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.


Osman said...


Love and respect you man, but doesn't this come off a tad parsimonious? Creating 'even newer' forums for discussion and telling people to keep an open mind. Having them try to relate to a world they know either nothing of, a world that to them does not stick to proper ideals of honesty, dignity and respect. There is almost nothing there to relate the life of those in Wazir tribes and their respective jirgas with the lives of, for the most part, well off American families and the Senate. The forums exist, but the people who hold all the cards aren't always (read pretty much never) willing to do what's right for humanity, but what they deem is right for either their people or their self interest (and any interest groups). Goes for both sides of the table. It's politics, dogma and business, not ethics that govern 'either' side of our globalised across maritime warzones.

Cheers man, I hope all's well with you otherwise =)

Waqas Jawaid said...

Osman, we have made "sustainability" a viable product in a world with many different private interests. We did it by creating a demand for the good feeling we get by saving the planet and ensuring the safety of future generations. We can do the same with peaceful coexistence. We can begin by clearly articulating what the challenges and opportunities are.

I disagree that people who hold the cards are not willing to do the right thing. I think they do what they believe is the right thing. We just need a more comprehensive and nuanced idea of what the "right" thing is (read: we cannot afford to be stupid).

Osman said...

Here's to that quasi-utopic dream actually being realized, but it's extremely unlikely in today's present order of things. Personally I disagree with the outright promotion of peace as an answer - because peace on its own is 'not' an answer without the removal of income disparities, welfare disparities, exploitation, corruption and the list can go on. Peace should only be the result of the removal of all the factors that cause 'unhappiness' (in a very succinct general manner of putting it) adversity, and disparity, but can not be something propagated and expected to have any longstanding results without the implementation of relative and sustainable development of peoples across the globe. You cannot expect people to unite and stand peacefully while the us and them paradigm exists transculturally - which it will unless resources are directed towards development of education, health, entrepreneurship, informal regulations, etc. Any resources diverted towards the propagation of peaceful coexistence without helping the common man help themselves can only be detrimental in the long run.

K@$ said...

I totally agree with you Waqas! Empathy is the key word......For both sides, rather everyone!

Waqas Jawaid said...

Osman, it is interesting to think whether the current war is about resources or about ideology. The notion of directing resources you refer to sounds vague to me. What do you mean?

Faaez said...

I think you've grossly misinterpreted the silence of your community- the feeling isn't, "don't you see why he'd do that", but rather one of bafflement and loss as to what exactly could be said in response to this that would be useful, meaningful and not come across as disingenuous.

Waqas Jawaid said...

Faaez, what I put in my blog post was a direct quote: "Can’t you see why someone would want to do that?" But since writing this I have heard several other reasons for the silence. And, yes, I agree with you that "bafflement" is one of them.

I think you're right that what is said should be meaningful, useful and not disingenuous. That is what I have attempted to do (and failed, in your opinion?). But we cannot not do anything. My post is meant to provoke a response. I invite you to say something meaningful and useful.