This episode brought together a whole host of things that I love into one staggeringly cool building.
First, the Al Hamra tower is designed by SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), one of the largest and most respected architecture firms in the world. If you gaze up at almost any city skyline, chances are you′re looking at their handiwork. From the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago to Burj Khalifa in Dubai, these guys have been global skyscraper specialists for over 50 years.
A good 50% of my graduating class at Harvard Graduate School of Design now work at SOM, so that was fun for me. I also had the pleasure of collaborating with them two years ago on a show we did about their Trump Tower in Chicago (which I believe is an underrated building). But that′s not what got Build It Bigger interested.
SOM has designed wild glass and steel towers all over the world, and at 1,350 feet the Al Hamra tower will be without a doubt one of the tallest buildings in the world and easily the tallest in Kuwait. But that′s not what got Build It Bigger interested.
Any country with enough concrete and moxy can build a tower tall enough to break a record. Whether it′s held by Dubai or South Korea or the U.S., having "the world′s tallest tower" might sell some postcards for a few years (until a taller one is built), but it doesn′t mean you′ve made a piece of architecture that can stand the test of time.
This tower in Kuwait, on the other hand, is a genuine innovation in skyscraper design. That′s what got Build It Bigger interested. All too often we see towers that could just as easily have been built anywhere in the world; you could take a tower from Hong Kong and put it in Toronto and no one would notice. The building has no organic connection with the city whatsoever. But the Al Hamra tower in Kuwait doesn′t just belong in the Middle East in some superficial or stylistic way; its very form grew from it.
When I first saw the drawings for the tower I was taken by just how radically different it looked from one side to the next. If you see it from the north it looks like a sleek, taut glass tower, not unlike many SOM have done in the past. But things begin to change a lot as you move around the building. When I saw how they treated the south side of the building I was downright shocked. The entire south faÇade is made of solid concrete and has a pair of oblique, torqued, cantilevered, flared walls that seem to defy gravity. Most of the time this kind of shape-making is reserved for more modestly scaled cultural buildings like museums. When you think of office towers, however ornate or elaborate their shape, in the end they almost always fall prey to the developers′ spreadsheet of profit and loss. So I didn′t understand (a) how SOM got away with this form and (b) what in the world these walls were doing.
The answer—simple, clear, and powerful—is what makes this tower so fundamentally Kuwaiti. The harsh desert sun does not hit the towers directly on the north side of the tower, so on that side they can get away with lots of glass, and capitalize on incredible views of the Persian Gulf. On the south side of the tower, however, the story is different. The heat loads generated from direct southern exposure can be intense, the more so when you′re located in one of the hottest climates in the world. So, in a move that would make most office tower developers have a coronary, SOM sealed up the entire south side of the building with 2-foot-thick limestone-clad concrete wall. The thermal barrier would absorb the solar radiation and keep the tower cool and comfortable.
But the story gets better. They used complex environmental software to track the path of the sun—rising in the east, traveling to the south, and finally setting in the west—and adjusted the curvature of the wall to match that trajectory. So what looks like a crazy, willfully designed wall is actually carefully calculated to act as the most effective sunshade throughout the course of the day and year. And, of course, it turns out that they didn′t lose a foot of prime real estate this way—just many, many feet of the useless kind.
Ultimately what gets me excited about this project is that SOM created a formal language that represents Kuwait (and the Middles East as a whole), but does so though a real, practical understanding of the climate and the place. They didn′t make it "look" Middle Eastern by using some decorative design elements from a mosque. They didn′t apply an Arabic-looking faÇade that made the building "fit in" with others in the area. Instead SOM listened, looked, and thought about how buildings interact in their local climate. Through this process they created something new and surprising that is, in the end, truly about Kuwait.
And I think they created a building that feels both modern and traditional at the same time. Some of the Kuwaiti citizens that I met while filming the show described the tower to me as an enormous Arabic scroll; others said it looked like a billowing robe or veil. Interpretations like these tend to reveal more about the onlooker than the designer, but it is wonderful to think that a rigorous architectural process based on environmental performance could produce a building so completely at home in its surroundings. That′s what architecture should be about.