Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 30, 2001
Kamil Khan Mumtaz Modernity and Tradition: Contemporary Architecture in Pakistan Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1999. 150 pp.; some color ills.; some b/w ills. Cloth $35.00

The title of Kamil Khan Mumtaz’s book is in keeping with architectural debates in South Asia, which for almost a century have remained anchored in questions about modernity and tradition. This book is a collection of sixteen short polemical essays by Mumtaz, a well-known Pakistani architect, written between 1967 and 1997. The essays chronicle the gradual shift in his position “from a committed ‘modernist’ to a believer in the essential value of traditional wisdom.” Mumtaz’s argument does not adequately problematize issues such as economic and cultural domination, or religious nationalism and secular identity. Instead, he remains satisfied with the limitations of the hackneyed dichotomy of modernity/tradition. The end product is a nationalistic mythology that reinforces some deep-seated problems in the practice and discourse of architecture in the subcontinent.

Mumtaz’s career has spanned the last four decades, a time in which significant changes occurred in the discourse of Islamic architecture. During this time innovative scholarship questioned the Orientalist practices of Western history and attempted to resituate Islamic architecture within a conceptual framework that allowed discussion of representation, knowledge, and power. Architectural practice in Muslim countries, as well as in much of the Third World, received an overdue publicity during the 1980s, mainly thanks to the platform created by awards and publications sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation. This set into circulation a desire to document Islamic architecture and to question the nature of architectural practice in the ex-colonial countries where allegiance to Euro-American Modernism reigned supreme. For practicing architects such as Mumtaz, the renewed evaluation of the Islamic architecture traditions—along with the search for a contemporary architectural expression—were rooted in larger problems of building and construction in their fledgling nation-states. These problems included a paucity of architectural expertise, given the low ratio of trained architects to the population; the marginalization of traditional craftsmen in a modern building trade that privileged the knowledge of trained engineers and architects; a backlog in housing caused by lack of economic and material resources; and the fundamental social and political inequity in which all of these problems were grounded. During the heyday of the 1980s, the search for expressive traditional forms severed connections from its basis in social inequity and made the discovery of one’s own architectural language, unsullied by Western influence, legitimate. Political authorities, often keen to represent their regimes in terms of cultural essentialism, encouraged tradition as an unqualified good. By upholding a similar essentialist position, Mumtaz’s essays represent for us this troubled territory.

There are fragments of passages in the essays, particularly the occasional close examinations of traditional crafts in Pakistan, which could, in an expanded form, have taken us into a more useful direction. The most noteworthy among these is an interview with Mistree Haji Ghulam Hussain conducted in 1982, which represents a rare occasion when Mumtaz lets someone else’s voice intervene. Yet Mumtaz fails to benefit from the craftsman’s insight of becoming “at home” in modernity. His overall conceptual framework—grounded in the desire for an originary, essential difference—cannot sustain these sparks of critical sense.

Perhaps most disappointing is Mumtaz’s refusal to learn from contemporary critical scholarship on Islam and Islamic architecture. The essays are ridden with contradictions and are remarkably uneven in the deployment of conceptual categories. Even with regard to essays written between 1992 and 1997, we encounter shifting definitions of modernity and tradition, which are seen as mutually exclusive categories based on mutually exclusive world views (xvii, 76). Modernity is here configured as a Western imposition, representing the values of a technologically advanced society whose “materialist philosophy” views “no other purpose for human existence…than that which each individual defines for himself.” Modernity brought by the colonizers impinged upon the East’s traditional world view—an “idealist philosophy” that regarded “physical reality as secondary” and “a purpose for human existence…independent of individual ideas or personal definition” (49). Since this domain of tradition is important for him to construct an autonomous space, Mumtaz claims that the traditional way of life did not disappear after all: “The indicators of change, the islands of Westernization, may be more visible but below the surface, the dominant aspect of our societies is the survival of tradition, of traditional values, concepts, social relations and patterns of behavior” (38). Mumtaz sees Pakistan (and in extrapolation, South Asia and the Third World) retaining a cultural core that has escaped Western domination and in which Muslims redeem their identity (85). His faith in tradition is based on an evolutionary paradigm of survival-of-the-fittest in which “only those practices and beliefs which somehow benefit the group and are consistent with, or reinforce the larger system of beliefs and practices of the collectivity” would survive (57). Questions of class and gender inequity step aside to make way for an unfractured “collectivity” that harbors “tradition as an embodiment of the wisdom of the past” (ibid). As an architect, Mumtaz bases this wisdom and cultural “truth” in the religious precepts of Islamic architecture (xviii). To reveal this truth, however, he has to reject competing foreign discourses as the Other. Since the strict division between a religious past and secular present is not serviceable, he allows modernity and tradition to become “metaphors” for “tendencies which have always existed in both traditional and modern societies.” From this Mumtaz characterizes contemporary architecture as the decline of the traditional, coupled with the ascendancy of the materialist tendencies in contemporary Pakistan (110).

At the outset, Mumtaz reduces the epistemological dominance of Europe into a caricature: “From Descartes through Kant and Hegel to Marx, Heidegger, Husserl and Derida (sic), European philosophy has moved from speculations on the nature of God to rational analysis of the nature of Man…European Philosophy has reduced the Truth, from the Absolute, self-evident Cause, to a logical postulate, then from a mental construct to a relative personal truth, and finally to a meaningless game of semantics” (xvii). Such ground-clearing dismisses not only Western theoretical frameworks (whose appropriateness one could argue about), but also the whole of Western material culture and its role within Pakistani society. Mumtaz reserves his worst criticism for those Pakistanis who adopt Western forms in everyday life; their “modernity,” he claims, “is not about values and attitudes which are the underpinnings of industrial culture,” but rather is identified with “trinkets and gadgets that can be purchased with money” (90). The architecture they patronize “intended to communicate a commitment to modernity, progress, and change” displays “a singular lack of propriety” (89). That practice is wasteful, grammatically incorrect, and “corrupting” as it reflects “false,” unnatural identities (91). Mumtaz’s rhetoric seems drawn in two directions: One is to urge his readers to see the extent of the economic and cultural devastation caused by Western dominance, and the other is to dismiss these foreign effects as passing or ephemeral, as something that could be contained under fashion and fad.

In passages specifically dealing with architectural criticism, Mumtaz assigns the architect the responsibility of not only rectifying the impropriety of the elite’s architectural desires, but also of steering away the craftsman from the corruption of such extravaganzas as the Aga Khan Award-winning Bhong Mosque complex. He applauds the dexterity and skill of traditional craftsmen who exploit modern materials, but disapproves of their willingness to incorporate modern forms as tragic “limitation, deprived nourishment from the mainstream and guidance from the professional architect in his rightful role as the creative leader of the team” (72). We suddenly encounter the notion of a team of architect-builders in which the architect is to claim his rightful place as creative leader. It helps to know that in his discussion of the traditional craft of building, Mumtaz argues that creativity was not a goal of traditional craftsmen, who worked to realize an ideal, and that contemporary craftsmen are often ignorant of the esoteric meaning of the forms they deploy (65). Why is this privilege bestowed on the architect as a modern professional for rejuvenating a traditional building practice? Because of the need to collect, document, and categorize the “concrete evidence of the collective past” (48). If we follow such a desire for history, we discern the traces of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anticolonial nationalism of the Indian elite (and their deep allegiance to Enlightenment values). Mumtaz’s conceptual apparatus and aesthetic prerogatives would have received warm approval from the likes of the art critic A. K. Coomaraswamy. Even as he disavows Western technology and expertise, Mumtaz pays homage to Western notions of history and reason. It is not surprising that in a concluding survey of contemporary architecture in Pakistan, Mumtaz constructs a lineage of academically trained architects only; no craftsmen may be found in this privileged story of the nation.

In his dismissal of the plurality of modernities in Pakistan (and South Asia)—which no simple narrative of transition from traditional and preindustrial to modern and industrial can contain—and in his demand for a homogenous propriety in architecture, Mumtaz misses the possibilities of a critical terrain. The history of colonial and neocolonial dominance could not so easily be wished away from the nation’s and the individual’s consciousness. It requires a willingness to recognize the degree to which modern practices form a part of the everyday in South Asia.

Swati Chattopadhyay
University of California, Santa Barbara