's role to be one of "witness" to societal and environmental change, and therefore a protagonist in an unfolding drama. Michael Sorkin decried "mendacious photography"; Middle Eastern architects cited the special challenges of operating in cultures in which criticism is not welcomed by powers that be, or by the people in general.

Despite an endemic attraction to the star architect and the singular project, all present circled around the topic of cities, suggesting that urban design needs to be inherent in more international writing and debate. This hot air acted quickly as a welcome breeze, wafting across the conference tables, which served as a mini-United Nations, as brothers and sisters from around the world met each other, reached out into the realm of ideas, and found common ground.