WRITER: Irene McConnell PHOTOGRAPHER: Nelson Garrido
With a complete overhaul by the Portuguese architect, Ricardo Camacho, and Stroop landscape designers, the office of the Emir of Kuwait has impressively revived a large portion of the country’s Green Belt, turning it into the largest urban park in the country and a striking tribute to their martyrs.
Architects may be used to having to constantly balance between the demands of their clients and their own creative vision but it’s rare that they must contend with as many challenges as Ricardo Camacho and his team did while redesigning a park in Kuwait. Yet the Portuguese architect was able to transform the obstacles into advantages with grace and seeming ease.
Covering close to 20 hectares, Al Shaheed Park has taken over a large swathe of what was formerly known as the Green Belt, an interstitial group of public gardens planned in the early 1960s that was never truly put into effect. The original idea was to divide the old part of Kuwait City and the newer residential neighbourhoods with a space of verdant greenery that would help reduce pollution and form a protective barrier against sandstorms, but the plot sadly fell into a state of neglect.
Things got moving again when in late 2012, the Amiri Diwan of Kuwait laid claim to the area, initially with the aim of establishing a monument for the country’s Golden Jubilee before then expanding the plan to create an immense national commemorative park that could honour the fallen victims of the Iraqi invasion. Now, after an ambitious 117 million USD renovation that saw the Portuguese architect Ricardo Camacho create new infrastructure, including two museums, an underground car park, a visitor’s centre, a manmade lake and an aviary, it has been opened to the public once again.
“What is very interesting is that this park really offers an alternative to the mall culture,” says Camacho, reflecting on the project, which opened in April. “Throughout the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s, the malls were primary places of gathering and entertainment, and I think that since the park has opened it has proven to be a very powerful competitor. The garden is always full of people and there’s an amazing team of young nationals running cultural activities here. It’s a very rewarding result for us, as designers that the garden has really become the place to be in Kuwait.”
Camacho explains that he was inspired by extraordinarily diverse stimuli, from the architecture of his native Portugal, to Kuwait’s date palm forests and even pre-existing local architecture that included a series of ingeniously designed multi-storey car parks with double facades. But the beauty of his design lies in his evident ability to balance bold, clean lines and dramatic structures with a flawless sensitivity for maintaining the greenery of the surroundings, which was of course of the utmost importance.
“I come from a school of architects that believes that buildings are the result of their context,” he says. “The fact was that we were building in a garden, and of course what people want to see in a garden is greenery, not buildings.”
Still, Camacho’s architectural plan required juggling numerous practical and aesthetic considerations. The first and foremost, was on an overarching, conceptual level. “We had to understand the role of this green belt as an ecological corridor. Kuwait is a wedge of sorts, going into the sea, and the belt connects west to east, enabling wind flow and forming a migration corridor for around 130 species of birds,” he explains. “On the other hand, there are the more environmental concerns, in terms of public health and mental health. The fact that the space is between two highways was a big challenge. How can you create a green space that provides a sense of comfort for those who are walking about?”
Naturally, Camacho wanted to preserve as many of the original trees as possible but he would soon discover that hidden deep within the soil was a labyrinth of sewage, power and water lines, leaving limited space to dig structural foundations. “In addition, the urban masterplan of Kuwait doesn’t allow the construction of buildings in the green belt,” he adds, “so the Municipal Council defined a very strict condition, which was that we could build on the land only if the buildings were not higher than eight metres, and were covered by or hidden in the landscape.”
Working on such a tightrope might sound stifling but Camacho and his team rose to the challenge with aplomb. By creating a series of geometrical dunes, they were able to mould the landscape so that the submerged buildings blended effortlessly with the surroundings using the topography of the land. Moreover, these buildings are hidden below 35,000 square metres of green cover, using mostly indigenous plants.
The two major reference points in Al Shaheed are the museums. At the northern end of the park is the Habitat museum, which consists of a long sand dune, planted with desert shrubbery, which segues into a garden path leading to exhibition galleries, a library, laboratory, offices, a cafeteria, a bookshop, a children’s learning centre and a bird aviary. “This museum basically frames the relationship between man and nature in its present condition,” says Camacho. Then on the opposite side, you have the Remembrance museum [Al Thekra], a low-slung structure consisting of a floating roof atop a series of pilotis (inspired by the trunks and leafy canopy of a date palm forest), which continue beyond the building in the form of trunks of a new palm grove, guiding visitors through an underpass built during the war years, which in turn leads to the city’s old gate. “Al Thekra,” Camacho continues, “is a journey through the wars that shaped present-day Kuwait.”
An open-air amphitheatre has proved almost as popular as a jogging track that attracts crowds each morning and evening. An underground car park is hidden beneath the vast expanse of land, while the park’s old fountain and small amphitheatre have been replaced by a 12,000 cubic metre lake, which serves as a source of irrigation for the entire garden, giving it complete water autonomy.
The team also ensured the vegetation remained diverse, in spite of Kuwait’s harsh climate by exploiting the garden’s natural features. “Areas that are more exposed to salinity and winds coming from the sea, in the north, have more density in terms of native plants,” Camacho says. “In the south, the park is up to six metres lower than the average height of the terrain, so you have more humidity. This is where we have the lusher, greener vegetation. We also designed a whole acoustic study to determine how these hills could help us to protect the interior of the garden from the noise of the road.”
Camacho’s team worked on the concept for the second phase of the transformation of the Green Belt, which is is set to begin in January 2016 on an area abutting Al Shaheed Park and will be dedicated to leisure activities, including a skate park, an extension of the jogging track, a climbing wall and tree-top obstacle course. The team is also currently bidding on the third phase, which seeks to integrate an existing ice rink and children’s entertainment centre into the re-design project.
During his time in Kuwait, Camacho has also co-authored a book about modernist buildings in Kuwait from 1946 to 1986, set to be released in March 2016. “The biggest influence when it comes to our background and where we come from is to respect what is around us,” he says, “and for the architecture to be as humble as possible.” Humble it might be, but Camacho’s vision for Al Shaheed Park proves that success and ostentation don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
WHAT Al Shaheed Park
ARCHITECT Ricardo Camacho
WHY Camacho has done wonders to rejuvenate this 50-year-old park, giving it purpose with an architectural vision that beautifully merges with the landscape in a way that is both bold and sensitive to nature.