Telling stories

Eric Kuhne & Associates is designing and building projects around the world. Lucy Taylor sits down with the practice's principal and namesake to talk about Silk, sway and storytelling.

Eric Kuhne.
Eric Kuhne.

Eric Kuhne & Associates is designing and building projects around the world. Lucy Taylor sits down with the practice's principal and namesake to talk about Silk, sway and storytelling.

What can you tell me about Kuwait's City of Silk?

The original concept for City of Silk was that it would be one of seven city sites to accommodate the explosion of the expat population living in Kuwait, as well as a larger number of Kuwaitis returning after the invasion [by Iraq in 1991].

So they have an enviable need there, which is to provide major new communities on a scale which is pretty much unprecedented. I think Dubai gets a lot of the attention these days, but before the invasion, Kuwait was 20 years ahead of any other city in the Middle East.

The great news is that last November [2007], the parliament unanimously endorsed it and gave it planning approval, which allowed the executive branch of the Kuwaiti government to mobilize resources to start doing all the infrastructure planning as soon as possible.

Why 'City of Silk'?

We worked with a group called Tamdeen Corporation and we said we'd like to work on a gateway city. Tamdeen's chairman-Mohammed Al Marzouk-and our guys worked together to basically incubate this city.

I started drawing diagrams on a map, showing all these connections that Kuwait was going to be able to do, and you very quickly realise that Kuwait sits right in the middle of 30 Middle Eastern countries.

[Its connections] extend from Kazakhstan in the north to really the middle of Africa in the south, Morocco in the west and all the way over to China in the east. So the idea of recreating the silk routes for the twenty-first century is where the name of the city came from.

Can you give me an idea of the scale of the City of Silk?

There are four city centres in the City of Silk. The first one is called the City of Commerce, and it's basically creating the equivalent of London's Canary Wharf for Kuwait.

The second one is called the City of Leisure. It sits on the banks of the River Delta, 16 miles from Iraq, and it uses the river water to develop a whole load of resorts and sandy beaches on the river.

It also includes an athletics and entertainment centre, and connects to a separate district which is a media city centre. Kuwait produces most of the Arabic soap operas, so it builds on that industry.

The third is called Ecology City, and it is an amazing place because we took 60km² out of the centre of the City of Silk and turned it into a wildlife refuge.

Ecology City also includes a desert reclamation centre, a wetlands ecology centre, and a fantastic collection of research universities that deal with botanical and zoological sciences.

Then the fourth centre is the Diplomatic Cultural Centre, and what it deals with is the higher education, there will be graduate education located there and there will also be a centre for archaeology.

There will be diplomatic missions, cultural centres, the major opera house and the performing arts centre.

Tell me about the centrepiece of the City of Silk, the Burj Mubarak al-Kabir.

The prime minister and the chairman of Tamdeen Corporation came to me and said ‘we want the tallest building in the world', and I said, 'No you don't. What you want is a building that will be among the tallest'.

It's going to be 1001m for the 1001 Arabian Nights. So again the architecture ties itself in to the folk literature of the entire civilization. I told them, 'we don't have to be the tallest, but we have to be one of the best'.

The towers are actually seven villages stacked on top of one another. Seven 30-storey buildings on top of each other and between each of these 30-storey buildings are four levels of gardens, recreation facilities, shops, healthcare facilities, education facilities, police, fire and maintenance facilities.

So they become the town squares and the high streets-they're just vertically stacked as opposed to being horizontal.

How will you combat building sway at that height?

In terms of its design, it's a three-bladed propeller. It works like a tripod, so no matter which way the wind is blowing, two of the three blades brace it.

You have to deal with not only the straight-on force of wind, but also the turbulent wind that curls around corners of the tower, just like turbulence is a problem on wings.

We talked about this with the engineers and we decided to install vertical wing aerilons, so as the turbulence increases they're counter-balanced to adjust themselves to provide smooth flow of air around the tower, and that is a major innovation.

How important are 'green' solutions in architecture today?

You cannot build today without being conscientious about the environment. It's essential. It's just like remembering to close your car door when you're backing out of a driveway. Why wouldn't you make your building the most sustainable possible? Ecological sense is good business sense.

The sad part about this current obsession with green cities and sustainability is that it's all focused on energy and material, and it's not focused on the temperaments and quality of life of the citizens, which is often directly related.

How does architecture in Dubai differ from that in the West?

The family is the [main focus] in the Middle East; everything needs to be designed around the family. And it's unusual because in America and the UK it's not like that; it's a different world.

Dubai in particular has, for years, been mostly focused on tourist resorts for businessmen and women, or expats, while the amenities for residents in Dubai are slim. The biggest thing we run into in every developing nation is that they're not used to putting aside public space for civic pageantry.

As you're seeing in Dubai, the buildings might have some curiosity as silhouettes on the skyline, but the space between the buildings is just terrifying. And the spaces between the buildings are as important, some times more important, than the buildings themselves.

How much do you try to infuse your projects with local flavour?

We are definitely against the minimalist aesthetic. We think that sterility is a tired and cheap way out. We believe you should tap into everything from arts and crafts, folk songs, ceremonial robes from festivals, architectural building types, ornamental patterns that are used in everything from fabrics to tiles.

Every culture, every civilization, has a fingerprint of those things that are unique to it and we know that if we can take things on, reinterpret them with contemporary building systems and contemporary materials, we can refresh the genius of that place in the world.

We should be aiming to teach the rest of the world about that genius, as opposed to importing in North American or European predictable solutions, which to me is nothing short of cultural imperialism.

How do you 'refresh the genius of the past'?

The Middle East has an exceptionally complex set of ornaments, based on Arabian traditions, and they change drastically between countries. From Kazakhstan to Kuwait to Bahrain to Dubai, they have very different ideas.

We're often brought in to introduce [indigenous] spirit in a very creative way. We try to give people something that they can identify with; something that touches their soul, but also teaches the visitors that come about the quality of that particular place.

Modernism is just starting to realise that it strips the story-telling quality of architecture, and in doing so creates cities that are boring and sterile and austere and antiseptic.

We need to restore the richness of cities and their capacity to tell great stories through the civic artworks.

The richness of telling great stories [with architecture] was going on for centuries up until about 150 years ago, and then it all stopped. Buildings became stripped of their content in terms of stories, and cities and architecture lost its capacity to tell great epic stories.

It was an era that was forsaken for a machine aesthetic that never worked and never will work.

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