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Perspective

Anxious public space (a preface)

Updated Jun 03, 2016 12:25pm
One of the three 15th century panels known as The Ideal City | National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino
One of the three 15th century panels known as The Ideal City | National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino

“What is the city but the people?” asks the opening sentence of the Capital Development Authority’s (CDA) website. The sentence – originally from Shakespeare's play Coriolanus – expresses a sentiment appropriate for this government-owned public benefit corporation, tasked with running and maintaining the master plan of the capital city of Pakistan. Upon researching the CDA’s establishment, I discovered a lineage of military leadership starting with General Ayub Khan and the organisation’s first chairman, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, who defined the charter of this organisation and its role in building Islamabad. This essay provides a preface to a longer discussion about public space in Pakistan by analysing perceptions of the ideal city, in popular and official discourse.

On a sweltering July day in Islamabad this year, images of bulldozers, riot gear, and protesting men, women and children dragged from their homes in a katchi abadi, poured into news circuits and social media. The CDA announced a successful removal of all illegal occupants from sector I-11, who posed (among other things) security threats and sanitation risks to the city. It is almost tragic that a government institution tasked with representing the ‘people’ of a city, could be responsible for the eviction of thousands of them from their homes, with no alternatives for resettlement.

The CDA removes the illegal occupants from sector I-11 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
The CDA removes the illegal occupants from sector I-11 | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

This katchi abadi settlement was established in the 1980s, initially housing Afghan refugees and later expanded to include various demographics, including Pakistanis displaced from the country’s north-western peripheries by the War on Terror. According to official and civilian reports, between 5,000 to 20,000 residents of this abadi were subject to eviction. The ground for eviction was the illegal occupation of private property. While this was absolutely true, I could not help but notice the ubiquity of katchi abadis all across Pakistan’s cities and realised that there was more to these eviction narratives than ‘fixing’ violations of the law.

A page from the newsletter published by the Defence Housing Society (DHA) in 2014
A page from the newsletter published by the Defence Housing Society (DHA) in 2014

The rabid construction of high-rises by influential developers, who can somehow bypass environmental, legal and zoning concerns of our cities, makes the issue of upholding the law a moot point. In fact, the sheer impunity with which some things are built and others destroyed, begs us to evaluate what kind of places we imagine our cities to be, as well as what we want our cities to become. What does our ideal city look like? Who is this city for? And who are ‘the people’ that government organisations like the CDA seem to represent?

The image you see at the head of this essay is one such imagination of an ideal city drawn in 15th century Italy, projecting some of the formative ideas of the European Enlightenment. I found this image compelling as an artist and former student of architecture because of its striking representation of public space; its symmetry, rationality, precision, measurable distance, order and the central presence of a beautifully crafted, clean public square. There is only one thing missing — ‘the people’.

This picture of the ideal city is haunting as a paradox of achievement; architecture and the urban plan are privileged here to the extent that living beings capable of bringing disorder into it are simply imagined out. While the image of an ideal city from the 15th century might seem temporally and geographically remote to our contemporary surroundings, I observed the similarities of world view in our landscape that idealise enlightenment positivisms to this day.

A look at the master plan of Baghdad by Constantinos Doxiadis, who was incidentally also the chief architect and planner for the city of Islamabad, induces a sense of dread at the assembly line distribution of buildings. Extreme order stands out in the image. This desire for order in various developing cities of the global south – particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, shortly after independence from colonial rule – reveals modernist imaginaries of control, that pay homage to various visualities in the Italian ‘ideal city’ painting.

While these plans are careful not to spell out the removal of the poor outright, it is hard to believe that cities with such large populations of urban poor could be rebranded otherwise.

One of the ideals that stands out as common in the master plans from the 1950s onwards across South Asia, is the desire to remove the urban poor as an eyesore on public space. While these plans are careful not to spell out the removal of the poor outright, it is hard to believe that cities with such large populations of urban poor could be rebranded otherwise. The CDA’s aggressive removal of the katchi abadi in Islamabad signals expanding urban development, aspiring to align itself with the global rhetoric of world cities. The anonymity of the urban slum, teeming with unregistered residents is presented as the undesirable and irrational – sometimes religious, at other times terrorist – ‘unknown’. This dark unknown poses a threat to the desirable order of the bright ideal city; an ideal city sold and consumed as an imaginary of progress by government agencies, aspiring political leaders, the wealthy, and often also the poor, residents of urban Pakistan. But stepping back a bit, the purpose of this essay is not to point out the callous displacement of the poor but rather the world view that denigrates spaces which are “unplanned” (or not centrally controlled), “chaotic” (or self ordered), “donkey track” (or non-linear) — spaces typically occupied by the urban poor.

Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The colonisation of South Asia altered our world view and understanding of space. Today, this transformed world view can be mined by reading our cities like palimpsests, defining the way we think about ideal ‘public space’. It can be suggested, that the foundations of our contemporary world view were laid during the Great Enlightenment of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries (though peaking during this time, the roots of the Enlightenment go back to the Renaissance in Europe) and brought to our collective imaginations via British colonial rule. Reason, individualism and scientific objectivity defined the new ground upon which thinkers, cultural producers and governments stood; an age of ‘light’ as opposed to the ‘darkness’ of the Middle Ages.

The Plague which devastated Europe in a fragment of the 14th century, contributed heavily to this sweeping essentialism that made the Middle Ages synonymous with darkness — a judgment that simplistically summarised a thousand-year-long period of history. It can be argued that the European Enlightenment gained popular support by playing up its opposition to the ‘dark’ Middle Ages (a stance of order against disorder, rationality against the irrational, control against chaos) and ultimately influenced many future movements, including Liberal Modernism in the newly independent states of South Asia.

Rewind a little less to a post-independence landscape where echoes of the urban renewal movements from America, (laden with enlightenment values) were palpable in the plans for new South Asian cities. American experts were contracted by the young southern States to draw master plans to differentiate these rising cities from their colonial pasts (in India this would include a separation from the architectures of Mughal cities). It is ironic that a celebration of independence from colonial rule did not include independence from a foreign value system.

The ‘Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020’ made by the City Government during mayor Mustafa Kamal’s tenure (2007), also shared a vision of “transforming Karachi into a world city." While many of the goals in this plan are good directions to move towards, the desire to brand oneself like a world city comes with the pitfalls of superficial reforms that privilege specific publics.

Ravi Sundaram in his book, Pirate Modernity, talks about the traces of the Enlightenment bias found in these urban master planning projects. Le Corbusier (the French-Swiss architect who designed Chandigarh), for example, is noted to dislike the “non-rational rhythm of the old city which he contemptuously calls the ‘donkey track’ view of urban life”. Further in the text, Sundaram shares historian and critic, Anthony Vidler’s, argument that “modern urbanism has always been haunted by Enlightenment fears of “dark space,” which is seen as a repository of superstition, non-reason and the breakdown of civility.”

Sundaram shares a fascinating excerpt about Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation to the Ford Foundation and Albert Mayer to design the 1962 master plan for Delhi. At an architecture seminar in Delhi at the National Academy of Art, he voices a personal dislike for traditional Hindu temples saying:

"I just can’t stand them. Why? I do not know I cannot explain that, but they are oppressive, they suppress my spirit. They do not allow me to rise, they keep me down. The dark corridors — I like the sun and air and not dark corridors."

It was no surprise that Delhi’s master plan, which echoed regionalist American ‘model cities’, tried to order the chaotic urban landscape with infrastructure; controlling the flows of people along technocratic hierarchies. That Enlightenment ideals have endured all across South Asia even after the end of colonisation, and that master planning exercises for various cities in Pakistan have shared similar aspirations, demands scrutiny.

Plan of the community sector in western Baghdad. Constantinos A Doxiadis archives, slide 9332 © Constantinos and Emma Doxiadis Foundation | Architectural Histories journal
Plan of the community sector in western Baghdad. Constantinos A Doxiadis archives, slide 9332 © Constantinos and Emma Doxiadis Foundation | Architectural Histories journal

In the 21st century, enlightenment ideals of light, rationality and order are folded into the global branding of the (successful) metropolis as a ‘world city’. The urban landscapes of Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai establish a benchmark for these cities. These cities are not only prosperous — they look a certain way, that defines them as successful in the world. They have specific surfaces and materiality, designated public spaces and office parks, high security, and international starchitects vying to design landmark buildings for a globally branded skyline. Most significantly, these cities are planned and controlled.

The ‘Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020’ made by the City Government during mayor Mustafa Kamal’s tenure (2007), also shared a vision of “transforming Karachi into a world city.” While many of the goals in this plan are good directions to move towards, the desire to brand oneself like a world city comes with the pitfalls of superficial reforms that privilege specific publics. Take flyovers in Karachi for example; while they make commutes from Karachi’s rich suburbs to areas of work across the city much faster, they enable ‘flying’ over large swathes of marginalised neighbourhoods without the uncomfortable interface with the poor. The poor seldom benefit from such organising infrastructure projects, their neighbourhoods literally bypassed often to create smooth traffic for others.

Laurent Gayer talks about this in his recent book Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, pointing to the flyovers and underpasses initiated by the city government as a kind of dream of modernity for a select population:

"Besides reinforcing feelings of alienation among the residents of what increasingly resemble neighbourhoods of exile, these megaprojects involve the demolition of lower-income housing and the displacement of already disenfranchised populations on a massive scale (the construction of the Lyari Expressway thus required the displacement of 24,000 families)."

A page from the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, published by the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), 2007
A page from the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, published by the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), 2007

Not dissimilar to Nehru’s desire for light, these dreams of modernity – of desiring the ideal world city – point to a city ideal only for select publics. The urban poor who rely upon informal infrastructures for housing and livelihood often benefit the least from grand master plans. Karachi’s Strategic Development Plan 2020 points out that world cities are, “well governed, managed, and planned” and “characterised by minimal poverty and slums.” Similar sentiments in Islamabad resulted in the conviction that removing the I-11 slum was the right thing to do for the city.

Everyday structures in public space – the suburban park, the gated mall, the sterilised roundabout, the securitised university – form part of the landscape of control. No example is insignificant because it reveals the logic of its use and the mindset of its publics. I observe that the degree of control in public space is proportional to the amount of privilege in the given area of the city. The rapidly expanding real estate developments of the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) in Karachi (also run by military personnel), reveal anxieties of control in public space in almost every structure in their elite suburbs. A popular public park in the DHA displays a huge sign with so many orders of conduct it’s almost comic:

• Political and religious conversations and gatherings are prohibited inside the park

• Visitors are requested to wear appropriate dress inside the park

• Park does not allow weapons, private security guards, pets, children cycling

• Trash must be discarded in provided bins

• You are not allowed to pick flowers in the park

• You are not allowed to play cricket in the park

• Playing is not allowed in the park

• Smoking is not allowed in the park

• Dogs are not allowed in the park

• We would like your cooperation to maintain the beauty of the park

As if signage were not enough, the DHA also boasts a surveillance mechanism to provide security and protection from – what is described in the DHA newsletter as – “unforeseen situations” for its most fragile, valued publics. Security as an infrastructural tool for controlling the chaotic city is something I’ll go into further detail in another essay but for now, take a look at the image from one of the DHA’s newsletters to its residents.

One of the ideals that stands out as common in the master plans from the 1950s onwards across South Asia, is the desire to remove the urban poor as an eyesore on public space | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
One of the ideals that stands out as common in the master plans from the 1950s onwards across South Asia, is the desire to remove the urban poor as an eyesore on public space | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The desire for order in the ideal city, or the threat of disorder, is often managed by securitising and sanitising the ‘public’ sphere; policing in the process all kinds of informal activities and unruly publics, and dividing the urban into quantifiable categories. One can project that this anxiety about public space is a psychological fallout from the Enlightenment, seeded in South Asia by the British, and nurtured by the desires of fragile nations for technocratic policies of control. Removing certain publics (slums) in Islamabad is one overt manifestation of the state’s impulse to manage public space; but each of us is complicit in maintaining this world view in countless other ways we barely notice.

The question is not, ‘what is the city but the people’, but whether ‘the people’ can even imagine a different kind of city.