Aima Nadeem Chaudhary
With the advent of the modern era, rapid changes have been made to the architectural design of the buildings in Northern Pakistan, especially Hunza. I recently had the opportunity to see and research these changes for myself.
An in-depth analysis of primary and secondary information revealed that the introduction of modern architecture and building methods has stemmed from a variety of factors, some of which are very recent – such as the increasing number of tourists per year – while others date back to the formation of the Karakoram Highway in 1979. KKH made the villages of the Hunza Valley accessible: 97% of all settlements could now be reached by motorized transport. Hunza, which was previously cut off from Central Pakistan, was now accessible via the KKH, resulting in an ever-rising increase in domestic and foreign tourists.
Though this may have proved to be a boon in terms of employment – as visible by the plethora of small hotels and coffee shops budding along the mountains – it had also resulted in the introduction of cement concrete block technology, which has caused a great impact on the village’s built environment. Cement is cheap, accessible, and solidifies within no time – so its popularity is not surprising. However, in such an earthquake prone setting, these concrete and cement blocks provide little to no resistance to seismic movements, and therefore cannot be categorized as sustainable.
Hunza, before joining Pakistan, existed as a princely state with a rich history of vernacular (traditional) architecture. It had monuments that had seen an influx of different cultures – Tibetan, Kashmiri, Ladakhi, Balti, Central Asian, and Mughal, to name a few – and therefore held immense architectural significance. Modern-day Karimabad, another town in Gilgit-Baltistan, consists of three monumental buildings that display how these various influences impacted vernacular architecture in a sustainable way: Baltit Fort, Old House Gulmit, and Altit Fort.
Baltit Fort and Altit Fort, both of which are nearly 1000 years old, epitomize the instersection between culture and survival and sustainability. The short doors and pillars made of hardwood, along with the walls that were entirely made of rocks and were held together by mud end up being a very suitable approach to living in an earthquake-prone region. Even in the case that the building is destroyed, the same rocks can be used for reconstruction – concrete on the other hand, cannot be reused once broken. This proved that indigenous architects – all those years ago – had thought of methods that were not only environmentally friendly but also cost-effective in the long term.
However, the foundation of the Altit Fort was based entirely on a mountainous rock, with the mountain ridges no wider than the walls themselves. This posed a potential risk of toppling since the center of gravity of these walls was not spread horizontally. To prevent this, another highly useful technique, The Cator Cribbage system, also called ‘timber lacing’, was used. This was an indigenous earthquake-resistant construction technique that used strong corner joints and a sturdy wall structure of wood and rock to support the roof in case of seismic movements. Some houses in Hunza, especially the ones based on extremely rocky terrain, still use the Cator Cribbage system in their buildings.
Old House Gulmit, on the other hand, employed sustainable features in a domestic setting rather than a political one. With underground spaces in the common room for keeping poultry, rooms with only one window in the ceiling, and storage areas made as part of the house’s blueprint, it is a prime example of how architecture was modified for survival in difficult weather conditions. The poultry provided the heat needed to survive through harsh winters, and the lack of windows prevented cold air from entering. The storage room allowed grains, wheat, meat, bedding, and clothes, all to be stored in one place.
So the main question remains: How do we incorporate these sustainable features into modern architecture?
First and foremost, locals should try to construct two or three-storey houses rather than horizontal expansion to preserve agricultural land. This, however, should be used along with the Cator Cribbage system for a solid, earthquake-resistant foundation. Stone, including rubble, should be processed in an industrial setting to produce stone bricks that can be used for making walls. Instead of using cement, processed mud can be used as a suitable alternative. If this comes into practice, materials can still be reused in case the building is destroyed due to a natural disaster. Similarly, laws established for environmentally friendly construction will prove extremely beneficial in a long-term setting.
For domestic households, incorporating grain vaults and storage rooms as part of the architectural design will not only allow adjustable and multi purpose storage capacity but will also be easy to manage and cost-effective.
The main struggle, however, lies in encouraging people to use these methods instead of the cheaper and quicker methods that have become largely prevalent. There is hope that with the proper awareness and initiative, people will be convinced that what was good enough to foster their ancestors across centuries of hardships, will certainly be good enough for them.