I was looking at your press kit and it seems you are very innovative – you have won a lot of awards. You have a sustainable background as well. That is one thing Kuwait really needs to develop upon. We are meeting with the Kuwaiti private sector now to finalize all the speaker panels and also for our editorial. People that are interested in participating in the conference, we would like to know if they would like to put themselves forth if they see an interest. Our main priority is collecting all the data and information for the twenty-page report on Foreign Policy. This interview will also be published online. We will send you a transcript to make sure. It is an extra bit of exposure for the country. You have come up on our radar as a very positive figure in your sector. We would like to hear more about what you do and your partnerships.
I am actually on the outskirts. I commend you because this is a lot of homework you have been doing for the past few months. I am sure it has not been an easy journey. I am extremely positive, otherwise we would not be investing all this time and effort and energy to improve in the sector we are in, or in other sectors. Would I be interested in joining? Definitely. I would be glad. In any way I can. I am open to questions. You are running the show.
I see you have a PhD here. Where did you study? How did you get into architecture?
My name is Dr. Nasser Abulhasan. I am a graduate of one of the local schools here in Kuwait – American School of Kuwait. I went to study architecture at Virginia Polytechnic – architecture and urban design. I did that from 1995 to 2000. In 2000 I had applied to do my master’s program at the graduate school of design at Harvard. I was lucky enough to get in that year. I was the youngest in the post-professional program, which was a small program of twenty architects from all over the world. It is a very selective program. I was lucky enough to be part of that group. It is a two-year program. It changed a lot in my life. That was at Harvard. We were together. We were neighbors. We were in the same program. Each student has his own desk. He was the person next to me. We were at the program at the same time. Due to the friendship we developed, we started doing work together as freelancers while we were studying. We managed to try to figure out if we could build something here and there. We were not successful at the beginning.
Why was that?
We were still young. People wanted us to do stuff that was tiny. We were not lucky enough at that time. Joaquin graduated and moved to Amsterdam where he was the head of the design team of the Rijksmuseum, and I was admitted to do my doctoral program. I was lucky again because my professor who was teaching at the master’s program, she pushed me to apply toward my interest, which was working on the perception of light, how you perceive light in various types of climates, and how that affects the ambience in the buildings we develop. I pushed that further, applied for the doctoral program. That was actually my thesis. I have a lot of luck. Understanding light, dealing with light, its effect on energy. My doctoral thesis – the main thesis is sustainability, but within that I focused on natural light and the understanding of how your eyes operate and adjust and how you perceive the space. It has been an interesting journey. While doing the doctoral program, we were lucky enough to start getting one or two commissions here in Kuwait. Joaquin and I, who used to work remotely – I was in Boston, and he was in Amsterdam – working on things independently. In 2005 we said we could not do it anymore. We had to establish an office. Joaquin left his work. We decided to go to Madrid because he is Spanish. Madrid made a lot of sense. It is an important capital for design, as a country. It was easy to hire people there. It was more difficult to hire here, which is why we focused on Madrid.
What date was that?
Joaquin moved to Madrid mid-May of 2005. It was happening. Now nothing. We decided to open an office in Madrid because our vision was to grow. We were not only focusing on the Middle East and Europe – we wanted to be an international office. We were just two people, but that is what we wanted to do. We did not want to be a boutique office per se because the European boutique offices produce good work. We did not want to be like the big American or British offices that are corporate – hundreds to thousands of employees who produce reiterative work without actually having the passion. In our heads, we wanted to provide the international service of the corporate firms but with the good quality design of the boutique. That was the point of agreement between Joaquin and me. In 2005 we were two people. Now we are more than 50 people. Less than nine years. We have been lucky because we managed to survive the economic conditions. Although we had won a few projects in Spain, only one saw the light – a church that we finished last year in Seville. It was opened then. Here in Kuwait we have been more successful because people looked at us as architects who could provide innovative design, design that was tailor-made to each of the clients. At the same time we understand the local climate, the local way of construction and how we communicate not only with the client but with the contractors. The first few years of our journey, until 2010, the first five years were purely based on having a few high-end houses, beach houses that we needed to design really well to satisfy our clients, build it really well and defy the norm here which says that buildings are not built very well, then make sure we enhance the customers’ experiences with these spaces. That was the first five years. In the beginning of the second five years, we were lucky because a few of the developers – some of them are actually on your list, like Mr. Hammad Malzhour from Tamdeen – he went after us. He is a very important real estate developer here. He went after us and tested us out. We are lucky because we are about to start a very large job for him now – a really large job. We were lucky to have a person like him support us because he normally works with international consultants from all over the world. He wanted that service on a local level. We believe we are meeting his expectations because he is giving us more work.
Your key focus is within Kuwait, but we have also seen projects in Qatar…
Kuwait has been a good and a bad challenge. It is a good challenge because people in general are hungry and they do not mind to expect. Somebody like Malzhour or another developer who works for real estate – these are people who looked at us and wanted to invest a bit of money to see what we could give. If we did well, they would give us more and see if they could challenge us. It seems it has been a fruitful relationship because we did build things for them, they realized there was a real estate gain, they could deliver, and they are giving us more work. That is one advantage.
That is the good part of the challenge. As a firm that is so young, with us being relatively young, we have large projects. This is the advantage of being here – we were able to take that challenge of being in a climate that does not have a lot of competition – it has a lot of bad competition. The good competition is very little.
Who are the other key players in the market?
Today? No one. This is why. In Kuwait there are five or six really old engineering firms that have been here since the 60s. I specifically said engineering firms because their mentality was of a big engineering machine. They worked with international architects. They took their drawings and translated them. That was the model. The biggest to the smallest buildings – most of them are done this way. Then you have the bad guys. There are 300 bad guys. They are tiny offices which are not even – I do not know what they are. Not even moms and pops – at least with moms and pops you get better service. These are people who do not understand design, they do not understand engineering, they just produce paper. They sell paper. We fell in a category that is neither the big ones nor the small ones. We were actually the outskirts. When we started this office, people looked at me. You are architects only? You are engineers. That was that reaction. We said no. This is run by architects, managed by architects – even if we have engineers they fall beneath the architects to support them. This is a very European model. In the Middle East it does not work like that. It is an engineering office with an architecture arm. The level of thinking and the level of appreciation of what we do are completely different. When we started, no one knew where we were coming from. Now instead of us competing with the small guys, which we never were interested in – and we were never competing with the big guys – but we realized some of the big guys are trying to do what we have done. They are trying to create small offices within their offices that are purely architecture-driven. They hire good talent so they can compete on a local level with people like us. Lucky enough, right now the younger architects are actually coming into the picture. They are trying to do a good job. We are very supportive of them. They always call us, we always give them tips, we try to support them. The more competition we have, the better it is. The more challenged we feel. Though we feel we are a bit ahead of them. We are actually after a few jobs in Iran right now. We are looking beyond our immediate region – the Middle East. It is helpful because our portfolio is growing. We are five to seven years ahead of the younger generation. We will never want to reach the big guys because they are too big for us and they are not around us. I think they want to reach down and try to have an office like we do. This is where we stand.
Do you prefer working for the private sector projects, or are you looking at big public sector projects?
For us, public or private is the same thing. It is about the client and understanding what they really want. For the project we did the competition for that you just mentioned, that was a competition we were invited to. They were looking for people like us. It was handpicked. It was not because they are interested in all these big architects. No. They were looking for someone who could give them good service and exquisite design. We were competing with really talented architects from all over the world. It was a challenge for us. Unfortunately we did not win – we were second place. But it is an honor. The client was Husdoctors – that is a public sector client. In Kuwait, most of our clients – actually not – all our clients are public sector. Similar to Tamdeen which are a very explicit type of client who says they want a special type of building done by AGI. Before coming here, I had a meeting in one of our projects – we just handed it over – and the client was telling me he rented it all out just because of us. I asked him why. He said because they knew we designed it, they were sure it was good, so they rented it before they came to the building. It was such a compliment. They paid us the fees and trusted we would do the work. Now they are getting their reward back. That is a long-term reward. That combination is definitely what will make both the public and private sectors a bit more receptive to us.
What is it like having the foreign partner, the foreign office in Madrid? What do you share with each other?
The difference between the offices. For us it was very difficult to hire locally.
Is that because the talent pool did not exist?
It did not exist at the beginning. Right now we have nine Kuwaiti architects. Funny enough, we are one of the smallest offices, but we are one of the biggest offices in hiring locals. It is a contradiction. Why are we hiring them? We are not hiring the bad locals. We are hiring people who – I could tell you the names of the universities from all over the world – they are very talented girls and guys. They are young. They are looking for a home. They are ready to work late hours. You were asking why our people are still here. You will still see them for another hour or two. It is not overtime. These are natural hours. This is how it is in this type of business if we want to grow. We are slowly empowering them to take decisions. We recently promoted one of the young ladies here to office manager. She is very excited. She is still young. She is not even thirty years old but she is excited to take that post. We are trying to promote them to do that. Of course the Madrid office versus the Kuwait office – they are not independent. For us, they are one office. They are just in different locations. All the team is working on the same projects. They travel between the offices. They do whatever it requires to get things done. We have an office here because we have sites here. Would we grow the office here? Theoretically, if we got more work in the region we would be running it out of here. If we keep working in Kuwait, we would definitely run it out of here. Having the foreign partner – for me, Joaquin is not a partner – he is my brother. He is my friend. I never look at it as bringing expertise from abroad. It was never that. We were buddies in school and we worked really well together. That is what this relationship was all about. I cannot call it a partnership meaning skill-sharing. We are friends – no more, no less. He always tells this story in a different way because he says he got married twice at Harvard – to Nasser and to his real wife. He met her there too. It is true. It is a double marriage. We created these two offices and he works with real wife and we have fifty kids in this office. It is a family. This is something we will always believe we are trying to push.
Where do you hope to be in five to ten years?
From our point of view, we believe we could have Kuwait be a place where we could grow internal talent to export throughout the region. This is how we believe. We think we can because of various factors. Our team members are our real assets. These team members have ambitions. Unless we assist them in proving their ambitions, they will not want to be challenge. I think they all studied really hard and are working really hard to be able to challenge themselves and to progress. Today, if we as an office are invited to lecture or do some sort of outreach program, it is only Joaquin and me. We changed the skill sets of other people. They go. They do the outreach. We are still involved.
You are a professor at Kuwait University.
I am not a full-time professor. I tech in Kuwait University because we need to give back to the community. It is not a full-time job.
The future depends on inspiring the youth. As a part-time professor and the owner of company, it is key to be able to change the mindset. How easy is that to persuade people not to go into the public sector? It is a very easy life. The government – it is still very enticing instead of going out and risking the possibility of failure.
I do not think we could do anything by talking. I think we have to keep doing what we are doing and people will get inspired. People look at you only if they see you try and succeed. The more you talk… People here love to talk about something that is there. But if you are running and they see you running every day, they will notice you running and maybe you will reach your end goal. Our team will keep running. If followers join us, let them join us. If not, someone else will join us. That is really the only way. This is why we as an office try to do outreach programs. Two of our team members this semester taught at Kuwait University. It was an initiative they took. They did it during office hours. The outcome is A, B, C, D, and this is what we are going to do. We set the whole studio to have that outcome. They had their end-of-semester review last week. I saw the students really improved. That is the biggest success – seeing them six months later, improved, inspired, with better communications skills, with ambitions. They are already happier. That is a fulfillment. We will do the same thing in subsequent semesters.
More generally, how do you think the government can help the private sector, especially in your sector? How can they help private companies succeed and do better and help them work together? What needs to be overcome?
Trust is the real issue. Historically, not just Kuwait but the whole region used to work with foreign expertise because you have the skill set, you have done it before, you know it better. But imagine if a counterpart were sitting next to you, learning how you do your business, who really loves this. In a few years, if the country invests more in them, they will be able to do the same job because this is how you were trained. Slowly. And slowly handing over. That position is already happening. I believe that position is happening because I was funded by the government to study, from my undergraduate program to my graduate degree. They paid a lot of money. My parents paid a lot of money. Everyone paid a lot of money. But their investment back is not going to be rewarded in a day. It will take some time. I personally feel I have to give back. How is in my own personal way. It is an issue of trust. There are a lot of opportunities. Some people are taking advantage of them, some are not. Some people are abusing them. You have to keep moving.
We worked with the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce and the Middle East Association. We were discussing the fact that these conferences on Iran, Iraq, Jordan – they are talking about the business opportunities in the region. At present, Kuwait is a very safe haven. Yet Kuwait has not managed to send out its international message about the opportunities within the country. People say they do not hear from Kuwait. Kuwaitis invest in their country but they want to bring out foreign investors and people who can work hand in hand with the Kuwaitis. What message would you give to them about the change in Kuwait?
In practical terms, to prove to you the change is there, if I show you the amount of CVs we get, you would be surprised. People from countries all over the world want to come and work with us here. The last person who came for an interview was a guy from Japan. I wondered why this Japanese buy wanted to come to Kuwait. I told them team to email the guy. They are interested because they like the work we do and they would like to come and learn. Of course, you are used to hearing this in more developed countries, or in countries like Dubai where it is a bit more open right now. To come to Kuwait is not something you hear every day. We have in this office four Spanish architects that came directly to Kuwait – they did not even apply to Madrid. They applied directly. It is a positive thing. There are many others. Those guys are slowly trying to get people into the country. What I see with the team here is the minute they come, the minute we remove this cultural barrier between nationalities and backgrounds – unfortunately in this part of the world this issue of where you are from is looked at in a negative way – that is making a big difference.
It is very interesting. You kind of need to come to Kuwait to see the real Kuwait. Before I arrived here, I had been in Abu Dhabi, Oman, Dubai. Kuwait is one of my favorite places. The people here are very open-minded, extremely friendly, the culture is very nice. In comparison to Dubai, we do not want to compare them. There is a lot of value within the society here that has been lost to a certain extent in Dubai. What image would you like the international audience to have for Kuwait? Where do you see the key sellers of Kuwait?
I will use two examples. I am not sure if these could be used as timelines, but I will use them as examples. A few years back, we did an architecture studio in the university here – a fourth-year studio, the year before the last. We were asked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to design in studio with the students what the next embassy should look like. I was thinking this was a lame exercise. You want every embassy in the world to look like a McDonald’s? Photocopies? We set up a studio such that we made the students begin to ask – we chose five countries – and we investigated it by country. To an Indian, what does Kuwaiti mean? To the Dutch? To the Japanese? We started investigating the perception of Kuwait in those societies. Of course for an Indian, they may have family here who sends them money back. Very hot climate. The situation is completely different if you are talking to someone who is Dutch. Maybe they do not know where Kuwait is. The association is completely different. We began to ask many questions. One of the things that came out was that a lot of people perceive Kuwait as a gracious society. Gracious does not mean you only give money –Aniyid is being called this year that he is a giver or whatever. That is not it. Gracious means extremely hospitable, extremely open. The limitations of getting to know people, knocking on their door. If you look at it on the psychological level, we have very few public places in Kuwait. If I ask you where the public places are, you might not know. We have some public places within Kuwait. Houses which is this idea of the diwaniya. The idea of the diwaniya is actually a public room within a private household. If you enter a diwaniya, even if they do not know who you are, generally people are hospitable. They will talk to you and sit next to you, serve you coffee or dinner. That is an inherent trait Kuwaitis have. Not just Kuwaitis. This is very important to speak about to the external world. You talk about them being thrifty. Do they like to bargain? Yes. But the Dutch also like to bargain. Regardless of where you sit, there are particularities in certain societies. I think this issue of being gracious, or giving, is something that is there, it is maybe not explored enough, and I think it has been looked at in a negative way. When they say gracious and mean gracious in terms of money, that is negative. That is the wrong idea of being gracious. That is not the real image of what Kuwait should represent itself as. It is a warm country. They feed you, they pamper you.