"Between East and West: a Gulf": Inside Kuwait's Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale

As part of ArchDaily's coverage of the 2016 Venice Biennale, we are presenting a series of articles written by the curators of the exhibitions and installations on show.

Commissioned by the Kuwaiti National Council of Culture Arts and Letters (NCCAL), Between East and West: A Gulf (BEWAG) began as series of questions - an exploration of points and territories that asks how the architect can imagine a scale beyond the national. The investigation of the hydrography of the Arabian/Persian Gulf and its islands reveals a realm forgotten between two coasts. Acting now as the liquid boundary between nations, the Gulf and its islands are the territories in which the identities of the coasts were initially formed. Prior to the discovery of oil, its waters were the source of livelihood for the region which was connected through trade, cultural exchange and commerce. The shallow body of water and the low sandbars that form its islands, create a shifting network of isolated and interconnected nodes. The Gulf island was inextricably linked to the movement of people and resources,yet of a scale and possible containment that allowed it to be planned and experimented upon throughout history. This meant that the island was the smallest plannable political and ecological space in the region.

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

As such, the Gulf is not a body of water, but a field site for the experimentation and creation of identity, culture, and ecology since antiquity. Its islands were utilized by their inhabitants, as well as those who viewed them from the coasts for the purposes of tourism, trade, hunting, and resource extraction. Shrines were built, wars were fought, and prisoners were exiled within their shores. Their scale and reliance on the hinterland of Arabia/Persia, or the distant coasts of India and East Africa, meant that these grounds were continually under the entrepreneurial gaze of the surrounding continents. The Gulf and its islands are part of one consistent landscape in which the edge condition and the notion of the limit are in flux. The result is a landscape defined by the ebb and flow of water and people, a conceivable realm whose utility was derived from the ability to imagine a purpose for islands.

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

As the states along the western coast of the Gulf developed in the twentieth century, the historical role of the body of water ceased to exist. Formerly a space of fluid movement and exchange, the Gulf became the dividing space between larger nationstates. The islands that dot this body of water are no longer part of a network, rather, they are isolated properties that serve only as divisive points of contestation, resolved by international arbitration. Yet the imaginary of the island did not end, and the logic of the island became so totalizing that it would go on to influence architectural and urban development within the region. The creation of artificial islands, free trade zones, isolated real estate ventures, or autonomous urban enclosures exhibit the ongoing fascination with the plannable. The island offers autonomy and totality but also a space of separation for reimagining the status quo. This trend continues today with the creation of the Palm and World islands in Dubai, the housing islands in Bahrain, and the new plan for Kuwait’s offshore territories, to name a few. The island in the Gulf has become the only space for imagining a scale beyond to the national, the only space for discourse or experimentation.

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

Tensions between regional countries have led to the investigation and the possibility that the Gulf islands hold an alternative to the current national framework. BEWAG takes these islands as possible points in a larger plan for the region. This year’s Kuwaiti participation at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia documents these islands and their histories, looking to understand the landscape that forms the Gulf, allowing the history of exchange and maritime fluidity to occur. It asks how the Gulf as a political and economic space can be re-planned through its islands, and reimagined as a space of exchange rather than division. The result is a master plan of islands - literally and conceptually.

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

An invitation was sent out and asked different architectural offices in the region to propose an instance within the larger framework of a masterplan. The notion of ‘masterplanning’ these islands, through variant architectural contributions, suggests that a territorial reimagining of a region can occur through the acupunctural structuring of points of contact and exchange. Such a concept runs precisely counter to the top-down planning approach of cities and countries in the Gulf, however such a subversion is necessary where a united effort is an unlikely proposition.

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

The exhibition showcases the islands of a “piecemeal masterplan”. This inhabitable map of a projective archipelago is not consistent, it is not holistic, it is not authored, nor is it a single vision. It leaves individuals and young offices from the region with two questions— what constitutes a masterplan and how can we plan for a new region?

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

The design submissions received range from the entrepreneurial to the ecological providing an insight into what is deemed an urgency that can be addressed by architectural agency. For a divided Gulf, a piecemeal masterplan of its islands offers the conscientious autonomy which is the only hope for political stability. By showcasing an alternate past and future for the region, the Kuwaiti Pavilion looks beyond the status quo of the national as unproductive framework for peace. The political issues associated with that framework are negotiated through an imaginary focused on exchange and connectivity rather than two coasts and the gulf between them. 

"Between East and West: a Gulf" / curated by Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. Image © Giulio Boem

Zahra Ali Baba —
National Council for 
Culture Arts and Letters 
/ Kuwait(NCCAL)

Hamed Bukhamseen, 
Ali Karimi

Art Director / Graphic Designer
Fahad AlHunaif

Publication Coordinator / Editor
Muneerah Alrabe

Project Designers & Research Architects 
Saphiya Abu Almaati, Shahab Albahar, Mai Albusairi, Nada Alqallaf, Rawan Alsaffar, Yousef Awaad Hussein

Financial Team
Mohammed Al Ajmi, Mohammed Al Jameel

Administrative Team
Abdullah Albeeshi (Head of team), Noora Al Musallam, Jaber Al Qallaf, Jassim Al Shamali

With exhibited design contributions from AGi Architects, Behemoth Press with Matteo Mannini Architects, Design Earth, ESAS Architects, Fortune Penniman with Studio Bound, PAD10, and X-Architects. With written contributions by Fahad Bishara, Ahmed Makia, Fatma Sahlawi & Rashid bin Shabib, Rand Abduljabbar & Maitha Mezroui, Nesrin Tabatabai & Babak Afrassiabi, Noor Boushehri, Abdulatif Al-Mishari. 

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Cite: Hamed Bukhamseen & Ali Karimi. ""Between East and West: a Gulf": Inside Kuwait's Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale" 03 Jul 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/788537/between-east-and-west-a-gulf-inside-kuwaits-pavilion-at-the-2016-venice-biennale> ISSN 0719-8884

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