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Desert Storm: Kuwait's Architectural Heritage

Desert Storm: Kuwait’s Architectural Heritage

French photographer Jérome Poulalier documented the endangered heritage of this unsung country of the Persian Gulf.

Kuwait is known for its oil, the Gulf War, the Daguet division and the “Desert Storm” operation. But what most people are not privy to is its rich history, heritage and architecture. It is a country where more than 90% of the population lives in its capital, Kuwait City, where the demolition of many historic sites has taken on such epic proportions that soon, no trace of history will remain erected, leaving room for even more new buildings, malls and other business centers. 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence and the 30th anniversary of the end of the Gulf War.

Through the following photographs, Jérome Poulalier plunges us into the heart of a heritage little known to Westerners.

© Jérôme Poulalier

The palace of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Jabir was damaged during the Iraqi invasion in 1990.  The site is a prime example of the vivid cultural and social exchanges between Kuwait and its neighboring countries. Although today this site lays in a state of ruin, it represents the ability of the people of the region to embrace diversity and change while highlighting Kuwaiti cultural versatility and dynamism in conversing with the world. The palace is one of the four sites considered for candidacy in the UNESCO World Heritage program since its inception in 2014.

© Jérôme Poulalier

The Fahad Al Salem palace is one of the few historical residential complexes located in the heart of Kuwait City, just a few meters off the seashore. In 2018, the government approved to turn over the property to the Ministry of Health who planned to demolish the complex and transform it into a car park extension for the Amiri Hospital. As a good example of the Kuwait heritage conservation, the NCCAL (Kuwait National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters) exercised the power and right over the property and began full restoration of the building two years ago.

© Jérôme Poulalier

The Kuwait Towers are the most important landmark on the Gulf Road in Kuwait. They were designed by the Danish architect Malene Bjorn and inaugurated on February 26, 1977. Water is contained in a sculptural form that imitates the traditional Arabian perfume containers. The project became a symbol of the city and the state of Kuwait with its huge spheres hung on pointed towers.

© Jérôme Poulalier

Built in the 1950s, the Fahad al-Salem street was the first modern commercial street in the Gulf. Along the street, over 30 concrete buildings featured four floors of apartments and offered a variety of restaurants in the ground level, as well as fabric stores and imported goods vendors. In the 1980s, the buildings were quickly turned into commercial offices after being determined as not favorable for living, and the stores were abandoned for better locations and newer constructions.

© Jérôme Poulalier

With more than 500 apartments, the 60-acre residential compound was demolished in 2019 upon the request of the Ministry of Finance. Built in 1981, Al Sawaber was a relatively recent construction but originally built as a model of collective living, taking part in shaping the modernisation of Kuwaiti architecture while incorporating ancestral techniques like allowing intimacy and protection for the harsh summer sun and sand storms. Despite local communities teaming up to try and save the complex by expressing their support and raising interest via social media about urban heritage, 70% of the tenants were quickly evacuated and relocated soon after their efforts. The lack of maintenance and the increase of the land values finally led to the demolition even though the government has never expressed any clear vision for the future of the area. The complex has now completely disappeared and left an enormous empty space in the heart of Kuwait City.

© Jérôme Poulalier

The House of Amin, a famous estate in the heart of Kuwait City, is now abandoned because three families proclaim ownership and the case has remained open for years due to its unique complexity. The rooftops are deteriorating but the house, built of concrete instead of traditional mud-bricks, still stands as a prominent symbol of Kuwaiti heritage and innovation.

By Hasan Ashkanani

Hasan Ashkanani is an assistant professor of anthropology and archaeology, college of social sciences (Kuwait University) His research involves trade and exchange in the Arabian/Persian Gulf and political economy complexity during late Stone Age (Neolithic) and Bronze Age.

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