COUNTER SPACES OF ISLAMIC MODERNITY
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter 2011
Homa Farjadi, March, AA Grad Dep RIBA ARB, is Professor in Practice of Architecture at the Design School University of Pennsylvania, US where she conducts research studios focused on Urbanism in London and architectural design. Homa is principal of Farjadi Architects, London. She has taught at the AA School of Architecture London 1980- 88 and at GSD Harvard University between 1990- 1997 and has held chaired professorships at Yale, Columbia, and Edinburgh Universities. Projects by Farjadi Architects have been recipient of awards in international competitions and built projects and have been published and exhibited internationally. Of Iranian origin, Homa studied Architecture at Tehran University and at the Architectural Association Graduate School, London as well as London University in History of Film and Visual Media. Monographs on her work, Delayed Space with M Mostafavi, Princeton Architectural Press, and Sense Geometries – Actar publications, document selected projects of Farjadi Architects. www.farjadi.com
The essay was a written response by Homa Farjadi to presentations made during a conference
held in the Agha Khan University on ‘Islamic Modernities’ in London in 2007
COUNTER SPACES OF ISLAMIC MODERNITY
According to Lefebvre discussion of modernity refers to motives of societal development concerned with contemporaneity, that it is to ask what might be relevant to do now which differs from the past, in recognition of a positive force for change. Yet answers to this question divide the concept into two primary directions where modernity and modernization gather two distinct characteristics and affects. Material modernization refers to the impetus for physical development and technological progress, which affects urbanization, development of infrastructure, technologies of communication and production and of functional objects. These technologies offer modern buildings, modern amenities, modern communications, modern objects and modern media. We all know the effects of historic changes in daily life produced by the presence of cars, trains, air travel, radio and television and, more recently, computers, mobile phones, and the internet. These purposeful changes directly impact matrices of the lived space of societies as well as the everyday life of the individuals. Their effects are felt in both public spaces and in the private domain. With concomitant advantages and disadvantages modernization has been both radically positive and costly at the same time. While advancing metanarratives of development and technological progress, it has brought about revolutions and wars. Though modernization may accumulate wealth in physical terms, it guarantees neither social justice nor cultural development.
Modernity, on the other hand, with its requisite reason and rationality, refers to social change through organisational, economic complexity and secularism, with direct implications on the roles, rights and representations of the individual in civil society (2.) Modernity, therefore refers to the capacity for positive self critical change generated within a society and requires the openness of that system to self renewal (,3). Critical modernity then, could be said to be based primarily on the process of representation and communication. Its spatial effects become tangible through the potential for a society to provide for such communication through both immediate and mediated environment of exchange.
Whereas spatial modernization provides for physical development and advances spaces and objects of use according to notions of progress, modernity works through representation, mediates environments and creates heterogeneous spaces according to radically different perceptions of ‘the good life.’ Looking for what is a desirable space/object in any locality, discourses of modernity resist hegemonic forces and seek the intersection of local and global forces for their own cultural renewal and redescription (4). Spatially Open city describes such a territory where space is open to be re-described or re-territorialized –- by individual representations of heterogeneity and difference (5). Though originally the word referred to a condition of occupation of a city where boundaries are eroded and gates opened while cultural monuments are preserved, in its positive framing open city produces an open system welcoming change within its own spatial logics.
In terms of the temporality of these two discourses, I would suggest that, where modernization works along the linear arrow of time from the past toward the future and presents a meta-narrative discourse of planning and design by government or the market, modernity belongs to the individual and his/her own narrative, simultaneously contemporary and archaic, a time of flux as described by Michel Serres (6.). This is a paradoxical time of now and another time, which continually modifies the linear time of projective design by unpredictable and contingent forces of will, expression and desire. Historically this time has intersected the space of the individual with that of society through un- decidable signs of what can be described as counter-design. Whether developed by the avant garde or in its formulation by popular culture, architecturally, counter design crosses technological progress and cultural contemporaneity with popular culture and intersects the functional with the workings of desire. Contrary to architectural faith and will to design, the two do not always have a happy conjunction. Opening an alternative to what is either the historical teleology of modernist design in blank slate interventions, or its opposite, the laissez faire of individual expression, counter design foregrounds visionary chance in the pragmatic, locally contingent operations and prompts a new register of the archaic in modern space.
SPATIAL PRACTICES OF ISLAMIC MODERNITY:
In the context of Islamic societies, discourses of modernization have often been entwined with those of westernisation. In many such societies physical modernization, whether from the west or internally generated, is more accepted and even welcomed, while cultural modernity, with its demand for open processes of representation and cultural liberties for the individual is often perceived to be hegemonic. Whether in palaces or religious institutions, architecture and space are often discussed in terms of their symbolic representation of meta-narratives of power or faith. Here our key search has to do with alternative models of modernity in Islamic societies to represent the exchange between individual and society (6). In spatial terms we may ask whether modernity is a framework or an objective. Acknowledging the objective of material modernization, modernity’s requisite cultural renewal needs to be reframed. As a framework modernity here needs to work with operations and spatial practices of daily life in the Islamic city and frame progressive environments that provide individual freedom and common purpose in relation to movement, work, leisure and communication in its public and private spaces. As an objective, avoiding quick fixes of applied or imported formal symbols whether western or Islamic, spatial practices of an Islamic modernity faces reworking its material culture to articulate its right to renewed languages of form, materials and technologies that construct the landscape of its cultural modernity in its locally relevant context (7).
During the workshop we were reminded to ask what Modern excludes (8). An Open Islamic city not only searches for new spatial representations for the modern Islamic society but will need to actively make room for indigenous spatial practices that are able to de-territorialize, and re-describe its own forms and uses. Open city would involve not only the free and equal rights for the individuals to occupy, move, and use space without hindrance but also the right to security and impunity to create architecture and representations of space in the city which can be radically transformed and renewed. As such, open city is as much a space for recollecting Islamic identity and social cohesion as for individual forgetfulness and amnesia
Open city as an environment which balances modernization with modernity therefore is a measure by which the modernity of an Islamic space can be gauged. Temporality of this city will at once engage the contemporaneity of technological advances and the time of flux of the local individual expression and its archaic identity. The Following segments recall a few instances of such spatial modernity in cities of Islamic cultures which have come about by chance as much as by design.
SPATIAL JUSTICE IN THE CITY Islamic modernity has historically for grounded its narrative of development with that of social justice. Traditionally Vaghf has been an important instrument of progressive urban development for social good in Islamic cities, providing charitable funds for provision of infrastructure such as access to water by construction of Ghanats – underground streams- and water reservoirs, or provision of public amenities in Bazaars, trading Caravanserais, mosques and schools ensuring its maintenance in perpetuity. This urban infrastructure would in turn prompt growth of quarters around it with fabric of housing and commerce. Part of the interest in this system lies in its process of funding and patronage, which it ensures by provision and maintenance of infrastructure of amenities and public space as generators in the planning of an urban quarter. Social justice could be said to depend on spatial justice. While Vaghf ensures continuity of design in the public space and the right to public services and their maintenance for a quarter, the architecture of the totality of the quarter is not dictated from above, not planned in full- and is open to the self determinant and heterogeneous processes of development by growth pattern prompted by citizens and by individual choice in market driven conditions.
Post revolution Iran has instituted new and independent organisations, such as Bonyad-ee Mostazafin, or Bonyad- ee Imam Khomeini, among others, which expanded the role of individual charity to a public body through affiliated independent development companies that provide housing and social amenities, some in conjunction open market Tehran and other Iranian cities may boast of many such development projects aimed at planning physical modernization, prioritizing affordability, and social justice. Their positive intentions not withstanding, the projects’ urban design and provision of public space however, often follow private interests or by now disputed and dictated models of historical Modernist planning often in the name of global design. Modernity of these projects would need to extend the requirements for of housing, health and public space design beyond minimum needs to new standards of contemporary cultural relevance, sustainability, local leisure/pleasure and spatial empowerment of a heterogeneous citizenry. Social justice in this process would acknowledge that the desired perceptions of ‘the good life’ by the Islamic city’s diverse citizens is not a prototype object building imported and repeated, but a discursive, differentiated and unstable set of material and spatial relationships in direct charge with the public spaces of the locality that they produce. Such discursive design needs to intersect modern needs with the local, right to have with right to relevant design to produce an un-predetermined new counter- design of its spaces, to achieve social justice through spatial justice.
COUNTERFACTUAL PUBLIC SPACES OFA QUASI- DEREGULATED CITY
After the Iranian revolution, Tehran of the Islamic Republic has found a paradoxical character in the space of its development. On the one hand its expansion has been explosive; extensive development of super- large housing complexes and urban quarters along with highways inserted into the developments. On the other hand there is a substantially deregulated speculative built- up where the opportunistic building of a random mix of high and low rise developments cover the city and surrounding foothills. The formation of this random growth ceases to be urban sprawl at points where spaces in the interstices of the two systems happen to find local contiguities in spatial nodes and configurations of programs that create specific localities.
Tehran is a city of many centres and none at the same time. Lacking singular design, its organic expansion has produced impossible traffic jams and impassive expanses with local pockets of urban intensity produced by chance. No clear definitions of density and urban structure or infrastructure follow the design of the city for very long. Contingencies of land speculation, market forces and local strategies intersect with the evolved structure of streets and patterns of access. One prime spatial logic remains to be the consistent slope of the city from north to south, which creates patterns of valleys, both geological and agricultural, that drain water from the foothills. Modernization of the city here has been directed by organic quasi- unregulated growth. Whether density and shear contiguity of development can follow into modernity of public space in the city is an open question.
Public space in this double bind of a city happens at the interstices of planning with the freedom and liberties of ‘occupation as design’. It is clear that public space here will not be of a predetermined kind and more gathers in spaces akin to those Inaki Abalos has called ‘spaces of impunity’ (10). This process has led to the development of other spatial models/ practices where chance played a strong role in their formation. Freedom in these public spaces is often a precarious right, not given but gathered.
During the revolution occupying the space of Tehran’s roof tops was the only means of being both in and out of the city at the same time; a found set of spaces where people could sound their protest to the regime, at agreed times from the roof tops of their private apartments without fear of the police. At this time, another such site was found in the hiking trails in mountains north of the city. They were spaces were physical boundaries exceeded planning control and police surveillance. These spaces developed as sites of social exchange, sporting activities and political expression all at the same time. In post revolution Tehran these appropriated mountain trails and activity centres expanded Darband foothills area as one important public space of leisure in the city. As areas of impunity, these counter-planned spaces, grew with their own temporality generated by local interest and de-territorialized space to make active an un-prescribed and un-predetermined public space in the city.
The hazard of deregulated expansion has produced its own problems in Tehran; continuous traffic jams, unaffordable real estate, etc. yet it appears that all want to be here. Tehran is now a cosmopolis out of control and a model of a city with counterfactual processes in its planning, randomly appearing and disappearing public spaces, and both designed and found infrastructure. One may ask if this is a space of bottom- up modernity and may even be a model of an Islamic ‘open city’ by default.
Women paragliders in the mountain foothills north of Tehran enforce their social right to modernity, sporting flight despite Islamic dress, an example of a ‘claim to space’ that the city would not otherwise assign; a freedom found within the odds. The image registers a moment of a counterfactual social space that finds as much functional as symbolic and representational status in the spatial practices of Iranian women under Islamic law and instantiates the heterogeneousand impromptu geographies of public space, event spaces ofnew sporting opportunities in this Islamic city.
Photos by Hengame Golestan
1- ED SOJAEdward Soja-: Post Metropolis, Blackwell publications, London 2006
2- Assef Kamali – presentations
3- Modjtaba Sadria- presentation
4- HENRI LFEBVRE
5- Kandioti, presentation
6- Inaki Abalos: Areas of Impunity
7- Michel Serres- interview
8- Panjwani- presentation
9- Kandiotti- presentation