ArchitectureArtDesign

A FUTURE FOR THE PAST

Issue | 13
Text | Aasim Akhtar
Photography | Sajid Munir

Echoing Le Corbusier’s famous dictum that “architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”, the architect Naeem Pasha describes architecture as “building with light”, thus underlining the close and symbiotic relationship that has existed ever since his practice. Naeem Pasha holds a distinct place in recent contemporary Pakistani architecture. His signature projects and environments have animated a debate about his methodological process – a combination of heretical doubt about the status quo, research, ingenious experimentation, and exhortatory engagement. It is important to begin sketching in some of the There is the choreography of space and light in complex interrelated patterns, overlapping and coalescing.

enunciation of his guiding principles. In its expression, in spite of several questionable aspects in its design, the NAG has managed to fulfil its intended purpose, and has brought about an increased awareness of Islamic society within the city as well as establishing the cultural bridge it sought to build. Because of this major achievement, as well as its ingenious transformation of traditional elements, the project is most certainly deserving of the recognition it has already received. NAG is a microcosm of the city with courtyards, side lanes, tall light wells, the experience of anticipation, surprise, deflection, framed vistas, compression, spatial explosion, an outdoor terrace, a loggia, a gallery,

a secretive staircase, places of serenity and peace, and a sparkling pool. One is reminded instantly of Christopher Alexander’s ‘Pattern Language’ and the experience of walking through an urban environment such as Sienna or Jaisalmer. There is the choreography of space and light in complex interrelated patterns, overlapping and coalescing. A myriad moods and memories are condensed into a single structure. Overall there is a feeling of immense calm, a sense of timelessness. Pasha wanted to incorporate the basic principles of traditional Islamic design into contemporary architectural language. He especially wanted to use the idea of a courtyard, considering it an indispensable element of Islamic building design. Anonymous and blank facades, as well as a clear hierarchy between the The National Art Gallery building reflects Islamic principles of geometry and composition.

A myriad moods and memories are condensed into a single structure. Overall there is a feeling of immense calm, a sense of timelessness. contextual relationships as a way to understand why the issues that stem from broader arenas of social and cultural content, which Pasha’s work has brought to the fore, are timely and critical. His will to engage his audience and his strategies to do so intrinsically embedded in his method, can be best examined in the architecture of the National Art Gallery in Islamabad. Conceived initially with the then partner, Sohail Abbasi, the NAG for all its experimental look, specific forms, and essential functions, is a livable structure exemplary of the architect’s practice and the

It is one of those rare buildings that have managed to successfully marry a traditional style of architecture with a modern vocabulary, taking the brick façade of the haveli and turning it into a modern building of note. private and public spaces were also considered to be of prime importance. The whole physical mass of the building’s structure had, of course, to appear to be homogeneous. The National Art Gallery building reflects Islamic principles of geometry and composition. It is one of those rare buildings that have managed to successfully marry a traditional style of architecture with a modern vocabulary, taking the brick façade of the haveli and turning it into a modern building of note. If nothing else, its soaring lobby with its vaulted streets and chequerboard floors remains imprinted as a magic space in the mind’s eye. The Gallery has been arranged so as to occupy levels going from the first to the third floors.

The different ceiling heights and diversified levels add to the visual effects of the exhibition spaces. Administration and office spaces are all on the ground floor, set in a curvilinear, crescent-like arrangement. The interior spaces are juxtaposed at all levels. Most of the spatial and functional units are interconnected with each other, the ‘see- through’ effect visually uniting the interior spaces. Naeem Pasha demonstrates a firm grasp of poetics. He exploits the relationship between inside and outside and capitalises on the shifting patterns of sun and shadow. He choreographs spatial experience to make the most of a limited area, and orchestrates views from the landscape into the exhibition spaces. The enchanting qualities of tropical rainfall are captured without the intrusion of walls or glazing. Breezes are induced by careful orientation and sizing of window openings. The notion of transparency is explored with the opening up of the interior that is the antithesis of the spatial qualities of the original art gallery. The wall which traditionally blocked the immediate view of the interior is dematerialised, becoming an open system of display interaction. The interior spaces are layered with a general feeling of lightness and clarity in the studied juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal elements. Sunlight penetrates through a circular glazed roof light and moves like a sundial across the room. The movement of sunlight across the ivory wall is delightful in the late afternoon and evening. Light, of course, had mystical qualities for architect Naeem Pasha, and was one of the most important considerations in his design of the National Art Gallery building in Islamabad. In the same way as Larsen, Pasha has also recognised the need to control the full glare of the sun in a region in which direct exposure can be fatal. Lighting in the National Art Gallery building was designed to be effected by a combination of diffused natural and artificial light. Maintaining a consistent illumination level, a balance between the natural and the artificial, has proven to be a challenging issue in the building. The entire exterior is made of reinforced brick masonry-bearing wall construction. Since Pakistan has abundant supplies of silt- rich clay, brick has long been a traditional and popular building material. It is both durable and inexpensive. In the recent past it has been supplanted by cement or concrete blocks which are faced with a stucco plaster. For the last century, stucco has been the most common facing material in Islamabad, but it peels and goes black with the monsoon and requires frequent whitewashing. Exposed brickwork, however, requires a minimum amount of maintenance. Pasha wanted the exposed brick work to be the only form of decoration, and so he meticulously designed sample walls, joints, arches, and stairs which were to act as models for the complex. They all had to meet his high standards.

The NAG has a double external wall with a small air cavity between. The exterior is fair- faced brickwork while the interior wall is made from reinforced concrete. The construction stands on a concrete frame structure. Columns and beams are of lathe-plastered brickwork while the floors are made predominantly of porcelain tiles from Ras-el-Kheimah in muted shades of greys and whites. The construction grid is 28’ x 56’ of a unit gallery that can be multiplied any number of times to make space for permutations and combinations. The roof is insulated with polyurethane sheets for heat and high-grip bitumen felt to provide moisture barrier, and the interior walls are painted white with temporary partitions in gypsum board. There is a studied sophistication in the juxtaposition of materials that is lacking in NAG’s more conventional neighbours. Mechanical systems installed in the NAG are very sophisticated. Building Management System consists of components imported from Germany and Spain while Japan controls smoke protectors, fire alarm, fire fighting, burglar’s alarm, and public address and music systems. Air conditioning regulates itself automatically by constantly checking and anticipating exterior and interior changes to eliminate canvas shrinkage and paper warping. Inset in the floor at the base of the ramp are fire-brick tiles. The involuntary response is to glance down to one’s feet and then upwards to appreciate the huge volume of the space. The contrast in scale is immense. Gallery 4 with its large mezzanine is almost like a café space in its scale. Thus begins a journey through the building where contrast is constantly exploited. There are a variety of spatial experiences: compressed ceiling heights in one part of the gallery contrast with the voluminous living space which expands out. One has the bodily experience of being squeezed into the vertical space accommodating the balcony that opens out into Gallery 2. Naeem Pasha has consciously manipulated spatial experience constricting views, to subsequently offer spectacular long views, compressing spaces then allowing others to leap up in volumetric expression. This utilizes a principle of what Sardjono Sani refers to metaphorically as, “lime and milk”. Even when Jean Nouvel uses the essential Islamic architectural idea of hiding a rich interior behind blank walls, he totally transforms it. Pasha’s exterior facades reflect the outside world, and bring them into the interior spaces. It may be a message indicating the way for the past’s future.

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