An Interview with Architecture Student Hina Jamelle: Designing a Memorial for PakistanSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Jamelle: I was born in London and lived there until my family moved to Pakistan when I was eight years old. I attended middle and high schools in Pakistan before I came to college in the U.S. at Denison University. I received my BA in studio art and art history. My parents both live in Karachi, Pakistan and are doctors. My father is an orthopedic surgeon and my mother is a gynecologist. They are both attached to a hospital which maintains their connection to academia.
J: How did you come to design? And why did you decide to study at the UM?
Jamelle:My initial interest was art, which quickly metamorphosed into architecture as it is a profession that requires a more social interaction than art. I am drawn to design because I enjoy the intersections between the creative process and the public. Architecture is exciting because it encompasses many different fields. I decided to study at the University of Michigan because of its location. The notion was to isolate myself from an urban setting, to enable me to concentrate on my own development as a designer. In hindsight this was a good choice as I was able to reflect on my heritage and my life as a whole, to see how this would influence my thought process as a designer.
J: What are your general interests and goals in design?
Jamelle: I am interested in investigating the logic of the particular design problem before me. Every condition has its own logic and I am not interested in imposing any theoretical construct on it; I work to expose the particular conditions each situation presents or demands. This allows me a broad base upon which to address a wide variety of architectural projects. So, I don't want to say that I start with a particular theoretical framework, although certainly my approach is profoundly informed by and filtered through my education and my experience as a person. As far as the environments I would like to work with: I am most engaged by urban design, by exploring the urban context and its conditions.
J: Tell us about the competition: how did you hear about it, what were the Navy's goals?
Jamelle: I heard about the competition this summer when I was in Karachi. The Navy wanted to design a monument on a prominent one-acre site to commemorate the lives of the men and women who have given their lives to the nation.
I entered phase one of the competition and was shortlisted among five entrants for the second phase which involved flying to Karachi for a presentation of the project to the twelve member jury at the Navy headquarters. From my understanding the projects were given points based on various categories, such as concept, the technical, originality. In the second phase I delivered a fifteen minute presentation, after which there was a question and answer session for about a half hour.
J: Why did this competition appeal to you?
Jamelle: This competition was actually precedent-setting on two levels for Pakistan. First, the submissions were anonymous through both stages. Second, the twelve member jury for the competition consisted of professionals from various walks of life: writers, critics, architects, artists and Navy officials. For both reasons I felt that this would be a competition in which architectural ideas could be tested. The anonymity removed concern with names of designers and the expectations and preconceptions attached to those names. And I wanted to see if my ideas would be acceptable to a larger public.
J: I'd like to address a couple of key things that distinguished you in the competition: one, you are a design student; two, you are a woman. First, what are the challenges you have faced as a student?
Jamelle: In the second phase I was the only student and woman among those shortlisted. Up until the presentation I was a project number and the Jury only knew my gender as I walked in for the presentation. This was my first experience presenting my work in public. Up to that point, criticism of work took place in the academic setting at the College of Architecture where the questions and discussions take on a more theoretical line of inquiry. In this presentation I was presenting on a different level which called upon aspects of persuasion as well as being able to communicate my ideas to professionals with backgrounds other than design.
J: What have been the challenges in this process as a woman?
Jamelle: I felt challenged on a number of levels. First, given my background I did not want to be perceived as being westernized; rather, I wanted the focus to be on the work itself. This was not necessarily easy given the fact that I am indeed still a student.
J: How do you envision the project?
Jamelle: The design begins with calligraphic forms etched into the landscape. These forms are bodies of water stretched across the site shimmering in the horizon. The monument itself will be situated within this landscape, taking on a shrine-like quality; it will have an inside space that is conducive to a meditative mood. There will be a public understanding - basically a sign will be posted — that the monument's three-dimensional form arises from a particular two-dimensional image from Islamic calligraphy.
I envision this to be a structure in which the wreath can be laid and preserved during ceremonies and national holidays. Public gathering occurs beyond the etched landscape. The individual or individuals who will lay the wreath embark on the path in a passage through the water landscape, breaking away from the congregation behind them within watching distance. The idea is that the act of laying the wreath, unlike other communal rituals, becomes a moment of dedication to personal sacrifice which is unsharable. I don't know if this is a tension, exactly, but on the one hand, these people gave their lives to the cause of the nation and that is something to commemorate publicly. On the other hand, there is the mother and father who lost their son or daughter - and this loss is private, for the family only. The Navy wanted to provide a space for the family.
J: The memorial site, with its calligraphic and natural elements, strikes me as an exquisite balance of aesthetics and emotion. Can you speak to this?
Jamelle: My own studies for a monument depicting the notion of sacrifice began with a formal study of Islamic calligraphy. From Islamic historical origins and different styles of calligraphy used in Muslim religious architecture there is a departure into ornamental features unfolding into compositions that began to express space with three-dimensional implications. In Islamic architectural precedents, even if the religious text is too high to read - for example, if placed quite high on a wall - it is the image and forms of calligraphy that produces the 'religious awe' in the presence of the sacred environment. The abstractness of calligraphic text captures the spirit of a religious or monumental environment.
This became the starting point for investigations of the three-dimensional implications of the two-dimensional text. Its final design involves collaborating with a local calligrapher and Navy officials to select the appropriate philosophical text depicting the notion of sacrifice.
J: You suggest that the site, with its shrine-like monument and sacred environment, is intended to have a certain sanctified atmosphere. Could you say more about this?
Jamelle:It is the presence of the text in the land — on a physical field — that provides the sanctified atmosphere. In a sense it is like writing on the landscape with water instead of ink. The concern here is that, by walking through this site one would taint the hallowed nature of the etchings. The sanctity of the text is preserved in two ways. First, the text used is a philosophical reference to Sacrifice or Shahadas and therefore is not specifically religious text. Second, by raising the water forms above ankle level we are creating a condition that avoids this sense of violating hallowed text.
J: What materials will you use?
Jamelle: The construction of the monument utilizes three material systems. The treatment of the reflective surfaces — the translucent azure glass and the polished stone pillars — together with the water surface on the horizontal plane of the landscape, choreograph materially, structurally and perceptually to express the monument's serene qualities and complexity with the simplest structural vocabulary.
J: Tell me about the site you are working with. First, where is it located in Pakistan?
Jamelle: The site is one acre and situated within the urban setting of Karachi. It is very centrally located within Navy-owned land which houses the Maritime Museum which is scheduled to open in mid-1997. The siting of the landscape and monument pick up on the dominant axis from the museum, and, through a proposed new road, provides a link to the monument site. The source of the water landscaping comes from an existing lake there; the natural slope towards the site facilitates the flow of water. The site is about 20 minutes from the airport. So there will be various approaches to the site: by air, by road, by foot. This allows for multiple experiential readings.
J: One acre: that's a large space. What is the largest project you've worked on previously?
Jamelle: In architecture studios at the University of Michigan I have worked on design problems of approximately 70,000 sq.ft., including art museums and housing projects, as part of my education.
J: What is the ground like?
Jamelle: The ground in Karachi is dry. A desert, actually, with intense yellow and amber soils. The land is parched and engulfed in extreme humidity during the summer which finally yields into the monsoon season once a year.
J: After all the time spent thinking, designing, and competing it must have been exciting visiting the site for the first time.
Jamelle: Absolutely. After the presentation I drove to the site and did not allow myself to look at the site until I was at a strategic spot I knew from my drawings of the site. As I turned to look at the site, I had a flash of my project in its finished form upon the site itself. A powerful experience.
J: Could you describe the process of execution? In other words, who will you work with, how long will it take to finish, the cost?
Jamelle: This project now goes to a final presentation in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, to the High Navy Command as well as the Design Jury who will fly out for this presentation. At the end of phase two the Jury added some programmatic additions which included an area for the changing of the guard. This presentation is also the final approval for the budget of the project after which construction will commence.
J: How many people does the Navy anticipate will visit the memorial?
Jamelle: Once open the memorial and the Maritime Museum will be open to the public throughout the year. During national holidays there will be a laying of the wreath and special ceremonies for the families of the Navy and the general public. Due to the proximity of the airport this project will also be a gateway into the city as the site is visible from the air.
J: What are your hopes for this memorial?
Jamelle: I hope that this provides a space of contemplation to commemorate the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for the country . I want as well to offer a water landscape that will be a contemplative and serene field in the parched desert of Karachi.
J: What are your future plans? Has this experience generated new ideas, new paths you wish to explore? Has it helped define your goals and/or your identity as an architect?
Jamelle: This competition puts me at a unique juncture, especially given my imminent graduation in May. I plan to go back to Pakistan in June for the presentation in Islamabad. I will then begin to put systems in place for its construction by hiring consultants and craftspeople. My plans are to return to the United States in August to work in New York in preparation for licensing requirements. I envision making trips to Pakistan for supervision during the rest of the year.
As mentioned at the beginning of this conversation I view design challenges through a lens based on my experiences, which has included studying in Prague, Vienna and working in London over the past two summers. This work has both involved my being able to adapt to various cultures and has encouraged an intense questioning of my own work, heritage and self. For example, my time in Prague was spent studying the signs of history that are visible in that city on a day to day basis, the negotiation of an older culture and the forces of westernization. It is quite similar, in fact, to Pakistan but had I never left Pakistan I wouldn't have seen these signs, these subtle interactions, in the same way because it is familiar to me. As an architect I need to be able to report the current conditions of a location - and working in a comparativist mode makes one more attuned to these conditions. I therefore hope to join an internationally based architectural practice which will allow me to continue to analyze spaces and explore the ideas that present themselves.
Ms. Hina Jamelle is a student in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and will receive her Master of Architecture degree in May 1997. In November 1996 Jamelle won the Shahadas Monument Competition, held by the Pakistan Navy. Her accomplishment is particularly noteworthy because she was the only student and woman among those shortlisted for the final stage of the competition. She spoke with Erin Desmond, an editor of the Journal, and also provided some responses in writing.