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Designing a new identity

Architecture is a field that is still in its infancy, a fact that many tend to forget while pointing to the lack of development within it

Designing a new identity

The recent death of British-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, and the subsequent eulogising of her incredible works on social media has refocused attention on a discipline of the arts that is around us in various forms, omnipresent in every aspect of our lives, yet one that is so functional that we tend to take it for granted.

Yes, architecture is about function but a look at the buildings that Hadid created around the world — whether it is the fluid, glittering Guangzhou Opera House in China or the modern, zig-zagging Riverside Museum in Scotland — is a reminder that architecture can be uplifting, beautiful and thought-provoking.

Pakistan has its fair share of architectural marvels that inspire awe, be it remnants of the Mughal era, such as the Badshahi Mosque, colonial masterpieces, such as the Lahore Museum and the Frere Hall in Karachi, or post-colonial structures, such as the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. Yet, chances are that were you to step out of your house and look at the city around you today, you would encounter a motley crew of designs and structures with no unifying theme and diminishing aesthetic value. Is one, then, to believe that present-day Pakistan lacks a distinct architectural identity?

Eminent architect, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, while making a clear distinction between traditional and contemporary architecture in the country, is of the opinion that the latter is certainly in the throes of an identity crisis. “Contemporary architecture in Pakistan is confused and chaotic, and lacks a distinct character; its only identifiable feature being that it is aping the West. We are producing buildings like those in Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, and Manhattan without the resources and the technical know-how of these countries. The results are poor imitations at best.”

With glass towers and glitzy high-rises starting to dominate the urban landscape, it is hard to disagree with Mumtaz. Yet, the blame does not necessarily lie with the creative minds (the architects in this case).

According to Fauzia Qureshi, one of Pakistan’s best-known female architects, many of the lapses in judgment and aesthetic are, in fact, demanded by the powers that be. “We are often forced to give in to the whims and fancies of the client and every so often, form takes precedent over function. Take the recent trend of erecting glass towers, inspired by cities, such as Dubai and London. Environmentally, ours is not a country or climate suited for buildings made of glass; yet they continue to pop up, mistakenly thought to be signs of progress and modernity.”

While the architectural landscape may have changed dramatically in recent times, not all of these changes have been for the worse, says Qureshi, “There has been a shift in recent times and contemporary architects are looking towards indigenous and traditional influences. The Serena Hotel is one example of a building that merges the modern with the traditional very intelligently and sensitively.”

While the architectural landscape may have changed dramatically in recent times, not all of these changes have been for the worse. “Contemporary architects are looking towards indigenous and traditional influences,” says Fauzia Qureshi, one of Pakistan’s best-known female architects.

Her own work focuses on using indigenous materials, such as brick, as well as on the importance of conserving old buildings. Currently working on restoring the GPO in Murree, Qureshi stresses on the need for the new generation of architects to learn from Pakistan’s varied architectural history that includes myriad influences, such as Mughal, Sikh, Turkish, Central Asian, Persian and British. “You can’t reinvent the wheel, you have to learn from the past,” she says.

That is a sentiment echoed by many of the country’s younger architects, intent on fusing the traditional with the modern in order to give local architecture its own unique flavour. Principal Architect at the Lahore-based firm Construct, Imran Zafar believes that contrary to popular belief, present-day architecture in Pakistan has a distinct identity.

Read also: “We have not caught the threads so far”

“Pakistan has evolved its own response to modernity through time and this has resulted in a defined architectural expression. Having said that, the choice to follow that idiom has not been widespread and that results in many buildings being ‘out of time and place’; yet to say that the idiom doesn’t exist would be undermining our own cultural ethos. For me, the main trends of this modern expression are using brickwork as an exterior element structurally without adorning it, without the need to localise it by using arches or other crutches,” he states.

An embodiment of this modern expression, according to Zafar, is the Alhamra Arts Council on the Mall Road, Lahore. Designed by Nayyar Ali Dada it is “a building in Lahore and of Lahore; yet it doesn’t carry any embellishment or skin to make it look so.”

Indeed, much of Dada’s work is characterised by his use of local material and techniques, without overt displays of ornamentation that others may resort to in an attempt to localise their work. It is this inherent sense of modernity that has established him as one of the pioneers in the field of architecture in Pakistan.

It is a field that is still in its infancy, a fact that many tend to forget while pointing to the lack of development within it. “Post-partition, Pakistan inherited a very small pool of architects,” explains Qureshi. “There were only two schools, one in Lahore and one in Karachi, that were producing architectural assistants, not fully qualified architects, from 1947 to 1963, which is when the University of Engineering and Technology was set up that offered proper architectural studies.”

This could well explain why, when the newly-established country set about building its capital in the shadows of the Margalla Hills, its custodians had to turn towards the West in search of the architects who could lay down the foundations for Islamabad and its prominent buildings. The city’s master plan was designed by Greek architect, Constantinos Doxiadis, while American architect, Edward Durrell Stone, designed the President’s House and the parliament building.

Happily, the profession today is vastly different, with a large pool of local architects who have established a reputation for excellence. Zafar sums up the current scenario succinctly, “In the past two decades, art and architecture both have had a revival in Pakistan. I feel things are looking up; you can see how well our artists have done internationally, exploring the cultural ethos of Pakistan. In the same vein, architects have also evolved, their works still confined to Pakistan for now, but in time I am sure they will take their rightful place in the international architectural community.”

Mariam Mushtaq

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