The Role of an Architect in Pakistan


At all times there have been two spheres of building. Modern planning terminology refers to them as the formal and informal sectors. Our profession is born out of the former, whose components are capital, client (state or the rich), architect and contractor. In addition, colonial occupation, imported education and more recently the communication revolution, have imposed a methodology, technical vocabulary and aesthetic grammar which desperately need modification, so as to render them appropriate to our climate, technological limitations and economic reality.

The components of the informal sector were the user, organized artisanal skill and a long tradition. The last two have been lost due to major social changes, the introduction of new tools and technologies, and the growth of urban settlements, whose size for the first time in history is not proportionally related to agricultural surplus or trade affluence.

An important role of the architect is increasingly to help make the formal sector appropriate and the informal sector viable. For this, his education must help him to innovate professionally, to pressurize politically and to help the poor as an “enabler”.

The present role of an architect in Pakistan can be judged from the fact that his involvement, direct or indirect, in creating the built environment is negligible. There are those who feel that even this involvement is detrimental to the growth of an appropriate architecture and that the end result is, in the majority of cases, no better than that produced by engineers and contractors.

What the role of an architect should be, is something which has been discussed in national seminars and behind closed doors. The consensus seems to be that architects must have a say in national development and must also serve the urban poor. To achieve a say is possible through lobbying, political pressure and some form of “trade unionism”. What is important, however, is that once this has been achieved, what is the architect, given his present role, going to ‘say’? This calls for discussion not only on architecture but on all the factors that influence it, and also on development. As far as the urban poor are concerned, it is just as well that the profession does not serve them. Given an architect’s training and thinking, he can only create ruins for them, such as the utility walls of the Karachi Metrovilles, and certain redevelopment projects in the city centre.

However, the most important function of an architect is to create a comfortable architecture, comfortable in the widest sense of the word, and related to the economic constraints and technological limitations of the society in which he lives. This is an aspect which has received scant attention. Maybe it lacks the glamour and drama of the other two points mentioned by me, but it is central to a meaningful future role.

The cause of the problems faced by our profession lies to a great extent in the manner in which it has developed in our country in the recent past. Economic and political factors also play an important role. We have failed to relate the technological revolution to our real needs, and failed to fully grasp the fact that our societies have changed overnight. As such we have failed to relate our work and thinking to growing urban needs. It would be worthwhile to look at these issues in their historical context.
At all times in history there have been, roughly speaking, two spheres in building. Modern planning terminology refers to these as the formal and informal sectors. Our profession in its present form is born out of the activities in the former sector, whose components are capital, client, architect, contractor and artisanal skills.

Formal Sector

The formal sector has had three distinct areas of operation. First, it has served to glorify the state, which in most cases was also religion. In this area of operation the architect designed and built impressive civic and religious buildings to overawe the governed. An important factor in design was the use of the current technology to its limit. Thus we have the temples of Karnak, the Pantheon in Rome and the Cathedral of Chartres, and, one may add, the palace of Versailles. In many cases, building material and artisanal skills were imported from long distances, as in the case of the temples of Angor Vat. In other cases the countryside was taxed to impoverishment to pay for this glorification of the state. Shah Jehan’s India is a relevant example and so is the Egypt of Mohammad Ali. However, in those days the size of a city was related to the extent of agricultural surplus, trade affluence, and the speed of communication. The latter was slow and hence the hinterland of cities was small. It was only during wars, famines and pestilence that this balance was upset, and as long as the urban centres were happy, the peasantry could be crushed.

Today things are different, and the size of the cities is controlled by factors which have not yet been properly assessed or understood. The old countryside – city relationship is destroyed, and in the words of a well-known social scientist “our cities centres are ringed with volcanoes”. I do not wish to go into the problems of urban growth, for they have been repeated ad nauseum, and the prophets of doom have made their prophecies. What I would like to state is that, in spite of all this, we still build our Taj Mahals and Pyramids, and tax technology to its limit. We build grand public buildings which cannot be maintained due to lack of funds. We construct air-conditioned mosques which cannot function as such due to lack of power; there are hotels which can never begin to pay off their loans to public corporations. All the modern gadgetry and technology is imported and installed in our state architecture and it either quickly falls into disuse, or its cost of maintenance is so exorbitant, that funds have to be diverted from more important sources to deal with this problem.

No state in the world today can survive without the support or involvement of its people, and no people can be overawed any longer by any architecture, for they know that it is they who are financing it. It is essential therefore that architecture for propaganda, since it cannot be done away with, should be related to economic realities and government policies on imports and energy. There should be no exceptions. The architect in a Third World country must resist becoming a tool of international industrial monopolies.

The second area of operation in the formal sector is utilitarian and community use buildings. In the British period before technology became a God, the municipal engineer designed and supervised these buildings. Our towns have a large number of such buildings. Some are extremely good pieces of architecture, and most of them are functional, cool in summer and warm in winter.

The municipal engineer had a tradition behind him, developed by the pioneers of the British Raj. His battle was primarily against the Indian climate. Since communication was not as easy as it is today, local materials had to be used for construction. He also drew upon elements of Gothic and Renaissance buildings to adorn his structures. If he was adventurous, he incorporated certain Indian elements as well. The formal education of a municipal engineer was short. It lasted only 2 years. However, he had a long apprenticeship, and his work as a junior engineer brought him into contact with the people and their problems, local materials, technology, and skills. Ruins of older civilizations littered the cities arid the countryside where he worked. He had no option but to build on these elements, and there was no screen of junior officials that acted as intermediaries between him and the field. In addition, he had the leisure to contemplate and lived in an age where it was possible for an individual to innovate.

Things changed when urban centres expanded and larger populations had to be catered for. The results of the industrial revolution influenced engineering, which was divided into specialized fields. Steel and reinforced concrete revolutionized construction, and the old skills and materials were considered backward and reactionary. The new engineer had a longer period of study in his specialized field, and the nature of his education with almost no apprenticeship, robbed him of his former vision. The communication revolution made it possible for him to acquire the materials he was trained to use, at his doorstep. Since the stress on industry and technology was important, the costs were irrelevant. A professional trained to design complex structures, and even more complex urban services, was called upon to design public buildings and housing schemes. The result is before us, and one need not press the point further.

Today, most community use buildings are designed by architects and they are far from comfortable. The cause of this lies in the architect’s training. We have imported a ready-made system of architectural education. This lays stress upon results and axioms developed under different social, climatic and technological conditions. It deals only in passing with the process and methodology whereby these results were achieved and the conditions under which they were made possible. As such, it has killed innovation and pioneering. It has also created a gulf between indigenous technology and materials and the profession.

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