Non-Architects Build Small

October 4, 2010

The exhibition at V&A Museum,  ‘Architects Build Small’ and Studio Mumbai’s contribution to it caused a lot of interest in the subject of survival of poor on the streets of an affluent city. To look at this sad but brave attempt through a magnifying glass in a museum of a wealthy developed country and enjoy or indeed celebrate the artistic and spiritual aspects of these meagre attempts appeared a bit voyeuristic and left me slightly uneasy.

Last Year I was in Lahore for a family visit and saw something close to Studio Mumbai’s creation in real life. This humble structure standing on a ‘postage stamp’ size plot of land must have been housing 8-10 people. The structure was obeying all the basic rules of privacy (a crucial issue here), ventilation, thermal comfort and hygiene.

The honesty of this simple, economical construction to me looked stunningly attractive in its directness. I wonder to this day as to the layout and size of inhabited rooms here, but answer must be in Studio Mumbai’s  exhibit.

Following is taken from my Blog regarding this visit to Lahore

“I also saw the construction of humble dwellings for the people who were displaced from the  slums  where these huge roads are being built. They can only afford to  buy tiny plots of land and are forced to build 2-3 storey houses for large families or often for partial letting to make ends meet.

It was no surprise to know that without fail all of these structures were using a mixture of reinforced concrete walls/columns, floor slabs and stairs to save and gain precious inches of floor space and heights.”

The surprising thing is that no architect has been anywhere near this construction at any stage. In retrospect perhaps Studio Mumbai  was right and I must alter my stance accordingly.

Some other examples of  similar housing in the same area.

The second architect I would like to draw your attention to is Kamil Khan Mumtaz. A Pakistani, British trained architect, who has been working in Lahore, Pakistan since late 60s. He has been involved with Aga Khan Award of Architecture, has also led several architectural juries. He has made tremendous contributions to architectural education in Pakistan in his own modest manner.

While studying at Architectural Association in London in early 60s, Kamil was no doubt, fully exposed to the modernist thinking of that era. In tropical department at AA, Dr. Konigsburger and Rory Fonseca were there to impart the best knowledge about designing for comfort in tropical climates. Kamil also worked with Keith Critchlow and Buckminister Fuller in Ghana for a while.


On his return to Pakistan he started his practice with all the current design influences and produced some work using modern 20th century influences. It soon became apparent to him that that all his western training and appreciation of modernist principals were at odds with the local building and cultural traditions and to make meaningful architectural progress in these environments required a reappraisal of all he has learned.


Like Laurie Baker, he was fully conversant with the sustainable approach to built forms rooted in local traditions. Laurie Baker’s professional work adhered to his own brand of Quaker humanism. Kamil’s faith in Islam is influenced by Sufism, a much gentler, tolerant and almost secular approach despised by the hardcore intolerant Islamic wing causing the current disquiet throughout the world.


Laurie Baker’s was born  brought up and trained in a different cultural and religious world away from India. This may have sharpened his powers of perceiving, assessing the prevailing conditions and needs in his adapted homeland and then using his humanity and talents to directly contribute to built environment which absorbed essence of prevailing cultural conditions, materials and building techniques. The resulting buildings   were not afraid to introduce new materials like reinforced concrete where appropriate but never lost sight of affordability, always responded to social and climatic conditions.


Kamil Khan Mumtaz was born and grew up on the sub-continent, surrounded by some of the best examples of traditional craftsmanship, vernacular and civic architecture from pre-Mogul to British era. His professional training abroad, in his view, almost put him off course and he was forced to make some ‘mid-way corrections’ to his professional progress to return to a point where his work was ‘seamlessly’ connected to the centuries of  of traditions. The factor which is starting to separate him from Laurie and others is his understanding and sincere belief  in Islam and Sufism which is shaping his new work wherever enlightened and like minded clients allow.


Islam and its rich heritage offers him a framework to bridge the gap between alien western culture on one side and prevailing lack of continuity and cultural relevance in local architectural world on the other. He is striving hard to regain the understanding of the past where religion, culture and building forms and techniques were in harmony.


I have been aware of his high standards of architectural output for a while, particularly his interest in indigenous approach, trying to keep alive or revive the building traditions that continue to suffer and deteriorate in Pakistan. This is not an easy balance to strike if your clients have  differing expectations and ambitions, which are sufficient reasons for Kamil to politely decline such projects.


I had the pleasure of meeting Kamil in Lahore a few months ago, when he very kindly accompanied me to show some of his building projects currently under construction.


I am going to show you the photographs I took there and apart from few descriptions I hope to use his own words abstracted from his writing or interviews (in italics).

The sensibilities of the architect are moulded by his academic training. He is sensitised to the role of “function” and of “pure aesthetics” of sensible form, but not to that of religion as a factor in the design process. Thus it is only in deference to a valued client’s sensibilities, or as a cultural metaphor rather than as religious symbol; that the average architect may be persuaded to incorporate some token reference to traditional forms into his otherwise “modern” designs.



I have been able to evoke the delights of discovering the hidden paradise with internal patios and fountains.

I have learned to work within the framework of a new discipline of symmetries, proportions, and rhythms which reflect the cosmic order and perfect balance underlying the apparent chaos of the universe

An architecture based on appropriate technology will fail to convey its message unless it also employs a language that is appropriate and meaningful in the context of a specific culture



…within these same environments the opportunities have also existed for architecture to act as a catalyst in promoting a meaningful debate which addresses issues which should be central to the discourse of architecture in these environments: Architecture can play this role by positing strategies for urban development in the context of high rates of population growth, high rates of urbanisation, and persistent poverty; by exploring the validity of urban forms and morphologies which have evolved over the millennia in this particular geographic context; by imaginatively exploiting available material resources and skills and developing appropriate technologies; by designing buildings which are responsive to the climate of their region; by developing an architectural vocabulary which is meaningful to the people and relevant to their culture and history; by creating relationships of spaces and buildings which are sensitive to prevailing social values and norms; and by clarifying the issues in the current debate on modernity and tradition in these societies.

It will be rude of me to question any of these admirable and sensible thoughts, but in all honesty I feel that Kamil may well be fighting a rearguard battle in some cases. In Lahore I saw and observed local builders and their donkeys using bamboo scaffolding, constructing very advanced modern road networks with flyovers and bridges, using pre-stressed/pre cast concrete elements of spans large enough to put the most advanced western contractors to shame.

I also saw the construction of humble dwellings for the people who were displaced from the  slums  where these huge roads are being built. They can only afford to  buy tiny plots of land and are forced to build 2-3 storey houses for large families or often for partial letting to make ends meet.

There was no surprise to know that without fail all of these structures were using a mixture of reinforced concrete walls/columns, floor slabs and stairs to save and gain precious inches of floor space and heights.

This self-help mode of construction is well understood by all local builders and also becomes an ideal vehicle for reflecting success and ambitions of the proud owners. This often results in creating excellent stage set ‘parody’ of large upper class houses locally and in Abu Dhabi, decorated with colourful ceramic tiles and rendered surfaces and recessed lights in concrete slabs.

LahoreFeb09 011

LahoreFeb09 013

There is another potential pitfall of creating a schism in building new religious/civic structures and large houses for fairly well off clients in a ‘sustainable’ manner while the business of mass affordable housing is left to the self correcting Darwinian principles.

However, on balance, I wish Kamil Khan Mumtaz best wishes and luck in the world. He has already started a debate and highlighted the issues which are crucial for the well being and future of architecture and has produced many exemplary buildings to prove his points. His efforts have already  introduced many craftsman to the lost art of traditional building materials and techniques. May this long continue and multiply.

Kamil Khan Mumtaz Architects site here;