Kamil Khan Mumtaz says our contemporary planning is designed for machines, not for human beings
Interview by Aamer Waqas Ghaus Chaudhary
As a practising architect, educator, author, and pioneer in the movement for conservation of architectural heritage Kamil Khan Mumtaz, has been a leading influence in raising standards of architectural design in general and in the search for a contemporary, appropriate architecture for Pakistan responsive to climate, economy and materials yet rooted in the indigenous culture. Author of books “Architecture in Pakistan” and “Modernity and Tradition”, his fields of competence are architectural design, urban planning; history of architecture in Pakistan and architectural Education. He says:-
“I visulalise a continuing disintegration of our cultural self-image–an exposure to destructive influences, which is leading us increasingly to some sort of a global gray culture. People are speaking foreign languages instead of our own language. I do not declare it good or bad, it is simply horrible. Language makes a difference as it is our access to the deepest layers of our culture–an identity built on different strata through time. If you miss language, then you miss things that enrich your culture. China started a debate on its Chinese script–whether to modernise it and adopt the Roman script and how to deal with electronic and mechanical system. They debated on this issue for a generation, and decided to keep the Chinese script. In Turkey, there came a wind of modernisation. The Turkish got rid of old-fashioned trends and joined European culture because according to them ‘they were humane’. Today every average Turk regrets the fact that he has no access to his own cultural roots just because of the language. They neither know Persian nor Turkish and they are the poorest of all in their cultural assets. All the languages should be encouraged.
“Our architectural schools and officially recognised educational institutions, particularly higher education institutions, are deliberately modelled on the Western models as a policy because this was seen to be a way to modernise. These institutions have served the purposes of promoting the very ideas and culture that we feel is dangerous. An architecture students goes to one of these institutions, where he learns how to design in the Western manner. His parents accept that and his teachers teach him that stuff. Here we are talking about the strength and power of the forces that are promoting these cultures. The architectural institutions are not imparting any indigenous architectural identity to students. It is a very premature idea to propagate our cultural identity. An identity is not what you begin with rather it is what you end up with. We must first be clear about fundamental issues, like who we are, where we are coming from, where do we want to go and what are the means to get there. The result will be an identity we will be proud of. But if we begin with an identity that has no basis in reality, we are going to be very confused and disappointed.
“Art and architecture is 7,000-years-old–ever since we practised it. Traditional view of art and architecture is valid, positive and necessary. I do not mean the past tradition is not connected with time. There is traditionally a purpose and a role of art in the society, which is to reflect the qualities of the Divine creator. The reason why this is so central to traditional art and architecture is to remind us of the higher realities–we stand in relation to these realities and man is a representative of the Creator. Therefore, in every act, it must reflect qualities of the Divine creator. I try to apply these principles.
“In practical considerations, I am always conscious of the constraints of climate, economy, available technology and resources. I try to use indigenous materials and technologies, which are energy efficient, environment friendly and economical. The other set of considerations go beyond the physical and material considerations. It is a constant process of self-analysis and criticism, learning from the traditional masters. I feel much satisfied with present things as compared to what we were doing a couple of years ago. I feel that I have reached a better and greater understanding of the traditional designing principles. It does not reflect less space. We need to design our cities for human beings instead of developing the consulate of modernity, which we think as western and modern. All our contemporary planning is designed for machines–for motor cars more precisely–but not for human beings. Islamabad is a classic example. If that had been designed for pedestrian movement, you could get the whole population of Islamabad in two or three sectors instead of 45 sectors. We need to integrate our cities. Design of Islamabad does not appear to be in any symmetry. Everything is flung as far away as possible. The same pattern is followed everywhere. To solve the problem of increasing population rate, new housing schemes are established. If people find that the housing rates are expensive within the city premises, then the people find its solution in establishing new housing schemes outside the city. We cannot sustain this anymore because this low density segregation spreading out is destroying the green. Not only that it is adding to your infrastructure costs every day. In the bargain we are destroying the social fabric. Every here and there you find housing societies made for doctors, engineers etc. All this is segregating the society in many small segments. We are creating ghettoes. Whereas, in integrated cities all the classes of the society lived together because of their needs. The government does not show any interest in curtailing this disastrous situation.
“Unfortunately, we are not aware of our own identity and blindly follow other trends without even rationalising them. Both architects and architecture represent confusion. It is an architect's responsibility. Many architects take architecture as a business, like that of beauty parlour. They have concerns with surface decorations, which is not architecture. If architects choose to make mockery of their own profession, then how would they be able to advise their clients. You can't totally blame architects for this, at times the clients do not listen to architects' advice. They do not bother to know whether something is suitable for climatic conditions or not. They just blindly become a part of the ignorant rat race. The client is often least bothered about the economy, climate, comfort and culture. All the client wants is what you precisely see around you. The clients want to have a house very much like the houses that they see in UK, US or Emirates. They do not understand their own domestic conditions. All they understand is what they see! Whereas the business of architecture deals with climate, comfort, economy, materials, space, light, movement and planning. All these do not seem to be the concern of the architect or the client. As a result what you get is a complete confusion.
“We are a poor country and can't afford throwing foreign exchange importing material. Secondly, glass and metals are inappropriate for our climate. We are culturally very destructive because these are kinds of images that point to a certain value system, which is dangerous. I am definitely opposed to irresponsible industrialisation and uncritical modernisation. Today I call myself a traditionalist. This is my personal position.
“You cannot modify this trend by force. In fact, by and large, we cannot reverse the tide, but we can, at our own individual level, bring ourselves out of this stream. There is no question of moral responsibility. We are, all the time, documenting, researching and publishing through exhibitions, seminars on our own heritage and traditions. We are trying to analyse and understand this in order to apply it. You cannot do anything more than this. We have an identity of a chaos because this is what we are, and this is what we can see in our architecture. This chaos is going to get worse. Reason is that the forces that are propagating these ideas are very strong and effective. There is a one way bombardment. The dazzle of architecture shown on TV and that we observe abroad is very attractive and it is very difficult to resist. We neither have the means nor the will to resist and certainly we are not equipped intellectually to do that. Most of us do not even realise what is happening to us. When you don't even know what is being done to you, how are you going to resist it? Secondly, we do not know the alternatives. Even if you recognise the wrong, you don't have an alternative. You will flow alone. This is why this trend is getting worse.
“We would like to be identified with the Mughals. That is how we have a kind of a self-image that does not match the ground realities. This is where the confusion begins. We are confused about the history of Pakistan. Some say that it starts from 1947, whereas some say that it started with Mohammad Bin Qasim. We do not even count Mohinjodaro, Gandhara, Buddhist and Hindu dynasty as part of our identity. We even disown Noor Jehana's pre-partition songs while India claims our entire Indus Valley.”