The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:49] To value a sacred space

United States

As I walk, I hear voices and noises, the ongoing engines of cars, the conversations; so I stop. I attempt to escape. I start running when a thought crosses my mind. “Still waters run deep” a friend told me once. I run to a sacred place, a place where my soul is no longer estranged, where I can be whole, and on this pier, surrounded by the still waters of the Gulf, I am always whole.

I was seeking a sanctuary, craving for inspiration. Little did I know that as the contingencies of life change and continue to evolve, our sacred places remain the same; they are powerful and magnificent while we are weak and lowly. Not only does it seem natural but imperative that with the organic growth of our holistic being we shift our perception, we evolve with our values. To value a sacred space is to comprehend its majesty, appreciate its beauty, and feel in peace within it. Valuing the sacred also requires growth of perception. We ought to give a space the power to have meaning, to validate its symbolism, and to appreciate its sense of serenity.

If sanctity is a state of being, then sacred spaces can be transformed from instances of mere disconnect and refuge in times of distress, to spaces where spiritual tranquility becomes empowering, and moments of meditation become inspiring. Traditionally, there has been a separation between the spiritual and the physical, but what if the gap could be bridged and the two realities molded into one? Thus the holiness attained from spiritual acts or rituals could be transformed into the physicality of life and aid in its improvement. Whether a particular space is manifested in nature, or facilitated by man, the divine is in the power it carries, the story it tells, and the empowerment and action it inspires. In this essay I will reflect on a space that narrates the tales of a once thriving marine nation, two decades of war, and still survives to stand today as a source of inspiration.

The pier I stand on today is a bridge between two realities. It stretches onto the waters of the Persian Gulf, waters that were once sacred to its people. Growing up in Kuwait, these waters have always been a haven. They were the source of livelihood, well-being, comfort and relief for the Kuwaiti people. The pier I stand on today also brings me back to the reality of the city, its skyline, its sounds and chaos. Originally built in 1998, the pier was designed for a walk above the waters of the Gulf. People would come for a moment of solidarity, for a fresh breath of air looking onto the infinite Gulf (Illustration 1).

It was a unique bond that the Kuwaiti people developed with the sea. For years, the Gulf brought life to Kuwait, serving as the main artery of the economy through fishing, pearl diving, seafaring trade and the making of dhows, traditional Arab sailing vessels. Kuwait’s strategic location near the Arabian Peninsula enabled it to cultivate a peculiar relationship with the sea, decades before modern Kuwait was established. By 1860, Kuwait’s merchant fleet had become the largest in the Gulf. In 1863, the British explorer William Palgrave described Kuwait as “the most active port on the Persian Gulf.” Kuwait was the heart of a network of established routes over both desert and sea. By the early 20th century, the country had become a commercial and maritime nation—a remarkable achievement, considering its lack of natural resources except for the skills and perseverance of its people. The series of harbors and docks that the locals built by hand along the waterfront was a distinguished feature of Kuwait’s water edge. Captain Alan Villier, on a trip to Kuwait in 1939, called it “one of the most interesting water fronts in the world—more than two miles of it.” The small harbors provided shelters for the sailing ships and protected them after a long journey in the sea. People’s houses were clustered close to the shore to catch the fresh sea-breeze and facilitate access to the ships. Along the water front, behind some breakwaters, were long lines of big and small sailing ships jostling one another and waiting for the merchants, sailors, fishermen and divers to step on board. These sailing ships were a way of life, and with the call of the big lateen sail to be hoisted, and the flag of Kuwait to be raised, they took their hopes and dreams and sailed along in the sea. It was a vigorous and united community that was created, and the Gulf had the largest influence on its relationships and configurations.

Scholar William Palgrave during his travels through the Middle East in 1862- 63 stated that “among the seamen who ply the Persian Gulf, the mariners of Koweyt (Kuwait) hold the first rank in daring, in skill and in solid trustworthiness of character.” Not only were the influences of maritime activities an economical one, but they also structured the social and cultural lives of the Kuwaiti people. The music of Al-Nahma (the Songs of the Sea) is the bedrock of modern Kuwaiti music as it was very popular during the pearl diving and trading seasons. At Al-Ghaws Al-Khabir (The Big Dive), the nakhoda (ship’s captain) would assign a nahham (singer) to accompany the sailors and divers, in their journey in the sea. The Songs of the Sea were used to raise the group's morale, uplift their spirit and lighten their weariness. The songs were also utilized at times of rest, for entertainment and enjoyment. Likewise, the music was not forgotten in celebrations, especially at the close of the diving season. In the last moments of a voyage of hardship and tire, a canon was fired announcing the final act of a homeward race, and the ships would race towards the shore to get home. Although this return was a joyful occasion for many of the families, it was the time of grief for others, as they would receive news of the death of a loved one. This sail after all had not been an easy one.

It is intriguing how our ancestors endured the harshness and rigorousness of the sea, but at the same time found joy, refuge, and sustenance within it. It was all a part of one voyage, one whole. Along this voyage was a nine month trade journey to the different parts of India, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The short and long distance dhow trading season started shortly after the diving season, and when the nakhoda would give his orders and the crew was on board, the fully loaded sailing ships would head to the port of Matrah where they separated, and each dhow continued its voyage to its specific destination. The trade included horses, gold, wool, and wood in addition to dates, wheat, rice, coffee and sugar. The strong trade relationships that the seafarers formed facilitated the sale of Kuwaiti pearls and the founding of pearl markets abroad. Even though the pearling industry was the cornerstone of the economic activity in early Kuwait, the pearl market collapsed in the 1930’s. This severe decline in the economy was only recovered by the discovery of oil in 1936 and the major transformations it brought along. Although the trade industry survived the collapse of the pearl market, it gradually declined, and in the late 1950’s it was no longer able to compete with the prospects of the oil industry.

The vast employment opportunities the oil industry brought about were alluring and the promise of a settled and well-paid government job was more appealing than the risks and hardships of the sea. Life changed in Kuwait in 1946 when the silver wheels of oil pumps turned for the first time, announcing the first export of Kuwait’s crude oil. By 1959, large modern vessels were discharging cargo in some of Kuwait’s main ports. Gradually, the ships and traditional homes of the waterfront were replaced with large ocean liners and tall buildings. Despite the transformation and prosperity the oil industry brought, maritime activity began to decline. Eventually, that led to the demise of traditions, customs, and the music that was closely related to the Gulf and its activities. The once sacred bond with the sea was shaken. Years later, this kinship was further tested as the Gulf endured agony in January of 1991, when it was the home of the largest oil-spill mankind has ever known.

I woke up frightened by the sound of missiles on August 2nd, 1990. Even though the war was mostly a land battle, the waters of the Gulf would carry one of the deepest pains and secrets of the invasion. In the brutal seven months of war over 700 oil wells were set on fire. The peak of the tragedy occurred right before liberation, in January 23, 1991, when oil pipes were deliberately opened and 5.7 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the waters of the Gulf in the following 4 days. What had once brought prosperity to the country was the cause of agony for its most precious waters. The recovery period took about eight months following the war. A study done by UNESCO in 1993 found that the vast amount of oil in the Gulf did little long-term damage. Even though the waters were healing, the story of war in this region was far from over. In the coming years, the waters of this Gulf would face a different kind of a disaster.

Twelve years after liberation, the tragedy of war continued with the occupation of Iraq, and the pier I stand on today was a victim. A missile struck the pier at 1:38 a.m on March 28th 2003, and the Gulf absorbed 70 percent of the shock. As a result, no severe damage was done, but although the pier is rebuilt and the waters seem untouched, the space still carries the wounds, and the stories of those who died in the battle for freedom. This space tells an epic story about two decades of war that influenced this whole region. Today, as I am walking on these cracked wooden boards, holding onto the mild-green chipped hand rails, passing by the illumined lamp posts and escaping to the waters of the Gulf, I am in peace (Illustration 2). Standing at the end of the pier and looking back, I do not only see buildings and a skyline, I see a future (Illustration 3).This distinctive place however, is tainted by its close adjacency and connection to a commercial center. I believe its special nature is not fully comprehended nor appreciated because of this contiguity. An architectural intervention that would maintain and enhance its sense of serenity would be essential in preserving the sanctity of this place. This space requires a method of implementation that would formulate it as a long standing memorial to the devastations of war.

I propose to transform the commercial development into an exhibition memorial to all the wars our region has endured, and for the hope for peace. The memorial would feature stories of some of those have lost their lives to the tragedies of war and those who have suffered from it. It would present the consequences of war on the environment of the Gulf and how this has impacted the social and economic aspects of the local community life in Kuwait. It would also stimulate a conversation about the future preservation of the Gulf and the sacred places in this region. Moreover, I propose the launching of an international competition open to all young architects and architecture students to design a structure that restores the sanctity of this space and recognizes its divine qualities. The competition would be held under the auspices of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Public Works. The structure would be located at the far end of the pier, fronting the waters of the Gulf to reflect the spirit of the memorial exhibition. The challenge is to cultivate a strong concept that honors the sacredness of the place and connects us to the primal elements of water, sky and earth. This newly built structure, simple and light in its formation and constitution would be a symbol of peace and hope. I also recommend the preservation of the central axis running from the pier to the marina located on the other side of the exhibition. The preservation of that axis would provide a strong connection to the heart of the city along the main Gulf Road of Kuwait with a visual and physical connection to the area beyond the exhibition, constituting a more fluid path for pedestrians.

This proposal is meant as a representation of present-day Kuwait. The launching of a large-scale architectural competition brings voice to an issue that has not as yet been fully understood but that demands investigation. There is a need for an architectural intervention that embodies the sense of infinite possibilities that the peaceful waters of the Gulf carry. The hope rests in the future generation to find the sacred in communities and treat them with the respect and sensitivity they deserve. How to value a sacred space, preserve it and maintain it as a source of inspiration? It is not an easy question, but surely one that is worth pondering for an answer. This pier might not be historically acclaimed or distinguished, but it represents a significant part of who we are as a nation. It is a symbolic structure that bridges between the tranquility of water and the life of a hopeful post-war city (Illustration 4).The pier’s strong presence within the waters of the Gulf assures us that the story of service and survival demonstrated formerly by our prosperous maritime industry, and subsequently by the perils of war, will not be forgotten. The intention of this proposal is to bring a vision of peace, and to present tales of wars that might have been previously told, but have rarely been attested, experienced or valued.

To evolve with our values, we need to rise to action. The hope is for us not only to listen to these stories but be inspired by them. It is for them to empower us to act towards positive change. Society as it stands today, embraces and demands active and tangible initiatives. Thus, community participation is essential for the implementation of productive and generative processes in the social, cultural, economic and political aspects of a community life. This requires advancement in our methods of perception and action. Hence to honor the past means to live in the present and act towards the betterment of the future. Sacred spaces can be agents that exhort actions towards such transformations. To offer the space of this pier surrounded by the still waters of the Gulf, as a monument, with insights into its story, history and victory, is not only keeping a voice alive, but hopefully inspiring us to find the sacred within us. It is time for us to act.

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