Friday, June 10, 2011


‘Climate change’ came to mind on reading this piece:
. . the attitude taken by Caliph Omar when he gave permission for the rebuilding of Kufa in stone after the houses of reed had been gutted by fire. He imposed a limit of no more than three houses per [extended?] family, and also a limit of height which he defined as ‘what does not lead you to wastefulness, does not take you away from purposeful moderation.’ (Ibn Khaldun, Muqadimia, II, 231)
in R.A. Jairizbhoy, An Outline of Islamic Architecture, Oxford, UK, 2003, p.4.

There is an irony in the much used term ‘climate change’ as though this was an odd or unusual phenomenon. Climate changes every minute of every day, and we all know about earlier ice ages and the dramatic changes to our planet from similar impacts. So expressing some alarm at change seems strange. It is, of course, mere shorthand for ‘man-induced’ climate change – or change that has been critically accelerated by man's impact on the planet. But even this does not help a lot, as man will always have an impact on the planet. Establishing just what is what, what is acceptable, and what is the cause of what all remains a problem in this quagmire of greedy rationalism. It is this ambiguity in the origin of concern about change, its rate, and its cause, that seems to generate dissention in the ranks of those simplistically either ‘for’ or ‘against’ what has now come down to matters that relate to carbon. The core problem in all of this debate has been reduced to carbon, with the concept being: manage carbon and we will be able to mange everything else. Well, maybe.

Caliph Omar’s words might offer a better, more organic solution here. Instead of trying to argue the case using complex and frequently-challenged scientific data, why not just accept that one should always live with ‘what does not lead you to wastefulness,’ and with what ‘does not take you away from purposeful moderation.’ If this can be agreed as a principle, then the science can take a step backwards away from the screams of the limelight and quietly gauge the impacts of this more gentle and more personally-responsible strategy that seeks to overcome the black-and-white divisive approach to the analysis of the problem with our planet today. The Caliph’s words also highlight how we are not unique or especially clever in expressing concern on waste and excess today – recycling or otherwise. Indeed, his words give us an introduction into a feeling for things Islamic that might be useful for us in what we see, in our own self-centred culture, as our uniquely challenging times. We might come to realise that we can learn much from an understanding of things Islamic.

The publisher, Oxford, promotes the book by R.A. Jairizbhoy, An Outline of Islamic Architecture, as providing ‘core texts for colleges,’ but it is more than this. It offers a good introduction for all to Islamic architecture. Jairizbhoy ‘s ‘Outline’ seems to allude to our lack of understanding of his subject by playing with Pevsner’s title, almost as a sarcastic tease - Nikolaus Pevsner An Outline of European Architecture, Penguin, London, 1943. It stresses the great gap in architectural history as written by western civilization for itself. This void seems to reinforce the idea that history is written in the cliché self-interested manner. Take Bannister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture: even when updated, this publication treats the architecture of eastern cultures almost with a dismissive disdain. The page count of this monster classic tells the story, making one wonder if his book should not have been titled as Pevsner’s, with the addition of ‘and its origins.’

Putting this previous failure in the recording of things past aside, R.A. Jairizbhoy’s An Outline of Islamic Architecture is an excellent reference to begin filling in the gaps and expanding our understanding of things eastern – well, Islamic. The book has many illustrations, plans and sections, is well researched and is thoroughly referenced. The blurb on the rear cover says that at Harvard, (the publisher seems to need to use this name for its prestige), this book ‘was the single obligatory textbook for the course.’ One assumes that the course was architecture and hopes that the so-called ‘obligatory textbook’ list might have been larger; but the point is worthwhile exaggerating. This book needs to be read by all – just as a beginning to allow a branching out into other more detailed Islamic studies. Ogling at today’s growing number of coffee-table publications on Islamic architecture is likely to only reinforce our prejudices based on appearances. We need to know more in more detail: in context – and we need to make the change today. We should know more about Islamic architecture – and Islamic culture: in depth if only to be aware of another’s experience. Ananda Coomarswamy wrote in his paper Why exhibit works of art? about the importance of knowing about the culture and times that produced the art. He highlighted the danger of looking at other culture’s works through our eyes and with our expectations. Architecture is no different. This book will start to help us understand this culture – and to respect it. There is far too much hype in our media that places an unfavourable preconception on this world. We need to change.

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