During the last three days we witnessed presentations on educational, institutional and recreational buildings by the architects. Dr. ul Haq has spoken of economic and Mr. Soedjatmoko of social issues, and there were also many other speakers. The main thrust of the discussion following each presentation related to how each architect had understood Islamic traditions, and how he integrated these into his designs. Other questions were related to the way a project became part of the urban fabric and the community. The answers to these questions were not really convincing, at least not to the non-architects, because the solutions did not specifically indicate the relationship of a project to the social life of an area.
Dr. ul Haq made very pertinent comments on the crucial issues of the Islamic Third World and the poverty of the masses. He asked if the architects were involved in solving the problem of shelter for that eighty percent of the population, or were giving them some alternatives of hope. Dr. ul Haq’s remarks, preceded by questions from other experts, opened many avenues of discussion extending beyond the topic of the present seminar. However, from these discussions a few questions come to my mind:
- What is the Islamic tradition?
- What are the lessons which we can extract from it?
- Should the development imperative only be beneficial to a few, or should society at large be the focus?
- Should there be a dependence on borrowed technology, or should there be an emphasis on local wealth, resources and skill?
- Should there be a concern for the immediate future, or should the long-term perspective be given equal importance?
I will try to answer these questions one by one. It is important to recognize that Islamic culture originated and consolidated under the most severe environmental conditions in the world. Lack of resources and a scarcity of almost everything motivated Islam to establish a few very fundamental principles of life, such as dignity of labour, humility and dedication to God through work. This further evolved into a sense of participation, which through cooperation and equality became pronounced. Interdependence became one of the main principles. Scarcity also taught restraint and contentedness, with a feeling of gratitude to the unknown Almighty who provides mankind with the essentials and the inner strength to be happy with them. Devotion and dedication became the primary considerations for the well-being of the community instead of the individual, and tensions of inequality were avoided.
Basic cultural values found their expressions both in terms of behaviour of the individual and the community, and of the forms and structures which shelter them. The expressions that can be very clearly identified in the Islamic behavioural codes are: simplicity (ways of living and aspirations); adaptability (with limitations and constraints); participation (to generate the most from scarce resources); cooperation (united efforts to survive); humility (contentedness with life); devotion (gratefulness to the Unknown who provides for us all); stability (through minimum aspirations) and security (through a sense of tolerance, brotherhood and self-reliance).
Simplicity, adaptability, participation, continuity, equality and a sense of stability became the canons of architecture. These canons were interpreted in terms of building design and forms, and gave rise to the unique architectural expression which we know as Islamic architecture. Because their attributes were so direct and meaningful even when built in another culture, the quality of Islamic architecture remained similar; it even adopted the local pattern or style for its expression without losing the principal message. The attempt to establish the concept of non-directional design modules to allow for intermingling of major and minor spaces, provide for easy communication and facilitate the religious, educational or cultural activity of the community emphasized the fact that constraints are virtues and need not be abandoned.
The innumerable varieties of mosques, madrasas, khans and caravanserais discussed in the last few days demonstrate the adaptability of changing needs. Not only that, but the basic principles mentioned above have been fitted to a variety of sites and integrated with the surroundings. The modular structural system had the capacity to emphasize hierarchy with subtle nuances, and the total unity of this formal and often amorphous complex expressed the presence of the Supreme through the articulation of space, form and light. The quality of simplicity for individual use on the one hand, and magnificence of public buildings for the community on the other, provided a dual sense of equality in the community and gave unrestricted accessibility to all. In short, it was the outward expression of maximum benefits with minimum input; it achieved more with less, and anonymity while imparting divinity and grace. These principles saw the evolution of different architectural styles in different countries, and contributed to each culture in a particular way. This contribution, this ability to enrich the other culture, is what makes Islamic architecture great. We can summarize the Islamic tradition by saying that constraint is a virtue and that we can successfully achieve the design of desired goals if they are related to the community at large.
The second question asks what lessons can be drawn from the Islamic tradition for our present work. Islamic architecture’s answer to this is simplicity and anonymity; that is, solutions designed with humility can absorb the prevalent cultural ethos as well as impart the qualitative aspect to the viewer. The idea of simplicity in design for the common dwelling is another message conveyed, as opposed to the provision of grandeur in the mosque or public institutions. The message therefore is that institutions are most important, and deserve the highest priority and all the energy and wealth we put into them to glorify hope and salvation.
My third question asks if the development imperative should be beneficial to only a few, or if society at large should be the focus. The answer lies in the Islamic conduct of commitment to equality; it should be asserted to reestablish social cohesion and stability. Muslim society as a whole should be the focus, and this will require that society prepare itself for the benefits of development. This will perhaps take time, and development will therefore have to be based on priorities with a different base; in short, priorities and scales should be established.
The fourth question was whether dependence on borrowed technology should be complete, or whether emphasis should be placed on local wealth, resources and skills. The answer follows clearly from the above. If benefits can accrue only when the adaptation of new technology is made possible, it follows that adaptation will grow out of both participation and a local wealth of resources and skills. Society at large suggests minimum dependence on borrowed technology; this in turn suggests that building design solutions not be very high-technology oriented, unless they are capable of being assimilated into the culture and also, preferably, employ local skills.
The final question I wish to address is: should there be concern for the immediate future, or should the long-term perspective be given equal importance? There is only one answer, to my way of thinking. Benefit for society at large is paramount, and therefore a slow pace of development and a long-term perspective are required. Short-term goals compel a society to maximize gains, but they destroy local resources and skills in the process. This also leads to a decline in self-reliance and the loss of economic and consequently social independence. Preservation and conservation therefore become very vital. In short, our designs should be based on local potentials, with reliance on external help being minimized to encourage public participation rather than exclusive monopoly controls.
Let us recapitulate the issues. Constraint is a virtue and it must be the basis of design. Institutions are the backbone of society, and they must have the highest priorities in the development process. Buildings should avoid sophisticated technologies if not capable of assimilation, and reduce importation of materials in order to remain self-sufficient. Unfortunately, in contrast to these ideas, we are faced today with contraindications to the development process. They include rapid economic growth and an urge to create an environment comparable to that of the West; the fear that if material well-being and impressive development are not achieved, even the freedom of the society and the culture will be under strain; and finally, a mad rush for rapid change, with an ambition to achieve in a decade what the West could not achieve in a century. These are heightened by the fact that the control of decision-making rests in the hands of a few, and the newly formed wealth is not shared by many.
This is the dilemma, and the only way to go about realizing the ideals of Islamic culture is to make the clients or the decision makers aware. They need to be convinced of the long-lasting qualities of the Islamic heritage so they can direct development strategies accordingly. There are many alternatives that we can explore and follow, but the one that comes to my mind in the context of the present seminar is the following: attempts must be made to convince the decision makers that if they wish to achieve the Islamic order, they must take into account not only today’s problems, but also their eventual spiraling in times to come. They must be made aware of the existence of the backbone of Islam, that is, the institutions and their priority in the process of development. “Institutions” does not denote a mere building with a particular function, but signifies in a wider sense the place of such an edifice in the daily life and movement of a community. It is through these institutions that people generate a cultural ethos apart from mere economic development.
The workshop conclusions highlighted these issues and explained the role that they can play. If this institutional role is understood, then the particular function-oriented institutions will expand their field of activity. They will not then be conceived in isolation, as was the case with many of the projects which we viewed during the seminar. The realization will change the scale of those institutions, and effect their change from personal exhibits to public places. The newly discovered institution will not only become part of the community, but will have the possibility of asserting itself as a new symbol of the society through a sense of belonging.
With this new institutional association the designer would have the opportunity to perform a dual responsibility: to exalt the cultural ethos through the integration of old culture with new aspirations and new technologies, and to demonstrate the most beautiful and excellent in design. In this way a seed can be sown to build affinity with the new or even with the so-called alien. The integration of such varied message experiments will have the fundamental message of honesty and truth.
I am convinced that architects and designers have much larger roles to play in the communities and societies of the future than they do today. The professional should not just be a vehicle for the expression of different attitudes, but must be, through his skill and ingenuity, a builder of attitude as well. He must be the agent who inculcates an attitude to live with others, rather than simply consolidating only the attitude to live. His designs must have a place for everybody, and must offer everyone a participatory role in the process of building the total environment. This is why I believe that architects and designers must place the highest emphasis on communal and social institutions; there is no better tool for creating an attitude for a total living environment. History has taught us this lesson, and today’s growing disintegration is a result of breaking away from institutions. We must revive the institutions, we must bring them back to the forefront, and we must, in due course put them back at the focal point of design if we want our communities and societies to continue advancing to the point where everybody receives a fair share of the living environment. With the equitable distribution of this share, the attitude for living together can be born. This, I believe, will result in an appropriate set of symbols and forms.