Kabul is a city of dramatic contrasts. In the streets, shiny black-windowed limousines drive alongside scruffy pushcarts with wobbly wheels. On the sidewalks, one-legged beggars hold out hands to well-dressed businessmen in sharp suits and gleaming shoes. Perhaps little of this is particularly exceptional in urban areas around the world, including in Southasia. More to the point in the Afghan context is the contrast in the inner city between Western female diplomats being driven around in armoured vehicles, and the local ladies who are fully covered in azure burqas.
In the built environment, too, these contradictions seem almost endless. The luxurious, fully air-conditioned Serena Hotel is surrounded by mud houses in a state of decay. The dedicated gardeners of the newly-restored Babur garden busily clip every blade of grass by hand, while in a nearby gutter the stinking carcass of a dog that did not survive the frosty winter slowly disintegrates. One startling new contrast is between the dusty, pitted roads and the development of massive new mansions, each of which bears an odd resemblance to an ostentatious wedding cake. What on earth is this new style of dwelling?
In Kabul, the paradigmatic example of this new style is a 300 x 600 metre area between Sherpur and Wazir Akbar Khan. This area is popularly known as ‘Little Pakistan’, in direct reference to a style of house that was commonly built in Peshawar during the 1990s. For centuries, this plot of land was part of the finely woven agricultural fabric surrounding Kabul. It was only in 2003 that the traditional mud houses, small pieces of farmland and a historical garden were all bulldozed. Land-grabbers took over and now, just five years later, more than 130 ‘mini-palaces’ have been constructed, each slotted right next to its neighbours. Another 20 or so are still under construction.
They certainly are a sight to behold. Classical Roman columns with Greek Ionic capitals float smoothly into an ocean of balconies and cantilevers of poor-quality concrete. The outer walls are clad with flamboyant materials such as mirrored or coloured bathroom tiles, which often compete with highly reflective coloured glazing. With ‘curly-wurly’ balustrades all around, the thoroughly un-Afghan balconies and other plastered bits of wedding cake are painted in a colour range that seems to come straight out of a candy shop. But as ludicrous as these eye-popping new homes may appear at first, they also offer an important insight into a development process that is, fortunately or unfortunately, uniquely Kabuli.
A sense of both cultural identity and historical balance are currently missing in Kabul. It is a capital where the normally slow transformation process has, through a massive infusion of money, been propelled ahead into a rather obscene huffing, puffing machine. ‘Development’ has often taken place at a pace faster than the eye can follow. During this process (essentially since the fall of the Taliban in 2001) centuries of knowledge and information on the characteristics and use of traditional building materials have almost completely disappeared. The understanding of any remaining cultural wisdom now lies with a very small number of individuals, even while the new collective aspirations of the society have yet to be formulated.
Such phases can be observed in many cities around the world, but there are a few Kabul-specific developments that need to be explored. After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of international aid workers and consultants began pouring into the capital city. The property market inevitably boomed, just as the realisation was dawning that all of these people could not possibly be housed in a devastated city. Many Afghan families left their homes, jumping at the chance to rent them out to the new arrivals as homes or offices. But this proved far from sufficient for the demanding new market, and speculative development soon mushroomed.
This boom was certainly not limited to Afghanistan itself – indeed, far from it. As the country’s borders were quickly opened up, the importing of many items, particularly building materials, increased substantially. Even today, a lack of building-material production in Afghanistan has offered significant trade opportunities for its neighbours – metal-cladding material from China, glazing panels from Dubai, mirrors from Iran, floor tiles from Pakistan, and so on.
Although the money was coming from overseas, much of this new construction was undertaken for Afghans themselves. Though the country’s economy has been in collapse for decades, ‘hot’ money (from trafficking, smuggling, etc) has never been in short supply as a result of the war economy of Afghanistan over the past thirty years. The question has always simply been when and where that money could be spent. In 2001, the end of the war and the need for new housing created a need that suddenly allowed the rich to spend their money. Mansions, full of postmodern icons, were constructed and decorated as showpieces of wealth and power. They resemble the mansions that were built by rich Afghans during the 1990s, at a time when many were working outside of the country, particularly in Peshawar. In Kabul, these buildings are now built by Afghans who either want to cash in on the new developments, or want a palace of their own, or both.
In general, the international community neither aids nor obstructs such developments. With most expatriates remaining in Kabul only for the short term, they have no direct hand in the selection of architectural styles. The internationals generally live in a different type of residence, largely determined by considerations of security and space. Indeed, if the massive mansions of Little Pakistan had been built exclusively for the expat community, one would think that their stylings would have been much more tempered (though the Spanish Embassy does rent three massive wedding-cake houses).
The construction process in Little Pakistan is straightforward: it is called ‘copy-paste architecture’. First, take a few pictures of a house in Peshawar. Second, shun the architect and go straight to the building contractor (an architect is not considered necessary for this type of construction). Next, an Afghan-Pakistani construction team comes to Kabul, working more cheaply than a local construction team, which would have to be paid higher wages. Indeed, the Kabul government is currently pushing to keep the Tajik border closed, concerned that opening it would allow a flood of relatively cheaper Tajik labour into the country. The members of construction teams arrive after the winter, and work for six to nine months, living together at the building site. They earn their money and go back to their families in Pakistan. When the harsh Afghan winter hits, or when the cash runs out, the project is put on pause, to be resumed when the temperatures rise or when new money becomes available.
From any perspective, wedding-cake houses are a good investment. One can be built for around USD 400,000 and rented out as a guesthouse, an office or a combination of both. A quick calculation shows there is no great risk: a monthly rent of USD 9000 will take in around USD 78,000 per year after tax; a monthly rent of USD 15,000 will take in upwards of USD 154,000. Payback was even higher in the immediate post-Taliban years, when the Ministry of Finance was unorganised and often unable to levy the rental tax. Under optimum conditions, costs could be recouped in just three years.
Unfortunately, even a relatively cursory inspection highlights a host of deep flaws in these new constructions that make the mansions unliveable and increasingly unaffordable for the citizens for whom they were constructed. First and foremost is the matter of simple human comfort. In spite of the Kabul climate of -20 degree winters and 40 degree summers, no insulating material has been used to cover the houses’ thin brick walls and concrete roof slabs. Even such relatively straightforward insulation techniques like leaving an air gap between inner and outer walls are not followed. Traditional techniques, meanwhile, are now seen as outdated.
Both builders and homeowners prefer houses that rely heavily on ‘modern’ conveniences, seeing them as symbols of prosperity. Likewise, the balconies and roof terraces are better suited to the climate of Peshawar – where, again, these designs originated – than to the frigid winters and the summer dust storms of Kabul. Already, the folly of these designs has begun to make new homeowners reconsider. The rich Afghan families living in these palaces froze during the very cold winter of 2004-05 and baked during the hot summer that followed. Many families are now refusing to spend the upcoming winter in their glossy new premises, leaving many of the houses abandoned with the owners trying to rent them out to foreigners.
Then there is the cultural factor. Massive houses built next to each other on small plots of land stand in stark contrast to Afghanistan’s conservative culture, where family privacy is highly valued. Indeed, in this cheek-by-jowl style of building, large outer parts of the house, such as balconies and roof terraces, will never be used.
In terms of the ‘typology of space’, most of these Kabul cake palaces (designed to house large joint families) have massive entrances and central halls, surrounded by many small rooms and an inordinate number of bathrooms. For a guesthouse such layouts might work well, but this design is difficult to rent out as an office, and rather odd for a regular family abode. Possibly even more important in this regard is the typology of the surrounding urban space. Occupying up to 80 percent of the surface of the building plots, these houses leave just one metre alleys around the buildings, and only a mini garden at the front – into which two Toyota Land Cruisers can barely be squeezed. This simply does not work for a house that has upwards of 30 rooms.
The construction techniques of these structures as well as the quality of the work tend to be poor. This includes a lack of reinforcement bars in the structural elements of the building, as well as a plethora of improvised casting materials. At times during visits to homes still under construction, I could easily feel the warmth of the concrete – a bad sign from a structural perspective. To reach optimum strength, fresh concrete needs a lot of cold water to rid it of the heat that is produced during the chemical process. While a less stringent procedure could work for, say, a bungalow, it is very dangerous for a four storey building – particularly one in Kabul, which is located within an active earthquake zone.
The quality and detailing of even the external finishing materials, while nowhere near as important as the internal structural details, likewise appear to be just as poor in quality. In what could be seen as a paradigmatic example of form over function, many of the outer walls are clad in colourful ceramic tiles that were produced solely for indoor use. As these tiles have been fixed in the baking sun or the freezing cold, a large and visible number of pieces are already falling off Kabul’s mansions. Likewise, many swimming pools – an extraordinarily ostentatious installation to begin with – leak through the cracked tiling.
Finally, and undoubtedly most worryingly for the new owners, the property market in Kabul seems to be in sudden decline. Many of the donors are now moving on to more ‘urgent’ global hotspots, such as Sudan. As much of their liquid funds are going with them, it is becoming increasingly difficult to rent out properties. In turn, as more office space opens up, companies who used to pay USD 15,000 per month are now reconsidering their premises. Naturally, many are choosing to move into newly constructed office buildings more suitable and economical for office activities than the residential palaces. A casual drive through Little Pakistan today will indicate that roughly half of the buildings are currently up for rent.
Beyond the aesthetic issues, the kitschy buildings come at a high cost, redoubling their un-affordability for most Kabul residents. The result is an urban jungle that is increasingly unliveable for those for whom it was originally ‘designed’. The question inevitably arises as to why families spending upwards of USD 400,000 on a new home would make such mistakes, and would not bring in trained architects and other qualified construction crews. But, in fact, this is not a significant amount of money in an environment in which millions of dollars are routinely paid in hush money or bribes.
The emphasis evident in these buildings, like much of what goes on in Afghanistan, is on the show and not the substance – in this case, the comfort and living environment. It also seems that short-sightedness has been built into the Afghan psyche after 30 years of uncertainty, as most Afghans are unsure of just how long the current period of peace will last. In such a situation, spending money fast and ‘cheap’ may appear to many as the best option.
Anne Feenstra practices architecture with his teams in Kathmandu, Delhi and Kabul. He taught architecture at the Kabul University for over four years.