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Eclecticism in Kuwait's Residential Streets

Theory 2 Paper Spring 2012 Ali Al Yousifi, 209111052 Instructors: Dr. Mohammed Al Jassar Arch. Dalal Al Sayer

Eclecticism: the heterogeneous composition of neighboring houses in terms of style, color, materials, and overall geometry One of the most obvious characteristics noticed when driving down any of Kuwait's residential streets is the extreme eclecticism of the houses' facades. Rarely is there any set of houses with formal continuity (except height and general rectilinear geometry). Its a parade of varying colors and styles dancing dumbly along the street. This is the result of little municipal restrictions combined with widely differentiated tastes, and although this makes the eclectic rows of houses a truly democratic reflection of Kuwait's societal state, it is a constant source of complaints and a consistently retold example of Kuwait's terrible city architecture. But eclecticism, as a concept to regulate a city's architecture by, is probably not the source of Kuwait's less than flattering urban architecture quality, while it having taken most of the blame. Eclecticism in fact should not only be encouraged but expanded upon in Kuwait's future residential developments. Before I even attempt to make a case for eclecticism, it is important to point out the difficulty of judging an idea such as eclecticism when it is so intertwined with many other aspects relating to Kuwait's street architecture. It is easy to imagine that the street quality would be much better if only the roads and sidewalks were designed and maintained properly, especially when the roads and sidewalks can act as a unifying element that frames the eclectic houses together. Another current factor that is giving eclecticism a bad name is the low quality of design and construction when it comes to most houses; so that the dissatisfactory aspect of two neighboring houses isn't that one is an Egyptian revival and the other is Modernist,

but that it's a badly designed Egyptian revival next to a badly designed Modernist house. There is also the issue of contextual design. The fact that neighboring houses are of different styles doesnt mean that they shouldnt reference each other in their overall geometric shape, details, axis, materials, and landscaping. If only a few architectural elements are carried from one neighbor to the next, both visual cohesion and eclecticism can stay intact. This is shown by the Polka-dots Nursery in Al-Jabria area, where although the nursery's wildly colored faade make it impossible for it of 'fit in', nevertheless visual cohesion is sustained with the neighbor on the left because of similarities in roof treatment and overall geometry, while the neighbor on the right stands completely disjunctioned from the nursery (figure 1-2) (Schumacher, Thomas). It is first important to make a case for eclecticism as a general concept, applicable everywhere, before focusing on the situation of Kuwait's residential streets. The obvious competitor of the eclectic city is a unified city. An easy parallel can be drawn between this dichotomy to the opposed ideas of Modernism and Postmodernism, and a quick review of history shows how Modernism's pursuit of the unification and simplification led to urban failures all over the world. The first problem with unification is that deep in its ideology there is the vision of creating perfection, which when put in an urban context translates into utopia. And since the concept of a utopia is fully based on a society wide "consensus about objectives" (which is practically impossible), the unified city falls short even before its building starts with the question of: which objectives to achieve (p. 272; Rowe, Collin; Koetter, Fred)? This question has to be answered because the occupants of any city

will always have clashing needs and preferences, and creating a singular solution that satisfies them all is not a feasible option (Rowe, Collin; Koetter, Fred). Jacques Derrida makes the case for multiplicity rather than singularity: "the issue is not to give up one point of view for the sake of another, which would be the only one and absolute, but to see a diversity of possible points of view" (p. 148; Derrida, Jacques; Meyer, Eva). The diversity that Derrida mentions can be equated to eclecticism in architecture. Once the idea of perfection and singularity are removed from discourse, then Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter's Collage City can be seen as the most adequate replacement: "it is better to think of an aggregation of small, and even contradictory set pieces than to entertain fantasies about total and 'faultless' solutions" (p. 279; Rowe, Collin; Koetter, Fred). This is to say that the facades of houses on any given street dont have to act as a single orchestra, and that the uniformity of the white and blue houses perched on the Greek Islands isn't necessarily something to emulate; the ideology behind their conception is just one (old-fashioned) way of creating an urban fabric. Robert Venturi will even take this argument a step further by saying that "a building with no 'imperfect' part can have no perfect part, because contrast supports meaning" (p. 41; Venturi, Robert). Applied to an urban context, the previous statement translates into: a street with no imperfect house can have no perfect house. This means that a street where all the houses are conceived by a single mind will have less of an effect per house on the passerby than a street with multiple styles and even quality levels. This is not to say the second will be more aesthetically pleasing than the first (because it wouldnt), instead it's trying to explain that the aesthetics of the houses

individually cannot define the whole experience of passing down the street that they make; and that it might be more beneficial to create a street where consecutive houses are scattered above and below the par line, than to create a street where, due its monotonous nature, all the houses fall flat on the par line. Ultimately, Venturi is pointing to the fact that it is the contradictions (eclecticism) between the juxtaposed elements (houses) that make the arrangement (street) more potent, not the similarities. So perhaps we should encourage having two houses, one inspired by classical Greek temple design and the other by the English Arts and Crafts Movement sitting side by side on an average Kuwaiti street (Venturi, Robert). An important advantage of eclecticism over unification is that it creates a much more exciting environment. By definition, the sheer number of different styles, colors, and geometries (constituting multiple signs and meanings) available in an eclectic street would be higher than that in a unified street. A row of bright houses each coated with a different color of the rainbow might not seem the byproduct of a 'tasteful' society, but the houses will engage you, they will make you think, and they will even give you a story to tell; these houses might not be aesthetically pleasing but they will enrich you life, if slightly, as opposed to a row of unified houses that you may pass by without noticing, not because they are not designed well, but because the "multiple syncopated excitements" presented by multiplicity will always trump those available by uniformity (p. 279; Rowe, Collin; Koetter, Fred). For an example, Rowe and Koetter explain how the aesthetic preference at the time Collage City was written (and until today because Postmodernist thought is still with us) leans towards the "physical collisions" and "highly impacted condition of symbolic

reference" of Villa Adriana in Tivoli over the attempt at order and perfection in Versailles (p. 279; Rowe, Collin; Koetter, Fred). I can retell an event from personal experience that shows how the eclectic, even if badly designed and aesthetically inferior, can enhance the experience of a street. In a recent trip to Sabah Al-Ahmed residential development a group of architecture students and I were walking down one of the area's streets. Most of the houses' facades on that street had been completed with typical finishes and soft colors, no one house seemed more prominent than the others; this was until we reached a house painted purple and pink with red mullions (figure 3). A number of the students were unimpressed by the color choices of this cheerful house; when they questioned the engineer guides about it, the guides refused responsibility (to this 'assumed' disaster) and blamed the municipal designers. What was interesting was that if you only listened to what the students were saying you would think that they were unhappy with the purple house, but the truth is that the house had turned their frowns (because of the scorching sun) into smiles in a matter of seconds. Everyone was laughing at how ridiculous the purple house looked, and there was a rush of newly found energy replacing the previous lethargy. This wasnt the best designed house in the world, but nevertheless, the simple act of making it eclectic made its enhancing effect on the students' experience hard to compete with. The issue of attitude is also important in this case. Instead of always comparing the built environment with our preconceived notion of what should be, we can appreciate what is already there in all its absurdity and whimsy. It is the viewer that decides

whether they will be delighted or disgusted by the next eclectic house they see (figure 4). The little municipal restrictions on the houses' design style and color choices is not something to mourn, it allows the residential districts of Kuwait to truly reflect the current societal conditions. The resulting eclecticism is a natural outcome of complete freedom of choice. We should try embracing the differences and contradictions in ourselves as human beings (shown by the eclectic architecture) rather than attempt to erase our complexity in favor of fake unity created by municipal rules. This does not mean that there is nothing to fix in the Kuwait's streets, but that firstly it is not eclecticism that is to blame for the low quality of the typical Kuwaiti street, and secondly that the responsibility of improvement falls on individual architects making specific better choices for each different project.

Figure 1 Polka-dots nursery with its left side neighbor. Visual cohesion is maintained by having similar roofing and basic geometry.

Figure 2 - Polka-dots nursery with its right side neighbor. The lack of any common elements create total disjunction.

Figure 3 A purple/pink/red house in Sabah Al-Ahmed residential development

Figure 4 A ridiculous Greek inspired house in Al-Jabria area

Works Cited:

Nesbitt, Kate, ed. Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965 - 1995. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996. Print. Rowe, Collin; Koetter, Fred; Collage City Schumacher, Thomas; Contextualism: Urban Ideals +Deformations Derrida, Jacques; Meyer, Eva; Architecture Where Desire Can Live

Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. 2nd. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966. Print.