Kuwait: The City of Silk

30 March 2008
In 2002, when Dubai-based developer Nakheel announced the Palm Jumeirah project, not only did it launch a major development, but it also raised awareness of the emirate at an international level.

The same could be said for Kuwait's $58bn City of Silk project, which similarly clarifies the state's international aspirations.

Designed by London-based Eric R Kuhne & Associates, the development will cover a 250-square-kilometre area to the north of Kuwait Bay on the Subiya peninsula. Called Madinat al-Hareer in Arabic, the project was originally launched in 2005. However, it only received approval by the Kuwait Council of Ministers in November 2007. It is expected to have a population of 700,000 once it is completed in 2030.

According to Eric Kuhne, the company's managing director, six locations were considered for the scheme, but its present site, on Bubiyan island, was chosen to act as a stimulus for economic activity in Iraq as much as Kuwait, and restore stability to the region by cultivating business.

City of Silk will comprise four themed cities: commerce, leisure, culture and ecological. “Our goal in the first five years is to construct the employment centre, roads, pipelines and transport links, and an airport for the commercial and leisure cities,” says Kuhne. “Commercial City is essential because there is simply no more room for businesses to move into Kuwait City.”

In MEED's recent analysis of real estate prices, Kuwait City had by far the most expensive land costs in the region, at up to $60,000 a square metre, illustrating why a new commercial area will be widely welcomed. The most significant step for now, says Kuhne, is the establishment of a wholly owned government corporation to manage the project. This development is paramount as it will establish a governing and administrative framework that will develop and manage the project.

The aspect of the project that has captured the most attention is the 1,001-metre Burj Mubarak al-Kabir tower located at the centre of Commercial City. The 234-floor tower will be connected, via a podium, with 27 other buildings in a nine-pointed star arrangement. “It is not a myth, it is a real piece of architecture,” says Kuhne.

Because of its height, the structure will expand and contract with the seasons by up to an entire floor, about 4.5 metres.

Kuhne & Associates was responsible for the design of the tower and the UK's Atkins worked on the structural engineering, which features three blade-shaped towers of different heights.

Aside from the tower, there are other unique aspects to this project. Notably, the masterplan moves away from Western city models with grids and straight roads. “There are no cities being planned in the Middle East today that acknowledge what Middle Eastern culture has offered the world over the past 2,000 years,” says Kuhne. “Twentieth century-designed cities were for individuals, not families or social groups. If you want to build a city for the 21st century, build it for the family model.”

Estimating the average distance people are willing to walk is 250 metres, the design for City of Silk ensures this distance is adhered to for primary services, reducing the emphasis on the car.

“Research has shown that if you move primary services closer to home, crime goes down, health problems are reduced and overall the society is happier,” says Kuhne. “A city plan that serves the family structure is essential.”

Because of the protracted nature of the project - with more than two years between launch and approval - doubts were inevitably raised over its viability. Kuhne, however, is certain that the project will go ahead. “It has to happen,” he says. “They have been planning the City of Silk for decades, but they did not have the vision to sustain it. That is where we come in.”

Kuhne accepts that ambition has been blunted by bureaucracy in the past. “There is massive economic growth taking place, but there are some leaders getting in the way of this growth and choking societies,” he says. “It is fair to say the scale is so daunting that it raises doubts. But the thing that the Middle East has taught the world is to sweep doubts aside.”

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