Interview with Dr Ijlal Muzaffar, Associate Professor of Modern Architectural History at the Rhode Island School of Design

Dr Ijlal Muzaffar is an Associate Professor of Modern Architectural History at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. He has a PhD in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master of Architecture from Princeton University. He has a book coming out this year on the role played by modern architects and planners in shaping the discourse on Third World development.

Dr Ijlal Muzaffar talks to TNS about the two housing schemes proposals for partition refugees in Karachi in the 1950s, the problems they create and the lessons for contemporary planners and architects in Pakistan.

The News on Sunday: What draws you to studying the practice of architecture and urban planning in the developing world?

Ijlal Muzaffar: I am trying to understand what role architecture and urban planning projects play in the development arena.

Most often, architecture and planning projects by Western experts are criticised for imposing foreign ideas on the Third World. It’s true, many of these theories of planning and design were drawn from European and American historical contexts and they ended up completely missing the political and social complexity of the situation on the ground. But nevertheless, even in their ‘failure’, they did something else. They secured power for some, enabling them to argue how change was to occur, who needed to be displaced, modernised, settled or resettled, when and where. As I discuss in the case of Pakistan, I emphasise that these planning experts did not come in on their own. They were brought in by national governments that very much deployed their ideas to secure a certain legitimacy for their rule.


There is a new idea of globalism that is built on the idea of copying and mirroring. There is a new culture of the copy emerging, which is trying to de-centre the symbols of power from Europe.

This formula couldn’t be sustained in the postcolonial context. We see tradition being summoned as the origin of an alternative modernity for development. My question is: what new modes of power has this gesture of inclusion [of tradition] produced?

TNS: What is your answer?

IM: There is a form of censuring that takes place in how communities are defined in this new inclusive paradigm. New institutions of development, like the UN, and the World Bank only work with non-political forms of tradition. A new more silent form of filtering takes place. Only ideas of community that are conducive to a development project are included in these new paradigms. New de-politicised categories of culture are created for these projects — the refugee, the migrant, the inhabitant, the house. The postcolonial situation continues to produce new forms of power.

TNS: You use the examples of refugee housing in Karachi in the 1950s to explain this point. What is interesting about housing for refugees?

IM: First, I would say that calling the people who migrated to Karachi after partition ‘refugees’ is itself a misnomer. These are the only refugees in the world who are also ‘citizens.’

They had to be called ‘refugees’ after Pakistan divided its provinces on a linguistic basis. But after Pakistan declared ‘Urdu’ to be the national language, settling Urdu-speaking refugees became a ‘national’ project. Settling Urdu-speaking refugees was like settling the future of Pakistan. There is a co-relation between how you define the refugees and how you decide to settle them. This is what makes the housing projects proposed to solve the refugee-housing problem in Karachi interesting.

TNS: Can you describe the design of the two refugee housing schemes in Karachi?

IM: In 1953, Michel Ecochard, a former director of the Department of Urban Planning in the French Protectorate in Morocco, proposed to build a series of independent satellite towns in the Landhi area in Karachi to settle refugees. The design had a clear boundary and an organising internal structure. The residents of each of these towns were supposed to move from low rise housing to high rise building. This proposal was seen to be too audacious, putting all the risk of change on the government and the international sponsoring agencies, and was rejected.

In 1956, the much-famed Greek planner Constantine Doxiadis proposed a plan for Korangi Pilot project. In contrast to Echochard’s scheme, the project did not present any formal boundaries. The houses were to be allotted to refugee families incomplete. Administrative structures were to be spread so that there was no central authority. This proposal placed the responsibility of change on the refugee herself, presenting the government as merely a custodian of change. The proposal was accepted.

TNS: Why was Ecochard’s proposal rejected?