the-south-asian.com July / August 2006
Page 2 of 4
Kamil Khan Mumtaz
- The Grand Master
Traditional & Green Architecture in Pakistan
Salman Minhas in Lahore, exclusively for the-south-asian.
Traditional Architecture Ė Methodology
SSM- Could you sum up the change in your perspective and the contribution made by Laleh Bakhtiarís & Nader Ardalanís books.
KKM - Well essentially that the basis of traditional art and architecture was the traditional world-view and the philosophy of modernism. If one can simplify, one can say that modernism was rooted in the philosophy of materialism, while old traditional cultures were rooted in a world-view, which was idealist. So itís as fundamental as that.
SSM - Are you saying that in the traditional worldview, you are moving away from the western or materialist approach of man being the centre of it.
KKM - Yes. Cartesian, Reductionism, evolutionism, and humanism, moving away from all the western paradigms to the traditional roots - inverts the entire situation.
SSM- I am reading your book; is that also the approach that you take in your work? I notice that in certain cases, the craftsmen are known to have had some divine inspiration, when the time came for the green light to be given for the project to continue, the design to be finalised; it was as if there was an inspirational moment.
KKM- Yes, the traditional method or design process follows a very different path. For instance in modern schools we, from day one, are encouraged to be creative, original, individual, express the self and so on. The traditional artist and designer sees himself as an agent, a vehicle, and sees his work to reflect the higher realities in everything he makes and produces.
The higher realities as you know are metaphysical and they do not have any visible form. So how do you express these in the visual arts and architecture concretely? How do we know what forms to use? As ordinary mortals we cannot access those higher realities and the method is to copy the masterpieces of the great masters. So copying was also a method of teaching and learning. If you trace the history of any of the traditional arts and crafts, you find that there is a chain of transmission from "ustad" [master] to "shagird" [student] and at the fountainhead, the source of every art is an "ustadon ka ustad" [master of masters] - a sage, a prophet, a saint who combined the expertise of that particular craft and was at the same a spiritually enlightened person. These enlightened souls were able to access those higher realities; and none of these sources ever claimed to be the originators or inventors of these forms. They always maintained that they had received these forms from above and they were passing them on to the next generation; and so that is the reason why these forms are so highly valued and copied - used both in teaching and practice.
South Asia Muslim Traditional Architects
SSM- Are there any big names in our traditional architecture that you may want to highlight here, even from the older times. Are there any big names that stand out in architecture?
KKM- Indeed there are several names that we know of from our history particularly the Mughal and even the Sultanate period. We have a number of great names like Ustad Ahmad Lahori, and two or three generations of his sons and grandsons were highly esteemed architects who received honours from the court. Ustad Ahmad had the title of Nadir-ul-Asar. He sent his sons to train in the Atelier of Makarmat Khan who was again one of the legendary architects of Shah Jahan. There were others too - Amaanat Khan, the calligrapher of the Taj and so on. Architects were recognized and honoured and were amongst the very elite of society, highly erudite. They were familiar not only with the Greek and Persian classics but also with the Indian Hindi classics and mathematics, astronomy and so on.
SSM- what about the architects who built the Spanish Alhambra; is there a big name there?
KKM- No; I donít know.
SSM- The Alhambra even today seems to outclass everything else. The Dutch graphic designer M. C. Escher visited and remarked the Alhambra was " the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped " when he visited it in June 1922 and again in April 1936.
KKM- Yes, and what about the Taj? And The Blue Mosque? . I think itís very interesting that Muslims are best known for their art particularly architecture, calligraphy, poetry, and music. The sad thing is that there are our brothers who denounce art as being "Haraam" [not permissible in Islam] .
SSM- You mentioned Rory Fonseca at AA in London as one of your teachers. What do you remember him for?
KKM- He was first of all a very good friend and a nice person. We all liked him a lot. He was an excellent teacher and a wonderful support to Dr. Konigsburger.
SSM- He was one of those who was coming out with these ideas about looking at things, such as old Delhi in a different way?
KKM- No, not in our discussion. He was with Dr. Konigsburger in the tropical department, and was concerned exclusively with the science of designing for comfort, the science of designing with climate and all those issues. It did not get into issues of design ideology.
South Asia- Urban Planning & Automobiles:
SSM - In South Asia, as a whole after independence, it appears that what you see around you, are major cities on the brink of breakdown in one way or the other; and I am quoting here from the work of "Punjabi Baroque" [Gautam Bhatia] .The Indians seem to have picked up a few pieces in starting underground transport in Calcutta & Delhi to make their capitalism more efficient/ productive. It is almost as if the word city planning is not there; a sense of anarchy prevails; it is as if the intellectuals have led a very passive role. What is your take on this?
KKM- Well, Urbanism and issues related to it in third world countries, particularly South Asia, are certainly what we would say "TASHVEESHNAK" [very dangerous]. They give a cause for worry; but I think it is a phenomenon, which should be seen as a part of a global issue. There was, as you say, no apparent planning in our cities. Well, such planning as has gone into our cities has been modelled on what we, as planners, perceived of as modern, western design principles. Thatís a whole discussion that one needs to address; but the chaos and collapse of cities I think is really just indicative of a larger crisis. Urbanization has been one of the main effects of modernization/industrialization, led by capitalism. Even in socialist countries, the stress was on industrialization and therefore specialization and therefore, large work forces, etc, etc. all this leads to the notion of the modern city.
Today as you know there is a global environmental crisis - environmental degradation, deterioration, pollution and the dissipation of resources, non-renewable energy, etc. In all of this, the city is probably the single biggest culprit. It consumes disproportionate amount of material, resources, timber, water, fuel, energy and gives back, in return, air pollution, water pollution, and social disruption and chaos. The huge migrations of populations to the city have cost dearly in terms of collapse of social structure. I think the crises of the city are much greater than just the mess that we see superficially in the third world cities. Itís just a symptom of a deeper underlying problem.
I believe we have to rethink this whole question of the nature and function and form of our cities. I think we have gone overboard with modernism, where quantity seems to be the criteria of progress and development and so the size of the cities, the megalopolis, is probably proclaimed to be the centre of the culture. It is the image of 20th century, 21st century. We talked about Cartesian reductionism as a methodology - any complex problem should be broken down into its components, analyse the components and then synthesize them. The city is understood in terms of its components-- residence, downtown commerce, culture, recreation, industrial etc. - each is allocated its own space and usually well separated from the other by distance. We are so excited by our ability to move in mechanical means of transportation, the motorcar, the aeroplane etc.
The city is still designed for automobiles. All modern city planning begins with two things - segregation into zones and network of motorways. It is not designed for human beings. So you have a kind of ghetto-ization. Society is broken up into working class, middle class; and in Pakistan, we have gone through really ridiculous extremes, we have Engineersí housing societies, Judgesí colonies, Doctorsí housings and so on; Defence Housing is a big one ÖÖ each section is its own isolated pocket. This is really disastrous in what it does to social cohesion and a harmonious integrated society. Then, the very size of the cities makes for anonymity, alienation; loneliness in the crowd - is a well-known problem. This is further reinforced by the very scale of these monster buildings, which have nothing to do with the human scale, and again they can be as tall as you like, because they can be serviced by mechanical means; lifts can get you up and down, the climate can be controlled; but all of this means energy, consumption of energy; it means high maintenance, high cost, and this high rise, high tech approach, results in sprawl, eating up the green space and stretching the infrastructure to make it very expensive. This model has to change; we have to think in terms of cities designed for human beings- low rise, actually low tech, high density, walkable pedestrian cities, and this means they have to be limited in size - both in numbers of population and physical distance. This is an area where I strongly believe there is an urgent need to rethink planning issues.
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