Culture, ethics & architecture

Updated February 22, 2013

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BUILDING and construction have been significant activities in human civilisation. The journey from caves to building gigantic cities reflects the enormous interest and capacity of human beings in these areas.

Studying the built environment has become one of the important disciplines of human knowledge. The built environment encompasses the entire man-made environment such as buildings, roads, parks, rural and urban planning/development, social/religious spaces etc.

Because of the strong connection between the built environment and quality of life, this area has received extensive attention in many societies and therefore it is studied in connection with other disciplines such as health, development, education and ethics. However, in developing countries like Pakistan this notion has not yet received considerable attention.

Today, many Muslim societies like Pakistan are facing enormous challenges in terms of the built environment. At times construction-related activities are driven largely by economic forces with less consideration for their impact on common people and the environment. It is also observed that sometimes, buildings are constructed while copying from other contexts without considering the local context/culture. This process has posed critical challenges.

For example in many cities, like Karachi, open spaces such as parks and gardens are gradually being replaced with huge buildings. Increasingly, social areas are vanishing. The mushrooming of underdeveloped slums creates enormous challenges to fulfilling the basic needs of the dwellers.

Most buildings are constructed poorly without considering human safety and security. As a result the quality of life is impacted in terms of physical and mental health, social life, education and economic development. Living in a globalised world there is no harm in learning from other societies about architecture and construction but context, needs, cultures, values etc should be kept in mind. The quality of architecture is not limited to technical knowledge. Rather, it also requires cultural and ethical knowledge. Although the ethical and cultural dimension can be learnt from different sources, the rich heritage of Muslims in art and architecture can be one of the most powerful sources.

Historically, Muslim societies have contributed significantly to art and architecture. They have played a vital role in building or extending exemplary cities such as Abbasid Baghdad, Fatimid Cairo, Safavid Isfahan, Ottoman Istanbul and Mughal Lahore. These cities have significance for different reasons such as their design, structure, construction and facilities. They have been hubs of economic and cultural activities for centuries and survive even today.

While building these cities conscious decisions were made in terms of planning and construction, particularly keeping in mind the public interest, strategic position and economic prospects. For example, when Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, came to power, he envisioned a modern city for his capital (modern-day Baghdad).

According to the famous Muslim historian Al-Tabari, the caliph took a deep interest in the planning and construction of the city. Along with inducting experts from different parts of the world, he himself visited the location and spent months there to supervise the planning and construction process.

Baghdad has been considered impressive for its design, construction, infrastructure, facilities for common people etc. This city has been the centre for different civilisations and cultures for centuries. Similarly, other cities built by Muslims have also been appreciated for their planning and architectural design.

Today, along with technical knowledge the cultural and ethical dimensions of Muslim architecture need to be explored to gain an insight and respond to the challenges in the contemporary Muslim world. Various characteristics of Muslim architecture have been highlighted in literature, which are still relevant to deal with the challenges of architecture.

Adaptability is viewed as one of the important aspects of Muslim architecture. Muslims have learnt from other traditions but they have adapted them wisely by modifying and adding according to their cultural and contextual needs.

Durability is considered another important aspect of the architecture. Many buildings/constructions have survived for centuries and are still in good condition.

Muslim architecture is also seen as user-friendly. For instance space, ventilation and light were particularly taken into account while designing the interior and exterior of buildings.

Furthermore, aesthetics played a predominant role in Muslim architecture. Geometrical shapes were extensively used in the design as symbols. Calligraphy has traditionally been the most prominent feature. Colours were selected carefully with an eye to the kind of building they were to be used for. Water and greenery were considered one of the important aspects of architecture to symbolise religious/ cultural ideals such as purity and jannah.

A conscious effort to engage with diverse kinds of Islamic architecture will not only be helpful to learn from, but also to  support efforts to preserve heritage. Such engagement will also provide common people with an opportunity to enhance their quality of life through the process of integration into their heritage.

In short, the built environment is very much connected to human life. The rich Muslim heritage in architecture can be a valuable source for Muslims to learn from in order to respond to the ethical/cultural issues of architecture. In this regard, conscious efforts are needed at multiple levels such as the policy level, through education, media etc, to educate the people about the importance of the built environment in enhancing the quality of life.

The writer is an educator.

muhammad.ali075@yahoo.com