A View of Architectural Education

(I apologise for writing this paper in the first person. It sounds pretentious. However, since I have not translated my personal experiences into some form of theory, or even rationalised them properly, I have no other alternative.)

I began my architectural practice in 1968. In the first ten years of my practice, I not only designed houses and work places for the rich but I also designed large scale housing complexes and townships for developers. Some of these housing complexes and townships were ostensibly meant for low income groups but in reality the end product never reached them. I also worked for government agencies, such as the Appropriate Technology Development Organisation (ATDO), doing research and experimental work on “low cost housing”. Working for the ATDO I realised that the issue was not really of technology but of equitable relationships between the various actors in the building drama. During this entire period I was involved in politics in a limited way and had an interest in Pakistan’s history and sociology. These interests took me to the rural areas, congested inner cities, and peri-urban informal settlements. I wrote extensively on physical and social conditions of the areas I visited and my architectural practice financed these involvements. In addition, I had grown up in relative affluence in a settlement which contained a large number of poor refugee families and destitute groups. After I started practicing, many of my childhood acquaintances and friends from these groups came to ask me for assistance in acquiring land and building their homes. Through them a number of organisations from low income settlements asked for assistance in dealing with government development agencies for improving their settlements.

Through this process of practicing and related involvements, I learnt six important things.

  1. The built environment is the result of the nature of relationships between different actors who are responsible for creating it. The environment is invariably better where relationships are more equitable. To make them more equitable it is necessary to support the weaker actors. The state, I learnt, was simply one other actor (and so was the architect) and in many cases, not the most important one. These actors include among others, informal sector entrepreneurs, transporters, land-grabbers, small building contractors, money lenders and the middlemen who are the go-betweens between them and a corrupt and uncaring officialdom. The planning process and its implementation is subject to manipulation by powerful interest groups which include formal sector developers, bureaucrats and politicians. A nexus between them, the law enforcing agencies and various mafias operating in the city, make a mockery of this process.
  2. Not more than two to five per cent of all buildings built in Pakistan are designed by architects. The rest are built by their owners with the help of skilled labour or by contractors and it has always been so in our history. However, traditionally the relationship between the owner, artisan, institutions that provided land and materials for construction, was well-defined and backed by a hereditary caste system and local level community institutions. These arrangements no longer function and the new arrangements that are surfacing have yet to be clearly defined. The absence of this definition is a major cause for the crisis the built environment faces, not only in lower income settlements, but in the urban and rural areas as a whole.
  3.  The quality of design and the end product in architecture is directly related not only to the architect’s understanding of the sociology and economics of the user groups, but to a whole range of cultural and organisational aspects. These include the nature of building bye-laws and the manner of their application; the organisational culture of the implementing agency; and the various rules and regulations of tendering for and monitoring construction. In addition, it is also related to the systems of maintenance and operation of services and in the long run to land use changes in the area.
  4. In almost all cases, environmentally “friendly” buildings are not the result of “originality” on the part of the architect but of humility, modesty, and a sympathetic appreciation of development related issues.
  5. Problems related to “rehabilitation” and “conservation” are seldom local in origin. They are always the result of city level economic, environmental, administrative and/or planning issues.
  6. Almost all projects, especially those for low income communities, are seldom used in the manner for which they are planned. Major changes take place in them after people start living there or start using them. This gap points to a conflict between theory and standards on the one hand and the social and cultural reality on the other.

In addition, architectural education, in Pakistan at least, does not promote a study and interest in local materials and in energy related issues. The result is excessive costs of construction and maintenance and climatically an extremely uncomfortable architecture. Form seems to dominate all other aspects of design and breeds a megalomania which is reflected in the vulgarity and scale of the new architect-designed urban landscape. It is this megalomania which is also responsible to a great extent in destroying the tranquillity and natural environment of rural settlements. These architect-designed buildings are the models that are replicated in part by contractors, individual builders and artisans.

Like many architects of my generation I started to question the conventional role of an architect working in a Third World city. I saw clearly that my work did not deal with any of the issues related to the crisis of the built environment in Karachi or in the other areas of Pakistan where I was working. Nor was the work that I was doing, even the so-called low cost housing, affordable to the vast majority of my countrymen. I also realised that my training as an architect did not equip me to play a role that was of much relevance to the reality around me. This was because my training did not equip me in changing relationships; in relating design to the organisational culture of public and private sector agencies; in respecting and promoting modesty and humility; in reconciling architectural theory and standards derived from First World literature, to local social reality; in relating local level issues to city-wide processes; or in developing a sympathetic understanding of the poor who are considered to be a major cause for the degradation of the urban environment. I also had the little understanding of the importance of bye-laws and zoning regulations in shaping the built environment. I just took them for granted and followed them accordingly. In short, my training did not teach me to innovate. In a society which is in transition and does not conform to any known theoretical framework, there could be no greater constraint for appropriate professional work. I also realised the importance of conventional architectural work and that not all architects could or would be willing to look at the larger issues of the built environment. However, it was obvious that if they were aware of the factors, actors and relationships that produced this environment, the end product in design would be very different and so would the design process.

When I looked around I found that almost all the major planning and architectural tragedies in Pakistani cities (and I saw only tragedies!) were the result of the shortcomings I have described above. The fault in all these projects was the lack of understanding on the part of architects and planners of political, social, economic and administrative realities and their inability to involve interest groups in the planning and implementation processes. It was their failure to predict change, and hence plan for it and to identify the actors that would be involved in it. It was their lack of concern for eventual maintenance and operation of the buildings and the systems they were proposing. It was the flaw in the assumptions on which they worked, assumptions drawn from the First World experience in which the informal sector and community efforts that serve the needs of the majority of Pakistanis, do not figure. And finally, as a group, the architectural profession was unwilling to participate in any citizen’s movements for a better physical and social environment or to struggle to promote transparency and accountability in the planning processes in which they were involved, without which equitable relationships between the actors in the built environment drama can not be achieved. This unwillingness was a result of a lack of knowledge and understanding of ground realities and of the close relationship that exists between the physical, and the social and political environment. It was also the result of fear; hostility and suspicion that the profession has towards lower middle and lower income groups, who are usually the supporters of such initiatives, and the result of justifying their participation in a system of opportunism and exploitation.

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