Reflections On The Profession Of Architecture

Issue | 39
Text | Dr. Noman Ahmed

The clock continued to tick and the calendar pages kept turning, as Pakistan completed the journey from 1947 to 2017 as a nation state. Whereas this time period has been filled with many noted developments, the transformations in our built environment illustrate our evolution as peoples and nation in a distinct manner. It is an established fact that architectural outputs are one of the most vocal and pronouncing features amongst all the environmental ingredients, mainly due to its dimensional magnitude as well as instant impact on human mind. Not only it delineates the intricacy of its own compositions but also the prolific features of the entire socio-cultural milieu. In the relative perspective, when one glances at building examples in any context, many flavours of innovative design input appear overlapping towards their transition to excellence. However, the degree of excellence is directly dependent upon a number of factors that affect the architectural development during the entire process. Composed and balanced aesthetics, functional usefulness, relationship with surrounding environment, technology of construction and usage, suitability to climatic conditions, economy in performance and operations as well as balance of composition are few basic parameters that can help judge the quality of architectural outputs. It requires considerable amount of professional acumen and institutional arrangements to develop a built environment that has a balance of design finesse and utilitarian merit. These are common set of considerations that have been historically persisting since decades in different parts of the world. It is interesting to observe that some of the best edifices developed in Pakistan belong to the pre-independence era. Sindh High Court Building, Mohatta Palace, Sindh Assembly, Old KMC Head Office, Karachi Port Trust Head Office in Karachi; Punjab Assembly Building, GPO Building and Lahore Museum in Lahore and countless other heritage buildings are a reminder of the unraveled design excellence and functional quality acquired many decades ago. Figure 1 & 2 illustrate a summary of key architectural developments during this seven decades of timeline.

The recent times marked many changes and new dimensions to the architectural fabric of the country. Corporate head offices were a distinct addition to the built environment. Karachi experienced this input in a corresponding manner. Head office building of Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) on main Sir Shah Suleman Road was a dominant structure designed and supervised by eminent architect Habib Fida Ali (now deceased). In his simple, straight lined yet ornate approach, he designed the exterior in fair face concrete. The elegant grey cement appearance provides a weatherproof effect, which not only makes the building efficient but also contextually relevant. The intelligent use of glass enhances the optimum use of daylight making the building energy efficient. Faisal Bank Building by another eminent architect Yasmeen Lari on Sir Abdullah Haroon Road made a fine addition to the city architecture. Aesthetically balanced use of granite and glass has given the assemblage a smart appearance. MCB Towers was finally completed and inaugurated. Designed by Arshad Shahid Abdulla the building comprises a balance of glass fenestration and industrialized panels with subtle grooves and niches. The building acts a dominating edifice of its kind. Bahria ICON tower in Clifton is slowly moving up to claim the record of tallest building in the country! Skyline in Karachi and other prominent cities was being added upon by corporate structures, most of which possess reasonably sound quality design inputs. In Lahore, the foremost addition is the Allama Iqbal International Airport Complex. Designed and supervised by NESPAK, it has added a worthwhile edifice that shall remain the gateway to the historic Mughal town for times to come.

Besides the strength and vigour of corporate sector, especially multi-nationals, other influences are also showing reflections in the buildings and spaces created in the recent past. Flexibilities in the financial markets and new products in leasing / loaning have allowed large scale real estate ventures to flourish. Many local and international realtors can also be found developing joint projects and ventures with the local counter-parts. The interesting cases of Bahria Towns in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are attention-grabbing examples. Despite the criticism of many urban planners and civil society voices around the dubious practices of land appropriations and disposal of properties, the Bahria Towns have succeeded to transform many suburbs into neat and comfortable neighborhoods. The element of comfort is now facilitated by the use of multi-ranged technologies, gadgets and products. The ideas and images related to the built environment are largely developed to show the gloss and glamour that has become the ultimate aspiration of all and sundry. However, the building solutions available for low-income groups are extremely limited and evolved without the input of corresponding professionals. For this reason, we find that the quality of life and the corresponding built environment for low income groups is degrading fast. In Karachi, one finds many visible architectural developments in the above respect. A significant trend is the patchwork of corporate spaces in the existing buildings. In this phenomenon, the corporate enterprises choose a portion of an existing building and transform it according to their requirements. Building interiors, partial external elevation, signage and décor, partial landscape and even invisible infrastructure are changed to suit to the corporate standards. Hundreds of buildings in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan have been given such partial face lifts. The usual clients include mobile telephone franchises, banks, leasing companies, fast food chains, boutiques and the like. This approach has created melo-dramatic effects on the built fabric. One finds a shining, well-articulated and bright looking built space in another wise shabby and run down structure. In other words, the contrasts in input and appearance of buildings are too sharp to be ignored.

Automobile show rooms of very gaudy kinds are another visible trend that has consolidated itself during the past few years. Major arteries where the elite and upper middle income groups move have converted into outlets for glowing auto show rooms. Khalid Bin Waleed Road, Shahrah-e-Faisal, Rashid Minhas Road, Korangi Road and New M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi are few examples where this phenomenon is visible. Glass façade structures with extensive use of glass, outlandish building elements and powerful illumination are a typical configuration of this mundane assemblage. The architects who have designed such structures have been pinned down by their demanding clients to increase the capacity and visibility of their merchandise. The trend is growing fast. As the automobiles are being marketed and acquired with most flexible conditions, the car show rooms are likely to rise in number, though not in quality.

Condominiums and multi storied apartment projects are on the rise. Due to international partnerships, the foreign entrepreneurs have brought the formulae and images for new avenues of luxuries and comforts corresponding to a global life style. Exotic verdures, gymnasia, restaurants, fitness centres, swimming pools and clubhouses are few of the ancillary spaces routinely incorporated in the real estate development projects. This rising trend has taken over the prize locations such as beachfronts, highway edges and affluent neighborhoods. The ecological considerations are compromised against the prospective revenue gains. Some of the projects are already underway while several others are undergoing different phases of development. Quality of design has become subservient to marketing. Much of this retrospect shows that the architectural stride is lucrative and shall continue to flourish at least in the near future. However there are many arguments that contest this wishful thinking.

Despite the rise in the number of architects and architectural firms, the total contribution of this profession in shaping the built environment is miniscule. The bulk of the buildings, common residences, warehouses, factories, educational and health facilities, institutional buildings and even public offices are developed without any architectural input worth the name. There are several reasons for this state of affairs. The total number of architects is extremely few compared to the construction activity in the country. In all, a little over four thousand architects exist in a nation of over 207 million people. Thus there are hundreds of medium and small cities in Pakistan where neither any architect has ever ventured to contribute in professional terms nor resides. Most of the architects are commercially oriented professionals. They only undertake such assignments where they are properly paid for their services. There is nothing wrong in this approach. The problem is that millions of people belonging to low-income groups have an extremely limited capacity to bear the fee of any professional. They view the charges of the professionals, including architects, as a burden. Therefore they build with the crude sense of construction on their own or with the advice of mason or petty contractors. At times, this approach becomes disastrous. The most visible example has been the tragic loss of life during October 2005 earthquake in KPK/Azad Kashmir and 2013 earthquake in Awaran in Balochistan where buildings collapsed without warning. Had they been properly designed, they would have given atleast basic signals of failure before final collapse. On November 01, 2016 an infant died and three people were critically injured when roof of their house collapsed in Gharibabad – a low-income locality in Karachi. Investigations revealed that the roof rested on a wall, which was structurally unsafe and had no foundations! Many precious lives are lost across the country in similar incidents.

The architectural profession seems to be constrained to service the lowest and highest end of market and social demands. That is to say our architects have not been able to find solutions to the building problems of low-income masses. Apparently it requires sustained research activity, which has yet to take root in our country. As a result, the poor have to be content with extremely substandard quality of built environment. As far as the upper end of demand is concerned, local/national firms hardly possess the experience and expertise in certain specialized type of works. Design and supervision of skyscrapers; condominiums; conservation consistent solutions; urban renewals and social housing are unchartered territories. Much of this gap is filled by foreign consultants and syndicates. Architectural conservation is one area, which is in need of focused attention. Thousands of outstanding building structures across the country await the professional attention. However one finds total neglect on the part of professionals in this regard. Even conventional architects do not possess the competence to take up these assignments. Some buildings, such as Mohatta Palace in Karachi and Tollinton Market in Lahore have been restored. Both edifices must be critically appraised to learn for the better.

Architects must be made socially responsive in approach and practice through exposure and awareness attempts. The professional bodies must be sensitized to this grave social responsibility. Vocational training in building, surveying and construction related trades must be upscaled. Every profession possesses a “para” category. Architecture shall also benefit from para architects, if a properly designed course and curriculum is imparted. Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and Technical Training Resource Centre (TTRC) in Karachi have successfully demonstrated in this respect. After careful analysis, this model can be up scaled widely.

As discussed earlier, architecture is a reflection of the overall socio-economic metamorphosis that takes place in a society. The transformational process that the industrialized societies underwent did not occur in majority of the third world countries. Thus the level of social and physical development clearly depicts the stark disparity that prevails in both the faces. Architectural development is also a component of this scenario. However, this does not formulate a justification for ‘bad architecture ‘or ‘mediocre architecture’ from any standpoint.

Architecture in Pakistan, as elsewhere, is governed by numerous factors, which are a direct bearing of the societal dynamics.  First and foremost in this respect is the financial indiscipline of the society. Real estate trading, which applies architecture as the moulder thrust for its ventures, absolutely follows the dictates of the market returns. No worthwhile architectural project is realized that lacks the commercial potential, especially in the short term. It simply follows the proverb ‘all is well that sells well’ a straight-forward but ingenious and original architectural alternative for a project is shoved down against a mediocre but exotic copy of any outlandish foreign example. True, some people do strongly believe in the virtues of the saying that ‘good copy is better than bad original’. Attitudes and the working relationships that exists between architects and their clients is fairly amorphous in nature. With the exception of established multi national corporations, enterprises and individuals of repute, the general clientele has not yet understood the material value of the design and execution service that an architect provides under a contractual agreement. A myopic perception remains that architects charge ultra high for a few cris-scross scribbles and doodles. Such a conception brews misunderstandings and skewed performances from both the ends, ultimately resulting in the qualitative decline of architectural product.

Internally, the profession of architecture has yet to carve its basic codes of working ethics. Bypassing the applicable standards, under-quoting the consultancy charges, bungling with the authorities, violating building codes for better rewards are few common social ingresses that the architects have adopted from the rest of the society. At a horizontal level, some of the architect-employers consider it their right to milk their young colleagues as harsh as they can despite the honest services they perform or the dividends that the consultancy earns. Some young architects, on the other hand, waddle from office to office in search of better remuneration and even leave the jobs in the middle of any important assignment given to them. Stealthily running side consultancies while being employed in a firm is another common practice. Thus a high frequency of these occurrences does not leave much room for a good architecture to bloom.

It is a quotable quote that architectural design is never complete unless completely executed. We observe that a vacuum prevails between various actors in many cases of design implementation. This factor bears several reasons. The construction services that are available at present are quite obsolete, and at times, they do not correspond to the nature of design. Besides weak tradition of appropriate communication of design to the executors also lead to deviations. Many important decisions are left for the contractors to be taken according to ‘site conditions ‘Ironically, quite a few well reputed practices have resorted to such callousness. A perpetually declining capacity and willingness of concerned civic authorities to monitor architectural development is one reason for this rather gloomy scenario.

It must be understood without doubt that the parameters and variables to gauge the architectural excellence are entirely different in the developed and developing contexts. Nevertheless the prime configurational elements that enmould any type of architecture cannot be compromised for the excuse of under development. And being one of the most concerned people in the entire scenario, the architects will have to take lead in enacting a system of professional practice fertile enough to give birth to architectural products that correspond to the local moods and aspirations. Because it is proven fact that where material resources fall below the edge, honesty of approach, hard work, zeal to perform and professional competence also creates shortfalls towards excellence.

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