Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. “Reima Pietilä’s Kuwait Buildings Revisited: About the Limits of Transcultural Architecture.” in Transcultural Architecture: Limits and Opportunities of Critical Regionalism, by Botz-Bornstein. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.
Chapter may be accessed on academia.edu here.
Introduction of Chapter:
In 1969, Reima and Raili Pietilä were invited to participate in an architecture competition for the improvement of Kuwait’s Old Town area. In 1969/70 the architects spent four weeks in Kuwait to become acquainted with Kuwait’s urban milieu; in 1970 they drafted a report entitled “City of Kuwait: A Future Concept.” No winner of the competition was announced. Instead the planning board asked each of the four participating offices to develop a particular area of Kuwait’s Old Town. The Pietiläs were assigned the development of the downtown shore area located east of the Sief (or Seif)2 Palace. In particular, they were asked to conceive three buildings: an extension of the Sief Palace (which served, at that time, as the administration and reception hall of the ruler), the Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Correspondence contained in the Pietilä Archive shows that, originally, also a fourth building, the Ministry of Awqaf [land attribution for Islamic purposes] and Islamic Affairs, was planned on the site.3 Work on the project would stretch over a period of 10 years and was accomplished in 1983.
The main purpose of this chapter is to reevaluate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thirty years after its completion. To my knowledge, the building has not been visited by any international person with an architectural interest since 1986. It is highly protected and cannot be accessed by persons not affiliated with the ministry. It took me three years of anxious administrative work to get (an unofficial) permission to visit the building.4
The main part of the chapter will thus describe and analyze the transformations that the Ministry buildings as well as its environment have undergone during the last thirty years. I argue that Pietilä’s approach, which I call “transcultural,” has been misunderstood by the people who were responsible for modifications and improvements of the building. Though the reasons for this misunderstanding are complex, the case of the Ministry demonstrates the limits of Critical Regionalism in general. The building represents an example of Critical Regionalism as its architects attempted to return to cultural sources without reinstating them literally. The Pietiläs both respected and overcame regional elements through the use of metaphors, symbols, poetization and irony. They produce architectural expressions that can be seen as both individual and universal. Their approach can also be called transcultural because transcultural architecture produces new cultural expressions by simultaneously reinstating and overcoming local culture. The meaning of Transcultural Architecture and its relationship with Critical Regionalism will be explored in this chapter. The authorities who were in charge of the transformations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not appreciate this transcultural approach and favored either culturally “neutral,” modern architecture or more straightforward reinstatements of an architecture that appears to be generally “Islamic.” The differences between those options will also be discussed in detail.
Modifications of the building have been carried out along the above lines during the last thirty years, that is, the building has been made more “neutral” and more “generally Islamic.” It has often been said that architects and architectural theorists tend to look at the dynamics of architectural production, but too often neglect the problem of the consumption and further re-production of architecture by the users (Hernández 2005b: 127). This chapter takes a lengthy look at the interactive dimension of architecture, which will turn out to be particularly interesting in the context of intercultural communication and confrontation. It will become clear that not all mistakes can be attributed to the users. Pietilä’s shortcomings will also be discussed. Did he, in spite of his eager appropriation of the local culture, withdraw himself from the Kuwaiti realities into a system of self-referentiality meant to produce narratives for an imagined community? It will be shown that the case of the Sief Palace buildings is very complex.
It is impossible to talk about the Sief Palace project without also considering the comprehensive urban development plans that the Pietiläs had finalized three years before beginning to work on the buildings. The plans deal with Kuwait City as a whole but also address the Sief Palace area in particular as they insist on the function of the Sief Palace area as the central point of Kuwait City. I will show that the urban environment of the buildings has changed since the 1980s in a way that contradicts the premises set out in Pietilä’s plan, and that this affects the value of the original Sief Palace area and of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular.