Kamil Khan Mumtaz — Doing What You Think is Right
Kamil Khan Mumtaz, is a practicing architect based in Lahore. He completed his academic training in the field from Architectural Association, School of Architecture London in the 1960s. After completing his academic training he worked in London for two years in the field and then took up the responsibility of an educationist and taught in West Africa before returning to Pakistan to continue his practice and simultaneously pursuing the field of academics as well. Between 1966 and 1975, he taught and then served as the head of the National College of Arts, Lahore.
Kamil Khan Mumtaz is also an author with a number of publications under his belt which include Architecture in Pakistan, A Century of Art, The Development of Pre Stressed Concrete: a Historical Analysis, to name a few. Kamil sahib is Member, Board of Governors, Lok Virsa and Pakistan National Fund for Cultural Heritage. In 1993, he was awarded the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan for services to architecture.
A pioneer in the movement of conservation of architectural heritage, it was fitting to start our conversation on the topic of the current state of Pakistani architecture and why, with each passing day, it is moving away from indigenous methods. We see both domestic and commercial glass structures being erected with a vengeance, despite the known fact that they don’t suit our climate. Kamil sahib believes this is the result of our modern education system, which is part and parcel of the modernist project that emphasizes ‘the production of standard products in large numbers, quickly at a low cost.’
In the past, at the age of 12 an individual, after receiving his basic education in reading, writing and mathematics, would choose a profession and start training with a master resulting in knowledge passing down through generations. The mode of standardization has resulted in the loss of indigenous knowledge and the field of architecture has suffered the same fate. Earth, which is a core material and is used to make the basic building block, the brick, is chemically different in various parts of the world. As a result the brick is different as well, hence there is a marked difference in architecture across the globe. The British Raj standardized the brick to a size of 9 inches by 3 inches by 4.5 inches. However, Kamil sahib points out that the British system revolved around rational, scientific logic and efficiency. This is reflected in the colonial era buildings which cater to the available material at that time and are in sync with the demands of the local climate. However, modern architecture is based on individuals’ whims instead of logic.
So who can fix this?
Without missing a beat Kamil sahib answers: the teaching system can but won’t. Elaborating on this he connects the dots to the post-modernism movement, according to which there are no absolute truths, and what you are left with is your subjective individual world. In this scenario the teaching system focuses on churning out professionals who can practice globally, drowning the architectural ethos.
A practicing architect who is trained in the modernist ethos, Kamil sahib’s traditional bent is quite intriguing and so is the story of his transformation. When he came back to Pakistan he rejected the modernist model and views, re-educating himself to incorporate traditional methods into his practice. This journey led to his passion for conserving as much of our history, heritage, culture and tradition as possible. His personal motivation resulted in laying the foundation of the Conservation Society that Kamil sahib founded with other likeminded individuals.
“Events took us from the comfort of our drawing rooms onto the streets to defend nature, trees, the widening of Canal Road, mechanization of transportation resulting in the Lahore Bachao movement. We struggled for the cause, from spreading public awareness to demonstrations up to fighting legal battles in the courts. We succeeded in the Supreme Court, which ordered the Punjab government to enact the conservation law to preserve our natural heritage as an environmental asset that is the Lahore Canal. However, we also failed because as we speak outside my door on the canal the devastation continues, despite the law enacted by the Punjab assembly, they go on destroying it.”
Kamil sahib has a long standing association with the old Walled City of Lahore, even before Walled City Mohalla Baazee started working in the area, for which he is most popularly known for. This chapter started when a local from the old Walled City filed a petition, stating that propertites were being demolished in the area and were being replaced by commercial plazas, damaging his private property which had been in his family since generations. Apparently the Walled City Authority was also not taking any steps against this activity, as per its mandate. As a result the court appointed a three-member committee to investigate the issue on ground and Kamil sahib was one of the members.
The Walled City has a rich heritage and a unique multiclass system, where people from the lowest strata of society to rulers lived in the same area, interacting closely during festivities and grief. Most important of all was the justice system, which was not only accessible but quite swift, especially compared to today’s system. During the British Raj the city centre shifted from the Walled City to the Cantonment. With this shift investment moved outside the walls of the city, turning the mohala from a multiclass to a mono-strata area.
Post-partition, the Lahore Development Trust was formed and followed the latest development process, ignoring the requirements for rehabilitation of the Walled City, large parts of which had been destroyed at the time of independence. Locals who could afford to move out started doing so and given the financial success of commercializing entire units more and more people followed suit, turning the heart of the city into a commercial mayhem with the poorest of the poor from all across the country filling in the residential vacuum.
“Fast forward to recent times and commercial development is taking place at an accelerated pace with the addition of violence and dirty politics in the mix. There is a need to democratize the system in order to cut out these elements.” All of these suggestions were submitted to the court by the three member committee and a response is still awaited. Instead of waiting for action from authorities, which is nowhere in sight, the committee members and other stake holders decided to start the dialogue process under the umbrella of Walled City Mohalla Baazee, which continues to date on a regular bases at the grassroots level.
When asked about the core environment issue we are facing, Kamil sahib in his unique style linked it to the modern development paradigm, which he says is based on the definition of development and growth in terms of economic growth alone. Making this a globally accepted phenomenon.
“Development is not a goal, it is a process. You develop something or you develop into something.” This ‘something’ has not been defined, resulting in a development rat race that is headed nowhere.
“The environment should be on everyone’s priority list, especially in Pakistan. Our poverty level is staggering, even in developing urban centres, but rural areas are worse off. The majority of Pakistan’s population lives on $1.4 which is below the international poverty line of $2. People spend whatever they have on basic necessities. The biggest dent on their pockets are medical bills, which are directly linked to issues caused by environmental degradation; air pollution, food quality, water and the list goes on and on. The connection is common sense.”
With all of his experience does he see things heading in the right direction anytime soon?
“We do what we do, what we believe to be right, not because we expect to change the world but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Fatima Arif is Sr Officer Digital Media, WWF-Pakistan.