Sometimes small offices remind me of Franz Kafka and I imagine a great writer of the future stuck in these suffocating structures, submerged in a world of his own. Or an artist living in a rundown housing complex, busy working in his tiny studio, yet includes a vast arena in his imagery. Or a singer and actor, who has spent his childhood and adolescence in crowded and congested houses of an old city where he has observed people and learnt his first lesson in how to imitate them or copy other singers.
In a sense, one admires big, monumental buildings but at the same time one is aware of these small structures, which have produced brilliant minds of literary, artistic, and intellectual circles. It is in this context that one questions the divide between large-scale (designed) public buildings and ordinary houses, which are erected without any planning or precision.
There is also another point to ponder about these spaces. What is the purpose of huge structures? Is it to provide comfort for people living there or to flaunt creative genius of the architects? These are queries which cannot be answered, since one notices that if buildings affect people, the inhabitants also transform these places. It is usually observed that a building is designed and constructed in pristine scheme, almost replicating its model presented for project’s approval; but as soon as the structure is complete, it is transformed in accordance to its residents’ routine.
Often, you see freshly-washed laundry put on strings suspended between walls, planters covering niches and windows, creeper vines concealing facades and banners hiding architectural details and significant sections of the original design.
Sometimes, these temporary interventions are not enough, and the structure is modified, too, as was the case with Cordoba Mosque at Mozang Chungi, Lahore in which the actual building created by Nayyar Ali Dada was amended to include shops that could support and sustain the income of in-charge of the mosque’s affairs.
A designed space is domesticated by public, but in reality architecture also is dependant upon its public sphere and environment. Gautam Bhatia, the Indian architect turned writer (in his book Punjabi Baroque) quotes Mahatma Gandhi, “the ideal house should be built of materials that are to be found within a five-mile radius of the site.”
Looking at the public structures of the Islamic Republic, one realises that as we are keen in tracing our origins to Turkey, Iran and Central Asian regions, and our religious ties with the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, in our public architecture, we are proud to import and incorporate Western materials.
Or, on the other extreme, we feel happy in reproducing what we had as our Mughal heritage; hence, the Prime Minister Secretariat in Islamabad and Allama Iqbal International Airport Lahore, two buildings which in their exteriority remind, not of a Mughal monument, but an idea of historical grandeur.
It would be interesting to note that while a person planning to build a house for his family is not merely concerned about a living space, but about the manifestation of his ideas, ideals and aspirations in concrete; likewise a nation constructing public buildings, is projecting its notions of identity, hence often a pastiche or parody of the past.
In comparison to these, the Alhamra Arts Centre and the Gaddafi Cricket Stadium in Lahore convey how a public building can have its connection with history that is not confined to the Mughal era but to the tradition of the Indus Valley Civilisation as well as to the Colosseum from the Roman period.
These buildings encompass links from many eras of history, which in our present circumstances is important (even though some of these have cleaning issues for high glass windows or exit passages); because these reaffirm that we are heirs of a larger and diverse human tradition, in comparison to regional heritage.
In fact, if a person walks on the streets of housing colonies of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Multan, Peshawar, Quetta and other cities of Pakistan, even small houses show that we are not part of a specific convention in architecture, but we can pick and utilise what we want and can afford.
Perhaps the best illustration of public spaces are hotels, cinemas and shopping malls which, by and large defy any compulsion to connect with a specific vernacular architecture; instead these follow a pattern that sometimes includes segments from indigenous culture as well as facilities which are at par with contemporary style of living. In their interiors, shops, food, and art on display, these are authentic specimens of international, even if it is the Capitalist Internationale!