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.”
Fatima Arif is Sr Officer Digital Media, WWF-Pakistan.