Book Review: Review of Heritage and Sustainability in the Islamic Built Environment | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Book Review: Review of Heritage and Sustainability in the Islamic Built Environment

Bashir A. Kazimee (Ed.)
Heritage and Sustainability in the Islamic Built Environment
Southampton and Boston: WIT Press, 2012
(xvii + 213 pages, index, illustrations) $192.00 (hardcover)

Harvard University

One of the primary effects of the so-called “ecological turn” in architecture and urbanism over the last decade has been the steady subordination of formal concerns to holistic ones emphasizing the built environment’s role as the locus of evolving natural and human conditions. Form, though not unimportant, is typically conceived as the qualitative design proxy of a broad multidisciplinary corpus of quantitative knowledge of a given environment. Bashir A. Kazimee, a Professor of Architecture at Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, has edited the volume, Heritage and Sustainability in the Islamic Built Environment, a publication which comes at the growing body of literature on ecological design with two primary interests: the dialogic relationship of preservation and ecology in general, and the Islamic built environment in particular. The premise is a promising one in its ability to further develop Janet Abu Lughod’s important observation that “the process of development in modern Islamic cities is influenced by Western models of city planning and design, while at the same time the West is reconsidering its design approaches and trying to reinvent concepts and patterns from the traditional cities of the postmodern era and principles that are similar to those in traditional Islamic cities.” (xiv) What could, in effect, be at stake in such a study is the inherent paradox of the Western-led ecological turn as it relates to the Islamic built environment and how the field of conservation folds the knowledge – and production – of history into that intellectual knot. The important role of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture respectively, both mentioned too briefly in the volume, have brought these issues to the professional fore in the last decade. The volume’s premise stands to enrich these already lively activities with a sustained critical and theoretical substrate.

As the vast majority of the book’s eleven case studies expressly and uncritically rely on the neo-orientalist precepts of “essence,” “authenticity” and “timelessness” in a geographic region spanning Istanbul to Malaysia, that possibility is unfortunately stymied from the outset. The deeper meaning of Lughod’s “traditional city” is a fundamentally ecological one, informed more by the very lack of cultural fixity than it is religion, climate or their attendant forms. Kazimee’s misreading of Lughod’s conceptualization of “tradition” is a problem whose regressive effects carry across virtually each of the volume’s 207 pages and the work of its ten other authors, and prevent much in the way of advancements in discursive and/or applicable knowledge.

Kazimee’s focus is on Afghanistan and Iran, with two thirds of the contributions dealing primarily with locations in those two countries. The entries concerning Afghanistan, in particular, are refreshing given the paucity of material that exists on it. Other geographic entries include a study of the Ottoman külliye (multiprogram complexes centered around a mosque), vernacular dwellings  in Malaysia and the challenges wrought by the rapid globalization of the Gulf states. The entries on Afghanistan and Iran probably represent the range of the book’s ambitions and minor triumphs as much as they do the pitfalls.

The volume opens with Kazimee’s own study entitled “Place and Meaning in Urban Isfahan.” Kazimee advocates an understanding of Isfahan that is holistic and experiential, attempting to weave the well-known monuments of Naqsh-e Jahan Square into a greater aggregation of Safavid urban principles. This in and of itself is a worthy goal but Kazimee incorporates none of the critical historical literature (Rizvi, Canby) to do so and relies instead on the platitudinous (“Courtyard is where all diversities of life come together.” [p. 15]) and the metaphorical (“The bridge contemplates before us a spiritual journey whereby the physical world is a vehicle to that of hidden reality that is the ultimate spiritual goal an individual may seek.” [p. 17]). Kazimee’s strengths are more evident in the chapter’s descriptive elements, such as those of the city’s intricate urban corridors and their relationship with private domiciles [pp. 12-14]. What is yet more problematic than the fragility of the methodology, however, is that the objective of the study remains unarticulated. The definition of “universal values that are shared by the traditional architecture of Isfahan can help us re-establish meaning and a true sense of place” [p. 19] appears to be the closest thing to an epistemic goal. Even if we are to accept the universalist presupposition that a “true” and cosmic “value” exists across Islamic contexts, it is not clear what, precisely, is being “re-established” and what events in the wake of the Safavids are in need of our recalibration. The lack of a problematic, in other words, sets an ambiguous tone for the chapters that follow.

It is not until the volume’s seventh chapter “Sustainable Development and Eco-Tourism at Bamyan, Afghanistan” by William Bechhoefer, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, that a lucid syllogism is established. Bechhoefer attempts to establish an operative platform in which the discrete fields of eco-tourism, critical regionalism and historic preservation can function collusively. He outlines a series of generative design interventions near the Bamyan site, products of studios he led, which include a contemporary caravanserai, a center for agricultural research and a center for conflict resolution. The proposals, while rich in their programmatic thoughtfulness, demonstrate far less of a handle on the historical, political and geopolitical conditions of the very loaded Bamyan site. As a portfolio of design projects this omission can be forgiven, particularly if the impulses behind them have a conscientious utopian bent. As Bechhoefer states, the goal of the studio was to suggest “principles and approaches for inter-disciplinary groups of professionals working to revive and restore Afghanistan’s economy and culture” [p. 126]. But in a volume that purports to be about Islamic heritage and sustainability writ large, this kind of case study seems misplaced, not least because it makes none of the universalist claims made by the other authors nor does it reconcile the fact that the Bamyan Buddhas at the core of the site’s significance were perceived to actually be at odds with Islam when the Taliban destroyed them in 2001.

The volume’s penultimate chapter is Ayad Rahmani’s “Catching up with The Kite Runner: Architectural Authenticity in a World Overrun by Globalization.” Ahmani, Associate Professor of Architecture at Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, attempts to use a literary analysis of the theme of authenticity as found in Khaled Hosseini’s incredibly popular 2003 the Kite Runner as a heuristic for deconstructing the proliferation of Islamicized architecture and architectural motifs in 21st -century Dubai. That Dubai is a menagerie of historicizing forms and neoliberal pastiche is by now a well-established fact. Rahmani’s quest to find a definition of the “authentic” in Hosseini’s novel in order to deride the bombast of the contemporary Gulf landscape is deeply problematic on many levels. For one, the very supposition that authenticity can function as either a truism or a critical operation reinforces the very universalist and historicizing tenets Rahmani seeks to critique. Rahmani’s assertion that Hosseini’s authenticity “boils down to the relationship between inside and outside and the extent to which the distance between two poles is narrow or wide” [p. 175] is not a clear enough interpretation to develop the already tenuous transposition from fiction to architectural critique. What’s yet more frustrating, is that Rahmani does harness his agenda to make an actual polemic, asserting eventually that Dubai is actually not very interesting and is simply a “place on par with Las Vegas and Disneyland” [p. 182]. The transformation of the Gulf is actually, it seems needless to say, interesting if only in light of Venturi and Scott Brown’s contention in Learning from Las Vegas that pastiches is instructive in discerning cultural and societal ambitions. Rahmani’s reductive take illuminates not only an inherent conservatism but also a lack of engagement with a well-established postmodern discourse. Such an unequivocal conclusion, more apt for a manifesto than an essay in an edited volume, could have at least been buttressed by a critical framework that was philosophical as opposed to literary.

In addition to the critical and historical shortcomings of this publication, it contains a number of other problems including numerous grammatical and spelling errors and extremely low resolution images, a surprise given the book’s cost. Foregoing the potentially rich critical threads of the ecological turn and its application, meaning and transmutation in and for professional, conservation and architectural historical interests in the Islamic world, this volume reduces Islamic culture – and architecture – to its most tired stereotypes, be they universalist or simply uninformed. It is most certainly a missed opportunity, one that can still be taken up by a more thorough and methodical group of authors .

Peter Christensen is a Ph.D. candidate in Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design where he is an affiliate of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at the Technische Universität Munich, Lehrstuhl für Architekturgeschichte und kuratorische Praxis.