Friday, October 8

‘Reflecting a confused society’

Prof. Dr. Mahmood Hussain says we are heading nowhere, but to a chaotic situation. Unless there is a total chaos, things cannot revert to good.

As told to Aamer Waqas Chaudhary

Prof. Dr. Mahmood Hussain had a long stint as a teacher at University of Engineering and Technology. Prior to his recent retirement, he was head of Faculty of Architecture and Planning at the University. Now, he is a practising architect apart continuing with his first love, that is, teaching. Following are the excerpts from an interview with him:-
“Unfortunately, when architecture started here in 1962, we had few architects. In fact, we had only about 8-10 architects in the entire country, and most of them were located in Karachi. So when the subject of architecture was started, then the universities obviously needed some help from foreign professionals. Hence UNESCO was asked to lend a hand. Unfortunately or fortunately, all the UNESCO men were British. They took up the same British models being taught in the British Universities, and started the architecture here. So basically, the first generation of architects–brought up from 1962 to 1975–was trained not only on the British model, but also by the British experts. Very small number of architects were taught according to our social, cultural, economic and climatic requirements. Even use of our indigenous material and construction methods were neglected. So most of the trained architects were probably educated for Europe and not for Pakistan. When they came into field, they had lots of jobs and had very little time to think as to which way they were heading to. They did not have a chance to analyse: what were they taught and what were the needs of society? And what were they producing? Hence the first generation–I consider myself part of that–were sort of aliens to our own needs. They produced whatever was good or acceptable to Europe and Britain, and did not belong to this country.
“At that time, modern architecture movement was at its climax where steal, concrete and glass were being used or promoted with skyscrapers being raised all over the world. Interestingly, all regional inferences and factors were totally ignored. Unfortunately, our architects also were attracted to the modern architecture, and since then, they are producing the international style of architecture, which is alien to local needs, factors and traditions. They think whatever is good for Europe and the United States is also good for us. So this was the backdrop in which the profession of architecture took its roots in this country. During 1980s, people started to realise this, and debated our indigenous or vernacular architecture in the context of our traditions, culture and climate to a certain extent. But by that time, the international architecture had so much influence on the architects that the voices of those few were little heard.
“At this stage, we had a good opportunity to develop our own style of architecture or identity of Pakistani architecture. That was in the form of Islamabad, which was to be built within this period and because it was a new city, so we could have done it in a much better way. But unfortunately, the higher ups, the ruling class engaged a number of architects of different nationalities and varying backgrounds–Italians, French, British and Americans. Everybody worked on Islamabad according to his own pre-conceived ideas. I call this as most unfortunate that this opportunity was lost. Compare Islamabad with other modern cities, which were planned and developed almost simultaneously. Like Chundigarh (India), although not designed by the local architects, at least there was one architect who gave the broad concept and initially supervised most of the buildings, it is a far better place. Lately, some local architects have designed a few important buildings, but it is very difficult to change the trend once set by the pioneers. Again most of us were influenced by the international architecture. So what you see in Islamabad is a total confusion. No two buildings represent our aspirations, social conditions and cultural values.
Copying the West without giving due importance to our climatic conditions has proven to be a disaster. What you find in the form of large glass windows–especially on Main Boulevard (Gulberg)–facing directly the sun; thereby heat coming into the buildings directly. It is not a question of having efficient or inefficient cooling devices, it is a question as to how much money is pumped into the buildings in the name of energy utilisation. With the rising electricity tariffs, I am certain that it is very difficult to bear with enormous electricity bills. And where people call the 20th century as the 'Information Technology' age, I call the 21st century as the 'energy technology' where energy will be of prime importance governing all aspects of one’s life. So this century will be both technology and energy-oriented century. If we keep on raising buildings in this manner–entire facades covered with glass–then we are gong to have unbearable energy bills. Even in Europe, no building is being designed nowadays where certain part–between 27 to 30 percent–of its energy requirements is not met by the solar energy. By 2015, they will raise it to about 50 percent. Unfortunately we are ignorant where solar energy is available in abundance.
“This (glass) is merely the cosmetic treatment because it looks good. You can have a beautiful presentation before your clients without telling them the consequences. You cannot compulsorily change it. It can be changed to a certain extent, but architecture evolves over the passage of time. But there is nothing that you can impose, neither on the architects nor on the clients. It has to evolve slowly and gradually and it will have to take its own time. It's not so that Europe and USA have changed overnight, they have taken a lot of time.
“Presently, we are heading nowhere, but a chaotic situation. Unless there is a total chaos, things cannot revert to good. It is the reflection of the society. The sort of chaotic situation we have in our society, it is being truly reflected in architecture. Unless the society doesn’t change, it is difficult to change the architecture as architects are so few in number that they only cover just two percent of the elite. They are not working for the masses because they do not have time for smaller clients. On the other hand, the elite is confused. They often visit foreign countries and they want to have houses like those of the US and Europe. Because of this approach for the last 15 years, our values and norms have changed pretty drastically.
“You can compare the presently built houses with the traditional ones–‘courtyard houses’. In those houses, the courtyard was the most used place. Present houses are not like that. Even our building bylaws do not allow us to build a courtyard house. The drastic material change has brought in stainless steel and aluminium, which absorb heat. Because of rapid changes taking place everywhere, you cannot even declare your particular social and moral values. You cannot give a specific name to your architecture and declare its identity though we must have one. But the present situation is too volatile to say whether we are heading towards that. We are heading in all directions, that is why, we are heading nowhere.
“Everything–film, music, drama, architecture, politics, culture and religion–contributes to some extent in making a society. We do not say that we are detached from the society. We are not denying whatever contribution we are making to the society, but the question is whether this is negative or positive. Our professional organisations have not been mature enough. Individuals are stronger than the institutions. Although we have Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners and Pakistan Engineering Council, but these are not strong enough to take an action against any individual. Even if they take any action, rescind any individual’s membership, but it does not affect him much as he can still practise. Unless you strengthen institutions, it would not give desired results.
“Not only that we need to do something with the syllabi, we have already started this process, which started about five years back. Revamped syllabi have very little emphasis on foreign architecture and we stress more on the Islamic architecture–the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and Subcontinent. There is also an enhanced emphasis on regional styles of architecture starting from the pre-historic periods, coming on to Moenjodaro, Gandhara and Harappa, and then pre-Mughal, Mughals, colonial and the post-independence era. It would take some time before the graduates start working. There has been no research on indigenous architecture, materials and constructions methods. We rely on research done elsewhere and copy that.
“Pakistan has diverse situations, languages and cultural values. Hence we should not be looking for a common style. Each area will have to evolve its own independent identity. But in any case, there will be certain common things, which we can call as Pakistanis.
“We need to build simple, straightforward and functional buildings. We do not have to go into very elaborate, complicated details and expensive materials. It should be affordable to a common man. We have not conducted research on building cheap houses for this majority.”

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