Case study: SSH’s recently completed cultural complex reimagines a traditional Kuwaiti neighbourhood

The SSH-designed Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre is the latest addition to a new cultural district taking shape in Kuwait’s capital city, and stands alongside the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, which was also designed by SSH.

Evoking a traditional urban environment common to the Middle East, the architectural identity of the complex is driven by a central ‘street’ that forms the spine of the project. Serving multiple functions, the ‘street’ creates a point of orientation, transporting visitors from the city entrance from the south of the site toward the sea in the north-east. It also becomes a space for events, where a series of blocks are formed on either side of the street.

“Each block creates a unique environment, specific for the distinct functions, and [with] the use of streets and squares, breaks down the enclosure and provides physical and visual links between the uses. The positions of the blocks help activate the street on both sides with the end blocks forming gateways,” said Simon Dennison, design director at SSH.

The central spine additionally acts as the point of connection between the six main museum buildings, which are open at ground level and linked by bridges on the upper levels. These include the National History Museum, Science Museum, Museum of Islamic History, Space Museum and the Fine Arts Centre.

The complex also includes an external sunken courtyard that houses a 300-seat theatre, café and multifunctional reception area. An additional café and information centre stands outside the main museum halls, while enclosed linear travellators connect from the landscape to the car park in the basement level.

The buildings and the circulation between them are shaded and partially climatically controlled by an inverted 200m long solar shade canopy, with cantilevers of 30m. It consists of a sequence of 2,000 GRP (glass-reinforced plastic) shingles, each integrated with LED lighting. The orientation of the shingles creates a downdraft to lower the ambient temperature by 10 degrees, allowing visitors to comfortably explore the museum during sunlight hours.

The shingles range from 3m2 to 9m2 and each comprises a single piece of fibre-glass, which reflects ambient temperature, and creates light effects to celebrate national holidays and events during the night-time.

Each of the main exhibition buildings are similar in structure and architectural treatment but vary in height and length according to function, ranging from single-storey areas to double and triple-height spaces.

“Each building consists of a concrete central circulation and service core that serves fixed functions and provides ingress into the wide-span museum halls to each side, clad in stone with structural glazed end elevations. The cores for each building are the same and include vertical transportation, toilets, offices and MEP requirements,” Dennison said.

The main exhibition spaces are clad in travertine marble called Skyline sourced from a quarry in Turkey, while the linear wings of the museum spaces are clad using a mosaic of glass with varied levels of opacity.

“Traditional Kuwaiti architecture…is typically enveloped by a plain façade masking the inner sanctum of the building that can only be discovered beyond the threshold of the door. Our proposal realises the importance and keeps intact the fundamentals of Arabic buildings, which serve the practical purpose of climatic control and essential need for privacy, while reinterpreting them in a contemporary layout that encourages openness and permeability, particularly when addressing the main street and other public spaces,” Dennison explained.

He added that creating “simple and well-executed” forms allow the internal exhibition spaces to remain flexible through the use of clear-glazed, recessed shop fronts that offer views deep into the museums from the landscaped areas of the complex, as well as from the ‘street’ level.

The project encourages visitors to explore through the creation of various pockets and landscaped areas, which are designed for socialising as well as creating a flow of space.

“The influence of Islamic architecture is very much engrained into the design of the complex,” Dennison added.

“Islamic geometric patterns have been merged with a contemporary aesthetic to produce a design that evokes the traditional with the futuristic,” he explained.

“The concept of the central street also imparts a sense of cultural heritage, but the complex’s design reimagines and presents that heritage using 21st century materials. Traditional architecture diverts the breeze and creates shade to cool the spaces below, while modern technology enabled the creation of the cultural centre’s canopy to do the same.”

SSH has also designed world’s biggest paediatric hospital in Kuwait, while its Emaar Creek Horizon development has recently reached podium level. 

The architecture practice has also recently announced that it has opened its office in Saudi Arabia, in line with its expansion plans within the Saudi market.

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