Architecture and War: From Baghdad to Kabul
During “City Debates 2012” at the American University of Beirut, Caecilia Pieri spoke of Baghdad’s recent transformations. Her images showed a city of multiple realities. Although seriously affected by the prolonged violence that has torn Iraq apart, central Baghdad, according to Pieri, was until 2010 characterized by vernacular monochrome brick construction. Now unchecked new construction is changing its architectural landscape. Also, behind concrete barriers and closed-off streets, spatial polarities and social gaps seem to be getting wider and wider. For someone who has worked and lived in Afghanistan, Baghdad’s contradictions seem to be strikingly similar to Kabul’s.
Like Baghdad, however, there has not been enough coverage of Kabul’s recent urban transformations. The image carried in the minds from TV screens and web photographs is that of a shattered war zone. This is utterly true. Decades of armed conflict and neglect have left their marks on the built fabric and devastated the city’s infrastructure, institutions and public life. But, after ten years of “post-conflict” reconstruction, there is also widespread repair and “development”.
Kabul is witnessing a remarkable private sector-led construction boom, sustained by the “economic bubble” that is mainly generated by the temporary presence of international forces and organizations. Observers of the situation believe that the international “controls on the movement of money” in the aftermath of 9/11, the millions of dollars that the Afghan Government and donor community are spending on infrastructure rebuilding since 2002, and, more recently, the global economic crisis have prompted some expatriate Afghan entrepreneurs and traders to invest in the real estate business at home. Many Kabulis are however convinced that the resources for new construction have been mostly acquired through illegal means, particularly from the proceeds of the narcotics industry that are in part laundered into real estate.
Despite the significant transformation of the built environment, there has not been enough analysis of the city’s current urban management systems and urbanization and urbanism processes. Likewise, there has not been enough research that reflects on current spatial production and construction practices vis-à-vis the city’s cultural identity and social cohesion.
Informality and Fragmentation
Since 2001, Kabul’s population has more than doubled (now close to 5 million). Its relative security and better job opportunities, compared to other parts of Afghanistan, have turned it into a refuge for internally displaced persons (estimated by 350,000), returnees from neighbouring countries, and rural migrants. Housing needs have only been met by an ad hoc informal urban expansion. Indeed, most of Kabul’s current housing stock – according to some estimates 80% – was built illegally, either on agricultural lands not zoned for construction or on government lands or lands that belong to others.
With their administrative weakness, dated urban plans, and conflicting mandates, responsible public institutions have not been practically able to keep apace with the fast growth of the city. They could neither deliver affordable housing solutions nor control urban sprawl. Yet, there is no shortage of financial resources for reconstruction. Planning processes and investments seem however to be in private hands – including the private hands of some government officials.
The country’s rampant corruption stands against the introduction of effective reforms. Specifically efforts to regulate the distribution of public land for housing face a ‘culture of impunity’ on the part of powerful interests. Reportedly, Afghanistan’s warlords, now landlords, have forcefully captured public land, or acquired it by dubious means. Sometimes they kept their trophy for themselves and their entourage and sometimes they sold it to speculative land developers and agents. On their part, the new owners subdivided the land (sometimes subdivided and built) then sold it in formal and informal land (and real estate) markets to ordinary citizens, mainly middle-income groups.
A survival strategy to some and a lucrative business to others, Kabul’s urban informality seems uncontrollable. The growing city is engulfing surrounding peri‐urban areas and leapfrogging into areas located away from its current centres of activity. In fact, Kabul is today a city of many cities. In addition to its old city (share kona), new city (share nau), and spontaneously growing edge cities, it has dozens of remarkably large new townships (shahraks), many of which are planned and built on grabbed public land. Yet, some have “legal” title deeds and the “approval” of senior politicians.
Issues of il/legality aside, the huge private capital invested on the construction of luxurious villas, wedding halls, plazas, hotels, commercial centres, and residential estates is turning Kabul, “into a patchwork quilt of islands of relative affluence struggling to secure themselves in a sea of spreading decay (Harvey 2000).” Gated shahraks particularly stand out as isolated cities that distance their inhabitants of Kabul’s reality. They have their own schools, clinics, restaurants, shopping areas, mosques, health centres, open spaces, children play grounds and all what the residents might need for everyday life. They also have their own urban services, management systems, structures and their own 24-hour security guards.
Kabul’s villas and “office villas” – designed by some local entrepreneurs and rented out to international organizations at outrageous rates – also stand out with their grandiosity, extravagant architectural designs, multi-tier fortification systems, and armed guards. Not only the visual contrast between these luxurious mansions and their overall city surrounding is striking but also their detachment from city life and its services. Like the city’s gated communities, they have modern amenities and a wide range of services that ensure that their residents do not need to go out.
Perhaps more than anything Kabul can be described today as a splintering city where the privileged and the marginalized live together, albeit in alienated spaces. Securitization has fragmented it spatially, and speculative new construction is increasing the divide between its rich and poor populations. While skyrocketing property value and housing rental prices are returning great profits to investors, they have been devastating for most city residents. In the absence of official affordable housing strategies, some middle-income families have been forced to construct their houses in unplanned areas where land is cheaper. Living on less than USD100/ month, low-income families are left with no choice but squatting on public land (mainly the slopes of the city), living in crowded shared houses in the city’s crumbling old quarters, or moving far away from the city centre and its job opportunities to marginal peripheral areas.
Without urban policy action and material investments that focus on public good, Kabul is likely to continue to grow into a concentration of poverty and informality. A new city master plan (now in progress) is not enough to stop its uncontrollable urbanization. Eventually however, the scarcity of water and land resources will make “the right to the city” a more urgent political issue.
Cultural and Architectural Identity Crisis
Most of Kabul’s lavishly designed new buildings are of poor construction quality and aesthetics. Their true value lies in their security, comfortable amenities and spaciousness; qualities stressed in marketing brochures. Some of the real estate developers and architectural firms who are behind much of what is being built in the city proudly state that their goal is to “redefine the concept of urban lifestyle with emphasis on luxury living” through the provision of “exclusive amenities” that respond to the “needs of modern times” and meet the “standard” of people “coming from North America or other G8 countries” (see web references).
At the same time, the manufacturers of Kabul’s new architectural landscapes seem to stress the need to be “mindful of Afghanistan’s rich history” by producing spaces that combine traditional ambience with modern facilities. Interestingly, however, their interpretation of tradition is very selective. Repetitively, they associate the rich and “high culture” of Afghanistan with its handicrafts and traditional rugs. Disregarding it as cultural heritage, some boast a deliberate break with a rural way of life.
In part, such discriminating conceptions of what is Afghan cultural heritage, explain why Kabul’s profit-motivated real estate developers are turning their back to the city’s older districts. Once prosperous, the historic quarters are today mainly home to poor rural migrants who live in abject conditions. Perceived by many Kabulis as dirty and crime-ridden, these districts retain clusters and buildings that are of historic, cultural, architectural and social significance. Unfortunately, this legacy suffers from disinvestment and neglect. With growing pressure on city-centre property, it is also witnessing serious encroachments.
There is no doubt that Afghan traditions and traditional built environment should be reinterpreted and represented in light of present needs and ways of life. The danger however is when the surviving urban heritage is bulldozed or left to deteriorate. Then instead, replicas and simulated traditional environments, mainly hotels and restaurants, claim attachment to that lost heritage by “showcasing” it and turning it into a marketable commodity.
Kabul’s contemporary architecture and cultural identity crisis, just like Baghdad’s, deserves further reflections. This “Billet” aims to contribute to a discussion on the topic and to stimulate similar reflections as related to other cities in crisis.
This article is mainly informed by the findings of a study that the author undertook in 2011 with the Aga Khan Trust of Culture (AKTC) in Kabul: AKTC, “Kabul urbanization and development challenges: a synthesis report”, 20 September 2011 (unpublished report funded by USAID).
- Harvey David, Spaces of Hope. Berkeley & London: University of Berkeley Press, 2000, p. 152.
- Leslie Jolyon, “The barber of Kabul”, The World Today 68/7, July 2012.
- Lister Sarah and Zainidin Karaaev, “Understanding markets in Afghanistan: a case study of the market in construction materials”. Kabul: AREU Issues Paper Series. Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2004.
- Pieri Caecilia, “The Urban Observatory of Beirut: for a polysemic reading of both city and territory”, Carnets de l’Ifpo, January 2012, original French version, http://ifpo.hypotheses.org/2983; English version by W. Parramore : http://ifpo.hypotheses.org/3123
- Azizi Investments [http://www.aziziinvestments.com].
- Saleem Caravan real estate group [http://www.saleemcaravan.com].
- Sharake Telayee (Golden City) [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qxg3OMv6YPg].
- Heetal “Heritage Hotel” [http://www.heetalplazahotel.com/Home.html].
Mona Khechen a is a Lebanese urban planning and development expert. She holds a Doctor of Design degree from Harvard University. Currently she works in developing and post-conflict country contexts mainly on cultural heritage, urban policy-oriented research, and strategic action planning.