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A woman walking along the rooftops in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo by Eric Kanelstein.

Until recently, Afghanistan was omnipresent in global news for all of the wrong reasons. The overtones of political and civil strife have hidden from the public’s eye the true potential for infrastructural progress in the country.

Through a seminar series called “Extreme Urbanism: A View on Afghanistan,” organized by the Mittal Institute, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, experts are providing an updated, informed view on the country by addressing architectural, urban, and territorial aspects of Afghanistan. The upcoming session on Saturday, October 24, will explore the many intricacies of modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism in Afghanistan.

Rahul Mehrotra

We spoke with the Chair of the Extreme Urbanism seminar series, Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), to learn more about his Option Studio at the GSD this semester, the seminar series, and the challenges and future of urban development in Afghanistan.

Can you share a little about the Option Studio you’re teaching at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) this fall, and how it incorporates with the “Extreme Urbanism: A View on Afghanistan” seminar series?

The Option Studio that we’re teaching at the GSD is called “Extreme Urbanism VII: Imagining an Urban Future for Ishkashim.” I am teaching this with Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, who is an assistant professor at the GSD. This is part of a series of studios we’ve been doing over the last ten years where we take as a problem an extreme urban condition with the belief that by looking at these extreme conditions, we start to surface key structural issues that allow students to question and reformulate imaginations about the urban.

We’ve usually done these Option Studies in India, which is where a lot of my research work is focused. But this year, because we’re in a virtual mode, it offered us the possibility to explore other areas in South Asia, which is broadly the geography that I feel culturally and intellectually comfortable dealing with, because of my own work.

We chose Afghanistan, partly because it’s one part of South Asia I have personally never visited, but also because we found a good partner on the ground: the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, which is a newly formulated agency of the Aga Khan Development Network. They are providing us support on the ground in terms of documentation and access to stakeholders and other groups to inform our students about the terrain. We chose a site in Ishkashim, which is in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan and borders Tajikistan.

What made you choose Ishkashim as the site you wanted to focus on?

What’s interesting about Ishkashim is that it poses many questions that are relevant under this rubric of extreme urbanism. It’s a border town, and border towns are relevant in the world today to discuss as forms of urbanism. The other thing that is very interesting about this terrain of Ishkashim is that it sits in very geo-technically sensitive landscapes. It’s susceptible to issues of landslides, very extreme temperatures in terms of climate, and so on. The third thing, which, again, is something that resonates with problems around the world, is the challenge of engaging with new imaginations of settlement formation.

Ishkashim is a town of 15,000 people, but has a hinterland of about 20 villages that work as a network economy. Both politically in terms of economy but also culturally — so we are also exploring new ways that settlements can be organized where the blur between the urban and rural, which is often posed as a stark binary, can be explored — how agricultural land, food production, and access to resources and water all work under this broader imagination of the urban.

You mentioned landslides and extreme temperatures — are there other unique qualities that support or hinder urban development in Afghanistan?

In contemporary Afghanistan, it’s clearly two issues: one is just its own topography and geography, both within the geopolitical context, but also its physical geography — it’s a very tough terrain to deal with. Politically, as you know, over the past decades it’s been battered by subsequent wars, which have left its economy in ruins and created a dependency on importing food and relying on other resources since it hasn’t been able to rely on internal production and the health of its own economy.

It is, I think, akin to many parts of the Middle East, and many geographies around the world that have been torn with civil rife over the past few decades. The challenges are not only about just imagining cities, but also how you build communities and economies, and how you can integrate the building of economies and communities simultaneously within this new urban imaginary.

It’s also about capacity-building. One of the things we’ve done mindfully, with the help of the Aga Khan Network, is we’ve connected with Kabul University. We’ve engaged students from Kabul University as part of our Studio to work in teams with our own students as a way of creating the possibilities for intellectual exchange. 

But it’s a two-way process. Our students are relying on the students of Kabul University to understand a terrain to which they have no access. And the Kabul University students are being exposed to an outsider’s view of their problems, which also sometimes makes you think out of the box.

What are you trying to teach the audience through the different sessions of this seminar series?

The intention of these sessions that we’re doing on Saturdays is three-fold. One, it’s opportunistic in that it’s to complement the Studio and expands the conversation about architecture and urbanism in Afghanistan beyond what is in the formal syllabus in the curriculum. Normally, when we were able to take students to the sites, they were exposed to conversations, they would watch local television, read the newspapers, as well as experience other parts of India, and they would have met many people that would have helped them assimilate a kind of pulse of what was happening on the ground. In lieu of that, we thought this series would be a good complement, and that’s how it’s linked to the pedagogy.

But I think more than that, it is also a way to bring attention to Afghanistan within the community of the university. We haven’t done enough to bring attention to Afghanistan at the university, and we felt this would be useful for the university’s community, considering we were already engaging with those networks.

The third thing is that it’s a good gateway for that network: people who have expertise on Afghanistan or worked on urbanism can have a platform to share their experiences, so the world can learn about what they’re doing. Anyone interested in Afghanistan can potentially gain a great deal from this series.

A lot of your work and research focuses on urban development in India. Are there any parallels that you can draw between India and Afghanistan when it comes to urban development?

They’re both part of South Asia, and the countries of South Asia share not only their postcolonial condition but are culturally very akin. There’s a gradation between Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to north India where you can see that culture transform.

Naturally, there are many issues, approaches, ways of doing things, and problems that resonate across South Asia. The most evident are the themes of unequal development and forms of inequity, the unevenness of development between urban and rural, the condition where intellectual, financial, and physical investments are all made in the major cities.

That’s one reason why we took a settlement outside the five cities of Afghanistan, which all have a ring road that connects them and creates a galaxy of what are the premium urban centers. These are terrains, as in many parts of South Asia, including India, that get no attention, they are off the radar of the elite. It is really the foundations, trusts, NGOs, and civil society generally that perhaps do more in these areas than the government.

That’s why we felt the alignment with the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat was a perfect one, because they’ve become our constituency, we can partner with them, and they have a pulse on the ground — otherwise, it would be a really abstract exercise.

I think it’s these sorts of uneven attentions that areas get that have made us identify this location. The lessons that we learn from what we do in Ishkashim I am sure and hopeful will continue to inform my thinking about similar problems in India.

Another aspect of the Studio is that looking at these very extreme conditions resonates deeply with the work I’m doing in India and the challenges I’m facing in my work there. The kind of issues I deal with is how one imagines new forms of infrastructure. And I mean infrastructure in its broadest way, where social and physical structures sometimes have to work much more together in the sense that you shouldn’t be separating imaginations of social infrastructure — which could be schools, hospitals, public health-related infrastructure — with physical infrastructure —roads, bikeways, and water and sewage systems. How can one think of this as an ecology that is completely interlinked, and interlinked in a way that one can imagine a form of hybrid architecture in which these are housed?

We often slice these as very differentiated programs: a school, a place of work, a home, a hospital. But look at what even the pandemic has done; it has made us see all of this in very collapsed spatial configurations. In the context of both the pandemic and taking an extreme condition like this in Afghanistan, it forces us to rethink many basic categories, and that as a lesson is something more universal in the way that it can inform thinking about these questions in other geographies.

A lot of the media in the US, and probably in the West in general, focuses on the many challenges that Afghanistan faces. What opportunities do you see with this seminar series to change that narrative or change people’s thinking about it?

I think one is that the intellectual capacity of Afghanistan is tremendous. Some of it is diasporic, just because of political conditions there and what they’ve been through. A lot of the diaspora is now going back and working there, and a lot of them are taking part in these conversations and conferences. Also, I think that’s why we use a rubric of extreme urbanism: what we’re seeing in Afghanistan could play out in many parts of the world. That breakdown where governments don’t have the capacity, the will, or the motivation to deliver the “commons,” in a sense, and I think in Afghanistan that all broke down because of foreign intervention and the wars they experienced, and it became a battlefield for geopolitical reasons. That’s the highest level at which something like this would resonate.

But I think it’s also about exposing a broader constituency to the notion that anything is possible; it’s only with that hope and collective collaborative — almost globally collaborative efforts — that finally we build a world that is equal. The world is interconnected, and we’re not isolated in the US or elsewhere from the problems of Afghanistan.

The world is so intrinsically linked today that someone’s problem is everyone’s problem, and I think that should be the mindset of the future.

What do you want people to know about the “Extreme Urbanism” seminar series so far, before they watch the final session on October 24?

The way we’ve conceived the series is that we’ve gone from a much larger scale of urban planning to the smaller scale of architecture. The first session’s discussions were centered on planning, the World Bank’s investment, the consultants that we’re imagining, the structural or strategy plans of the five cities, but also looking at relationships and the infrastructure that connects them. So, we began with very big, broad scale questions.

The second session looked at the traditional practices for urbanism and architecture. What can we learn from culture and the tradition that already exists? Are there lessons that resonate in contemporary times and are still used in the context of contemporary development? After all, context does matter.

And during the third session, we’re looking at more contemporary practices; that is, practitioners who are building today, some who have come from the outside and are not necessarily Afghan, some who are Afghan, and some who are diasporic Afghans. Through their eyes, we’re beginning to see how they imagine the rebuilding and new and contemporary urban and architectural formulations in Afghanistan.  

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Join us on Saturday, October 24, 2020 at 10:30 AM EST for Session 3 of the “Extreme Urbanism: A View on Afghanistan” seminar series to learn about contemporary architecture and urbanism in Afghanistan. 
Join via Zoom: https://harvard.zoom.us/j/97722356429
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 All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.