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Sunday , January 24 2021

Kuwaiti diwaniya rooted in hospitality culture

Architect Bashar Al Salem talks on history of Kuwaiti diwaniyas and its evolution at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre on Dec 10.- Photo by Rizalde Cayanan, courtesy of DAI

A showcase of generosity and wealth

Architect Bashar AlSalem presented an illuminating lecture on a major element of Kuwaitiarchitecture – the diwaniya, tracing its history and charting its evolution tomodern day Kuwait, at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre on Monday evening as part ofthe Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 24th cultural season.

Architect Bashar Al Salem is a founder and partner of Kayan, a Kuwait-based architecture firm. He is a principal architect, leading a team of young architects producing residential and commercial projects. Prior to Kayan, he was a senior architect and a project manager with SSH, a member of the Sphere Design Group, and worked with various government entities on projects including the Failaka Island design.

Al Salem presented a snapshot of  the architecture of diwaniyas in Kuwait, and stressed on how rooted it is in the local culture of hospitality.  A Kuwaiti diwaniya is a traditional reception area where business colleagues and guests are received and is a tangible representation of the importance of hospitality in Kuwait’s culture and traditions.

In his presentation,  Al Salem focused on defining the diwaniya and detailing its architectural design elements. He also looked at contemporary diwaniyas and the ways in which they were similar and dissimilar to local historic diwaniyas.

He revealed that Kuwaiti diwaniyas are well-known and highly regarded in the region. While variations of it exist in other parts, there is a something different and unique about the Kuwaiti version. It is not only a place where people gather to discuss politics and socialize, Al Salem shared but also the place where people visit each other in times of celebrations like Eid and weddings, to receiving guests offering condolences during a funeral. The concept of this diwaniya is truly unique to Kuwait.

Architecture

He shared a painting by the great Ayoub Hussain in which men are seen gathered atop the terrace of an old house replete with activity and an ample courtyard. The diwaniya is both architecture and art, and the painting, Al Salem shares, provides a glimpse into the memories of an older Kuwait with spaces like courtyards that have since been forgotten.  The diwaniya, located on the terrace, defines it not merely as a space but portrays its function within the house. They were not always built as purposeful structures but became places where people gathered. The diwaniya soon became a men’s club for the discussion of politics and trade, a place where deals were struck. As for women, it provided the right balance of congregation and privacy in their meetings.

While the diwaniya as a structure was not always as defined, it is rooted in the history of hospitality in the Middle East.  “Hospitality is a very important factor of our lives. We really have to cater for our guests.” Al Salem added that every visitor is considered important and hosting them is an opportunity to provide hospitality, and showcase generosity and wealth.

Al Salem pointed out that plans of the old Kuwait City of 1795 show no physical diwaniyas at the time. While hospitality was existent, there was no formal structure to facilitate it. In painting a  picture of the first gatherings without a the architectural framework of a diwaniya, he shared that people would gather around the docks, shops, trade posts close to the beach to strike trade deals, discuss politics, and storytelling. “It was a place for men to relax and do business.”

In the Arab region, similar structures exist that are comparable and are found in Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia where compact structures were used to entertain guests with coffee, and would double up as resting rooms for travelers from afar as they used the amenities of the house for their comfort. He pointed out that among these, the Najd in Saudi Arabia bears the most resemblance to the Kuwaiti theme in guest architecture. But in many of these, the function is for family reunions. It is a majlis for people of the same family to gather. So the Kuwaiti edition, where doors are open and all are welcome to come in to meet and greet, linger for a while, chat and gossip, is of an entirely different mood and function. 

There are many structures in the region that embody the culture of hospitality, a majlis exists in one form or the other. Even a tent would have a space for guests, to show that being hospitable is a very important part of the culture. In the majlis, men would gather from different tribes, when travelling, and discuss matters.

In Kuwait, built structures of this kind weren’t always in existence. They started off as spaces left over and occupied by men to be used as a diwaniya. A typical house in Kuwait City depicts that a diwaniya came in as a space near the exit or doors that people could gather without intruding in the whole structure of the house. This became an annex of sorts, a space where guests came in after long trips to use for rest.

Preserved

He showed pictures of preserved diwaniyas like Diwan Shamlan, Diwan Al Roudhan and others from Kuwait City. Kuwait’s dry and extreme climate, was another factor in the prevalence of diwaniyas as it made shelter necessary. People would go to these closed spaces to shelter themselves from the sun in the summer and the cold in the winter. “This is how it evolved, from a space created adjacent to the house, they grew to the lavish diwaniyas we see in Kuwait today.”

It was a space for families to showcase their culinary delights, their space and decor. While the architecture was local, some diwaniyas displayed borrowed styles that merchants witnessed in other areas and brought in as features to their own diwaniyas. For example, wooden elements that aren’t typical to Kuwait, were brought from India.

There have been a lot of modifications in Kuwait’s diwaniyas.  He bemoaned the fact that no records exist of the old diwaniyas and the old architecture of Kuwait. The diwaniyas that have been preserved because of their function, preserve the Kuwaiti identity and architecture, he commended.

He pointed out that Kuwaiti architects today do not have a point of reference, “If we want to do a design, and we want to look at architecture in Kuwait, there is no reference except of those few five or six diwaniyas that we see in Kuwait City, and a few mosques.”

So the function of the diwaniyas as a vestige of Kuwaiti architecture makes it all the more important. “It is what really saved the Kuwaiti local architecture. Some of it is existing in its original matter and the elements.”

The liwan served as seating areas, intermediate between the courtyard, the external area, and the internal diwaniya, a shaded area with a colonnade  sometime with elaborate design and wooden elements coming from India and sometimes Africa.

Today as people are moving towards more external areas, modern architecture is looking back to using terraces applying some functions as seating and barbeque areas but he pointed out, that this is part of history. 

Family ties to and trade with different towns adjacent to Kuwait saw the bringing in of lavish materials and incorporating it within the space. The doors of the diwaniya displayed the wealth of the family. “They are unique to the region. Doors are very important part of Kuwait’s history and architecture. Diwaniya and merchant houses use those doors.”

 He stated that a lot of the original diwaniya has been remodeled, many of the textures and colours are incorporated now, seating areas evolved from floor seating to some chaired seating.

Attention

He drew attention to the fact that windows weren’t typically found in Kuwaiti houses, and was reserved only for a diwaniya, where passersby could see a  gathering and venture inside. “Kuwait has a very private society, people were not  open to having windows in bedrooms and other areas but the diwaniya would have that. We wanted to show people that we have guests, they were used to communicate activity.”

He lamented that Kuwaiti architecture has lost its way, “We have lost our local vernacular elements of architecture, we see contemporary designs and buildings in residential, commercial and public venues.”

The door which is an important element in the diwaniya and signifies the importance of familiy living and the structure, he pointed out. “It is unique to this area. Wealth is displayed on the door and even contemporary architects would have to see it as an element to be preserved and saved and used over and over again.”

He reiterated that courtyards are another important element of vernacular architecture that have also been eliminated. “This is something that people are going to look back at in the region to provide security, privacy and a better environment. It provides a cooler environment.”

The liwan is another element, unique to historic diwaniyas, where people would sit down in the shade. It is an architectural element common to a lot of hot areas with plenty sun and wind as seen in many parts of Europe. The wijar has been totally lost and eliminated. “I haven’t seen them in a very long time. Only a few houses in the Nejd have kept them as a tradition where you have that coffee corner with a small fire pit for the winter days. This would never be off, it’s hot and serving fresh coffee for guests who are passing by through the diwaniya, a beautiful element that has to be seriously conserved or brought back to our architecture.”

Windows are really unique to the diwaniya. While openings existed around the courtyard external windows would only apply to the diwaniya. He shared that young architects today are confused on what to use for windows. They have to factor in privacy from neighbors and heat issues. He stressed that this was an facet that effected the whole language of architecture if not used properly.

Outdoor

A dekah outdoor space is another lost element. Today building codes do not allow for a dekah within the parameter of the house or diwaniya. “It is a beautiful element it’s something that doesn’t weather at all. it has no maintenance. you can put any kind of cushion, sit down and use.” 

But he also affirms a cultural shift in this regard, “Nobody wants to do this now and have gatherings around their houses. In the ‘60s-’70s, we used to go around neighbourhoods and people would have chairs out and they’d sit and look at the passersby. This communication has been lost and unfortunately in doing so, the city has lost a little bit of its identity.

“Outdoor seating, which currently we have in some areas of Kuwait, is part of the diwaniya, an extension of the space itself, when the whole space has been occupied, this is when people go out and sit down.”

The jandal has been used as a construction material, and provided for the use of smaller spaces due to the limited length of around 4m. This created a lot of intimate spaces. “Today, current structures spans of sometimes six, twelve and twenty metres creating a shift in the whole identity, the way we talk and the way we mingle, the spaces are not defined correctly.”

He stressed that if we go back and study the use of materials rather than having them just as a decorative elements, its use would improve the way we design our current buildings.  In order to design a contemporary diwaniya we need to get back those elements, use them, redefine them and try to put them back into our local architecture without merely copying history.  We have to go further and improve what we have build on. This all starts with a definition of the space itself, the rhythm of the design, the importance of simplicity, intimacy and using the right local materials.

By Cinatra Fernandes

Arab Times Staff


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