Towards a critique of an architectural nahdha: A Kuwaiti example

Asseel al-Ragam, University of Pennsylvania


A determination to nurture a developing cultural modernity in early twentieth century Kuwait provoked subsequent symbolic explorations in architecture and urban form. Socioeconomic and political conditions enabled the state to undertake utopian projects that, for the most part, were realized. During a period of almost thirty years, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, the Baladiya (municipality) commissioned over forty design proposals, ranging from urban renewal schemes to the construction of monumental civic buildings, which were understood as iconic symbols of state modernity. As documents, they were powerful representations of change. In reality, they present evidence of the challenges faced by the developing nation in mediating between visual traces of an identifiable past and an ever-changing present. Behind a façade of development, the state sought to control a complicated reality. Architectural and urban projects, in their nascent stages, had been engineered as responses to new political, economic, and social conditions. After World War II, and with an increase in wealth from oil revenues, the restructured state, headed by Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, met these challenges by committing to reforms that precipitated the engineering of a new capital city. This new city would become an iconic symbol of a modern state, whose execution was part of a larger social, political, and economic agenda known as the Development Program. Inherently connected to the Development Program, and explored in this dissertation, is the ethos of Kuwaiti architectural and urban development from the 1950s to the 1980s, which stemmed directly from a desire for a cultural modernity. Transformations caused by the new building development and its modern technology, radically altered spatial experience and gave birth to a new public space. In these public spaces, social values, identities, and cultural aspirations were forged and defined. The organizing structure of this dissertation develops from an interconnection between an advanced Kuwaiti self-realization and state-sponsored urban and architectural projects. In order to analyze the phenomenon of this Kuwaiti modern transformation. I rely on concepts of modernity and development to explain cultural change. In Kuwait, both the idea of modernity and development drew strength and substance from a collective spirit that was determined from an ideological revision of Arab history, and from a dialectical analysis of progress and reform. The dissertation provides an illustration of these social and political conditions that necessitated symbolic and pragmatic spatial transformation.

Subject Area

Architecture|Urban planning

Recommended Citation

al-Ragam, Asseel, "Towards a critique of an architectural nahdha: A Kuwaiti example" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3309387.