People & society - In Conversation With

In conversation with William J Glover

Updated Jan 10, 2017 04:00pm

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Arif Ali, White Star
Arif Ali, White Star

William J Glover is associate professor of architecture and history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the United States. Belonging to a somewhat idealist bracket of architects who believe architecture to be a potentially transformative social art, Glover has undertaken research in the history of agglomerations, compelling us to ask important questions about our past in order to revisit and possibly sharpen our notions about the here and now.

One of the most striking things about Glover is that, despite being a renowned academic, he is unassuming and has an almost desi candour about him. Having a long association with Lahore, he remembers it as a city where he has only received love and great hospitality. He first travelled to Lahore in 1996 and then returned to base his doctoral research in this city of endearing paradoxes. The research culminated in a book, Making Lahore Modern, which is about the colonial imagination of the city and the construction of a modern Lahore, a subject we love to reminisce about.

Glover’s new endeavour, titled Living in a Category, is a research project conducted mostly in India. It delves into the often overlooked colonial history of the village. The project, slowly taking the shape of a second book, establishes that – contrary to its perception as a dusty “artefact” where the proverbial paindu originated from – the Indian colonial village was a place alive with activity and progress in the early 20th century.

During his visit to Lahore late last year, Glover gave talks at the National College of Arts and the Lahore School of Economics on the colonial categories of the village, the small town and the city. He also spoke about his parallel project of “reformatting” village life in Punjab.

Characteristically, Glover’s research projects open us up to a new world. At first glance, it is a world we think we know all too well but, at a deeper level, his questions force us to reconsider and deconstruct the all too familiar. This is precisely his purpose. He brings to the fore the fact that, for an academic, knowing is as important as not knowing and that great works are born out of the willingness to step out of one’s intellectual comfort zone and get one’s hands dirty.

Rabia Ezdi. What made you take up architecture and then study history?

William J Glover. I came to architecture from a background in geology, which I studied as an undergraduate at Stanford University. I worked for an oil company very briefly after I graduated and disliked it so much that I wanted to do anything but that. At the time, I knew an architect who seemed to have the most interesting life. I had no real idea what architects did but this personal friendship inspired me and I went to the only institution that would admit me in its masters programme. As a social art, architecture opened me up to politics and history and culture in a way that I hadn’t been exposed to before.

RE. What made you decide to be an academic rather than a practitioner?

WG. It was when I started understanding myself a little better. I realised I am a better teacher than a businessman. The role of an academic is, at least in part, that of a provocateur. To take students out of their comfort zone and help them take on ideas they are less familiar with. In architectural education, I don’t see the role of the academy as one of teaching students how to work in an office. I see the architectural profession as a subset of something much bigger that we could call architectural discourse. The profession is a small piece in a bigger whole.

I feel that teachers convey more to their students by the way they act and the intellectual or pedagogical choices they make than they do in terms of the ‘content’ they formally convey in class. Teachers should ideally model a certain kind of curiosity — we are not fact-delivery machines. Being around young people who are away from home, sometimes for the first time in their lives, who are open to thought and who are impressionable — teachers have to take that on as a responsibility.

RE. As an architect-academic, is there an ‘ism’ that you identify yourself with?

WG. As scholars, we are taught to avoid ‘isms’ but my training was done under the banner of post-structuralism and post-colonialism. I have some allegiance to both intellectual formations. I have also always admired thinkers and writers committed to a socialist framework. Many academics trained in the 1990s, such as myself, owe important aspects of their development to insights opened up by Edward Said. We noted where Said’s questions made sense and opened up new ones where they didn’t make as much sense. The same could be said about the role Michel Foucault’s work played in the intellectual formation of students studying colonialism at the time. Now I am much more open. I don’t need to wear a uniform and be under an ‘ism’.

RE. Why and how did you start taking an interest in colonial South Asia?

WG. I was oriented towards a political approach to architecture and I was interested in the issue of low-income housing in South Asia. I took a year off from my master’s degree to study squatter settlements in Pune [in the Indian state of Maharashtra] — the way they were mapped out, the way they functioned. I graduated in 1986 with a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington and practised as an architectural designer in Seattle for a few years. In 1991-1992, the first Gulf War took place and I became involved in organising protests against the war. It was eye-opening and disappointing at the same time — all sorts of people came together for the cause in a very short time but also fell apart very quickly. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my career.

I realised that I wasn’t enjoying being a design architect. I thought perhaps I should teach architecture instead of trying to run a design business. That is what led me to pursue a PhD in architecture at [the University of California] Berkeley, beginning in 1993. When I went to Berkeley, I initially thought I would work on squatter settlements in the field of development planning but within a year I realised that the problems I was looking at in Indian cities were older. This led me to take an interest in the colonial history of Indian cities.

In his book, William J Glove establishes Lahore as a key site for “constructing and imagining a colonial city”
In his book, William J Glove establishes Lahore as a key site for “constructing and imagining a colonial city”

RE. Why did you decide to make Lahore the site for your PhD research on “constructing and imagining a colonial city”?

WG. In 1996, I came to Lahore in the summer. I was interested in testing the possibilities of a project set in the city. I lived in the Walled City near Shah Alami [gate] where a family had rented a barsaati to me. The interesting thing about the Walled City is that one assumes it has been the way it is forever but in reality it has grown incrementally, and continues to change. While I was living in Shah Alami, I watched two houses in the very street where I lived being torn down. That altered the entire street pattern. I came out of that summer experience thinking that Lahore was fascinating and overwhelming and that I had to come back. I remember thinking that if I can write a history of this city I will not be daunted by any task again.

RE. From “constructing and imagining a colonial city”, what brought you to the study of the rural?

WG. For one, a friend who had read Making Lahore Modern said to me, “You’ve written about this big city and never used the word ‘capital’ even once”. I wanted that economics and history should be part of the story in my next project.

Another stimulus was the recurring emphasis by historians on the need to study cities in relation to their hinterland — solid advice that is rarely ever followed. This led me to [develop] an interest in learning from agrarian history. In the agrarian history [of India], debt became a huge issue at the beginning of the 20th century. This led me to political economy; hence my interest in the relations between the city and the village.

Punjab was in trouble at the time. In 1900, a Land Alienation Act was passed that prohibited the transfer of land to non-agricultural groups in the province. Since land values were increasing rapidly by then, land was used as collateral for loans. The money-lending class at that time – such as the banyas – was considered to be fundamentally urban. There were, of course, many moneylenders who lived exclusively in the villages, and some of them were also agriculturists. But, essentially, the legislation was an effort to keep agrarian land from going by default into the hands of city people. For me, this made studying the relationship between the village and the city a fruitful project in the context of Punjab.

RE. Both your projects depend upon archival research. What are your experiences as far as the quality of institutions responsible for archiving is concerned, in both India and Pakistan?

WG. The historical record is fragmentary. Of the many events that constitute what happened in the past, only a tiny imprint remains in physical records and artefacts. When these are organised into an archive – whether official or unofficial – historians are able to access essential details about past events, people and processes and, equally importantly, understand some of the collecting and organising principles of the persons or institutions responsible for assembling the archive in the first place. The British were meticulous record-keepers, as were the Mughals before them. This tells us two things: things they recorded, and something about the nature of their enquiry, its limits, biases, barriers and so on.

The governmental records, on which much historical research depends, are patchy for the colonial period in Pakistan. The records of the post-colonial period are also difficult to access.

RE. Would you elaborate the notion of a category? Was this based purely on the colonisers’ preoccupation with the flow of capital?

WG. My new project emerged from different kinds of reading; from Lahore’s history, to agrarian history, to ethnographic village studies of the 1950s and 1960s in India and Pakistan, among other things. The project works on two levels. At one level, it is an intellectual history tracing the idea of a rural-urban continuum, something that came into formation in the early decades of the 20th century.

Throughout most of the 19th century, the village and the city were considered to be almost separate entities, with neither having much impact on the other but, by the 1920s and the 1930s, they began to be seen as connected and contiguous. By the late 1920s, for example, we can find the term ‘rurban’ emerging, a made-up word that reflects a larger intellectual change.

A second level of the project looks at the material environments this idea of rural-urban connectivity created. A number of projects were started by the British: village modernisation, the reformatting of fields, the migration of decentralised civic institutions more common to cities into the physical spaces of villages, radio listening practices and team sports. I wanted to bring back into discussion these projects that we had forgotten about.

RE. Was the British reformatting of the village determined largely by the structure of taxation or was it more about the creation of a certain civic consciousness?

WG. What is interesting is that by the early decades of the 20th century the categories being used to describe villages and small towns were in motion. What I noticed in the archives was that those descriptions did not really reflect material conditions on the ground. We always think of villages and cities as looking and feeling a certain way but the categories [given to these places by the British] were not descriptive categories. Instead, they had much more to do with how a place was governed and taxed.

My argument is that if you wanted to understand the experience of living in a “small town” in colonial Punjab, the tax code was as important as – or more important than, actually – the presence of street lights, traffic and modern forms of architecture. The reminder is to be careful when making assumptions that we already know what urban and rural meant. My goal is to help us think in a more precise way about what the recent past in colonial India and Pakistan was about, what the original state was from which we are now changing.

We have to accept that architecture is still very much an elite discipline. One doesn’t quite know where it’s headed. I think architecture has become timid at challenging the elite biases of its own formation — far more than many other professions that were formed around the same time.

RE. Are you also implying that the current rhetoric promoting urbanisation as the only way forward does not have a long history? Was the city not always seen as the ultimate place of opportunity, aspiration and progress?

WG. There was much more robust modernisation in the villages, including the application of scientific agricultural techniques and decentralised forms of local government such as the panchayat system. Farmers were, and always have been, open to new techniques and change. In the 1920s, agricultural colleges and research stations were developing new seed across Punjab, including at Lyallpur (present-day Faisalabad). These are things scholars often attribute only to urban populations.

It is a disservice if we think that the village is only stable, unchanging, and timeless. The urban dweller always imagines himself to be the locus of newness and change but the countryside was alive with change. So the timeless, unchanging village as a scholarly ‘artefact’ has to be retired at this point.

Nevertheless, the city has been the place where dreams were thought to be realisable — no doubt. It still is. The allure of the city is not a new phenomenon but it is an allure primarily for the elite. It is a safety valve for everyone else. For example, you drive past a katchi abadi and you think, why these people don’t go back to the village where there is clean air etc. The answer is that in the village things are worse. For a certain class, the city holds allure; for the rest, it is the only option.

RE. What kinds of changes are the cities of South Asia going through in terms of their historical trajectory?

WG. This is what I am trying to figure out. There are a number of changes that are underway. There are some that people are more aware of and responding to, and there are those that people are less aware of, such as shifting ecologies. There is no one model of understanding South Asian cities today. We are seeing an increasing polarisation between the rich and the poor. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, most urban agglomerations in South Asia are faced with catastrophes in terms of groundwater, air quality, social services, health and education. These are creating situations that will soon become unliveable if they are not addressed.

I think there are good examples in the world of urban practices that work. We do not necessarily need new inventions but we could give a lot more careful attention to what is working. There is also a role for presenting alternative models, for documenting ways of doing that are attainable. I feel that people in Pakistan are incredibly resilient. They seem to dust things off and go to work the next day but these things can also be exasperating and take a big toll over time. That is a situation where change needs to happen.

I do think that scholars and policymakers are showing more interest in South Asia, more than they have in years. So we are now learning what the [South Asian] cities are, how they operate, who lives in them. Most models, however, help us understand the cities from the middle-class point of view. We still don’t have an understanding of the city from the point of view of the day-wage labourer.

RE. In what direction then does the South Asian agglomeration of the future need to go?

WG. [They need to be] tactical and intelligent about projects that work, attending to the fact that more than half the population of the city is surviving on subsistence wage. Urban ecology has to be looked into right from the start and we have to attend to the question of appropriate institutional structures through which liveable environments can be made. [Karachi-based urban planner] Arif Hasan correctly says there is no more planning in Pakistan’s cities; there are only projects. That still leaves open the question of whether planning in itself is sufficient.

The threshold for belonging in the city is very low. This is a good quality. Anyone can come live in the city. We need to preserve that and not build homogenous fortified enclaves against one another. The city has always been a place where someone can become someone else and that needs to be preserved.

RE. You often suggest that architecture has somehow disappointed you — how so?

WG. Architecture has avoided a lot of the central issues in the lives that the majority have lived over the last half century. Architects have shunned the nuts and bolts of cities for too long. For example, in the United States, architects have completely ignored the suburbs. Also, they were pretty slow in coming to an environmental awareness, especially in the mainstream. I am also disappointed in the traditional avant-garde in architecture – at least in the West – where prominent practitioners and prominent teachers borrow insights from the more scholarly disciplines but don’t contribute to those disciplines in any substantive way.

We have to accept that architecture is still very much an elite discipline. It is not very diverse ethnically either, which limits its ability to be relevant. One doesn’t quite know where it’s headed.

RE. Has architecture failed?

WG. The profession of architecture is relatively new. It didn’t get formalised as a profession till the late 19th century. When architecture became a profession, it had to distinguish itself from engineering and construction. What architects decided they offered was “refined taste” which in the late 19th century meant primarily mastering the classical orders. Architecture sold taste and this is partly what has shaped it.

I think architecture hasn’t failed as much as it has become timid at challenging the elite biases of its own formation — far more than many other professions that were formed around the same time.

RE. What kind of minds is American higher education aiming to create? Has that been successful?

WG. There is a lot of emphasis now in American universities on entrepreneurship as a model of professional development. Thinking broadly, this would mean developing skills such as self-motivation, self-organisation, creativity and, of course, inter-disciplinarity. The person they have in mind is not so much trained in the technicalities of the labour market but somebody who is able to think, problem-solve, self-organise and imagine. I am not sure if they are realising [this goal] but this is the rhetoric that organises current pedagogy.

As far as the study of architecture goes, the building as an object of design has receded and is giving way to the building as curated exhibit. An older set of interests in construction and social organisation has been replaced in part by digital fabrication, robotics, material science, the exploration of new materials, parametric modelling. The computer has arrived in a big way but I sometimes wonder whether we are placing technology ahead of thought, analysis and research. For example, it is not clear what we should be teaching our students with reference to history. It is not clear whether the students see an important role for history in their own development, and the faculty too are divided about this question.

RE. What differences do you find – in terms of world view, concerns and just general response – between audiences in North American universities and those in South Asia?

WG. What I was struck by on my visit to Lahore this time was how pragmatic the questions I received were. I think there was an expectation that my work would speak directly to contemporary problems, much more than is usually the case in the US. I find the attitude here to be that scholarship will produce goods for the present and I found myself unable to answer many of these questions.

I see a lot of energy in students here. They want to know and learn and there is a consciousness about living in a time of important changes — people seem aware of that. There is also perhaps more of a willingness here to admit that one doesn’t know something. Though this is a big generalisation, people in the US are perhaps more reluctant to reveal their shortcomings.

I also have the impression that students here are quite self-conscious about their nation’s place in the world and that they are living in hard times. They, therefore, tend to place certain practical concerns in the fore.


The writer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, National College of Arts, Lahore.