Photography: Tarek Al Ghoussein's Al Sawaber at The Third Line, Dubai
The Kuwaiti-Palestinian artist's latest exhibition examines the traces of lives left behind in the doomed Al Sawaber housing estate
Many cities have them, experimental megastructures that not only embody blueprints of future utopias, but which also attempted to transform the way their inhabitants lived.
In many instances they are now associated with urban blight, unemployment, delinquency and exclusion, proof positive of Modernism’s failure and satirised in books such as JG Ballard’s High-Rise.
In London there is the subject of Ballard’s dystopia, the Barbican, a plug-in city within a city, while in Paris there are the Grands Ensembles, massive post-war housing projects such as the post-modernist Les Espaces d’Abraxas designed by Ricardo Bofill, who was also responsible for the more colourful and infinitely more welcoming Walden 7 development near Barcelona.
For the moment, Kuwait City also belongs on this list thanks to the Al Sawaber Complex, a sprawling estate close to the city centre that was designed in 1977, now earmarked for demolition.
Originally designed to accommodate 900 apartments in nine neighbourhoods, as well as public gardens and kindergartens, markets, cafés, restaurants and play areas all on a 24.5-hectare site, the development was intended to be “a landmark in the progressive housing programme for Kuwait, serving as a prototype for future housing developments”, according to its Canadian architect, Arthur Erickson, the designer of Abu Dhabi’s Etisalat headquarters and revolving Le Meridien Hotel, amongst many other projects.
The design, however, was never realised as its architect had intended. Construction began in 1981 and by the time the estate was fully populated in 1989 only 524 apartments were built, housing 2,600 residents.
From the outset, the development’s design was seen to be culturally challenging. Not only were the 295-square-metre apartments only a third of the size of local single-plot houses but their density and proximity was deemed to offer insufficient privacy.
Erickson had also failed to make room for diwaniya, traditional gathering and social spaces for Kuwaiti men, and when these factors were added to the fact that the scheme was built below its optimal density and with few of the facilities the architect had intended it is perhaps no surprise that the success of the scheme was short lived.
After the 1990-91 Gulf War, the Al Sawaber Complex steadily changed from being a residence for Kuwaiti nationals into a home for a wide variety of expatriates of different nationalities and faiths, which is just one of the reasons why Tarek Al Ghoussein believes Al Sawaber should be considered a partial success.
“You had Christians here, Hindus and people from both sects of Islam and there were no issues even though they were living only 15 feet from one another,” says the Kuwaiti-Palestinian artist, who teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi and has lived in the UAE since the 1990s.
Starting in 2014, Al Ghoussein began to revisit Kuwait and Al Sawaber, taking pictures of each of its apartments in a process that only finished earlier this year. What started as a matter of intrigue soon became an obsession and resulted in more than 150 visits.
“I think I would say it’s probably the first project where I really feel like I’m done, completely. I went into every apartment, I did research on the place whereas other projects I’ve done didn’t require that,” Al Ghoussein says.
“I went so many times that friends in Kuwait would say ‘You’re going again?’ I know every inch of the place.”
As well as capturing images that speak of the history of the apartment’s recent inhabitants and their attempts to make the apartment’s impersonal interiors feel like home, Al Ghoussein also found himself focusing on the accumulated detritus of everyday lives such as posters, stickers, ornaments and wallpaper, some of which feature in his new solo show, Al Sawaber, which recently opened at Dubai’s the Third Line gallery.
“I felt like I was an archaeologist, almost. I became infatuated with recording everything,” the artist admits, still unable to explain his feelings to his own satisfaction.
“I found posters, images of Christ on a card, paintings, a fax machine, Shiite posters that I had never seen before. It made me realise just how special this place was.”
Al Ghoussein is not the only person to have fallen under Al Sawaber’s influence. In recent years the almost completely abandoned development has become a haunt for graffiti artists and parkour enthusiasts as well as a younger generation of architects, academics and conservation campaigners including Asseel Al Ragam, an architect and professor in the college of architecture at Kuwait University.
“This was not only the first example of state housing in Kuwait City, it was also one of the earliest examples of collective housing in the Gulf,” says the academic, who has been campaigning for Al Sawaber’s adaptive reuse.
As well as writing academic articles about Al Sawaber and lecturing on the development at a Unesco conference on modern Arab heritage that was held in Kuwait in 2015, Al Ragam also presented Al Sawaber at the UAE Modern conference, which was recently held in Dubai.
“Of course it needs to be updated and upgraded for contemporary use but I also think there is a completely different demographic today who would appreciate these kind of buildings inside the city,” she says.
“But we just need to come up for the correct economic argument for how we can maintain and sustain it today.”
For Al Ragam, Al Sawaber’s survival is more than a matter of architectural history, it is also a matter of deconstructing what she believes to be long-held but erroneous beliefs.
“Certain ideas have become truths and norms and now it’s very difficult to get Kuwaitis to go beyond the idea that apartments don’t work for Kuwaiti families, when in actual fact a lot of local families are currently converting their single family homes into apartments,” Al Ragam insists.
“There is no doubt that this is the go-to example of why apartments do not work but that is a myth that needs to be deconstructed. Having Al Sawaber as a prototype could really cater to a younger demographic.”
While he admits to strong feelings for the place, Al Ghoussein’s response to the development is much more ambiguous.
The artist took his final shots of the buildings just two weeks before the opening of the current show, an act he says felt like a moment of completion, and only plans to return when demolition begins, an events he feels is all but inevitable.
“It’s a complicated project and a complicated issue and I’m in the middle of it. Is it worth preserving?” Al Ghoussein asks.
“I can see why some people would say that it’s too late somehow to get it back to the way it was and that it’s too expensive to renovate it, but I’m torn.”
Al Sawaber runs at The Third Line gallery in Dubai until January 20. For more details visit www.thethirdline.com
Updated: December 3, 2017 10:50 AM