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Abraj Al-Kuwait

Date of Submission: 12/06/2014
Criteria: (i)(ii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters
State, Province or Region:
Kuwait City
Coordinates: N29 23 24 E48 00 11
Ref.: 5933

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Abraj Al-Kuwait will be nominated as a single monument. It is to be noted that this building is considered to be part of a nation-wide network of infrastructural water supply and reservoirs which consist of 31 more water towers (known as the mushroom towers) that are strategically distributed in groups around the country, and are connected to the distribution grid of the two already built distillation seawater plants.

This ambitious national project was part of the country's large scale modernization process undergoing since the first shipment of oil in 1946, and essential to ensure an effective system of water distribution to a growing population, until then supplied by tank trucks.

A new modern system of fresh water distribution and reservoir was commissioned in 1965 by the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW) to the Swedish architectural and engineering firm VBB (Vattenbyggnadsbyran AB), with Sune Lindstrom as Chief Architect for the whole project.

Due to its prominent location at the north east corner of the metropolitan area, overlooking Kuwait bay and the Arabian Gulf, special attention was given to this group of towers; therefore, the architectural work was awarded to architect Malene Bjorn.

This group of towers was given the name "Kuwait Towers" which translates to Arabic as Abraj AI-Kuwait, and since its opening on February 26th1977, has been regarded as a symbol of national identity.

Abraj Al-Kuwait is located on the waterfront on a small peninsula in the northern part of Kuwait City. Such important location made H.H. the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah request for an exclusive design that could make a difference in the bay’s skyline. In order to achieve the challenge of reconciling the water reservoir function with a pleasant design. Accordingly, VBB asked for the collaboration of the Bjorn & Bjorn Design AB led by the Danish architect Malene Bjorn in 1967.

This group of towers became a composition of three spikes of different heights set out of the points of a triangle inside the circular perimeter of a green landscape base, combining a program to store 9000 cubic metres of water with a component of public facilities.

The tallest of the three towers with the height of 185m (at the time considered to be the highest in the Middle East) situates two spheres designed for public use. The largest sphere divided into two halves, the lower half is a water reservoir of 4500 cubic meters, while the upper half consist of an open-plan restaurant connected to other level by a smooth curved stairway that leads to a banquet hall with an interior garden. The second sphere, known as the viewing sphere, with two interior levels, is mostly covered by aluminium trusses fitted with triangular glass pieces which allow a full view of the city, sea and desert at 120m height with a 360° rotating platform. For the viewing and restaurant spheres, the visitor's access is made at the ground level through the base of the tower, revolving the public around the mound across ramps and stairs with elegant balustrades.

The second tower has only one sphere with an exclusive function of water reservation. The third and smallest tower 100 meters tall in the form of an elegant white needle is purely sculptural and holds a floodlight system that illuminates the other two towers.

Constructed of concrete, in pure white, the final image get closes to a sculptural object ornamented by forty-one thousand enamelled steel disks in shades of blue, green, and grey, cladding the spheres, like the mosaic Islamic patterns. The tip of each tower, covered with stainless steel and acts as a lightning arrestor, also suggest the mosque minarets, as the spheres can be associated with domes. This Islamic symbolism together with the value of fresh water in such an arid country, allowed for a wider acceptance of this monumental structure as a national symbol.

Abraj Al-Kuwait is a unique and remarkable way of transforming pure engineering into pure architecture, between western technology and Islamic culture, contemporary requirements and ancient traditions, into a highly creative building.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Abraj Al-Kuwait represents an outstanding creative contribution to twenty-century architecture, not only for Kuwait and the Middle East, but also for architecture as a whole. Symbol of Kuwait's modernization, Abraj Al-Kuwait celebrates life and change, design creativity and engineering, in its pure form.

The structure reveals the most advanced technologies in construction at the time. The complex task to allocate a big volume of water, at a high level, in an elegant object, in such delicate location, called for the best qualified engineers in order to mainly solve the foundation problems. Therefore, it can be seen as a work that reflects the moment in time when great human intelligence manifested in science and technology.

Despite the scientific rationality in fulfilling the functional needs of a complex water supply and storage system, Abraj Al-Kuwait's shape represents a full understanding of the role of history and locale as inspiration and integration. Here, East meets West, past meets present and brilliant minds gather up to conjure this monumental solidification of human genius, unifying moments of that particular stage of history in an iconic building.

Furthermore, this monument stands as a testimony on the evolution of water related cultural heritage for the nomadic societies and urban settlers of this region who survived the scarcity of water by developing behavioural patterns and spatial tactics to survive through this life threatening situation, and managed the related political tensions that were aroused in the past.

The sculptural unity of its elements in a monumental composition, using the most advance building technology, in strong association with water in a land with such harsh environment, support its symbolic connotations and historical significance, and represents a new approach to the design of a water tank. Therefore, Abraj Al-Kuwait can be considered of outstanding universal value.

Criterion (i): Abraj Al-Kuwait is a monument that embodies the human creative genius represented in the design of the towers and the symbolism indicating an identity of a nation that embraced the modern urban shift.

Criterion (ii): The towers complex exhibit an interchange between Arab-Islamic cultural and visual representations, local infrastructural needs and western technological advancement, this modern architectural monument is an expression of an exciting era when different cultures entered into a dialogue that is tolerant to the multiplicity of human values.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Abraj AI-Kuwait as a monument and water tank retained the original function since the day of inauguration, the property continues to be the main attraction on the coast with the surrounding landscape serving as a public space connecting the seascape with the city itself.

It is anticipated that the designation of the buffer zone will keep the context surrounding the monument and the waterfront development plans in a condition that emphasis and responds coherently to the towers complex, proposing that the zone would include other grade one historical buildings listed as national heritage of Kuwait.

The form, design and materials used in the towers, as well as the interior space retain most of the original condition and very minimal alterations of the interior can still be reversed to achieve a high value of authenticity.

Comparison with other similar properties

Being one of the main water storage supplies in Kuwait, the Kuwait Water Towers group stands prominently as symbol of a crucial, but rare commodity in Kuwait: water.

In the early 1960's, in order to accommodate the increasing demand of water, and the lack of supply and storage available, the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW), was looking to comply this need. The architects stated that, "as a water tower, the Kuwait Towers is part of one of the most necessary and generally useful technical projects of the city". The design and technology behind this iconic structure, therefore, was to do this responsibility justice, and was commissioned to Swedish Firm, VBB (To be revised by you because it doesn't make sense to us). Today, the structure stands as an emblem giving reference (and documentation) to the epoch of the rapid growth and dramatic economic and urban development of Kuwait after the discovery and export of oil. It stands as the embodiment of Western advancement in engineering technologies merged with motifs of Arab and Islamic cultures and heritage. The aforementioned has made the Kuwait Towers group an icon for the country since implementation, to modern day.

Swedish writer, Ulf Hard, refers to Kuwait Towers as "merger of Arab culture and Western technology, a combination of forces that might well be regarded as a prerequisite of achievement for any country in the rapidly changing Near East". And then continues to compare it to other significant landmarks, such as the Lighthouse on Pharos, the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The architects deliberately merged local and global elements, as "the Muslim minaret and the mighty moon missile merge in a single architectural expression". The design attributes make reference to the ideals of humanity and technology (its design symbolizing the "globe" and the "rocket"), while simultaneously suggesting reference to Islamic past through the minaret-quality of the shafts, and the blue mosaic-style enamel plate cladding on the sphere. Moreover, it displays high technological advancements with regards to structure (i.e. its use of concrete in such a high structure span, and glass structure globe), and water storage design, unprecedented at the time. The design was awarded the Aga Khan award for excellence in 1980.

Comparison scope:

Advancements in engineering: Centennial Hall in Wroclaw, Poland

For many years, the largest tower of the Kuwait Towers group, at 185 meters, stood as the tallest structure in the Middle East.

For reasons of city planning, the Kuwait Towers group had to be situated close to the sea. However, in order to overcome the poor condition of the soil, the most advanced technologies were used for design in accordance with the complexity of the foundation and long slender design of the towers. The towers main structure was made of concrete; the tips, however, were covered with stainless steel welded to the steel reinforcement of the concrete shaft down to the ground to act as lightning conductors. Two types of concrete were utilized: reinforced concrete, and prestressed concrete. The upper globe is constructed of triangular pieces of glass held by aluminum space frame members.

The architects state that "the project could not have been successfully completed without advanced engineering and expert technological knowledge." and the group stands, therefore, as a "symbol of technological achievement." (Aga Khan Report).

As with the Kuwait Towers Group, Centennial Hall in Wroclaw, called for innovative measures in building technology, defying complex structural challenges faced with the use of reinforced concrete.

According to a contemporary German critic, the Centennial Hall "has been built like the pyramids: it is larger than required by its function and it serves the sublime idea as a monument to the German nation rather than honors the glory of the bygone times. Thus, like the Gothic cathedral in the Middle Ages, the Centennial Hall is a symbol of the new times." (UNESCO Nomination File)

Innovative construction methods deemed Centennial hall a pioneer in advanced concrete construction. By employing new methods in concrete reinforcement (i.e. ferroconcrete), the architect achieved means of increasing the span, while decreasing weight. Centennial Hall's dome measures 65m in diameter: the largest dome constructed in the world at the time (twice the size of that of the Pantheon, with half the weight).

Centennial Hall reflects advancement in technology, and interchange that influenced the course of modern construction. The choice and combination of material (concrete, metal, and glass) exposed Germany to a new vision, influencing its coming modern architectural works. It serves as a testimony to the "mutual influence of architecture, technology, and society." (UNESCO Nomination File).

Function of Construction: Aflaj Irrigation System, Oman

The water distribution systems of both Al-Aflaj in Oman, and the Kuwait Water Towers Group played an essential role in contributing to the progress of their respective countries. To this day, Aflaj irrigation system acts as a crucial element for water distribution system within the communities they serve in a hot, arid desert climate similar to Kuwait's . Three thousand systems, which still fulfill their function, even after thousands of years, are distributed throughout the communities in Oman.

The water distribution system revolves around a mother well, sometimes as deep as 60m. Then, working with a close understanding of the slopes, delivery channels, up to several kilometers long, are dug, sloping slightly towards the settlement. Watchtowers are also integrated into the design to defend the system.

In addition to its advanced engineering techniques, this system granted Oman the means to become a nation. Oman's population consisted mainly of nomads, who roamed around until locating an available source of water, and settled accordingly. Its exhaustion meant that they had to begin to wander again until they found new sources. This critical advancement in water distribution system allowed for an even and constant, distribution of water in order for Oman's nomadic population to settle permanently in one place, allowing for nationhood.

Similarly, considering that Kuwait is desert, without bodies of fresh water, and only a few wells to supply the need, and river water had to be imported from Iraq to accommodate to increasing demand. After the discovery of oil, and the corresponding plan to modernize Kuwait, supplying a sufficient amount of fresh water was set as one of the highest priorities in the rapidly progressing state. Between 1950 and 1953 two huge seawater distillation plants were built, henceforth the water was distributed to consumers using road tankers. Adjusting, then to the even-more increasing demand, the need for a proper pipeline network for water distribution had to be considered. Therefore the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MEW) looked to create an adequate and integrated storage and supply system throughout the country by creating these towers, in connection to a proper network of distribution pipes.

Iconic nature of the landmark and its creative genius: Sydney Opera House, Australia

The Sydney Opera house is described as a step forward to "nudge the frontiers of science". It is a technological advancement in engineering, and a testimony to creativity and innovation in design from the 20th century. It stands prominently at the harbor as an iconic symbol not only of Sydney as well of the country Australia as a whole.

Due to its location, the Opera House is on display from all four sides, as well as from above (what Utzon referred to as a "fifth facade", as it can be viewed from tall surrounding buildings). The sculpture-like architectural design of the building was so complex that called for new solutions in technologies and materials.

The design gives reference to its setting with its prominent sculptural form on the harbor. It is described as "a great artistic monument and an icon, accessible to society at large." (UNESCO Nomination File)

Likewise, the Kuwait Towers Group plays a deliberately prominent visual role in the skyline of Kuwait. Seeing, also, that plays such a crucial visual and iconic role in Kuwait as a landmark, the Kuwait Towers group stays true to its function in its accessibility to the public.

The architects state that "a water tower must always be a dominating feature in the city area. To place a considerably great volume of water above the highest buildings in the area can easily give an impression of heaviness and unbalance. The Kuwait Tower has a considerably delicate location from this point of view and great efforts have been brought about to counteracting such effects...The Kuwait Tower stands chiefly as a symbol for the state of Kuwait and its fabulous development within a few years from a small town to a modern capital of world-wide fame." (Aga Khan Report)