Farhan Karim is an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Kansas. He worked as an architect, interior designer and furniture designer in Bangladesh and Australia. His first book, Of Greater Dignity than Riches: Austerity and Housing Design in India (2019) studies the discourse of low-cost industrial housing. His edited book Routledge Companion to Architecture and Social Engagement (2018) presents a critical perspective to the current practice of socially engaged architecture. He guest edited a special issue of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture entitled Flows, Boundaries and the Construction of Muslim Selves since 1900. He is currently preparing book manuscript on the partition of South Asia and the involvement of Euro-American architects in postcolonial Pakistan (1947-71). He is now guest editing a special issue of journal Protibesh, entitled Writing Architectural History in Bangladesh.  He is also editing a book entitled Architectural Pedagogy in the Global South. His articles and reviews have appeared in Fabrication, Planning Perspectives, Architectural Theory Review, Journal of Cultural Studies of Asia, and International Journal of Islamic Architecture. His research has been supported by the Graham Foundation, Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), Aga Khan Center for Muslim Architecture at MIT, Mellon-Volkswagen fellowship, the Getty Research Institute, and Australian Leadership Award. He convened a research symposium (Fall 2016) Scholarship of Social Engagement at the University

Farhan Karim talked with CONTEXT few months back on his research interests, published and forthcoming books as well as about his pedagogical mission that historical study should contextualize students’ consciousness within the existing economic, cultural, and ecological situation.

1. Please tell us about your recent activities and interests.

Currently, I am working on a book manuscript on the involvement of Euro-American architects in the development of modern architecture in precession Pakistan (1947–71). The creation of Pakistan in 1947 is the most unique event of contemporary world history. The first decade following the creation of Pakistan, the authoritarian government of General Ayub Khan undertook a series of lofty projects that included the establishment of new cities, universities, parliament, national educational reformation, vocational institutes and many more. Through these projects, Ayub Khan’s government envisioned a new postcolonial society and a new definition of citizenship. Ayub Khan’s government sought technical assistance from the USAID, UN, Colombo Plan and the Ford Foundation. Through these partnerships, Pakistan received consultancy services from leading European and American architects such as Paul Rudolph, Constantinos Doxiadis, Louis Kahn Durell Stone and many more. This stellar group of architects produced a number of well-known buildings of its time. My research studies 21 major architectural projects done by western architects in Pakistan. These buildings are now located in Pakistan and in Bangladesh. Some of these buildings are well known such as Louis Kahn’s Parliament building in Dhaka, but some are less known outside Bangladesh such as Paul Rudolph’s work in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. However, the book that I am working on is not a documentation of the western architects work in Pakistan. It is important to expand our knowledge about what these very important architects did in a postcolonial situation. But for me, it is more important to understand the history of Pakistan in a comparative manner or from an international perspective. The book explores the postcolonial condition of Pakistan through the work of the western architects and investigates the Cold War cultural diplomacy and the global dissemination of International modernism by studying the Pakistan bureaucrat’s business with these architects and their response to western architectural language.

The other major aspect of the book is to try to find out how, after the end of the colonial era and within the intertwined institutional framework of different Cold War organizations, how the foreign architects represented the ‘culture of expertise’ in the South-Asian context. By the ‘culture of expertise,’ I mean to refer to the idea that the architects were believed to capacitated a certain mastery over essential ‘truth’ which they want the Third World natives to learn from them. The foreign experts did not only work as pragmatic architects but also played the role of the messengers of ‘truth’, which would help to inform and shape the new nations and its political and social institutions.

Hopefully, I will finish the manuscript by this December

Apart from this project I am also involved academically and in some other collaborative works.

Social Engagement, Architectural History, and We
Book covers of the books Of Greater Dignity Than Riches (2019) and Routledge Companion to Architecture and Social Engagement (2018) written and edited by Farhan Karim. © Farhan Karim


2. How do you define the relationship between ‘Social Engagement’ and architecture? Many of us would question- is there a socially unengaged architecture exists?

I definitely agree that architecture is always produced within the society and by the society. There is no way that architecture can be produced without any response or association with society. But in my book ‘socially engaged architecture’ is identified as a research problem from a different perspective. Recently “social engagement” has emerged as a discourse that incorporates several distinct theoretical positions.  Participants of this discourse present different parameters and theories to measure and evaluate the degree of architecture’s social engagement. This discourse has created a dichotomy in our understanding of architecture’s relationship to the society: one is the real-estate and market-driven architecture and second is the architecture for the destitute, the poor. We often tend to conceive of this dichotomy as mutually exclusive, however, in this book, I invited authors who can offer us a fresh and critical perspective to the historical development of the concept of social engagement, its roots in different communal and international politics and the recent development in theory and practice. There is no single definition of ‘socially engaged’ architecture.  The practice is also known in different names such as participatory design or public interest design. In recent time, the term ‘socially engaged’ architecture was made popular by an exhibition in MoMA, NY in 2010-2011 entitled “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement”. The exhibition was curated by Andres Lepic. In general, the exhibition presented ‘socially engaged architecture’ as a novel way to resist homogenizing globalization. The exhibition also tried to show that socially engaged architecture is being produced beyond the control of the speculative forces of the real estate market. Built on the arguments proposed by the MoMA exhibition one may tend to create a position between socially ‘engaged’ and ‘unengaged’ architecture which is predominantly shaped up by the real-estate market. But admittedly this discourse is not as simple as that. The essays in our book show that the so-called socially engaged architecture has been deeply stimulated by different market forces. When you are working for the destitute or the marginal population, you are also addressing certain aspects of the “market” which is very often is not considered as a market. In other words, so, it may be perilous to try to theorize social engagement in isolation or exclusively as opposed to macro forces of globalization. Social engagement is an ambivalent concept and also contextual.

3. Do you think it is an outcry of the architects against the neoliberal capitalism and try to prove themselves to be politically correct, or is it just another side of the same coin? I mean, in your book you agreed that ‘social engagement’ immediately refer to a power imbalance where “trained professional exchange their knowledge with an untrained population.” It is difficult to realize how public opinion or right can be reflected in this practice.  Is not it a way of taking “poverty as a new possibility”?

Architect and Historian Manfredo Tafuri portrayed a very pessimistic idea about “modernization” under fully formed capitalism. In Tafuri’s explanation architects being integrated into the system and process of modernization have had a false image that they possess enough power to affect the system. Architects, according to Tafuri are rather having been increasingly made disempowered through the process of modernization for their actions are exclusively controlled by entities over which the profession of architecture has little if no influence. Tafuri’s contemporary, the French philosopher Michele Foucault also believed the similar idea that while “space” has a defining role in capitalist expansion and exploitation the professional body of architect’s role is limited largely in the realm of aesthetics with little control over the power structure or over the process of making. Now, a question could be asked whether “aesthetic” has any power to liberate society or not. The American and European Postmodernists of the 80’s such as Peter Eisenman and/or Aldo Rossi believed in the essentialism of ‘autonomous architecture’ in a way that architecture performs as a dialectic media to communicate ideas to users and spectators. It is known as the theory of autonomy. Per se painting, cinemas, sculptures or poems are subjects of intellectual discourse even though they might not practice the power to change the society but they could encourage people to think critically. Therefore, to western postmodernists and deconstructivists architecture acted as a media or a didactic tool to impart critical autonomy of society. However, while a majority of the Western postmodernists were moving away from the Humanist tradition, trying to decentre human/individuals from the western worldview and challenge the hegemony of narration of liberal humanism, the concurrent generation of postcolonial architects in the Third World refused to consider architecture merely as a media and believed that (architects) ought to claim power on the actual production process of built environment. In many cases, the postcolonial architects consider the post-independence state as the most important entity to achieve that power. However, as we know in most of the “developing” world today urban society revisits the promises of ‘nationalism’ and the state’s capacity to ensure balanced development. Especially in Bangladesh where we see the spectacular rise of the world’s two most successful and biggest NGO’s BRAC and Grameen Bank that has effectively decentralized and privatized “development.” For the fact that Bangladesh has such a low level of governance and such a high level of economic growth has prompted the economists to coin a new term “Bangladesh conundrum” in which it is argued that the NGO lead development project act as parallel governance and has caused the country’s meteoric economic rise. This privatization of development triggers a new discourse of socially engaged architecture in which architects don’t prefer to see their creation as autonomous art; rather they want to “engage” themselves with the actual production process. A good example is Kabir Bhai’s very well-regarded project AsharMoncho.

The approach of this social engagement approach is similar to projects that are known as design-build in the US or live projects in the UK. In this model, architects themselves become a part of production or making and therefore try to ensure total control of the ‘society’ or ‘community’ over the product. However, the concept might differ from region to region. Whether in this process effective political empowerment is being achieved or not is rather a localized question. To get an answer we need to analyze every project in its specific context, which can only be done if there exists a base theory on socially engaged architecture. Anna Heringer’s  Meti  school is theoretically an essential example. If we want to understand how poor people were socially and politically empowered by the project, you might not find huge success. In regard to the politics of using the term social engagement in this particular project, architectural historian Ijlal Muzaffar has asked, whether bamboo is actually a ‘low cost’ and easily available material as it is apprehended in this particular project. If it was such, Ijlal asks then why there were instances when bamboo was got stolen from a construction site?  Can the poor really afford the cost of bamboo?

Architecture, theory, and criticism help us to know the past and help to theorize what is happening today, as an inevitable consequence and continuum of the past. We are trying to theorize all these phenomena case by case, nothing else. Theorists analyze present or a given ‘reality’ by speculating on history.

Social Engagement, Architectural History, and We
Hindustani Housing’s abandoned factory in Delhi, visited by Farhan Karim in 2010 chasing a rare document on German architect Otto Koenigsberger, while researching for his forthcoming book “Of Greater Dignity Than Riches: Austerity and Housing Design in India”. © Farhan Karim


4. How do you define/explain it as an addition to contemporary architectural discourse? Over the last three decades popular discourse around architecture, to some extent, were circled around senses (refer to Pallasmaa) and production, reproduction and publicity (refer to Colomina) with other obvious discussions of post-modern phenomena. During the same time Architecture with a title ‘socially engaged’ emerged so silently, yet so obviously that scholars need to theorize it now (and that you have taken the initiative).  How do you look at it?   

It is true that socially engaged architecture has been practiced over the years, but critical literature on the topic is rare.  As a historian, I tried to combine the idea of ‘socially engaged Architecture’ as a whole (in our book) combining diverse thoughts from a number of thinkers. In my understanding, the followers of the German Frankfurt school and American sociological theory of modernization believe in the “formal” or “elemental” architecture, an intellectual tradition which has been followed in the western academia even in the 80s. Both in academia and in practice the definition of the architecture was kept limited within the aesthetic and technical realm. There were very few attempts to intervene in the actual production process. There was a limited scope, both theoretically and in practice, of claiming authority over the economic and political condition of the production of architecture. Although there were self-help housing related works by United Nations and few other non-government organizations, the initiatives could not flourish in the architectural spectrum as the architects did not think that these projects were worth to consider as ‘architecture’. In the counterculture and postmodern movement, a strong point was made for architects and designers to gain power over the production process. However, these initiates were eventually ended as marginal or avant-garde experiments or were dissolved in the market forces. Here in this book, we tried to go to the root of social engagement and its relation to architecture, tried to decentre the core ideas and process depending on particular contexts. How we can also do act for society could be one of our concerns. We tried to see the profession of architecture from a theoretical vision beyond its traditional refuge in the aesthetic realm.

 5. Who were the co-writers? How they all collaborated and contributed to the content of this book?

When I was thinking of writing something about socially engaged architecture, surprisingly I found some like-minded colleagues who were also very interested in this topic and thought about the urgency of written discussions. They felt that this topic needed discourse in a diverse scholarly platform. Eventually, with Farhana Ferdous (Howard University) and Joe Collistra (University of Kansas), I co-organized a symposium at the University of Kansas where we invited an about 30 scholars to share their ideas related to the concept that I was carrying over. The symposium was the foundation of this book.

6. What role can an architect play in the scope of socially engaged architectural practices?

I must confess, I am currently not active as a practicing architect. It is, therefore, tough for me to explain. But I believe and also tried to highlight in the book the points that an architect should be aware of while working in any project per se.  The architect must be aware of what you are doing and for whom you are doing. In this regard, I can share one of the authors of this book Harriot Harris’s experience, who in 20xx designed a portable habitat unit which is actually a wearable tent for Syrian refugees. Even though the units were not actually realized and the idea itself made no deep rooting change in the lives of Syrian refugees, her attempt created a substantial positive effect through fostering discussion and debates around the condition of the refugees on the move. And I think this is exactly where the role of an architect lies in the practice of socially engaged architecture. For me, architects should think in both-ways and should be able to try to strike a balance between cultural and aesthetic aspects of architecture with practicality and functionalism.

Social Engagement, Architectural History, and We
Poster for the international symposium on the Scholarship of Social Engagement organised by Farhan Karim at The University of Kansas which laid the base of his first book. © Farhan Karim; Photograph by Shafiqul Alam Kiron, Map Photo Agency, Dhaka, Bangladesh


7. Will you recommend including this topic in the academic curriculum as well to make students more aware and responsible towards participatory architectural practice?

Depending on the interest of the faculty members, the topics may be included as an optional course at the graduate level. However, since Bangladesh (as far as I know) has only one core architectural curriculum approved by the University Grant Commission (UGC), it might be quite challenging to include this topic as a mandatory course in the existing undergraduate curriculum. IAB or the current accreditation body can play a role to make the issue as part of mandatory student skill. In the USA every school has their full autonomy over the curriculum and thus schools are free to take a specific pedagogical approach. However, NAAB as an accreditation body has to accredit the curriculum on the basis of Students Performance Criteria (SPC) which is basically a scale to identify whether students have acquired certain skill sets, but the body has no control over the content of the courses.  As an educator, I think diverse curriculums provide scopes and platforms where a student can make their own choices out of their interests. I believe a strong foundation in theory and critical thinking is very much needed and should be mandatory.

8. Does Bangladesh need humanities and critical discussion of architecture?

Of course, a critical discussion of current thoughts and practices need to be performed (in academia). For example, the current concern for the Rohingya refugee crisis is of national stake. The issue requires serious attention. However, we also need to underrate the political production of crisis and the ways in which society perceive, accept and remember a crisis. What is about the everyday ‘crisis’ when a poor child spends long nights abundantly in our city street? Every crisis circle within its situation and context, and after some time a ‘crisis’ becomes normalized, engulfed and appropriated by our everyday experience. Architects should be able to incorporate the critical perspective of humanities in their training and work.

9. To what extent you think ‘history’ should be incorporated in our architecture curriculum/studies?

Most educators and professional architects would say that we don’t need ‘history’ per se, we need to study ‘precedence.’ There is a profound difference between precedence and history. History is a speculation about the past, an interpretation of the causal relationship among different events in the past in which architectural aesthetic, style, and form is an integral part. When our students study precedence, which is mainly presented as a ‘technical’ example related to the specific work in their studio, it may help to trigger their creative impulses by teaching them about the stories of the great architects, the master architects, motiving stories of the successful, heroic or tragic genius. However, this approach is limited in opening up spaces for critical discussion about the cultural and political condition of architecture. ‘History’ is able to do that. In architectural school, it is generally expected that the aspirant young generation will seek creative inspiration from precedence study. For professional schools’ in general precedence is more relevant than history. This is not very unique for Bangladesh. Our colleagues all over the world are asking the same questions- how in a professional School can we study and teach both precedence and history in a productive way.

I agree that undergraduate professional education cannot take the task to create an architectural historian. In the USA until recently it was the duty of the Art history department. It is only in the graduate program of a professional school that can train future historians. However, architectural history survey course in the undergraduate program can play a defining role to ignite interest in the students’ mind about architectural history and theory.

Social Engagement, Architectural History, and We
Farhan’s workstation at Kahn’s archive, University of Pennsylvania in 2014 while researching on Louis I Kahn’s unbuilt Isalamabad © Farhan Karim


10. What could be the ways to draw the interest of our students and young researchers to history and discourse of architecture?

Architectural history has its disciplinary autonomy but at the same time, it is intertwined with the professional education. Architectural historians are independent creative persons just like a professional architect. However, one could be both an architect and a historian, but it is important for us to be able to differentiate between these two entities. We need to understand how and where these two entities are separate and where they overlap. Bangladesh still does not have a good job market for architectural historians. In Bangladesh, a dedicated architectural historians’ career is limited to teaching in professional schools and conduct personal research of their interest. Affluent countries have some additional jobs in museums, libraries, and archives. If we want to see a new generation of creative and serious architectural historians in our country, we first need to develop a viable job market for them. When combined with heritage studies, architectural historians may also work in the industry, especially for the practice that works on adaptive reuse. The job market is small and slow, but there will always be a job for architectural historians, anyone who has professional integrity, curious and works hard with a clear goal will eventually succeed.

Thanks a lot Frahan Vai for your time and cooperation. It has been a wonderful experience talking to you. Looking forward to more discussion in the near future. Good luck with your next writing expedition in Berlin. 

Narrator/Interviewer: Azizul Mohith and Fatema Tasmia

Fatema Tasmia is an architect and academic with interest in history, theory and modern architecture. She is a lecturer at the Department of Architecture, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and a graduate (Master of Architecture) student at the same.


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