Crumbling Rooftops

It is a fact that the evolution of the civilizations, cultures and societies are primarily shaped by the weather, topographical and economic conditions of the place. Mainly three aspects of life and living—food, clothing and shelter—remain integral and interdependent. And continue to be influenced by the climatic conditions of the place.

Despite banal modernization and development in various sectors till recent past, the living in Kashmir displayed one of the classy techniques for construction of houses and various other buildings. Time tested traditional construction of the houses, especially rooftops with appropriate slant and height and other refined details, helped assemble structures that could resist the extreme weather conditions in Kashmir.

However, like many other things in Kashmir, the building patterns changed drastically during the last two decades. The link between architecture past and present is dwindling fast. The whole idea of constructing houses or public structures has undergone a metamorphosis. It differs from the architecture history distinctive to this place. In a way, the mesmerizing antiquity has been replaced by a chic design that is a concrete metaphor of mammoth. We are building beautiful houses and not Kashmiri houses anymore.

Of course, we are living in an age that is bewitched by the mantra of ‘advancement’, and we are witnessing a fusion of glass, steel and fabricated structures wherein skills associated with construction are getting restricted. And results in promoting the latest aesthetic practice while unsettling age-old traditions. As such, the defacement of ‘style’ reflective of both imported cultural expression and technological achievement is quite manifest.

The fresh heavy snowfall saw the rickety rooftops of concrete houses in Kashmir getting collapsed under the weight of snow. Reportedly, over 76 houses suffered damage to their rooftops. The viral videos showed tumbling over with shouting and swirling snow dust. The news exposed the poor craftsmanship and flawed techniques of designing and building in Kashmir. Besides, the so-called urbanity of constructing huge houses with no proper planning has come to fore. Devoid of any spatial relationship to the natural world, the structures produced in Kashmir are turning vulnerable. The conditions of weather as a major factor to influence architecture here are disregarded both traditionally and scientifically.

Though climatology is a novel subject, architects have been climatologists throughout history. The climate-responsive architecture of Kashmir, that serves both utilitarian and conventional aesthetic ends, needs to be supplemented by the technical advances rather than replacing it and rendering it entirely outdated.

The moaning moon over our sky is seeking out Zoon-Dab (a cantilevered balcony designed to view the moon) while our earthquake-resistant Taq and Dhajji-Dewari structures continue to vanish. In fact, the crumbling of rooftops is revealing out its origins, connecting all of the technical, aesthetic, political, and economic issues at play within our society. Everything is crumbling; so are our rooftops. Everyone is crushed; so are our houses. Snow is cruel; so is our edifice. Discretion is fragile; so is our dwelling.

While architecture is globally recognized cultural practice, for us it has turned into a reminiscence of loss, longing and limbo. Whether our houses are rickety or ravaged, poorly designed or devastated, we and our architecture are withering. Our houses are either snowed or stormed. To quote Bashir Badr—

Loog toot jaatay hain ek ghar kay bananay mein,

Tum taras nahin khaatay bastiyaan jalanay mein

Bottomline: Beyond colored rooftops and big cement walls; marble floors, modular kitchens and multiple washrooms; beyond the concept of sheer shelter—architecture has the power of representation. It produces collective meaning and memory. There are some critical social and historical contexts behind works of architecture and its clients. We need to understand them before everything else crumbles in Kashmir and we fail to preserve anything that links us with our historicity. All the more, engaging and expressing our identity through architecture can help us put together things resilient to the vagaries of time.