Showing posts with label Essays. Show all posts

Text: Danish Azar Zuby

About a hundred years ago, there was a Parsi gentleman by the name of Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, a respectable citizen of Karachi who became the first elected Mayor of Karachi. He is also known as the ‘Maker of Modern Karachi’. Those times are synonymous with his name and generally referred to as the Nusserwanjee era, as it was in those times that the roads of Karachi were actually washed every morning and it was called the cleanest city of south Asia. Those were the happy and peaceful times.

Today, in November 2012 we mourn the passing away of another great Parsi citizen of Karachi, who besides many titles that are showered on him, is also being addressed as ‘The conscience of the Nation’. Earlier this year, on the 20th of March SHEHRI (Citizens for Better Environment) an NGO held an evening function to celebrate the illustrious life of Cowasjee and confer upon him the award of ‘Citizen Emeritus’ for his extraordinary services and contributions to Karachi.

Text: Asiya Sadiq Polack

As I pen my thoughts today, to say a few words of tribute for our beloved teacher, friend and fellow architect Perween Rehman. I wish that, these were to be spoken to applaud her in person and not to laud her when she is no longer with us. It is our misfortune that, the “extra ordinaries” amongst us, carries on performing so silently, that, we are only jolted from the “ordinary”, when they are no more.

However, PR rises above the cliché, because she with her vision and professional choices became immortal in life and death through her work. By choosing the ordinary and the poor of the society as her clients, she and her colleagues achieved the extraordinary in the 21st century spatial and social milieu, both nationally and internationally.

A remarkable architect and an honorable citizen of this country, PR’s premature death and assassination on 13th March 2013, while conducting her professional work, is a personal, national and universal loss. She literally gave her life, living and dead to this city and country. Taken away brutally, she leaves behind a huge legacy of a socially responsive architecture both in theory and practice, achieved over three decades.

Perween’s architectural practice was unconventional, out of the box and ground breaking. She had a detail oriented creative thinking process which she chose to apply to a development project. She was a meticulous designer, documenter, manager, trainer, teacher, thinker, researcher, activist and a great human rolled in to one.

Text and Photography: Ayesha Ali

 Here’s an unusual question – do architects realize the role they play in defining their country’s place in history?

Odd question? ….  But an interesting as well as an important question to ponder

Architects are perceived to be artistic technocrats who design buildings with the future in mind. The role of historian has not been associated with an architect. And yet, when an architect puts up a building, not only is he or she building a future habitat, the architect is simultaneously writing history in 3D.

For when we consider history, the most enduring testament to a nation’s past is its buildings: its architectural remains that tell the tale of days gone by. When there are no history books, no people left to tell what took place centuries ago, it is the buildings of that times, architects that recreate the civilizations of the past for us.

If a civilization flourished, it was reflected in its buildings, which were grand and ornate. They reflected the power that civilization wielded and they were representative of its economic stability.  The designs and layouts told stories of what took place in them. The materials, with which the buildings were constructed, spoke of the country’s technology and indicated its trade link with various parts of the world from where these materials were sourced.  This in turn illustrated the land or sea supremacy of the country and provided valuable clues regarding its technological status. The landscaping remains, fountains and statues revealed of how enhanced the residents’ comprehension of beauty was, and about their craftsmen, and consequently their culture. The street layouts showed their level of civic development, and drainage systems indicated the residents’ awareness of science and sanitation. The play and use of natural light and climate control employed within their buildings made evident the scientific thought process of the architects and scholars of their time.

Every country had its unique methods of decorating its buildings, and the art, color schemes, and style of different regions and cultures were reflected distinctly in its decorative art. The frescos and murals adorning the buildings in Italy depicting European figures and sceneries were very different from the strictly non-figurative geometric designs and color palates of Arabia; which again were very different from the miniature paintings and floral designs of the Mughals in the Indo-Pak region. The Far East too had its own unique decorative style that was immediately identifiable.

Kirtee Shah
Practicing Architect
Hon. Director, Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG)
President, Habitat Forum (INHAF)

This article is not for the Indian architect alone. We all share the same problems. Issues are the same whether it is India or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Srilanka. In the context of the peculiarities of our societies, ecological crisis and globalization, the rethink that the article talks about is inescapable. The professional may survive but will be under perpetual threat of extinction and till it happens will operate in the fringes and margins.
In Trichy recently on work, the local chapter of the Institute of Architects invited me to address the group and meet with its members. The town, approaching a million people mark, has over hundred practicing architects. While discussing state of the architectural practice in a small town in general and Trichy in particular, a senior local architect’s comments on the architect’s role generated a passionate debate. He observed that he felt a fringe player, a marginal actor, in his own building projects, as his contribution remained confined mainly to a non-tangible area of `aesthetics’ and ‘beauty’, while other specialists offered hard core services– such as structural engineering, plumbing, electrification, air-conditioning, costing, etc—that the clients valued more. He added that the architects had become ‘light weight’ having handed over everything except the ‘aesthetics’ to others, and consequently did not enjoy as much confidence and respect of the client.

The introspective architect was probably a bit too honest, a bit too harsh in his judgment on himself and a bit too critical of his professional contribution. He did not account for the space planning, co-ordination and other services an architect provides in a building project, as also the architect’s leader- of – the team – status. No architect ever thinks that he or she is light weight and hardly anyone carries the burden of ‘content’ inadequacy or ‘substance’ lightness. It is also true that unlike the small town client mindset that the architect friend referred to, majority clients in the metro cities have a much charitable view on the role and contribution of their architects. However, with the unprecedented real estate boom and increasingly prominent role that the architects are called upon to play in the changing skyline of the globalizing Indian cities, there is a real need to look at the profession and the professional practice somewhat objectively. In order to get the balance correct, it is also necessary to see the architectural practice in the context of fast deteriorating quality of built environment and deplorable housing and living conditions of the less fortunate ones in these same cities. Though the architects never consider villages to be a part of their ‘work constituency’, to put the matter in perspective, it is helpful to see the architects and their work in the context of rural habitat, the built environment in the villages, where a majority of the country’s thousand million plus people still live and work and , believe it or not, would stand to benefit if some of the architects’ skills, know-how and technology are available in preserving and improving quality of physical environment.
In analyzing the profession the first set of questions is on the clients: for whom the architects are working—or not working. For whose benefit, to meet whose needs, are they using their skills, knowledge and expertise? Which segment of the Indian society they are reaching their services? Certainly not the villagers, as hardly any architect practices in a village. That eliminates 75 percent of the people and their building needs from the work sphere of the architects. How many and who are practicing in small and medium sized towns which, despite a growth momentum, are growing chaotically and haphazardly and where the “clients” and the “projects’ exist, with capacity and willingness to pay, but are not getting the professional’s services? Very few. Architects are concentrated in big cities. And who are their clients there? Not the lower middle class, also not many in the middle-middle class. Their clients are the rich, businessmen, industrialists and public and private institution builders: mostly the upper crust of the society. And in today’s times the builders, the real-estate developers as well. As a class, the upper echelon are about one or two percent of the society; what about others? Aren’t they building? Aren’t they investing? Don’t they need services of an architect, a designer? Wouldn’t an architect’s skill and expertise, if available to them, make a difference to what they are building on their own or using para-professionals? Why aren’t they seeking a professional architect’s services? Why aren’t the professionals reaching their skills and services to them? Leave aside the ‘social good’ or addressing their unmet needs, don’t they constitute a ‘market’? Aren’t they potential clients and a business opportunity? Isn’t meeting their needs, within limited space and resources; can architects/ designers not delve into a professional and a design challenge, a creative opportunity? With the over-crowding of architects that big cities are witnessing, subsequent competition for jobs and projects and resultant survival struggle, why aren’t they seeking new pastures? Why are they not exploring un-chartered territories? What is preventing this from happening? Why are they not entrepreneurial in that sense? If that happens, more architects will have more work, newer challenges and better, bigger opportunities. Equally important, smaller people, less affluent and resourced people, would get the services they need and deserve. It will be a win-win situation for all.

Why is that not happening? Has it something to do with the mindset of the architects, definition of what constitutes ‘architecture’, his/her perceived role as an architect, their education and training? What is that prevents a professional architect from engaging in and contributing to the larger, ‘popular’ world of built environment? Is it selectivity, exclusivity, a misplaced notion of ‘professionalism’, professional ego, stats concerns, or elitism’ of which the architects are often criticized? The main questions are: why are there no architects for not so rich? Why are there no village architects, architects for rural India? Why don’t we have architects specializing in repair, upgrading, retrofitting, rural habitat and disaster reconstruction? Aren’t these services required, isn’t there a market for it? Equally important, why are those few, exceptional ones, who work in villages, in slums and for the poor, looked down upon? Why are they seen as an inferior race, a lesser god’s children? If this is reflected on, the chance is that an unexplored world could open up.
The second set of observations and questions relate to an extremely narrow client base the architect’s service and the limited work universe they operate in. It would be a revelation, if not a shock, to many that out of all ‘formal’ buildings that get built in India not more than six to seven percent are designed by the trained, professional architects. They need to ask why, rather than canvassing for legislation that only the ‘qualified’ that only a ‘member’ of the professional association should be permitted to practice as an architect. How does the remaining construct their buildings? Why are they not using their services? Is that the architects are not available, not accessible? Is that their services are expensive and buildings costly? Is that their services, skills and whatever else they can offer are not relevant for them, don’t fit into their plans and budgets? Or is that the other set of service providers–the non-architects, non-qualified, non-members of the practicing architects’ association- more accessible, more client friendly and more relevant? Is health care service without doctors, legal service without lawyers, accounting service without accountants and primary education without teachers conceivable, proper? The marginalized role of the professional architect in the on-going construction activity deserves some thought and reflection. In a larger societal context, the quality of overall built environment, not only an isolated building design should be the concern of the architect. And in a narrow business sense, a less equipped and qualified competitor taking away a large volume of potential business, should be their business concern too.

That brings the third point. And that is: is that a major issue that a professional architect’s operational universe is so highly restricted and that his/her services reach to only a select few? In India, architecture without architects is a glaring, an undeniable reality. The figure quoted earlier, the 94 to 6 division of work, is a reality. Take housing for instance. Roughly speaking, in big cities, out of ten houses that get constructed, just one is by the public sector, two are by the private sector and the remaining seven are by the slum-dwellers and/or by other non-formal builders/suppliers. In rural India, the entire existing housing stock and a substantial part of the newly built housing is by the people– by ordinary, common people. By a thumb rule, out of the housing stock of some 180 million units in the country, more than 70 percent is through the “people process”, what the Latin Americans call “social production of housing”—no architects, no engineers, no real estate developers, no HUDCO, no HDFC and no building bye-laws.

Can this trend be changed? Can this equation be altered? This ‘people’s movement’ in settlements development; do they not deserve greater recognition, facilitation and more creative response? Should we not take a more constructive, accommodative and positive view of this people process? Should we not recognize these bare-foot architects? Should we not see them as different kind of professionals? Would it not be proper to recognize their role and give them a space to operate? And would that not be a service to the community to organize skill upgrading for them, their capacity building? HUDCO’s Building Center initiative, though proper in conception, is only a limited and feeble response to that need. Diverting a portion of the public investment that goes into training formal architects- and civil engineers – in skill upgrading of these `bare-foot `architects’ will go a long way in improving their performance and thereby quality of the built environment they create .

Let me now turn inwards, from a wider societal– and somewhat nebulous– concern of meeting unmet needs of the non-clients to how architects service their chosen clients, the clients they already have, to the working of the professional practice on the ground. Here too, a good way to dig in, without hurting feelings and disturbing sensitivities, is to ask questions. Isn’t it true that the practicing architects understand little– and care even less– for the external environmental factors, such as climate, energy, water, etc., while designing buildings? Aren’t they victims of external– mostly western–influences and practitioners of unsuited, inappropriate ‘stylization’? Isn’t a ‘curtain wall’ and full glass façade in a blazing sun and an over-working air-conditioning system to cool it, an insult to the local climate and the energy crisis? Isn’t it true that most architects are not cost conscious in their design solutions; that, generally speaking, cost consciousness is looked down upon as a concern of the inferior, the struggler among the architects? In some ways, aren’t the architects alien in their own environment, in their own place and in understanding and responding to the demands of climate, energy and resource crisis, social complexities, life style choices and rich traditional practices in building construction? Aren’t the architects’ stylistic preferences, their `isms’ over-riding functional needs of their clients? An established and renowned architect once told me that the clients were ‘incidental’. Put crudely- and fellow architects may kindly excuse my saying this– aren’t architects taking their clients for a ride— partly through ignorance, partly through arrogance, partly through alienation, partly through design and partly through default?

While examining the profession and the professionals it is essential to recognize the influences that make and shape them. Does not the architectural education we impart and learn, carry a hangover of the colonial past? Aren’t our systems and institutions still burdened and influenced by the British systems and institutions? Isn’t our planning education and practice under big influence of the past? How much has really changed? How much has been indigenization? Earlier, a ‘foreign’ tag had premium, the foreigner and the foreign trained architect carried weight, called the shots. Has that weight lessened or reduced? Has that mindset, mentality changed? How much is local, indigenous in our architectural and planning education incorporated? Aren’t architects still looking westwards for ideas, inspiration, examples and masters? In a globalizing world there is nothing wrong in looking westwards—or to Singapore, China and Malaysia– for inspiration or ideas or technology. What is crucial, however; is to be firmly rooted to ones own land and environment to avoid being swept away; having a reference frame to make correct judgment. It is also a well-appreciated wisdom that those solutions and ideas—the ‘foreign’ ones– are not the most relevant, not the most workable in solving our local problems and meeting our local needs.

Not much is said –and done- about another aspect of the operating environment, which is highly restrictive and constraining but for that to change; the architects are doing nothing or precious little. The reference is to the regulatory framework that includes building byelaws and regulations, building permit system and the compliance mechanisms, put in place and operated by the local bodies and/or the city development authorities. The way they are, they seem to have been designed to kill design, creativity and innovation. The stipulations and provisions are kept deliberately vague. Interpretation varies from officer to officer, desk to desk, time to time. Arbitrariness is the order of the day. And corruption is rampant. The system stinks. Yet, one sees little pubic articulation of concern and little joint action with other stakeholders, on part of the architects’ community, to protest, to fight wrong, to mobilize opinion, to present alternatives, and to work for and influence change. Subservience and accommodation to the system’s irrationality and tyranny, and acceptance of its creativity killing power, is simply amazing. And it is beyond doubt that the architects are the most qualified- and most equipped — to bring it to the notice of the bye-law framers and the administrators that making supportive, positive, facilitating and enabling by-laws and building regulations costs nothing in money terms–that it only demands some imagination and openness to learning– but they go a long way in making our cities beautiful, their sky-line exciting and the urban form richer—something the administrators admire so much in foreign cities, the western cities, but do nothing to promote and ensure here. The architects are the principal stakeholders in this matter. They and their associations need to take position on this issue and organize efforts to bring about the needed change. If this does not change, the architects and their creativity are the principal losers besides, of course, the cities and even towns.

The agenda for institutional reform is much wider- and deeper- than rationalizing and improving building byelaws and regulatory framework. The architects need to muster courage and stand with conviction against unethical practices and corruption. Shortly after the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, the Home Minister of the State publicly confessed that a majority of the buildings built in Ahmedabad in the previous decade —a staggering 90 percent, according to him– were either illegal or unauthorized or violated building codes or norms in some form or the other. The reference was primarily to the builder promoted construction. The earthquake also exposed large scale irresponsible practices loaded against public safety. If architects raise their voice against such practices—public and private– chance is that they would be probably heard. Even if results do not materialize instantly, the process will build a new solidarity, a fresh togetherness, a new awareness on part of the authorities of their public accountability and a new identity for the architects among their present and potential clients.

Identifying systemic deficiencies and bringing about institutional change demand a committed leadership with a vision. What kind of leadership does the profession has? Who are the leaders and what are they doing? I have never understood this matter sufficiently but I am told that the star architects are the leaders of the profession. The professional associations also play the leadership role. Do they? What and who are they leading? What initiatives? What sharing? What mobilization? Which issues are championed? What remedies, options and strategies are suggested? A leader must lead, give, inspire, set example, even sacrifice. Whom are they inspiring? What are they giving? Is the word `sacrifice’ heard anywhere at that level? Is not the public good versus private interest the most obvious feature of the leadership issue?

This seemingly critical and what could so easily be seen as ‘negative’ portrayal of the profession is not out of negativity or frustration or anything of that sort. It is also not an outsider’s view based on ignorance, prejudice or ideological baggage. It is an ‘insider’s view, based on experience and born out of a concern that the architects, as a community, as professionals, as privileged citizens could do much more, serve many more and contribute so much more meaningfully. This stems from an understanding that given the attitudinal and orientational changes, they could be leaders in making our cities and settlements better places to live and work.

Architecture is a noble profession. In the hands of its conscientious practitioners it is a medium to serve the people and also the environment. It combines both art and science. Culture and technology are its pillars. It is a vehicle to translate ideas and dreams into reality. It embraces both: reality and vision, creativity and practicality. It has been there from the dawn of the civilization and will always be there. However, the way it is perceived and practiced, it needs to move from monuments to people, from magazine pages to practical life, from the elite to the common people and, in a way, from top to bottom, from a pedestal to the ground. That would take nothing from its halo, its mystique and its nobility. It will only be richer.

Architecture as a subject, as an art form, as Shashtra, is too big and ancient to be treated casually. But the architecture profession, as perceive and practiced now, certainly needs a rethink, a paradigm shift. The multiple crisis—energy, water, space, resources, ecology and governance—, new technologies, changing social equations and emerging realities in the globalizing cities make it imperative that the building professionals re-educate — both de-learning and re-learning are called for—and reequip themselves. And a degree of de-professionalization of the conventional professional, in terms of attitudinal shift, client choices and priorities, is a necessary part of the change.

by Noorjehan Bilgrami

“Kaisee ho?” – a questioning nod with a half raised eyebrow, that was how Arshad would greet me. It seemed he did not quite expect an answer nor would he wait to hear the response, he would move on to address the meeting or the reason for being together.

He appeared as someone shy, unable to reveal his emotions – almost as if protecting himself and equally wary of getting inadvertently pulled into any emotional tangle.

I first met Arshad in 1985, when I requested him to redesign my shop, Koel, (at that time located in the annexe of our house). I needed fresh input to make a complete change in the shop. Some of the buildings designed by ASA had impressed me – simple, clean lines and meticulous detailing were the hallmark of their work.

Arshad had a soft demeanour and gentle approach but was very analytical when it came to planning. After two or three site visits, I was surprised when he brought his brother, Shahid Abdulla, to the site to ask his advice about the colour scheme. Later, I realized how very inseparable the two were. To Arshad’s perhaps cold, but well resolved plan, Shahid added the warmth, bathed it with the ‘magic.’ Arshad’s forte was planning while interior design was the preserve of Shahid, his closest friend and most trusted companion.

Text: Ar. Tariq Alexander Qaiser
Photography: ASA & varied sources

If the measure of a man is in the manner in which he is remembered,
If the humanity of a man is in the number of people he has impacted,
If the integrity of a man is in the strength of his word,
If the importance of a man is in the institutions he has nurtured,
If the capability of a man is in the tasks he has completed,
If the legacy of a man is in what he leaves behind,
If the humility of a man is in how he treads,
Arshad Abdulla is a man we would do well to emulate.

It is very difficult to write about a personality such as Arshad sahib. The need to do justice by him and his life is a task that lays heavily on the heart and mind. The affection and esteem with which he is held can only be truly understood through the eyes of people who have had the privilege to interact with him.

Arshad sahib will always be remembered by many of us first and foremost as a teacher. He has trained and developed a large number of architects that have walked through his office. The learning received was not restricted to design or detail, or confined to level and plumb. If you joined his team his goal was to hone a better human, a capable professional a caring person and a compassionate citizen. We hope we approach his ideal, but he was a perfectionist, and truth be told the day one is satisfied is the day the ideal is lost. He lived thus; the search for improvement in ones work could not be stopped.

Reevaluation of the merits of a design was constant. The search for the correct, the appropriate was perpetual. In our younger days many of us would fall prey to impatience, but yet the inquiring and questioning continued. The why and how it could and should, be better was not only put to us, but very clearly to himself. Arshad sahib’s desire to improve himself, us and his office was evident and self explanatory. He however, had always extended his thoughts beyond his immediate context and needs. In his own words: “the stakes are much larger”, was said in context to us as a nation and country. There was a burning desire to serve community through education. This led him to work towards the Citizens Foundation, and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Both of these are institutions that need no elaboration. Arshad Abdulla has been a leading founder member of both these eminent organizations.

Copyright © 2012 ADA: Architecture Design Art.