Asseel Al-Ragam is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the College of Architecture at Kuwait University. She was a visiting researcher, in 2011, at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Malaquais and Sciences Po Paris, France. She graduated in 2008 from the University of Pennsylvania with a PhD in Architecture, entitled “Towards a Critique of an Architectural Nahdha: A Kuwaiti Example.” Her published work focuses on urban and architectural modernity, heritage production and the politics of urban and architecture representation and preservation in Kuwait. — Editor
When was the last time you stayed in that fancy living room reserved for guests that visit during social events and seasonal holidays? How much of your house do you actually live in? I ask my students at Kuwait University’s College of Architecture these questions to provoke a critical dialogue on the subject of housing. Their answers are always thought provoking, ranging from the preservation of the current status quo – an eclectic mish-mash of architectural styles and aesthetic values – to nostalgic expressions that resurrect pastoral fragments of an imagined past. There is consensus however that something needs to be done.
In the absence of a planning institution that forces homebuilders to reign in whims and fancies and the even more dangerous turn of a blind eye to construction and housing violations, architects, planners and conscientious citizens have to take on the difficult task that has been abandoned by decision makers in Kuwait. I do not speak here of an all-encompassing utopian project, as has been done in the past, but one that plants the necessary seeds for the development of a more sustainable environment.
In order to suggest solutions however I will begin with a brief examination of some planning policies that contributed to today’s uneven geographies and along the way, maybe even, debunk a few persistent myths that have settled quite comfortably in everyday debate, particularly in the discourse on the Kuwaiti housing crisis. There are several in Kuwait depending on your ideological alignment. There is the alleged housing shortage crisis propagated and disseminated in the daily press as the proxy for public debate. There is the typological crisis centered on single-family housing that architects and planners have put forward, for which I am guilty.
Urban sprawl is a direct result of the dominance of the single-family home and a contributing factor to this strand of housing crisis. The single-family home, however, will no longer occupy its privileged status and not because of land scarcity or because of densification arguments that are creeping into planning debates but because no one will be able to afford this coveted housing model in the future. But that’s another story for another time. For now, there is a more precarious crisis that is far worse than a gap between supply and demand and more contentious than a problem of housing type. Its roots run deeper and is grounded in the unequal balance of power between a dominant group and an underprivileged “other.” This “invisible power… of Man”, as Homi K. Bhabha the postcolonial theorist argues, “is gained at the cost of those “others” — women, natives, … the indentured and enslaved — who, at the same time but in other space, were becoming the peoples without a history” (Bhabha, 1994:197).
These dichotomies, although much more apparent today, were born out of decades-long state housing regulations, as well as, land purchasing schemes that set an unsustainable path towards modern development. One such legislation was the 1951 Land Acquisition Policy that sanctioned state purchase of privately owned urban land and that alleged equitable distribution of oil wealth to the masses. Now we know the history of that policy because it is our urban reality and its repercussions are far worse than many have imagined. Besides the economic strain that this has left on the state bursar, it has also resulted in a fragmented urban environment that draws social lines between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis and between the rich and the poor. The first to publish on the effects of the land-purchasing scheme was a mission conducted by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1961 that outlined the indiscriminate and inequitable way of distributing housing and the inefficiency of Kuwait’s housing programs. Today these effects are magnified in the inequitable demographic distribution and in the unbalanced associations attributed to particular neighborhoods. As a result, the informal practices that develop in the public and private space of “dwelling” reflect the negotiations and tensions that take place between the disenfranchised and the powerful.
With the region imploding right before our eyes and the steady drop in oil prices it is important to address these crises not only to ease the tensions between dominant groups and marginalized others but to address the ways in which we build homes that reinforces the idea of the “privileged citizen.” When you finally get the chance to build your dream home, whenever and wherever that may be, although I am almost certain that it’s an impossibility at this point for the average Kuwaiti with inflated land prices, construction and building material monopolies and laissez-faire policies, remember that you too can balance uneven geographies by breaking traditions that are set up to prop up imagined representations of wealth, status, power and prestige. As an educator, architect and an architectural historian I will uphold my end of this social contract by educating future architects in the ethical responsibilities of architecture and urban design, in the hopes that they will also contribute to and further this debate. A discursive practice of this kind, aimed to move beyond the confines of the “ivory tower,” will restore a sense of agency to the marginalized. This more comprehensive way of looking at housing opens up the discussion to a new set of values, and challenges established binaries that would otherwise go unmentioned if we limit the discussion to housing supply and demand or to debates on housing typology.
How much livable space do you really need? Think about it. Together we can collectively move forward and break this unsustainable housing cycle.
By Dr Asseel Al-Ragam