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‘Korangi was designed to be at war with its residents’

— Interview with Dr Ijlal Muzaffar, Associate Professor of Modern Architectural History at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island

‘Korangi was designed to be at war with its residents’

Dr Ijlal Muzaffar is an Associate Professor of Modern Architectural History at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. He has a PhD in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master of Architecture from Princeton University. He has a book coming out this year on the role played by modern architects and planners in shaping the discourse on Third World development.

Dr Ijlal Muzaffar talks to TNS about the two housing schemes proposals for partition refugees in Karachi in the 1950s, the problems they create and the lessons for contemporary planners and architects in Pakistan.

The News on Sunday: What draws you to studying the practice of architecture and urban planning in the developing world?

Ijlal Muzaffar: I am trying to understand what role architecture and urban planning projects play in the development arena.

Most often, architecture and planning projects by Western experts are criticised for imposing foreign ideas on the Third World. It’s true, many of these theories of planning and design were drawn from European and American historical contexts and they ended up completely missing the political and social complexity of the situation on the ground. But nevertheless, even in their ‘failure’, they did something else. They secured power for some, enabling them to argue how change was to occur, who needed to be displaced, modernised, settled or resettled, when and where. As I discuss in the case of Pakistan, I emphasise that these planning experts did not come in on their own. They were brought in by national governments that very much deployed their ideas to secure a certain legitimacy for their rule

TNS: One of the key binaries you contest is that of tradition versus modernity. Could you explain this further?

IM: Well, because the very idea of tradition is a modern concept, as Hobsbawm and Latour have argued. Whether posited in opposition or in continuity with, tradition is continually shaped with projects of modernity. During the colonial period, particularly British colonialism in Africa, tradition was posited as a realm outside of modernity that needed its own laws and spaces. That exclusion constituted the elaborate regime of Apartheid rule, which Mahmoud Mamdani has outlined in his seminal book Citizen and Subject. Colonial architecture and planning projects, like the ones done by British colonial architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew in Western Africa, invoke tradition as a realm outside modernity, indirectly strengthening the argument for Indirect Rule that formed the basis of Apartheid.

There is a new idea of globalism that is built on the idea of copying and mirroring. There is a new culture of the copy emerging, which is trying to de-centre the symbols of power from Europe.

This formula couldn’t be sustained in the postcolonial context. We see tradition being summoned as the origin of an alternative modernity for development. My question is: what new modes of power has this gesture of inclusion [of tradition] produced?

TNS: What is your answer?

IM: There is a form of censuring that takes place in how communities are defined in this new inclusive paradigm. New institutions of development, like the UN, and the World Bank only work with non-political forms of tradition. A new more silent form of filtering takes place. Only ideas of community that are conducive to a development project are included in these new paradigms. New de-politicised categories of culture are created for these projects — the refugee, the migrant, the inhabitant, the house. The postcolonial situation continues to produce new forms of power.

TNS: You use the examples of refugee housing in Karachi in the 1950s to explain this point. What is interesting about housing for refugees?

IM: First, I would say that calling the people who migrated to Karachi after partition ‘refugees’ is itself a misnomer. These are the only refugees in the world who are also ‘citizens.’

They had to be called ‘refugees’ after Pakistan divided its provinces on a linguistic basis. But after Pakistan declared ‘Urdu’ to be the national language, settling Urdu-speaking refugees became a ‘national’ project. Settling Urdu-speaking refugees was like settling the future of Pakistan. There is a co-relation between how you define the refugees and how you decide to settle them. This is what makes the housing projects proposed to solve the refugee-housing problem in Karachi interesting.

TNS: Can you describe the design of the two refugee housing schemes in Karachi?

IM: In 1953, Michel Ecochard, a former director of the Department of Urban Planning in the French Protectorate in Morocco, proposed to build a series of independent satellite towns in the Landhi area in Karachi to settle refugees. The design had a clear boundary and an organising internal structure. The residents of each of these towns were supposed to move from low rise housing to high rise building. This proposal was seen to be too audacious, putting all the risk of change on the government and the international sponsoring agencies, and was rejected.

In 1956, the much-famed Greek planner Constantine Doxiadis proposed a plan for Korangi Pilot project. In contrast to Echochard’s scheme, the project did not present any formal boundaries. The houses were to be allotted to refugee families incomplete. Administrative structures were to be spread so that there was no central authority. This proposal placed the responsibility of change on the refugee herself, presenting the government as merely a custodian of change. The proposal was accepted.

TNS: Why was Ecochard’s proposal rejected?

IM: Ecochard came to Pakistan from a colonial context. In his mind, it was important to clearly define the ‘frame of authority’ in a planning proposal. Ecochard thought it was important to know who was in charge so that people knew their role and who to negotiate with. This worked really well in the colonial context when no one was challenging the legitimacy of the colonial rule.

When Ecochard came to Pakistan in 1953, he thought the military-bureaucratic government was like the colonial government. He first proposed the boundaries, instead of the design of houses. As soon as the boundaries were demarcated, the issue became politicised. The refugees claimed that they were being isolated. Everyone else thought that the refugees were being given too much land. The proposal became controversial for being too ‘authoritarian.’ The military-bureaucratic government at the time simply did not have that kind of authority.

TNS: You write that Ecochard’s designs were unable to comprehend the complexity of lives in the postcolonial situation. Can you explain?

IM: Ecochard’s designs in Morroco were single-family units. The idea was that only one family would live in them. That situation simply did not exist. Most people moving to cities like Casablanca offered not only an inlet into the city’s economy to their relatives, but moved back and forth between the urban and the rural context to make ends meet. In this movement, they were joined by their parents, their uncles, their cousins and their animals.

It is not that these people do not understand modernity. This is their experience of modernity. It is more that the designer didn’t understand them. When they cannot fit all that their life entails into a small courtyard house, with their jobs, and families, and animals, we say it is their problem.

TNS: What is the source of this problem?

IM: Architects, planners, as well as historians, often end up believing that the abstract categories, like villagers, migrants, refugees, they create to tell their stories, create their designs, is equal to the reality it is supposed to represent. They forget that these are abstractions of, not essences or truths, what they represent.

Now, abstraction is necessary for understanding, for designing.

Every abstraction leaves something out of the frame. Art has developed a vocabulary to point to silences, absences, to indicate that that there is something outside its frame. Architects and planners largely have not developed such strategies of representation that can acknowledge that something is left out, that there is a limit to what architecture can do in a particular situation. The result is that when projects like Korangi fail to achieve their declared goals, it becomes the fault of the inhabitants, not the fault of the design framing that ignored the limitations and restrictions on the life of the inhabitants.

Architects, planners, as well as historians, often end up believing that the abstract categories, like villagers, migrants, refugees, they create to tell their stories, create their designs, is equal to the reality it is supposed to represent. They forget that these are abstractions of, not essences or truths, what they represent.

TNS: Is it not a burden for politics, not the architect?

IM: It is both. As public intellectuals who shape public space, architects are involved in politics, whether we acknowledge it or not. They can highlight the need for political change just as they can justify and legitimise authoritarian governments. This is a problem.

TNS: Both of these problems seem to set us up well to discuss Doxiadis. Can you describe Doxiadis’s design for Korangi?

IM: Doxiadis designed Korangi in a similar pattern to his later design for Islamabad. The idea with Korangi was it was incomplete by design; in terms of the houses, civil facilities and its boundaries.

Each sector would continue to expand over time. Doxiadis’s designs were always presented as nodes of something bigger. In Karachi, the strategy was to use open ended construction. Doxiadis proposed that most of the scheme would be built over time.

This pattern of incremental growth means that you can never criticise the planner. Whenever something does not go according to the plan, the planner can claim that the plan will be fulfilled in the future. The burden of any failure to conform to the plan falls on the inhabitants.

TNS: Why was Doxiadis’s proposal accepted?

IM: When Doxiadis was invited to Pakistan, the military government at the time wanted to appear as a custodian of the national settlement project. It preferred a project that did not present the type of central authority Ecochard proposed. The Doxiadis proposal was open-ended unlike the Ecochard proposal, which had a clear beginning and end. Doxiadis framed Korangi as a continuously expanding refugee settlement. This produces the figure of the refugee who is forever settling and becomes a way to claim that the nation is forever settling. Incompletion itself becomes a way of justifying power.

TNS: You write that Doxiadis talks about the plan for the Korangi housing scheme in almost militaristic terms. Could you explain what this means?

IM: In his communications, Doxiadis talks about the design of Korangi as a covert military operation. Calling it ‘Operation Korangi,’ Doxiadis describes the plan to be ‘like commandos entering a hostile territory.’ And that ‘sacrifices and causalities’ will be required to ‘open enemy land for conquest.’

If you look at Doxiadis’s drawings for Korangi, Islamabad and the Punjab University New Campus, they are all based on a grid system. It is the grid that represents this militaristic strategy.

The walls of every house are supposed to be on the grid. The schemes are supposed to expand along the grid — but this invisible grid is only visible to the planning office. This allows them an infinite number of ways to evict you if your house does not fit the grid.

It is the grid that becomes a way for a militaristic government to enter your space and demolish not only outer walls but things inside your house. This is what they did in the evictions [in Korangi].

Doxiadis imagines this invisible form of government that can appear from nowhere to enforce discipline. His schemes seem to give people freedom [to construct their houses] but they must conform to this invisible standard they can be willy-nilly exposed to. They remain forever vulnerable to the whims of this new form of authority.

The design explains the language of ‘stay behind forces’ that he used when describing the design. This works very authoritatively in Islamabad. The Capital Development Authority can announce it is expanding a sector and come to you to tell you that your house is lying on the boundary line and must be [partially or fully] demolished.

TNS. How is it different to Napoleon’s building of Parisian Boulevards in the 1850s?

IM: The Boulevard is for the military to enter directly. In Doxiadis’s design, the military [or power] is literally inside your house and can pop up from anywhere.

TNS: The other significant idea in the design is to give people in Korangi incomplete houses. Can you talk a bit about this?

IM: The houses were allocated in lots of different sizes. Some inhabitants were given one constructed room with an obligation to build the second room. Others were given two constructed rooms while obligated to build the other two rooms themselves.

The idea was that as their income would increase, the houses would grow. But the reality is that the houses did not grow as per plan. The people had other obligations. In 1963, the government attempted a round of evictions after blaming the failure to conform to the plan on the people. As a response, almost 150,000 residents of Korangi hoisted black flags on their houses to mark a Black Day. Seven years into the start of the scheme, the failure of the plan was obvious. But the government blamed it on the people, claiming they were not making payments or conforming to the design.

TNS: Are the protests not the more significant failure of the design? Doxiadis seemed to have designed the scheme as an anti-political project.

IM: The reality is that no matter how smart Doxiadis thought he was or the military government thought it was, people are never idle and power is never certain. Planning cannot completely destroy the possibilities of politics. Architects like to attribute too much power to their forms. Politics can always circumvent the form of the architecture.

In Korangi, people protested against the eviction campaign of 1963. The government was defeated. They did not throw everyone out. People understand that the government’s claim that it is merely a custodian is false.

But we can think of this another way. Maybe the stated goal of designing Korangi as a scheme that would prevent the rise of Communism or working class politics was just about getting foreign funds. Maybe the military government wanted the US government and World Bank to think they were fighting the communists through these housing schemes. This duality, this uncertainty, this contradiction, is entirely possible. We like to think of any government, or the state, as a monolithic entity, but it is not, and can harbour multiple, often competing, agendas.

TNS: In his book Surkh Salam, Kamran Asdar Ali notes that Korangi is one of the areas where workers are able to take over factories during the labour movement of 1972. Overtly, it seems Doxiadis’s scheme is unable to prevent the rise of left-wing politics.

IM: While this is true, there is something fundamental that Doxiadis’s design changes. In Ecochard’s designs for Karachi, industries were supposed to fund the housing projects. The underlying idea is that if the industry provides the house, the inhabitant can hold the house as hostage for job security. The American model in the time was of industrial towns where industries provide middle class housing. Doxiadis de-links housing as a responsibility for industries. The payment for housing is no longer linked to the workplace. Inhabitants can be evicted without any consequence for the industry.

TNS: Doxiadis is most famous for Islamabad, a city designed without working class housing. Can you speak of this design in light of the recent slum demolition campaign by the CDA?

IM: The idea for Doxiadis was that Rawalpindi would grow parallel to Islamabad. The working class in Islamabad would come from Rawalpindi. However, the transport links between the cities are never developed in the way he imagined.

It is interesting to see that the terms are being invoked in these demolitions are references to ‘foreign elements’ and ‘protecting capital.’ The CDA claims that the plots were sold decades ago.

The slum evictions are an example of how Doxiadis’s invisible power can pop up from below suddenly. For three decades, it does not need to invoke itself, but when it needs the land in the case of the I-11 Afghan Basti, it can appear invoking the name of the infinite grid.

TNS: Does the new pattern of gated communities fit in with this legacy?

IM: Gated communities are a different phenomenon. They are not the state’s obligation. You rely on private actors to provide basic social goods such as security, etc. which allows you to claim to be part of something global. It is a different idea of housing that is both inside and outside the national space, and obviously pertains to different class politics.

TNS: Overtly, a gated community like Bahria Town seems to provoke amusement in traditional ideas of architecture and planning for building copies of the Eiffel Tower or Trafalgar Square, yet the desire of people to live in such a place remains high. What would explain this?

IM: In a sense, a space like Bahria Town is strange. Transnational capitalism was built on the fetishisation of the original. Standing next to an ‘original’ is what is supposed to give you value. This is why I find this sensibility, which sees standing next to a copy of the Eiffel Tower as a form of privilege, to be interesting.

There is a new idea of globalism that is built on the idea of copying and mirroring. There is a new culture of the copy emerging, which is trying to de-centre the symbols of power from Europe. In China too they are making these towns that look like an Amsterdam with canals — completely outside their social history. They are laughed at in US and Western architecture magazines as more examples of Chinese producing copies. The de-bunking misses the different ways in which elites claim power in the non-West. These examples show that all roads to claiming status and power do not lead, or pass through Europe.

TNS: Is this another case of a ‘foreign problem’? If you get rid of foreign urban planners and bring in Pakistani urban planners and architects, do you avoid the pitfalls of Ecochard and Doxiadis?

IM: This would be to miss the point. It is the national government, which invites the foreign architects. You cannot see it in insider-outsider terms. It is much more of a question of which boundaries are you willing to cross.

Any Pakistani architect or planner can similarly fetishise his own culture too and be completely oblivious to certain class politics and social complexities. Places like Bahria Town may be able to produce desire, but they continue to exclude lots of people. This is why the real question for design and planning is: how do you acknowledge the limits of design itself, acknowledge those whose exclusion have made planning possible?

The answer depends on the politics of the architect or planner, not where they are born. You need to understand both what you don’t know and unlearn what you think you know about the situation before you plan. We need to demand more from architects and planner. Our inspirations should not just come from romanticised ideas of culture and history (sanctioned by the state and sanctified by international institutions), but from the contradictions of political history, from the residues of class, gender and minority struggles, especially when it is a question of complex social change.

TNS: Is there such a thing as ‘good planning’ in terms of housing? If so, what would it look like?

IM: Planning is a different animal if working with a welfare state in place. When there is a welfare state working, people who are left outside are supposed to have something to help them.

If we claim that planning is going to build the welfare state, this is a fiction. Planning alone cannot do so. The best planning is one that recognises its limits and points out the need for larger social and political change.

This is an extended version of the interview that was published in The News on Sunday on May 14, 2017.

Hashim Bin Rashid

Hashim bin Rashid
The author teaches at the Beaconhouse National University. He may be reached at [email protected]

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