|Continuing Tradition – Homage to Titus Burckhadt|
|Kamil Khan Mumtaz|
This paper was presented at a colloquium on “The Wisdom and Splendour of Islamic Arts” – a hommage to Titus Burckhadt, held in May 1999, in Marakech, organised by the Mawsimiyat de Marrakech.
Sidi Ibrahim, Titus Burckhadt, was one of the foremost scholars of our time to have elucidated the meaning of traditional art and architecture in general, and Islamic art and architecture in particular. He showed that the purpose of art, traditionally, has been to act as support in man’s spiritual quest, or journey, by reminding man of his role and function in this life, by pointing to his true goal and by illuminating the way to that goal. Before discussing whether architecture can continue to perform this function in the contemporary world, let us review how these meanings are expressed in built form,
Architecture, to use a cliché, is the art of building. All buildings, modern or traditional, are designed to fulfil a utilitarian function. And all the arts are concerned with beauty and meaning. That is, the communication of ideas and concepts through aesthetically appealing forms. But whereas modern art and architecture is pre-occupied with form, or the aesthetic function, it is the content, or meaning, which is the central concern of traditional art and architecture. The means, or methods employed in traditional architecture to communicate these meanings may be either purely architectonic devices or symbolic forms, or both.
Whereas symbolic elements include forms - architectonic or decorative - which represent an idea or concept other than the building itself, the purely architectonic devices include materials; structure; space; light; and movement.
Thus materials can be heavy or light, dense and opaque or translucent, etc. not only physically but also in terms of the non-physical responses they evoke within us. Similarly, structure can be tensile or compressive, dynamic or in repose; poised in delicate balance or in a state of equilibrium. These elements can be organised into forms in space, and forms that define or enclose space. Space which can be expansive or constrictive; oppressive or liberating; concealing or revealing. These qualities of space are reinforced by the play of light and animated by our own movement
Whereas the impact of these physical factors is more or less universal, the symbolic meanings of forms is specific to each culture, and may vary even within a given culture through time and space.
Among the architectonic forms charged with symbolic meaning in Islamic Architecture, we may include: the nine-square hasht behisht plan form, which operates as a mandala, or cosmic diagram; the dome, representing the heavenly or spiritual plane or dimension; the mihrab, symbolising the soul or spiritual centre, the heart; the minar which is literally a beacon of light; gates, as threshold, transition and opening, the gates of God’s mercy, the entrances to paradise; burooj, or lofty towers, a reference to the lofty pavilions of Paradise; not to mention the chaharbagh garden with its eight gates, intersecting pairs of canals, the four parterres, and ascending order of three terraces, trees in pairs, and fountains, all corresponding to the Qur’anic description of Paradise.
Decorative forms may be applied to buildings, as single motifs, in pictorial panels or woven into intricate arabesques, to communicate ideas and meanings, These include floral designs in which the meanings are implicit, geometric patterns whose meanings may be more abstract and calligraphy whose message is explicit.
Problems of continuing traditional architecture in the modern world
If these, and many other such forms have been used traditionally in architecture to communicate the traditional Islamic message, is there any reason why they can not continue to be used in contemporary buildings? Let us examine some of the objections raised against continuing tradition:
The traditional message does not address contemporary realities
This is true to the extent that the traditional message goes counter to, does not promote or support many of the values and aspirations which have come to be regarded as typical or normative in our times. Indeed the traditional message must seem irrelevant in contemporary societies to those who aspire only to the acquisition of wealth and material possessions, and regard fame and fortune, and a life full of fun and excitement as the highest values. But not every one within these same societies subscribes to this view. Indeed there are many, although by no means a majority, who regard these values and aspirations as a serious threat, leading towards the destruction of man - the individual, his society and his habitat, planet Earth. For those who see the precipice towards which we are headed, the need for the traditional message has never been greater.
The traditional language of symbolic forms is no longer understood in the modern world by contemporary societies
Of course communication is only possible if the symbols and language employed have currency in the given universe. That is, a symbol must carry the same meaning for the receiver as for the sender. Obviously, one can not “invent” symbols and languages. Thus if the forms no longer carry the traditional meanings, they can no longer be used to communicate the traditional message.
To some extent traditional forms no longer symbolise the same ideas and concepts for the contemporary audiences as they did in traditional societies. For example, for a large section of our societies, the traditional form of a dome, an arch, a mihrab or a minaret, may only signify narrow minded bigotry, violent fanaticism, religious intolerance, etc. But a modern form of the same element may suggest structural ingenuity, logic, rationality and a mindset open to new ideas etc.
Firstly, the forms that evoke negative responses are usually not genuinely traditional structures but grossly distorted parodies of the original in modern materials such as concrete, steel and glass etc.
Secondly, a single form may carry opposite meanings to different sections of the same community.
Thirdly, the form is after all only the medium, not the message. While traditional forms do have an intrinsic virtue, we often make the mistake of confusing the medium for the message. In fact it is when the medium becomes the message that corruption sets in and the architecture loses vitality.
We must recognise that symbols and languages do change, new forms do gain currency and enter into the vernacular, and old forms do sometimes take on new meanings. Equally, a single concept can be communicated in an infinite variety of forms.
We must also recognise that the function of the form is to communicate the message, which is its content. The production of a form for its own sake could only be either an act of pure mechanical drudgery, or narcissistic vanity, or plain and simple idolatry.
The problematic is to find the most effective forms in a given universe to convey the desired message. But we can not ignore the fact that our contemporary societies, particularly in the Islamic world, are no longer culturally homogenous and cohesive, but are splintered into several conflicting sub-cultures. While sections of our urban elite appear to represent islands of modernity, the large majority of our people still lives by traditional beliefs and practices and is guided by traditional values. More importantly, our traditional cultures continue to employ traditional imagery and architectonic forms still carry the same symbolic meanings as they have done in the past. Thus the traditional language of symbolic forms is not something belonging to a dead past but is part of a living presence.
architecture must reflect its times
First, architecture can not but reflect its times. Secondly, “the times” is not a single monolith but a complex and dynamic phenomenon with numerous, sometimes conflicting tendencies. The question is which of the several trends or tendencies should we choose to reflect?
What are the characteristics of the times? The characteristics most of us identify with our times would probably include: information technologies; mechanisation; consumerism; materialism; hedonism; end of ideology (post-constructivism); globalisation (end of diversity); degradation of the ecosystem.
These are the characteristics most frequently projected by the media. And these are the characteristics most frequently reflected in contemporary architecture
But there are other trends, which are no less characteristic of our time. The green movement; alternate (traditional) agriculture; alternate (traditional) medicine; the rediscovery of traditional wisdom; the quest for meaning and a higher purpose to life. These are equally specific to our time and clearly indicate a rejection of the “modernity paradigm” by at least some sections of contemporary society. An architecture that reflects these concerns may not get the same coverage in the media but would nevertheless be a reflection of the times
In any case, to simply reflect the times, would amount to following the herd, being rather conformist and unimaginative. If the spirit of the times demands that we question everything, then it would actually be perfectly consistent with the spirit of the times to question “the spirit of the times”, to swim against the tide, not to conform to accepted norms etc.
traditional typologies are no longer relevant to contemporary needs
This depends on how we define “needs” and whether we believe that an expressed need must be satisfied regardless of the consequences. Does the junky need a quick fix, or does he need a cure for his habit? Or is the real need to reform the society that gives rise to a culture of drug abuse?
The modern typologies which are supposed to be relevant to contemporary needs presumably include buildings in which technology plays a dominant role, such as high rise, high-tech offices, factories, laboratories, airports etc. or industrialised building systems, located in clearly segregated land-use zones - industry, residential, administrative, commercial, cultural etc., and served by a road network designed for motorised traffic.
Certainly, these typologies - buildings and urban structures - are relevant to the needs of the corporate giants of high technology, of big industry, and global finance. But this “relevance” must be assessed against the collateral damage, not only in the context of technologically less developed economies and societies, but also in the context of a world whose biosphere is increasingly threatened by the blind pursuit of technological and economic “development”.
By contrast, the traditional typologies are low rise, high density, and low tech. They are consequently less expensive, more energy efficient, less dependant on high technology, and occupy less land. In other words, they are much more relevant to the contemporary needs of a planet under stress. Moreover, the traditional morphologies are more “human” in scale socially more cohesive and conducive to community interaction. Thus it could be argued that traditional building typologies and urban morphologies are in fact more relevant and responsive to human needs
traditional materials and skills are no longer available or are too expensive
The myth that industrialisation produces better quality for less cost and for the largest number, is simply not true in the experiences of third world countries like Pakistan. We have seen that the synthetic fabrics introduced by modern textile industry in Pakistan were more expensive, less healthy, and aesthetically inferior to the traditional handloom cottons. But aggressive marketing changed consumer demands to the point that the weavers were forced to abandon their traditional craft and go to work in the big mills. Thus handloom cottons have today become an expensive luxury. The same story has been repeated in the case of shoes, garments, ceramics, and other consumer products.
But in any case, traditional architecture is not so much about specific materials or forms as it is about attitudes and purpose. After all, traditional buildings have been built in a variety of materials in the past.
Secondly, at least in technologically less developed economies such as ours, traditional materials are still available and are often less expensive than industrially produced alternatives. Moreover, in many of these societies traditional building and craft skills are still alive, available and not expensive.
In fact, in the technologically developed economies of north America, Europe and Australia, The cost of on-site labour is about two thirds of the total cost of the building. Whereas, in less developed economies the ratio is reversed. Thus industrially produced materials and components, in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, are usually more expensive than manually produced alternatives.
The architect’s training does not equip him to produce traditional buildings
This is true. Traditional architecture is taught, if at all, only as history, not as a living tradition. On the theoretical side, the discourse is dominated by the modern “scientific’ world view and philosophies. The evolutionist view of progress, which is rooted in the belief that the present is better, more advanced than the past, and the future will be better than the present. He learns that a good architect is one who keeps abreast of the latest developments, is in tune with his times, and that the great architect is one who is “ahead of his times”, at the cutting edge etc. Thus the architect is constantly under pressure to prove his credentials by being more modern etc.
On the technical side he is flooded with a stream of information about industrially produced “modern” materials, but is not informed about traditional materials and techniques. We live in the information age. But the information industry is neither altruistic nor neutral. Like any other industry it is driven by capital and the profit motive. Thus while the architect is exposed to a dazzling media projection of modern theoretical issues and debates, which naturally reflect the developments in contemporary philosophy, science and technology etc. he is probably not even aware of the theoretical and philosophical bases of traditional art and architecture, and even less about traditional building practices.
The architect can not ignore the clients demand for modernity
Tom Wolf, in “From the Bauhaus to Our House” showed how the client, particularly the corporate client bodies in the U.S. were bullied by the media into believing that they had to love the “modern movement”, and how a whole generation suffered the discomfiture of living and working in steel and glass boxes, hating every moment of it, but never daring to admit that they hated it for fear of being thought of as un-modern
Yes there are some clients who demand the latest fashions and clichés. But this is often only because many of them are not aware of any other possibility. In my own experience as a practising architect, it is amazing how many clients respond with enthusiasm and delight to a traditional concept when it is presented as an alternative possibility.
It is ultimately a question of what the architect recognises as his responsibility and function in society as a professional. To supply what the market wants, to cater to the demands of the consumer, to maximise his profits? or to administer to the needs of his fellow men, to do what he believes is beautiful and good - that is ahsan and jameel and ma’ruf.
 “a niche in which is a lamp, lit by the purest oil from the olive tree which is neither of the east nor of the west, which emits a pure light. Light upon light”