From Kuwait to Kazakhstan, Napoleon to Prison Break, Armani to democracy, Eric Kuhne’s obsessions are legion, and coming to a city near you. Peter C Baker meets the man who’s reshaping the Gulf.
Eric Kuhne does not mince words. “This is the biggest revolution in thinking about cities in 100 years,” he told the crowd at the convention of the Middle East Council of Shopping Centres, a forum not known for its soaring rhetoric.
“And the challenge isn’t just for the designers and engineers. The challenge is also to the rest of the Middle East and the world. You’re hearing cities announced every other month now all over the region, and not one of them celebrates Arabian culture. They’re just more North American and European grids dropped down by planners and architects who are destroying the soul of this culture. Not this time.”
Kuhne is an architect and civic planner, but neither description does justice to the massive scale on which he works. His London-based firm, CivicArts, famous for having designed Bluewater, the largest and most financially successful mall in Europe, is today building entire cities from scratch: Madinat Al Hareer (City of Silk), a 750,000-person port city in Kuwait; Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens, a 200,000-person canal city to be built on 88 sq km of desert adjacent to Dubailand; and a not-yet-announced city somewhere in Bahrain. In Dubai, he is overseeing the International Financial Centre’s expansion into a massive enclosed “urban village” where over 60,000 people will live and work. In Kazakhstan, he is erecting 14 casinos and a presidential retreat around a lake.
Kuhne has moved way beyond shopping centres, so that even when he is addressing a room full of mall managers, he doesn’t really talk about malls. He talks about building cities and changing lives. He talks about changing the world.
One of Kuhne’s colleagues warned me that talking to him can be like “taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” He beams with joy as he flits from topic to topic, deluging his audiences with disparate information and concepts woven into an exciting narrative of action and change.
“Sometimes I get standing ovations,” he tells me after the talk. “People are so ready for this. People even ask me to teach. But I don’t have time to teach. I’m building this stuff.”
After Kuhne’s speech we take a taxi to one of his projects in Dubai, the BurJuman Gardens, which makes more money per square foot than any luxury mall in the Middle East or Europe.
One-on-one, without an audience or schedule to consider, Kuhne’s exuberant intellectual wanderings become even more expansive. During our ten minutes in the taxi I receive: a primer on the indirect but crucial contribution of Islamic translators to the Renaissance; a synopsis of recent British research on the health benefits of walkable communities; a nostalgic sketch of the 20 years Kuhne spent living in New York City; and a brief paean to the good faith of his clients. “Once they get it,” he says, “they just become fanatics.”
As we pull up to BurJuman, Kuhne marvels at the length of the taxi queue. “Look at that,” he murmurs happily, shifting his considerable bulk to peer out the window. “This is great.”
Inside, we meet a photographer from this paper, who instantly starts snapping away. In less than a minute, a security guard comes over to politely inform us that photography is not allowed in BurJuman.
“No, no, no,” says Kuhne, laughing. “It’s OK. I built this. I built BurJuman.”
For all his success, Kuhne, who is 56 years old, is no celebrity, and his work is rarely discussed in architecture journals. But many who don’t know his name have been inside his buildings.
Tell a British person that you’re meeting with the man who masterminded Bluewater, and they look at you like you’re talking to the devil. Many well-educated Britons, particularly Londoners, love to hate Bluewater, a 1.68 million sq ft megamall at the bottom of an abandoned chalk quarry in Kent. When it opened in 1999, it provoked a torrent of criticism, not least for its clear ambitions to localized cultural authenticity – a hallmark of Kuhne’s projects.
Ralph Rugoff, writing in Frieze, called Bluewater a “diuretic slurry of pumped-up historical and decorative emblems”. “Citizens of England!” cried Hugh Pearman in the Sunday Times, “We do not need these places!” Contemplating the 20,000-person village, also designed by CivicArts, that will eventually adjoin the mall, Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian envisioned “a city with no gods other than Prada, Gucci and Starbucks, with no cathedral and temple beyond the naves and domes of the mall itself, and with no ultimate purpose beyond stupefying consumption.”
It is easy to adopt this sort of anti-materialist scorn towards Kuhne’s shopping centres. And since Kuhne himself described Bluewater as “a city rather than a retail destination,” it is safe to assume that his cities may resemble his malls. This possibility excites Kuhne; he has faith in retail. “Retail,” he tells the audience in Dubai, “is the only industry that can manage our city centres… We are the only ones who deal with experience. We are the only ones that understand how to customise and modify and release and replan and reorganise and administer a luscious experience for a group.”
Bluewater and BurJuman – with their generous leather seating, considerate staff, perfect climate control, soothing gardens and plentiful, well-located toilets – are certainly luscious. But are they models for cities? We like to think of our cities as “organic” entities that emerged and accrued character and meaning over long stretches of time. Even when we know that a city was built from a masterplan, its creation seems faraway, in the hazy past. Since then (we tell ourselves), things have changed and life – unplanned, idiosyncratic and loveable – has accrued in and between its streets, squares and alleys.
Kuhne agrees that cities should not be like malls. But he does not consider himself a designer of malls, which he describes as “soulless concrete boxes designed to lure you in and hoover the money out of your wallet with panic purchases.” As he sees it, his “retail destinations” (and, by extension, the rest of his retail-inspired projects) are categorically different: “special meeting places” that “dignify the heroic routine of everyday life that drives you to produce a better world for yourself and your kids”. He views himself not as a megamall designer turning cities into supermegamalls, but as a humanistic master planner creating “mixed use” spaces that help people live and thrive together gracefully.
“Grace is important,” says Kuhne. “Do you watch Prison Break? On Prison Break, this guy Sucre is on the run, looking for his girlfriend in Mexico. And this old guy he meets asks him what keeps him going. And Sucre tells him ‘hope.’ And what does the man say back? ‘Hope is for those who do not already live in grace’.” Kuhne took this to be an affirmation of the importance of simple comfort and elegance in everyday life, exactly what he believes places like Bluewater and BurJuman provide. He was so moved that he wrote a thank-you letter to the writers.
“The architecture journals are ill-equipped to deal with stuff like this,” Kuhne says. “They deal with buildings, not with life in buildings, and definitely not with civics. It’s not sexy, you know.” And Kuhne spends very little time talking about individual buildings. Instead, he talks about what types of buildings should be built, where they should go and why putting them there will improve lives. He believes that if savvy planning can make a mall thrive, it can do the same for cities and the people who live in them.
“Our hospitals,” he tells the crowd of mall managers, his voice rising slightly in frustration, “are isolated temples of death that you can’t get to because the traffic is so bad. Our schools are relegated and exiled to the edges of communities on lousy land that no one wants to live on. We need to move health and education back to the high streets at the centre of our communities so that they are part of the everyday life experiences of our citizens and residents.”
In a phone conversation a few weeks earlier, he spoke with equal passion about groceries: “Get rid of the tin sheds and the Wal Marts that only make money by making you part of their distribution chain. Stop asking people to drive to get preserved food. When you put everything a family needs over the course of a week within a 300 metre walking distance, disease drops, life expectancy goes up, incidences of mental diseases evaporate, test scores go up, crime goes down.”
At the end of his talk, Kuhne shows a video introducing the Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens, a compact canal city slightly larger than the main island of Abu Dhabi. Its small neighbourhoods will be linked by walkable streets and cycleways intertwined with a network of canals, fountains, pools and lakes, with a zoological reserve to boot. During the question-and-answer session afterwards, a man from Los Angeles stands up to profess his infatuation with Kuhne’s vision and ask whether anything similar might be possible in America.
Kuhne excels at leaping from practical questions to grand themes and bold claims. “Let me say this bluntly,” he replies. “Democracy has a pretty poor track record of building great cities, and a terrible track record of building great civic spaces in cities. Democracy deals with the triumph of everyone within their own property line, not with generosity beyond that line. And the great cities of the world that we travel to see were built by, you know, leaders of armies, emperors, tsars, leaders of churches. They were built by benevolent despots, visionary leaders one and all, who decided that the pageantry of civil life was an essential part of sustaining the genius of their civilization.”
Later, sitting on a leather chair outside BurJuman’s Hediard Café, Kuhne revisits this idea: “Every now and then you find powerful visionaries and, even if that’s in a democracy, they just don’t act democratically. They become ruthless tyrants that are obsessed with goodwill. It’s so great when you run into someone like that.”
Kuhne sees projects like the Rashid Gardens and the City of Silk – the ultra-modern, precisely-planned port city Kuhne is building in Kuwait – as the newest additions to a long (though recently dormant) line of great, civilization-advancing cities that exist thanks to enlightened “tyrants of goodwill.” He makes this explicit in his introduction to the Rashid Gardens on the CivicArts website, a Who’s Who of men given free reign to shape cities:
“As Domenico Fontana was to Pope Sixtus V’s Rome; Peter the Great to St Petersburg; L’Enfant to Washington DC; Haussman to Napoleon III’s Paris; Frederick Law Olmsted to Manhattan; and Walter Burley Griffin to Canberra, so Sheikh Mohammed’s vision for a new Dubai will redefine the quality of civic life for the citizens, residents and guests of the Arabian Gulf.”
Here Kuhne has found exactly what he needs: rulers with the resources and authority to shape not just individual malls, office parks and neighbourhoods but entire cities. Now he can join the ranks of his idols.
“When you read what L’Enfant wrote about Washington DC,” he tells me, “it’ll bring you to tears. You can see that he’s just weighted down by the thought that he was designing the city that was the soul of this new democracy and he could, you know, get it wrong. And Walter Burley Griffin’s writings on Canberra are just …” he trails off. “They’re just beautiful.”
CivicArts has an entire division whose mission might be best described as Educating Eric. “The first thing we do on a new project,” says Kuhne, “is swarm into the city and clean out all the best bookstores and museums. We’ll spend, you know, $10,000 on books as a matter of course. And then we’ll have one group that studies the richness of that printed literature and another group that studies global precedents, and all of that will go into plans and the design.”
The CivicArts office in London now has a library of more than 20,000 books. “Our clients bring their kids in there,” Kuhne says with pride. “People off the street just come in and sit in the office and read and talk. We don’t even know who they are.”
Kuhne’s faith in the radical potential of the retail industry stems from something over and above the notion that good service makes people happy. For Kuhne, retail is about more than material exchanges. It is about self-definition.
In conversation Kuhne seems more like a philosopher of consumption than an architect of malls. He is fascinated by a Greek word, eudaimonia. It has no direct translation in English, but refers to a deep sense of pleasure tied to the flourishing of the human spirit. To Kuhne, it means “tapping into the imagination and the soul of an individual as opposed to just their physical and temporal uses of material things.”
As he sees it, most retail (he specifies “bankrupt mall managers”) deals only with the latter to the exclusion of the former, and only considerately planned projects like his let customers “identify themselves and personalise their lives in what is an increasingly complex and hostile world in which to identify”.
“Brands are the new heraldry,” he says, “the new way we personalise our lives. If you wear an Armani coat, for example, you probably have more in common with someone who wears the same coat in Tokyo or New York or Frankfurt or Sydney or Sao Paulo than you have with your neighbour. Brands are a lifestyle, a declaration of values. All you have to do is look at any of the magazines today. They rarely sell the products. They sell the brands as a cultural identifier.”
Kuhne envisions his cities as – like BurJuman and Bluewater – “meeting places for brands.” More than that, he sees the cities themselves as brands, or at least branding tools. They will advertise a Middle East that simultaneously celebrates the best of its heritage and welcomes interaction with the global world of commerce and ideas.
Much of CivicArts’s research goes into developing culturally specific branding of this type. Thus Bluewater’s ventilators are modelled after traditional Kentish oast houses and its walls are decorated with relief carvings of British craftsfolk. The paving in the Mall of Kuwait will be, according to the CivicArts website, “artistically created to recall traditional carpets and sand dunes.” His V Building in Birmingham will be framed by “light wands engraved with the richness of Midland’s Literature and Letters.”
Similarly, the street plan of the Bin Rashid Gardens is based on “the sweeping arcs and circles of the planispheric astrolabe, an instrument perfected by Islamic scholars, craftsmen and astronomers” (a five sq km astrolabe, the world’s largest, is being built right now at BurJuman), and its Union Canal will “describe the celestial path of the Milky Way.” The Grand Axial Canal, which points toward Mecca, is intended to “furbish the city with a permanent means of spiritual alignment.”
Most dramatically of all, the skyline of the City of Silk will be defined by the Mubarak Al Kabir (or Tower of 1,001 Arabian Nights), a 1,001m tall skyscraper consisting of three blades, each topped by a different centre of worship: a synagogue, a cathedral and a mosque.
This will not only “rebrand Kuwait as a global leader in terms of property development,” Kuhne claims – it will “rebrand the three principle faiths” by reminding them how much they have in common.
The tower is a perfect illustration of the epic scale of Kuhne’s ambitions – to, among other things, reshape the relations between the Abrahamic peoples – and the means by which he hopes to achieve them: large acts of architecture that are not only meticulously planned for graceful livability, but also so bravely spectacular that they help people transcend their everyday material concerns, lifting them into cultural pride and eudaimonia.
When Kuhne was seven, his father – a master navigator of B52 bombers for the US Air force – sat him down and said: “Son, you’re going to learn perspective drawing.”
“So he showed me a couple of things,” recalls Kuhne. “Then he said: ‘you repeat that.’ And the image just rose out of the paper like magic. I get goose bumps over that to this day.”
Two or three weeks later, after some more lessons, Kuhne’s father asked him to sum up what he’d learnt so far. Kuhne thought that he had learnt how to make things rise magically off of paper. His father shook his head.
“That’s not what you learnt,” he said. “You learnt that if you can imagine it, you can draw it. And if you can draw it, then someone can build it. So get out there and draw the cities that I’ve been trained to destroy.”
Kuhne has wanted to be an architect – to build big – ever since. Now, five decades later, he has found the canvas he has been searching for his entire life.
“I’m living my dream,” he says, grinning. “I’m designing cities for my dad.”