Podcast • September 8, 2011

Kamil Khan Mumtaz: back from a modernist Hell

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kamil Khan Mumtaz (30 minutes, 15 mb mp3) Kamil Khan Mumtaz, at home in Lahore LAHORE — Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminence in Pakistani architecture, is giving us ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kamil Khan Mumtaz (30 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, at home in Lahore

LAHORE — Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminence in Pakistani architecture, is giving us the gentlest of introductions to a revival in Pakistan of Islamic thinking about art and design and meaning in life. He’s tracking two West-to-East journeys of his own over the last 50-plus years: one professional and artistic, the other personal and spiritual, and of course they’re roughly parallel. In his student days in London in the 1950s, he was a modernist after the examples of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. LeCorbusier, a heroic model at the time, had the dream assignment of designing Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian Punjab, at Nehru’s personal invitation. But what impressed young Mumtaz even more back home was how little he knew of the native tradition and the depths of the difference with the new: “really a difference in world view,” he tells me — between the materialist modernism and the traditional ease with metaphysical and spiritual planes. What he learned over a hard journey writing the comprehensive history of Architecture in Pakistan was the radical value of proportion and ideal forms, and the importance of copying the classical exemplars — as imperative as innovation and invention. The message in modern buildings is man’s technological prowess, he says; the highest praise is “how exciting!” “It’s all excitement… They’re like huge billboards saying: ‘go for it,’ or ‘you deserve it.’ It’s consumerism. Whereas traditional buildings set you in a different dimension: suddenly there’s a hush and quiet… Modern architecture titillates the senses; traditional art moves us to contemplation. That’s the difference.”

The inner man was in transition, too, if only because “you cannot practice traditional art without a conviction in the truth of what it’s based on… That cannot fail to affect literally your whole life, and it has transformed mine.” The core of his Islamic belief and practice is the Sufi tradition. He can laugh at the notion that the West toys with Sufism as a sort of “Islam Lite.” In the Mumtaz scheme of things Sufism is about a profound searching for the truth… The truth more and more becomes the unity of all creation and the oneness of all mankind. That is its most important aspect. I would say the two distinctive and distinguishing things about Islam are tolerance and beauty. No other religion to my knowledge makes it an article of faith to recognize the truth of all religions,” and most explicitly of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels of Jesus.

Of the present day in general, he says, with half a laugh, “We’re all going to hell. We’re destroying ourselves.” We have the power to blow up the planet, and a post-modernist outlook that there is no truth, no right or wrong. “Combine these and you’ve got a real killer.” Modernism turns up as the villain again when I ask for his “capsule understanding” of Pakistan at the age of 64. The extremism in so many dimensions of Pakistani life today, he said, “is nothing but the flip side of modernity.”

Pakistan was a modernizing project. It begins with the deluge, the road-roller that went over us that is Western Colonialism. We were just knocked out of our senses: ‘What hit us?’ And so there is anger in the street, anger against the West, which just bulldozed us. Remember, we, the Muslims, identified ourselves as one people, and we were the superpower. So there is anger against the Western modernizing forces for having replaced us as the dominant power; anger against our own brother Muslims for having strayed from the true path; anger at our state for having lied to us and not delivered what it promised to do. So there are all of these angers, rages which are now finding expression…

I was happy to tell Kamil Khan Mumtaz, after two long conversations in his verdant second-floor porch and his library study, that any visitor might find in the spaces he created, if not proof of his doctrines, at least a warm, peaceful, comfortable confirmation in the harmony of many rectangles, of rose-colored rugs and “burnt Siena” bricks, of low cushions and seats and books to the ceiling. Immediately on entering it felt like a space I’d been trying to imagine, or maybe dreamt. He’d conceived that library in his “modern” days long ago, but it had evolved continuously, he said. It has “a certain presence and timelessness,” he admitted. “Those are qualities that will strike even the least spiritual of person, only because the spirit is in all of us.”

A private house in Lahore (2001)

January 6, 2009

Enchantment and Ruin: Mario Coyula’s Havana

Havana by now can be imagined as one city in two countries. The fiery splendor of Old Havana has emptied money and momentum and much of its future into Miami. But the magic and mystique ...
Havana by now can be imagined as one city in two countries. The fiery splendor of Old Havana has emptied money and momentum and much of its future into Miami. But the magic and mystique in the name are rooted forever in the island of Cuba. This was the message of the whoops and tears among returning exiles (who, under the Bush dispensation, could visit no more than once ever three years) when our charter flight touched Cuban ground late in December. The jazz piano giant Chucho Valdes said as much to me eight years ago, explaining why — unlike his father Bebo Valdes, who’d expatriated to Sweden, or his Grammy-winning Irakere bandmates Arturo Sandoval and Paquito Rivera, who became American stars — he himself had never left home. “How can I leave Cuba?” the autochthonous Chucho pleaded. “This is where my music comes from, where my music lives.”

Havana plays tricks with our sense of time as well as place. Fifties Havana moved to Miami, but the visitor keeps feeling that our stateside Fifties, my Boston Fifties, are alive again here: in the fat fish-finned Plymouths and Pontiacs, of course; equally in the black phones and seven-digit phone numbers and the calm voices who answer them; in the family worship in places like the Church of Our Lady of Charity in Centro Havana; in TV baseball without commercials, and stadium baseball with small crowds under yellow lights, so like Braves Field in Warren Spahn time. It is almost twenty years ago that Robert Stone, the American novelist, observed Havana as “an exercise in willpower, a dream state being grimly and desperately prolonged.” But back in that “dream state” of the pre-Revolutionary mid-Fifties, Graham Greene’s famous vacuum-cleaner salesman and spy, Wormold in Our Man in Havana, found himself held to the spot, even then, “as though to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield…” It still does.

We’re talking here with the world-traveling Cuban architect and planner Mario Coyula about the allure of a wreck. Havana is one of the rare world cities that has no skyscrapers and no shantytowns, almost. It is a gorgeous fairy godmother with warts and missing teeth. Coyula makes many points here that I’d not have noticed: Havana historically was not a city of the poor, he notes. Cuba’s poverty was mostly rural, and in the capital it was artfully disguised. By the Fifties, he says, Havana was growing self-destructively. Curiously, the Revolution that has neglected Havana so spectacularly was also lifting standards in the rest of the country and may, in fact, have saved Havana from drowning in rural immigrants. In the long run, he argues, Havana could discover as other cities have that stagnation brought blessings. Worse, less reversible than stagnation would be to turn Havana into Las Vegas or Tijuana with “horrible big hotels” financed by a few foreign investors. The wise mean, he suggests, might be “a little of everything” — many thousands of investors and planned development — with a sense of history.

For many centuries Cuba, and especially Havana, was a springboard for Spain to conquer and plunder central and south America. Later it was also a springboard for the US to go into Latin America. So we have to find a niche for Cuba — what will be our role? In 1958 Havana was already a great world city and Miami was a sleepy town of retirees. Now Miami is a big ugly city, except for a few nice places, but it’s very alive economically. I don’t know if the money is from the drug trade, but it took away part of a role that belonged to Havana as a pivot between North and South America. I think we need to face this. And in any way we think about the future, it more and more depends on the relations with the US. We need to accept each other, and accept differences, be more tolerant.

Mario Coyula in conversation with Chris Lydon, in his apartment studio in Havana, December 19 2008