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Design focus: Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre

A recently completed cultural complex by SSH reimagines a traditional Kuwaiti neighbourhood

Site Visits, And the Fine Arts Centre, Design focus, Kuwait, Museum of Islamic History, National History Museum, Science Museum, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre, Space Museum, SSH

The SSH-designed Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre is the latest addition to a new cultural district that is taking shape in Kuwait’s capital city, and stands alongside the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, which was also designed by SSH.

Evoking a traditional urban environment common to the Middle East, the architectural identity of the complex is driven by a central ‘street’ that forms the spine of the project. Serving multiple functions, this street creates a point of orientation, transporting visitors from the city entrance to the south of the site towards the sea in the north-east. Where a series of blocks are formed on either side of the street, it also offers a space for events.

“Each block creates a unique environment, specific to its distinct functions, and the use of streets and squares breaks down the enclosure and provides physical and visual links between the [different functions]. The positions of the blocks help activate the street on both sides, with the end blocks forming gateways,” says design director at SSH, Simon Dennison.

The central spine of the development also acts as the point of connection between the six main museum buildings, which are open at ground level and linked by bridges on the upper levels. These include the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Museum of Islamic History, Space Museum, and the Fine Arts Centre.

The complex also includes an external sunken courtyard that houses a 300-seat theatre, a café, and a multifunctional reception area. An additional café and information centre stand outside the main museum halls, while enclosed linear travellators connect to the car park in the basement level.

The buildings, and the circulation between them, are shaded and partially climatically controlled by an inverted, 200m-long solar shade canopy, with cantilevers measuring 30m. It consists of a sequence of 2,000 glass-reinforced plastic shingles, each integrated with LED lighting. The orientation of the shingles creates a downdraft to lower the ambient temperature by about 10°C, allowing visitors to comfortably explore the museum during daylight hours.

The shingles range from 3m2 to 9m2 and each comprises a single piece of fibre-glass, which reflects ambient temperature and, at night, creates light effects to celebrate national holidays and events.

Each of the main exhibition buildings is similar in structure and architectural treatment but varies in height and length according to its function, ranging from single-storey areas to double- and triple-height spaces. “Each building consists of a concrete central circulation and service core that serves fixed functions and provides ingress into the wide-span museum halls to each side, clad in stone with structural, glazed end elevations. The cores for each building are the same and include vertical transportation; toilets; offices; and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing requirements,” Dennison says.

The main exhibition spaces are clad in a travertine marble called Skyline, which was  sourced from a quarry in Turkey. The linear wings of the museum spaces are clad using a mosaic of glass with varying levels of opacity.

“Traditional Kuwaiti architecture […] is typically enveloped by a plain façade masking the inner sanctum of the building, which can only be discovered beyond the threshold of the door. Our proposal realises the importance – and keeps intact – the fundamentals of Arabic buildings, which serve the practical purpose of climatic control and the essential need for privacy, while reinterpreting them in a contemporary layout that encourages openness and permeability, particularly when addressing the main street and other public spaces,” Dennison explains.

He adds that creating “simple and well-executed” forms allow the internal exhibition spaces to remain flexible through the use of clear-glazed, recessed shop fronts that offer views deep into the museums from the landscaped areas of the complex, as well as from the development’s central street. The project also encourages visitors to explore through the creation of various pockets and landscaped areas, which are designed for socialising.

“The influence of Islamic architecture is very much ingrained into the design of the complex,” Dennison says.

“Islamic geometric patterns have been merged with a contemporary aesthetic to produce a design that [combines] the traditional with the futuristic.”

He concludes: “The concept of the central street also imparts a sense of cultural heritage, but the complex’s design reimagines and presents that heritage using 21st-century materials. Traditional architecture diverts the breeze and creates shade to cool the spaces below, while modern technology enabled the creation of the cultural centre’s canopy to do the same.”

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