Fifty years ago, many young Australians wanted to get to swinging London, and there were two main ways to get there: on the new Boeing 747 Jumbo in 24 hours; or take six months to go overland on what became known as the ‘hippy trail’. And the beautiful and peaceful city of Kabul was a key staging point on that trail.
Lonely Planet, maker of the great travel guides, was born out of one of those trips, when Tony and Maureen Wheeler traveled the trail, keeping notes on the best places to stay, things to see and do, and cities to visit. The trip starts in Bali, goes via Bangkok (avoiding war torn Vietnam and Cambodia), on to Madras, Bombay and Calcutta (as they were then known). You hitchhiked, went by caravan or VW Kombi into the Middle East before traveling to the Greek islands, through Italy and Europe to London.
Kabul was one of the highlights, an intact Arabic city, full of beautiful mosques, tight winding streets, and dense, solid architecture as a defense against the hot sun. Afghans’ daily trade was conducted in the street or the public square; a city explored on foot where the architecture was a palimpsest written over a thousand years.
The housing was based around courtyard in the Arabic tradition, an architecture built in stone, brick and mud. In 1979 Afghanistan was plunged into a war with the Russians. The west (and China) headed into a shadow cold war led by the USA, arming the guerilla forces known as the Mujahideen, on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Kabul suffers the urban indignity of the dead hand of Russian communist housing blocks.
The Mujahideen, transmogrified into the Taliban, use the weapons that the USA had given them to defeat the Russians in 1989. They impose a version of sharia law that mistreats women in particular, destroy beautiful buildings and statues in the name of Islamic purity and harbour terrorists including ISIS. Following 9/11 this last issue brings the USA (and Australians) back to Afghanistan in 2001, now on the other side.
The Taliban retreats, hiding in plain sight, and for 20 years there was a sense of progressiveness, liberation and modernity across most in Afghanistan. A local army is armed and trained, unsuccessfully as it turns out. But there are some wins: in Kabul the architecture schools that had been closed by the Taliban are reopened, and more than 60% of the students are women, for women play a very strong part in architecture in the middle east.
Twenty years is insufficient time to develop a new indigenous architecture, but some outstanding buildings are designed externally. One significant and beautiful example in Kabul is Gohar Khatoon Girl’s School designed by Robert Hull, founder of Miller Hull in Seattle. After graduating from Washington State University in 1972 Hull joined the Peace Corps where he spent 4 years building sustainable schools in Afghanistan. He returns to design his last, and greatest, building in 2014.
Its beauty seems threefold: the open and democratic planning speaks to welcoming women students; the solidity with deep reveals with smaller openings and masonry screens responds to a hot and dry climate-adapted architecture; and its village form continues a tradition of the outdoor street being equally important as interiors. These are but two images of 33 in an Arch Daily article here.
The building draws, pardon the pun, on indigenous Afghan architecture: the cloistered courtyard of low rise, solid, deeply penetrated and water-filled buildings, using cross ventilation to high level ‘malqafs’, corridors leading to narrow streets opening to city squares. It re-visits the ideas of mixing tradition and modernism developed by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy after WW2.
But the building (along with many others) now faces a triple threat from the Taliban: their hatred of modernity, progressiveness, and women. After 40 years of civil wars the Taliban are back, and we fear the great evils that will be visited upon the Afghan peoples. A theocracy that destroys ancient monuments (because they are idols to another religion) is capable of destroying some of the great cities of the Middle East, particularly Kabul.
The tragedy of the loss of architecture may seem a lower order, given the crushing of freedom, diversity and particularly the cruel marginalisation of women. But I would argue that urbanity is as vital for life as food and education. The savaging of Kabul, the city, is not as great as that visited on Aleppo in Syria or some other Afghanistan cities, but Kabul is in survival mode.
Afghans will have to negotiate their way past the Taliban to be able to rebuild and extend the city into the 21st C. The world needs to see a way in which the unbounded creativity and inventiveness of Afghans can be defended; otherwise, their civilization cannot rise up again.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].
Author’s side note: although many of my friends took the hippy trail to London (I still have their letters) I headed in the other direction: to find the underground in the USA. I had intended to write a guide to my findings, at the same time as Tony Wheeler started Lonely Planet. That’s when I changed to Tone to differentiate. And unlike my namesake I never did write that guide. Although the other Wheeler did once come to one of my AAA architecture tours. Lovely man.