By Raashid Riza
At a social gathering in London the other day I, an Architecture student, was asked if I would be producing ‘architecture for the rich or the poor’. One may be inclined to think that the answer to that would be one or the other but, on the contrary, this triggered a chain of queries that occupied my mind for many moments that night. Let us put a few things in perspective. I am a Muslim and look to the Qur’an for spiritual guidance.
“Behold your Lord said to the angels: I will create a vicegerent on earth.” (Qur’an 2:30)
Muslims believe that, to God, what they occupy themselves with in this world is unimportant provided that they fulfil the purpose for which they were sent down to earth. It makes no difference to the Almighty if one is an architect, a supposedly elitist profession, or from a perceivably lower social occupation.
However, as caretakers of this world we should strengthen ourselves in society – as architects, doctors, lawyers or whatever occupation societies deem prestigious – in order to put ourselves in positions where we would be better placed to overcome barriers to becoming Vicegerents of God. Indeed, such a profession gives one a certain amount of power, but it must not be forgotten that this power can be utilised to be useful or detrimental to humanity.
The role of an architect is as ancient as the earliest of civilisations and it does not cease to evolve. Whilst architects of the last century were busy tackling social issues further catalysed by world wars, and much later, by the Cold War, architects of this century should be innovative and tactful in finding to rampaging phenomenon as they emerge – climate change and natural disasters. This makes it imperative to formulate a built environment that can cater to the social, moral and cultural ethos of a society.
The spring of revolutions in the Muslim Middle East mean that social upheavals and restructuring is taking root at a lightening pace. The ousting of despots who squandered millions will result in a redistribution of wealth and resources which would inevitably permeate down to the poorest of men. A just Middle East, based on a fair and egalitarian value system, suggests an economic and social empowerment that would be reflected in the thinning and effective mitigation of the rich-poor divide, which is so painfully stark in the Middle East.
This phenomenon would kick-start a process, perhaps slow but immediate – that of the change in the architectural landscape in time to come. Lesser would be the juxtaposition between the rich, enormous and elegant architecture and that of claustrophobic alleyways and sporadic slums. This would result in a monotonicity of sorts in the architectural landscape – a good monotonicity.
Under these changing circumstances the role of the Muslim Architect, will be immense, almost sacrosanct. Hassan Fathhi, the great Egyptian Architect would have found his workload unbearable had he been alive today.
Hasan Fathhi, is revered in the architectural world for almost pioneering the concept ‘architecture for the poor’. His buildings, mostly built of cheap materials such as mud and of passive architectural techniques like natural heating, ventilation and thermal massing.
In his book Architecture for the Poor, Fathhi says: “They needed decent houses, but houses are expensive. In large towns capitalists are attracted by the returns from investment in housing, and public bodies…frequently provide extensive accommodation for the citizens, but neither capitalists nor the state seem willing to undertake the provision of peasant houses…”
Fathhi’s designs feature thick brick walls and traditional courtyards that not only create communal spaces, which are ever so important in a home to foster and maintain family conversations, but also create passive cooling. This curtails costs that would have otherwise been incurred by fuel and energy dependence.
However, architecture must reflect values and morals and should be used as a catalytic instrument to create spaces, be they homes, malls or open public squares. These are spaces that would enhance a sense of living where relationships are fostered and citizens of a plethora of ethnicities can live in harmony and understanding.
Of course, the chicken and the egg argument can here be raised, i.e. does the architecture inform the behavioural psyche of its inhabitants or do the inhabitants create an architecture that reflects their psyche. I am inclined to think it is symbiotic. However it would be the behavioural aspect that would define the space, with consideration of the fact that the space should be built to sustain and enhance such behaviour in future.
Islamic Architecture, in many instances, has been reduced merely to Islamic motifs that adorn mosques or buildings belonging to large establishments in Muslim governments. It is high time that the Muslim Architect (and indeed other professionals) rose to the challenge of the ever-changing Muslim world, bearing in mind that the role of the architect has been changed forever.
Raashid Riza is the Multimedia Editor of The Platform. He studied Architecture and works in London as an Architectural Assistant.
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