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GSD students collaborate with Kabul University in Afghanistan to confront the most extreme conditions of urbanization

Image of two men constructing mud brick architecture

Construction in Ishkashim by Afghanistan's Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc

Design paradigms are best tested in extreme conditions, as Rahul Mehrotra has demonstrated to GSD students throughout his “Extreme Urbanism” studios that began in 2010. Prior to Fall 2020, his focus had been on sites in India as varied as highly contested territories in Mumbai, in which slums and ultra-expensive real estate rub together, to the paradox of Agra, both the country’s poorest city economically and the home of the Taj Mahal which attracts upwards of 15,000 tourists on average each day. For the seventh iteration of the studio, however, Mehrotra shifted attention elsewhere in South Asia to a country less often the subject of architecture and design study: Afghanistan.

Image of village in Afghanistan with earth packed architecture and mountains at the background
Surkhdara, Ishkashim by Afghanistan's Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc.

“Afghanistan provides the most extreme conditions of urbanization,” says Mehrotra, about “Extreme Urbanism VII: Imagining an Urban Future for Ishkashim, Afghanistan” which he co-taught with Charlotte Malterre-Barthes. Located near the Tajikistan border in the northeastern appendix-shaped region known as the Wakhan, Ishkashim has a population of about 15,000 and is situated within a harsh landscape cut off from the rest of the country for about three months each year due to winter weather. Landslides, earthquakes, and floods are commonplace, too. Any urban-planning designs must also take into account its location in a valley, which bears the same name, containing about 20 villages that Mehrotra describes as “a network of urbanism.” Ishkashim’s population may soon burst as well, further confounding the rural/urban binary, due to its position on China’s Belt and Road Initiative: a massive development strategy often referred to as a new Silk Road that stretches across Asia and Europe and which would create a superhighway trade corridor between China and Pakistan.

“The most interesting question about this border town and potential market hub, for me, is, ‘How can one imagine new paradigms for this kind of rural/urban/agrarian field which is not a town and not a village but a combination of both?’” Mehrotra says. Urbanism, as he defines it, transcends a city’s physical plan. “It’s about how people can aspire in terms of their livelihoods, their cultural and social networks, their relationships with the terrain and with each other.” By reframing urbanism in this way, the studio encouraged students to develop a consciousness that emphasizes building from within rather than from without. In this light, city-making derives not from imposing a prescriptive, deterministic masterplan onto a locality but from looking at how designs can form by first asking questions about sustainability, climate change, the terrain and landscape, ecology, and the existing lifestyles of the population. “This questioning leads the students to think about social infrastructure and livelihoods, and about how the economy can be set up through a design from which habit will follow,” Mehrotra says.

Aerial image of land plots in vibrant shades of green
Khirmani, India by Afghanistan's Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc.

For the studio’s first exercise, students looked at canonical examples of model cities, such as Constantinos A. Doxiadis’s plans for Islamabad, Pakistan, and Jane Drew’s portion of Chandigarh, India, to identify advantages and disadvantages of this type of planning. These examples assist in making concrete the relationship between urban planning and policy-making, questions of density and flow, and infrastructure, among other factors. “Historical precedents help us understand the parameters of urbanity, as well as the ideologies behind these projects,” Malterre-Barthes says. “For instance, Sun City, California, is a settlement that has very little to do with its own context. It could pretty much be anywhere else that’s sunny, which makes it very unsituated. By this, I mean that it doesn’t emphasize local architecture, materials, and know-how or vernacular precedents—precedents that should be considered in relation to existing typologies and considered valuable. In the case of Ishkashim, this includes caravanserai, enclosed orchards, and the karez (qanat), an ancient water-distribution system. A critique of modernism is also implied here, because you have to ask where the materials come from and who is going to build what you’re ultimately planning. It’s probably local craftsmen with the materials that are available on-site.”

Situated architecture and design requires engagement with local stakeholders who can articulate the nuances of these and other foundational issues. The GSD’s move to digital teaching due to COVID-19 only exacerbated that need. To assist the studio, Mehrotra and Malterre-Barthes collaborated with the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), which recently began work in Afghanistan. Unexpected benefits arose from their Zoom-based relationship. For example, had the students concentrated their conversations in Afghanistan and their primary research to a two-week trip, their interactions would have been limited and their perspectives dictated by the time available. “With the help of AKAH, we accessed more stakeholders remotely than we ever would have if we had just visited the site,” Mehrotra says. “These included multiple conversations with a member of the Industry for Urban Development in Kabul, district-level government officials, Kabul residents, and representatives of women’s groups who have associations with the villages near Ishkashim, among many others. The access through Zoom and the ability to convey an incredible variety of conversations with people ranging from stakeholders to experts globally has been mind-boggling.”

Image of man standing on packs of hay in vibrant yellow and green forest landscape
Guldara, Kabul Province by Afghanistan's Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc.

A crucial—and perhaps the most special—relationship AKAH helped facilitate was a partnership between the GSD students and both faculty and students from Kabul University. The Afghan institution selected eight students to partner with their Harvard peers, which allowed the latter to have collaborators directly embedded in the area. “It’s not a formal collaboration, but the Kabul University students and professors came into our discussions and helped us with cultural information and perspectives,” says Mehrotra. “The students at both universities were WhatsApping each other frequently, and one GSD student did an interview with a Kabul student’s sister living in Ishkashim,” adds Malterre-Barthes. “The collective result was an integrated inclusivity, where a culture of dialogue was fostered between students as well as between teachers that created a kind of balance found across multiple levels in the collaboration.”

The group also bonded in personal ways. On November 2, 2020, gunmen stormed Kabul University, killing 22 students and professors and wounding many others. Students from both schools drafted a joint statement condemning the attack and offered support to each other in the face of this tragedy.

Image of water hugged by mountain and rocky landscape with mountains in the background
Ishkashim border by Afghanistan's Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc.

Another instance of the leverage Zoom allowed was a three-part conference, convened with both AKAH and Harvard’s Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute. This event served as a substitute for the conferences Mehrotra always organizes for these studios near the site in question, with an NGO or local institution, that makes students visible to locals and creates dialogue with perhaps otherwise unknown constituents. The three sessions concerned urban planning, traditional architecture, and contemporary architecture, respectively. “It was a great exposure for students and became a resource and archive for them,” Mehrotra says. “The conference opened up another network of contemporary practitioners who exposed us to enormous dimensions which, again, we would never have experienced had we only gone to the isolated locality. Many of these participants came for our final reviews as well.”

The pandemic also compelled the studio to hire local photographers with Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc. (YRMPT) to capture images for the students’ research. What was first considered simply a COVID necessity became an insightful experience for Mehrotra and, he hopes, the GSD and beyond. “We were provided with photography material in three phases,” he says. “First, we received a broad sweep of stunning images of the site, which is about two miles long. Then they documented the mosques, the river, and other locations that we knew were of interest as we grew to understand the issues we would address in the studio. Lastly, each group of students created their own brief for the photographers based on the aspects of the site with which they specifically were concerned, using Google Maps to mark exact vantage points that would be the most precise for their presentations.” The specificity of YRMPT’s assignments and their ability to perform them over an extended period of time allowed for far more detailed photographs than could have been taken during any single visit. Additionally, the images—a rare collection from Afghanistan—will become part of the Frances Loeb Library archive and serve as a model for future studios.

“Jaayishaan Sabz,” agriculture mapping by Mohammed Al-Alfy and Alykhan Neky with guidance from Arash Ahmadi.

The final projects that resulted from this collective research covered myriad themes. One group investigated how they can help transform Ishkashim from a food importer into an exporter through novel zoning and the development of diverse building and housing typologies in the valley. Another group hopes to increase economic diversity in the area by rejecting monofunctionalism so that clinics, schools, religious sites, and other spaces may be better embedded in society as well as help create new networks and productive landscapes.

Line image diagramming ice stupas
“Water + Social Infrastructures: Ice Stupas” by Seoyoung Lee and Sofia Sofianou.

Two groups have focused on water through a more philosophical, even phenomenological and spiritual, lens. Seoyoung Lee (March ‘22) and Sofia Sofianou (MArch ‘21), with Hadya Waqfi from Kabul University, looked at creating a much-needed water network in Ishkashim and its environs. They drew inspiration from the innovative ice stupas in the nearby Ladakh region created by Indian engineer Sonam Wangchuk. Requiring only gravity to form, these artificial glaciers found in the cold Himalayan deserts arise from pipes connected to reservoirs which spray water into the air. This water freezes immediately to form multistory conical structures that supply months’ worth of irrigation and drinking water.

Image of interior bath in earth rammed architecture
“Water + Social Infrastructures: Hammam” interior rendering by Seoyoung Lee and Sofia Sofianou.

Wangchuk’s design evokes Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich’s H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness, in which Illich details water’s former centrality, visibility, and cultural meanings in daily life and its transformation into a chemical compound circulated out of sight. “We have lost access to the waters of our dreams through exposure to the waters of our pipes,” Illich writes. He also argues that “In the imagination of the twentieth century, water has lost both its power to communicate by touch its deep-seated purity and its mystical power to wash off spiritual blemish.” Spurred by these ideas, the students proposed a network system at the area’s highest altitudes where water could be stored at different stages, as a means toward effective distribution. Sites along this path include mosques, which imbue the water with sacred qualities, and hammams, which connect to public health. There is also a laundromat that allows women to gather yet retain privacy. “By surfacing water periodically and making it aesthetic, you make it more central to a society’s imagination and shift the culture of people’s relationships with it,” says Mehrotra.

The other group concerned directly with water focused on the Panj River, on which Ishkashim sits and that serves as the area’s border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. At the foundation of the proposal, Natasha Abaza (MUP ’21) and Alia Bader (MAUD ‘21), with Aqdas Farzam from Kabul University, question the contours of the Soviet-era line that separates these nation-states by acknowledging the river’s natural flexing. What could result from this interrogation, they suggest, is the conceptualization of the river as a kind of no-man’s-land—a thickened border—that would be the site and impetus for greater connectivity between the two countries. Through minimal interventions with firm walls onto which temporary institutions can be placed, they propose schools, mosques, markets, and other sites could exist on this newly conceived boundary, all of which can be seen as joint assets when feasible to access or unused potential during flooding and freezing conditions. The project also looks ahead to the potential economic boom of the Belt and Road Initiative, which would spur much heavier cross-border movement that could be beneficial for both countries. “The students feel implicitly that there’s no way we can speculate about what will happen there,” Mehrotra says. “But if we create a robust social and physical infrastructure, [this plan] can gently grow, organically, according to the city’s needs.”

black and white line drawing from birds eye view looking into the urban project
“Border Urbanism” bird's eye view by Natasha Abaza and Alia Bader with guidance from Aqdas Farzam.

The scalar variation between these and the other groups’ projects was central to Mehrotra and Malterre-Barthes’s goals for the studio. “You have to address water, for example, as a network: it comes from somewhere and has to travel, and there is a lot of friction along the way. On the other hand, you can plant an orchard and also contribute a lot,” Mehrotra says. “The students have a greater understanding now regarding what agency we as designers have at different scales and then, at those scales, what the different instruments are that we can use. In some cases, it is pure design, tectonics, and materials. In others, it concerns more broad schematic systems. At a national scale, it’s policy. They began to understand how they can nestle these scales and their own instrumentality as part of their agency as designers.”

“It was important to get students to understand the ‘behind the scenes’ of planning—everything that doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion,” notes Malterre-Barthes. “We paid a lot of attention to resource management, population, and village structures, as they facilitated an understanding of design that is more holistic. As a designer, you have more agency once you have more knowledge about all these actors, forces, and mechanisms that are behind the production of space.”

Three figures sitting on vibrant carpet in earth rammed home
Home in Ishkashim by Afghanistan's Yama Ramin Media Production and Technology Inc.

Grasping these relationships will be integral for architects and designers working with the group Mehrotra believes will soon be their biggest constituency: civil society. Whether in Afghanistan or the United States, this sector, in his view, has “the ability, the mission, and the aspiration to connect the grassroots to more powerful forces, like governments.” He continues, “This includes trade unions which in their ideal formation create those bridges and which, like us, have the education and empathy for the grassroots and the confidence to negotiate with more powerful forces. For me, the ‘Extreme Urbanism’ studios always align with some civil-society group like that on the ground, such as the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat. We meet the government, we talk to the locals, villagers, or farmers, but finally we get our intellectual nourishment and inspiration from that middle which straddles both sides.”