20 May, 2010

This Summer: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Today I got an email informing me that my application for the Shellman Prize at Princeton's School of Architecture was successful. That means I get funding to work on another drawing project this summer! I was not expecting this because I won the same prize last year. Here's my project proposal:

Proposal for the Shellman Travel Fund

I plan to travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to experience and record the monuments and urban space in Israel, a country founded in 1948 – one year after the founding of my home country, Pakistan.

Three motivations undergird this drawing project:

1. Both Pakistan and Israel were founded in order to carve out geographic space for a religious group to practice its religion and culture without persecution. Pakistan’s history has been wrought with turbulence. By traveling to Israel I want to learn how a new country gives expression to its national identity in the built environment, while providing avenues for that identity to evolve.

2. Art, says Jeffrey Kipnis, has the ability to give a choate expression to emergent political stirrings that cannot find any other confirmation in reality. I believe that the architect’s role is to experience and internalize these stirrings, and then to create forms and networks that mediate future political ideas. I grew up as a Muslim and only learned about Israel as an abstract idea. At Princeton, I formed close friendships with many Israeli students who helped to give dimension and reality to that conception. I want to visit Israel simply to listen to and internalize the story of a people through drawing.

3. In the words of Anne Cheng, when we articulate the political and urban challenge of the Middle East in the language of “grievance”—for example, by talking about rights—we form ideological divisions and build physical boundaries. A better way to address the challenge is by expressing it in the language of “grief.” The latter has the ability to evoke empathy and affect the hearts and minds of people on both sides. By documenting my own experience in blog entries, sketches, and larger drawings, I aim to convey the lived experience of contemporary Israeli society.

PS: My Israel visa application has been declined. I will not be able to travel to Israel this summer but I will reapply for an Israeli visa next year. I am working on a new concept for the Shellman Prize and I plan to carry out that project later this year. Check out wqs-gsd for updates.

07 May, 2010

Architecture and War

I am an Architect. We spend our lives designing (and if we’re good, building) new kinds of spaces where people come together and feel something they have never felt before. We create places which provoke thought and inspire conversation. We believe deep in our hearts that in our work we give expression to emerging political, social, and cultural ideas. We give these ideas a tangible expression when they can find no other confirmation in reality. And by doing this we mediate future conversations. It is a long and arduous process but we work relentlessly, day and night, without much financial reward, but with an uncanny sense of self-fulfillment.

So obviously it is difficult for an architect to see destruction. The recent images from Haiti are an example. The entire built environment collapsed. Images of the decimated parliament building symbolized a crushed and broken country. But I slept at night knowing that Haiti was a natural disaster. We can learn from Haiti to prevent that kind of massive damage in the future.

The destruction of war, however, leaves me sleepless and frustrated. It terrifies me to know that someone from my hometown would want to bomb Times Square, one of the most beautiful places on this planet. Is it strange that it makes me scared of myself? That if I were a New Yorker and saw me, an innocent-looking boy from Karachi, Pakistan, I would be suspicious? I walk around trying to fathom why someone who just recently became an American citizen would suddenly turn against his new country. I protest and my emails meet a deafening silence from my own community. There are the formal condemnations with a reservation: “Can’t you see why someone would want to do that?”

No, I can’t. So I look for an explanation.

Former mayor Rudi Giuliani says on Larry King Live that “they” hate our values of freedom and liberty and want to destroy them. But people at Princeton point out a link I had almost forgotten—the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder if watching CNN makes you forget about the wars. And I realize that there is a severe discord in the information that people on different sides of the war are receiving. People in America hear about terrorists who hate America. People abroad hear about an unfair war in Iraq. And somehow people in Pakistan connect the civil war there with America, even though all of the suicide bombings are carried out by the Taliban or other extremist Islamic groups.

In my time here, there is one American thing I have come to value more than anything else: the respect for plurality. This is made possible by the right to freely express oneself. At Princeton, we disagree often, but we hear and respect other opinions and sometimes we learn the most from the people we disagree with. We listen. We vehemently debate issues with “the other side” and then later that night we add members of the other side to our list of Facebook friends.

That is what is lacking in the real world: an opportunity to communicate. People are talking at each other and there is no room for empathy. There is no room in the heart of the terrorist for the empty rooms that will be left behind when American soldiers are killed in roadside bombs almost every day. And there is no room in the heart of outrageous Americans for the agony faced by countless families who lose loved ones in the wars almost every day. I am scared because each new attack and each new invasion will create more terrorists and more wars.

It is time we start creating forums where both sides can communicate with one another. Those of us who make things must work much harder. I truly believe that the sheer beauty of a thing will prevent someone bent on its destruction to pause and reflect. Especially if the person can feel some sort of personal connection to the thing. Architecture (and all created things) can be exclusive or inclusive. We need to make more inclusive things that acknowledge various viewpoints. We need to listen. We need to explain where we’re coming from. We need to have more conversations.