Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Kabul’s kitschy wedding cake architecture

Anne Feenstra 7 min

Kabul is a city of dramatic contrasts. In the streets, shiny black-windowed limousines drive immediately alongside scruffy pushcarts with wobbly wheels. On the sidewalks, one-legged beggars hold out hands to well-dressed business men in sharp, knitted suits and gleaming shoes. In the built environment, too, these contrasts seem nearly infinite writes our guest blogger Anne Feenstra (M.Arch.)(*).

The luxurious, fully air-conditioned Serena Hotel is surrounded by mud houses in a continual state of decay. The dedicated gardeners of the newly restored Babur Garden busily clip every blade of grass by hand, while in a gutter in the neighboring street the stinking carcass of a dog slowly disintegrates. One startling new contrast is between the dusty, pitted roads and developments 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 by 600 meters area between Sherpur and Wazir Akbar Khan. This area is popularly known as ‘Little Pakistan’, in direct reference to a style of houses 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 seven years later, more than 138 ‘mini-palaces’ have been constructed, each slotted right next to its neighbors. Another 14 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 such flamboyant materials as mirrored or colorful bathroom tile, which are often forced to compete with a highly reflective colored glazing. With ‘curly-wurly’ balustrades all around, the thoroughly un-Afghan balconies and other plastered bits of the wedding cake are all painted in a color 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.

In Kabul, both cultural identity and historical balance are currently missing. It is a capital where the normally slow transformation process has, through a massive infusion of money, been rocketed ahead into a rather obscene huffing and puffing machine. In this course, ‘development’ has often accelerated at a pace that seems to be 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. 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.

These observations can be made 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. Americans in particular -including American Afghans -, followed by a stream of people from ‘US-friendly’ countries, suddenly began to show up in droves in Kabul. The property market inevitably went ballistic, just as realization was dawning 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 as either houses or office space for the new arrivals. 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 neighbors – 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, the more grandiose 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, embezzlement etc) has never been in short supply in the war economy of Afghanistan over the past three decades. 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 were constructed and decorated as showpieces of wealth and power, full of postmodern icons. 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 that either want to cash in on the new developments, or Afghans that 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. Indeed, if the massive mansions of Little Pakistan had been built exclusively for the expat community, one would think that their styling would have been much more tempered – though the fact that the Spanish Embassy and UNESCO – of all UN organisations! – also rent these massive wedding-cake houses cannot be denied.

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 seen to be needed 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. The members of these 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 un-organized 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, factors that make these mansions unlivable and increasingly unaffordable for the citizens for whom they were constructed. First and foremost is the matter of simple human comfort. In direct contradiction to the Kabul climate of down to minus 20 degree Celsius winters and 40 degree Centigrade summers, no insulating material has been used to cover the houses’ thin brick walls and concrete roof slabs. Even such a relatively straightforward insulation technique as leaving an air gap between inner and outer walls is 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 a sub tropical climate 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 2004/5 and baked during the hot summer that followed. As winter 2007/8 was again a long and cold one, many families refused to spend another 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 have massive entrances and central halls, surrounded by many small rooms and an inordinate amount of bathrooms, designed as a house for large joint families. For a guesthouse, such a layout 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-meter-wide 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, this writer could easily feel the warmth of the concrete – a bad sign from a structural perspective. To reach its optimum strength, fresh concrete needs a lot of cold water, in order to rid it of the heat that is produced during the chemical process. While a less-stringent procedure could work for a bungalow, it is very dangerous for a four-storey building – particularly as Kabul 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 something of a paradigmatic example of form over function, many of the outer walls are clad in colorful ceramic tiles that were produced solely for indoor use. As these tiles have been fixed in the baking sun or the freezing cold, the percentage of pieces already falling off of Kabul’s mansions is substantial and clearly visible.

Beyond the aesthetic issues at play, the kitschy accoutrements to these buildings come at a high cost, redoubling their un-affordability for most Kabul residents. The result is an urban jungle that is increasingly unlivable 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 a trained architect and other qualified construction crews.

The emphasis evident in these buildings, like much of what goes on in Afghanistan today, is on the show and not the substance – in this case, the comfort and environment for living. But as most Afghans are unsure of just how long the current period of peace will last, spending money fast and ‘cheap’ may appear to many the best option.

(*) Anne Feenstra is a Dutch architect with design teams in Kabul, Kholm and New Delhi. He who works and lives in Kabul since 2004..


Architecture Kabul