What happened to your house?

Ahmad Rafay Alam April 30, 2010

When the English were in India, yearning for the motherland, some fancied building themselves country garden style mansions along the Hooghly River. One monsoon later and they were regretting their decision. Within a generation, the English – still adamant to have a country garden – had figured out how to handle the local climate.

They put their bungalows in the middle of large gardens and surrounded them with trees. The trees cooled passing air and acted as the first line of defence against the heat. Then there were verandas – designed to block sunlight and provide shade – eighteen-inch thick walls, tall ceilings, roshandans and so on. A veritable arsenal to beat the heat. It worked, of course, but had its drawbacks.

The major one being that one needed at least an acre or two to build such a structure. Throughout history, the people of South Asia were a rural society, with a few exceptions: the Mughals, the Sikh and the English. These few urban experiences have a definite urban architecture. You’ll find in the old bazaars of Peshawar and the walled cities of Multan and Lahore the same, slender, three or four-storied kothis and havelis. These structures also had their own highly sophisticated manner of dealing with the local climate.

Built side by side, they never had more than one wall exposed to the elements. Considerations of privacy meant there was never a premium on outward facing windows. Homes in our part of the world were usually inward facing and designed to face common courtyards. The courtyard, in turn, acted as an air cooling system with the rising hot air sucking in cool air from the ground.

If you were to take note of the houses being built in Pakistan today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of the traditional building techniques employed in their construction, if at all. There are good reasons for this lack of vocabulary, for lack of a better word. One is that our most sought after urban template – think of any private housing scheme – has, for some reason of the other, opted to follow the English model of outward facing house. Another is the air-conditioner and yet another is cement.

Cement has, for all practical purposes, made the age-old art of masonry redundant. Building with mortar and stone is an art. With brick and cement, you can even train a monkey to build a structure. Without the expertise of a trained mason, modern homes are built to be energy inefficient. Brick and cement have terrible thermal properties, so using them willy-nilly will convert any structure into an oven in the summer and a freezer in the winter.

But that’s okay because we now have airconditioners. Air-conditioners have been, in many ways, the last nail in the coffin of traditional architecture. With this electricity guzzling beast, the outside environment has become redundant and no longer worthy of being a design element. You can actually date divide our architecture into two phases: before and after the AC. After the AC, note the disappearance of the chajja. After the AC, note the abundance of outside facing windows.

After the AC, notice the advent of loadshedding. When Le Corbusier and his contemporaries were trying to find ways to make early 20th century cities more liveable, they eschewed the designs and traditions of the past. To them, existing architecture – think the structures built to salute business and industry of the Industrial Revolution – reflected social inequalities. To break through the rigid class barriers of the past, they began designing structures with sleek, minimalist lines.

They thought minimalism would make cities more democratic by removing differences between people. Their ideas were wildly successful, but few realised the cost of doing so. In eschewing the designs and traditions of the past, they had also erased their links to a rich historical tradition. The architectural vocabulary of Pakistan’s urban architecture has also severed its links with its past. But it appears to have done so without, at least, a reason. This is our loss, as we have lost our links with our own rich traditions.

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