Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Dial K for Kulture

Islamabad is a part of the Federal Government. Like Washington DC it does not form part of a State and unlike the other cities of Pakistan, it is not regulated by a Province. This effectively means that Islamabad is run by civil servants in the guise of a body called the Capital Development Authority or the CDA. This does not portend well given the general low levels of creativity found among pen pushing bureaucrats. Despite all of this, the city does boast some spectacularly good architecture - Edward Stone's Presidency complex and Kenzo Tange's Supreme Court building to name two. The "good stuff" was designed in the 60s when the relevant buzzword was "modern" or "aspiring modern".

There is some godawful stuff in here as well. This has its roots in the 80s when everything had to be Islamic(ate) regardless of suitability, design and creative spirit. In this vein we have the Faisal Mosque which is essentially a modern day tent. Yes, a tent. While this may be in keeping with the bedouin spirit, it lacks a relevant nexus with today's Pakistan. And then there is the truly ghastly Prime Minister's secretariat which represents a fusion of neo-Mughal and DisneyWorld. Even the relatively modern buildings have been Islamicised by adding inscriptions on their linear facades.

In order to run all of this we have inherited a gentleman called Kamran Lashari to head the CDA and to set the tone for the city. Don't get me wrong. K's heart is in the right place. He has encouraged theatre in the city - I can see "The Godfather" this week and "The Phantom of the Opera" next week. There are several rock concerts each week as well - I've passed on them so far but it feels good to know I have choices. My only problem with self appointed "designers" is that they lack any intellectual tradition in which to place their work. I shall not bash fashion designers any longer - their inability to connect with any kind of intelligent tradition is legendary. However, clothes are clothes but buildings are a little more permanent.

In his zeal to impose his own view of commercialised modernity, K has allowed billboards to be put up all over the place. Yes, these are pithy messages about saving the environment/blind dolphins/crafts etc but are sponsored by major commercial concerns who also advertise themselves in the bargain. He has allowed plastic flags to be planted advertising various cultural events. Plastic mushrooms (which glow like radioactive phalluses at night) have been allowed to sprout from a public park. And the spankingly modern Presidency complex now has street lights borrowed from 19th Century London. These are twee, ornate Victorian numbers with BALLS of light hanging like pendants. I kid you not. BALLS.

I am not so sure how public design decisions are taken for large cities. During my last trip to Karachi I saw what can only be described as mutant french fries straddling the Do Talwar roundabout. The fact that these had been designed by the Indus Valley school did little to lessen the sheer ugliness of it all. The problem with all this is that there is numbing apathy when it comes to public design decisions. There are two solutions to this: public hearings so that people who actually have to use crap design are allowed to voice their objections. And-if one has to be elitist- the constitution of dreaded committees with a wide range of architects to allow different points of view to be accomodated. The Mohatta Palace (which admittedly was a restoration and not a new design) shows how a committee can be used succesfully. Until this happens we the Masses will have no choice but to put up with hideousness in the name of architecture. OK ?


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