Do You Know Your City – Webinar II

On July 24, Architecture Design Art hosted their second webinar and the sixth edition of their signature series of seminars ‘Do You Know Your City?’ The theme of this session was City & Urbanism: Disconnect and Discontentment, featuring speakers from across the globe, marking it as DYKYC’s first transnational discussion. Architect Zarminae Ansari, based in the United Arab Emirates moderated the session and the speakers included Maria Aslam, Editor-in-Chief of ADA Magazine based in Karachi, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, based in Lahore; Ashraf Salama based in the UK with work revolving heavily around the Global South and Doha; and Attilio Petruccioli, based in Trani, Italy. These astounding individuals were came together to generate a theoretical discussion based on the global situation in, around, and beyond COVID-19 and featured a general discussion on the study and formation of cities.

Ansari began by requesting the panelists to reflect upon their journey while also presenting specific questions to the speakers regarding their work, contextualized in the mise-en-scène of the COVID-19 pandemic and the future towards which they are moving.

To Ashraf Salama, Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow, UK, Ansari questioned whether the research domains of sociology, anthropology, and behavioral sciences would be conducive in making policy decisions regarding the current state of affairs or speculate the influence lifestyle choices may have on the design of the coming future. Tangentially, she questioned how this economic downturn affecting migrant workers and transient cities could potentially transform into unprecedented growth.

Beginning with a broader view, Salama commented on how social issues such as special needs, accessibility, displaced communities, squatter settlements, heritage issues, sustainability and so on, are products of the evolution of society, and that it is imperative that we, as citizens, policymakers, and planners delve into these issues for the incoming transformation of the framework we plan within. He implored that the architect must engage with the community to understand the urban dynamics that have evolved over time, for example in the transient community of Gulf region, how class disparity and income inequality function and manifest within the built environment.

He elaborated introducing two frameworks that would allow for a better understanding of the dynamics, transformation, and housing choices of the community, which would further improve the planning practices for future cities, both of which allow the inclusion of a diverse range of categories and considerations. The first stems from the production of space and the three categories of spaces – conceived, perceived, and lived. As conceptualized by the planner, how the concept is interpreted, and the subjective meanings created by the actual use of the space.

The second, is the concept of transdisciplinarity; involving the domains of sociology, anthropology and ethnography – and beyond – to understand housing typologies and choices. Recognizing that the idea of status, past experiences, their careers, and their desire to remain integrated or removed from the community influences the housing choices of the citizen.

Salama ended by pointing out a peculiar element of the Gulf cities that increase the difficulty in planning for them, which is the lack of a notion of urban community. He argues that this occurs because of the lack of time available with a transient community to produce a shared value system, thus limiting the citizens to roam in their own limited background groups, creating parallel societies, paradoxical and tense. As such planning for such communities, with a rapid exchange of both people, ideals, and demographics, is made ever more difficult.

Following Ashraf Salama was Attilio Petruccioli, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Dean of the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Bari, Italy. Petruccioli was the Professor of Design for Islamic Societies at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With reference to his work, Ansari asked Petruccioli if the framework of typology and urban morphology, especially of traditional cities, could provide clues as to the future direction of the city, post COVID-19.

Petruccioli wasted no time in expressing his disdain of the rhetoric and behavior of the average human in the face of this pandemic. Describing it as a “sugary debate,” people claimed that they would be better and practice better behaviors yet as the lockdown in Italy came to an end, they returned to the same. He urged that we put aside the notion that humans will dominate nature as we attempt to solve all our problems with commercial technologies, isolating the problem and retrofitting its solution, further comparing the response to COVID-19 as just that. He went on to comment that the city is much like the body, an organism. One part cannot be isolated from the system and must be treated as a whole.

Elaborating on the object of typological studies, the understanding and study of the evolution of typology, he moved to say it would allow us to understand how the city, the urban fabric, could change. Agreeing with Salama and connecting it to his own experiences in the Italian education system, from primary to university, Petruccioli described the organic and transdisciplinary nature, where nothing was taught in isolation but always in tandem with other domains. Unfortunately, such structures have dissolved with time and education has disjointed itself from reality by conducting itself in isolation, leaving the architects of today unable to work within the context.

Renowned Pakistani architect, educationist, and activist, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, followed the conversation. Mumtaz is an activist for the conservation of the heritage of Pakistan and plays an integral role in raising the standards of architecture of Pakistan in its responsiveness to climate, economy, and indigenous materials. He was also instrumental in establishing a connection with the global perspective of architecture.

Ansari asked Mumtaz to walk us through his personal journey and learnings from the beginning of his career to the current situation. She also asked him to elaborate on the process and particulars of the on-going creation of the Lahore 2040 Masterplan.

Beginning from the position of academia and then stepping into his own practice, Mumtaz realized that “when you step out of the ivory tower of academia, you realize there is a real world out there.” From his initial understanding of modernism as an image of human progress, Mumtaz catapulted out of that frame of mind, and began to explore traditional and historical styles when he concluded that there was something missing in his work, the link to history and cultural heritage.

His journey led him from one realization to the next as he understood that the difference between modern and traditional architectural sensibility has nothing to do with forms, materials, or time, the difference lies in the fundamentally distinct base upon which these two worldviews are constructed. Thus exposing the fallacy of the modernist position and the veracity of the traditional worldview. Since then the journey has been to discover the traditional basing of art and architecture and apply it to his own work, gaining a more holistic perspective on the man, the cosmos, and the purpose of art itself.

Agreeing with Petruccioli, Mumtaz stated that COVID-19 was a true reminder of “our hubris and arrogance.” Further, he describes the base of adapting to the situation as the question of normality. What is normal? He questioned, calling the pre-COVID ‘normalcy’ as nothing short of insanity. “What we had constructed was an aberration” and urged us to reconsider.

On the subject of the Lahore 2040 Masterplan, he first described the incremental method of the modern planner: review past data and trends, project the scenario, and plan for that, and then claimed it was crazy. With reference to Petruccioli’s comment on the city being an organism, Mumtaz went on to explain that we must recognize that the city is a parasite. Unsustainable, consuming the most fuel but producing nothing but rubbish and pollution with their high-tech, high-rise, and low-density structures. However, the one way this could be a symbiotic relationship is for the city to serve as a service center of the region. To achieve this, one might consider what the normative city, one that could sustain itself through symbiosis, would look like.

Basing his understanding on a theoretical exercise to design a traditional city, he found that a city should be 2km across and have a limited population in which one may recognize everyone, above all it is pedestrian and integrated city. Unfortunately, the modern reductionism segments the city in its components and zones them, separating them but connecting them with mechanical transport, designing the city for the motor vehicle.

Incidentally, the advisory committee for the Lahore 2040 Masterplan, an ad hoc citizens group of a range of people and profession, concluded that they would want a city designed for the people, not for motor vehicles, pedestrianizing it. They requested it be a center of civilization of charity, love, justice, and equality. Mumtaz argued that the reason previous Plans had failed is because nobody owned them, nobody wanted them; the plans were made by people who did not understand the basics of the community it was made for and was thus disjointed, creating the alienation and discontentment. This was the first time someone truly asked the people what they wanted. While there is no guarantee this Masterplan can or will be implemented, the participatory approach to the planning leaves room for hope.

Following Mumtaz, was the editor-in-chief of ADA Publications, Maria Aslam. Ansari probed Aslam to elaborate on the vision of the seminar series ‘Do You Know Your City?’ and the purpose of this specific webinar discussing the discontentment. Citing the visual and majestic nature of architecture and the city, Aslam described her intent as an investigation on the manner in which that nature is taken away and how, in present conditions, does the city develop a new spatial understanding, how would we reinvent the means and method by which we interact and maneuver in the city.

She further elaborated that these are currently strange yet insightful times, when the norm is at question. Figuring the future norm itself has given way to much speculation, which raises its own discourse. What is imperative to learn and recognize is that cities cannot sustain themselves as concrete jungles with no green lungs, forestation, water channels and biodiversity of living organisms and the coexistence of all in equity and equanimity.

As the session ended, the Architect plagued my mind. What is the role of the architect in such a crisis that requires immediate spatial upheaval and redressal? How does the architect or designer aid the situation at hand for a safe and enhanced living? How can a mosque or a church take steps to ensure their worshippers adhere to the social distancing rules? How does one go about opening up public spaces – parks, museums, open-air markets – without endangering the masses? Who will redesign our social urban fabric? How will this take place in the immediate future? There is much to think about and much to learn as the pandemic – and our futures – unravel before us. The only thing that is certain is that we must continue on in our understanding of our communities and the city at large.


The full webinar can be viewed on Architecture Design Art’s YouTube and Facebook pages.

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