Kuwait Pavilion, 14th
International Architecture
Exhibition of la Biennale
di Venezia, June 07 –
November 23, 2014

by cheyanne turions 

Fall 2014

Working against universalizing impulses, the Kuwait pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia reinterpreted the biennale’s theme of Absorbing Modernity as Acquiring Modernity. The Biennale’s curator, Rem Koolhaas, bracketed modernity’s period of absorption from 1914 to 2014. Kuwait’s project, under the creative direction of artist Alia Farid, circumscribed modernity’s frame of acquisition differently, beginning in 1961 when the British protectorate ended and the state of Kuwait became properly independent. In Line with the nation-building exercises of modernity, the state commissioned a national museum, which should have signaled the democratization of culture as it exited the guarded access of universities and private collections into the public access of museums and galleries. (1) Instead, since its seriously delayed completion in 1983, more than 20 years after its design by French architect Michel Ecochard, the museum has sat mostly devoid of visitors. (2) If the museum speaks, it speaks to few, not at all the grand narrativizing provocation once hoped for.

In its rented space at the Arsenale (unlike the permanent pavilions of the Giardini, the biennale’s other main venue, which are mostly owned by the represented countries), Kuwait’s pavilion conjured its national museum as an image of itself. Image is not object, at least not as far as architecture is concerned, and so the five buildings of the museum’s built environment became line drawings distributed amongst the pavilion’s walls. In Kuwait City, the museum has always only been an image, a symbol of progress manifesting the state’s desire for national identification and international recognition, not a place tied to the life of Kuwait’s citizens. In the pavilion, the desire for “ownership and feelings of responsibility over Kuwait’s built environment” can be read in the expanse from dimensions to three, where the line drawing rupture and structural elements of the museum are repeated, not to scale and not with concerns for fidelity, but rather a stage.(3) At the starting point of the pavilion, the opening of the museum was re-performed. And the few architectural objects in the space –reproductions of columns from the museum’s central garden, and a replica of the museum’s planetarium shrunken to the size of a small office– will be used as a set for a film by Farid and Oscar Boyson, returning the project to Kuwait as something richer than documentation. The pavilion proposes palimpsest as rehabilitation, inviting visitors to imagine what an animation of those places, when expanded into space, could be.

In this rewriting though, deliberate concern for “the repercussions of commissioning architectural works towards the formation of the state” is taken.(4) If the museum were to be invigorated, then it would be in relationship to the lifeblood of the country’s citizens and not the fantasies of the state. At the centre of the pavilion’s project is a publication designed by American artist duo Dexter Sinister. The chapbook uses the five buildings of the museum (entitled Administration and Cultural Section, Land of Kuwait, Man of Kuwait, Kuwait of Today and Tomorrow and Planetarium) as a means of organizing a series of essays that reflect on the history of modern architecture in Kuwait, offering careful critique of the many grand projects that have reconfigured and now define the country. Architect and Deputy Commissioner of the project Zahra Ali Baba suggests that “the wider social effects of spatial and political decisions that are adopted on the institutional level, yet reformed by civic participation and urban cultures”(5) can serve to reorient the walue of place-making to Kuwaiti people, rather than Kuwait’s historical displacement to foreign architects who, as Dana Aljouder claims elsewhere in the publication, have used the country “as an asylum… to resurrect their architectural fantasies”.(6) Even the state’s water supply system was designed by foreigners, in this case Swedish engineering company VBB, dramatically shifting Kuwait’s relationship to water from one of scarcity to one of plenty, recasting the desert as comfortably habitable if not lush. Here, design did generate new, profound relationships between people and land, between citizens and place. In reference to this history, as the final element of Kuwait’s Venice project, Farid and the Kuwait team partnered with the Nordic pavilion to install a water fountain in the Giardini, providing drinking water for visitors from a structure in the shape and palate of the Kuwait Water Towers. The water towers, which have become monuments of modernity in Kuwait, are returned to the Swedish by way of their participation in the Nordic pavilion, impacting the nationalized articulation of both countries in turn. 

Joint installation between Kuwait and Nordic Pavilions, set in front of the Nordic Pavilioin (Giardini) at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, 2014, Venice. Image courtesy of Alia Farid.

Yet, if design is to publication what architecture is to the built environment, then the move so often discussed in the essays–of bringing in plans and structures from abroad–is replicated in the publication and website design by Dexter Sinister (and in the directorial collaboration for the film–Farid is Kuwaiti but Boyson is American). Cynically, the Kuwait pavilion re-performs a central critique offered in the publication through the publication itself. Generously, this re-performance of the state of monumental architecture in Kuwait points to a reclamation of the gesture, suggesting ways of co-existiance authored through dialogue. Probably though, the decision was practical, contemporary and deeply reflective of the art and architecture worlds. In situating Kuwaiti architecture and theory within modernity, these are simultaneously placed within an art-historical narrative that is dominated by Western Ideals, preferences and language.(7) By collaborating with American artists, the Kuwait pavilion translates its ideas into forms recognizable throughout the art world to its very particular audiences. Against modernity as a historical concept, and instead properly of this moment, voices converge, shape is given, things are made.

In a strange way, Kuwait’s rebuff of the frame of the biennale becomes their embrace of new terms of globalization so that Farid’s claim that “any attempt to establish order without the involvement of the communities being served can only ever succeed as folly” banks on cross-disciplinary influence and cultural translation as antidote.(8) Place is made differently now that it was in the ‘60s when Kuwait’s landscape and built environment began to transform, before the heyday of globalization, before the connective tissue of the Internet. The cross-cultural gesture resonates differently today, this time as a repatriation and self-identification. It remains to be seen if the recuperative optimism toward the Kuwait National Museum embedded in the pavilion’s project will be given an opportunity to take hold within the museum itself. 

View of the Kuwait Pavilion installation at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, 2014, Venice. Image courtesy of Alia Farid.

cheyanne turrions is a writer and curator originally from the farmlands of Treaty 8, currently based on the land of the Mississauges of the New Credit.


(1) This desire for a democratization of access was articulated by the museum’s architect Michel Ecochard in an essay reflecting on the museum’s design just before its opening: Ecochard, Michel. “The National Museum of Kuwait.” In places of Public Gathering in Islam, edited by Linda Safran. Philadelphia: Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1980. Available for download here:
(2) In her curator’s statement, Alia Farid describes the museum as “locally stigmatized and perceived as faulty… the Kuwait National Museum remains largely vacant and untended.” Farid, Alia “Curator’s Statement: Acquiring Modernity, Acquiring Meaning.” Acquiring Modernity (2014), 5.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ali Baba, Zahra. “Commissioner’s Statement.” Acquiring Modernity (2014), 10.
(6) Aljouder, Dana. “Monologues with Bureaucracy.” Acquiring Modernity (2014), 10.
(7) Throughout the biennale, the English language predominated. All wall texts I encountered were either solely in English or in English translation. For the Kuwait Pavilion, their press release, the plaque on the water fountain at the Nordic Pavilion, all information on the website and the publication were produced in English, and then translated into Arabic. None of these materials are available in Italian, the bureaucratic language of Venice.
(8) Farid, op. cit.