by Mayra Mahmood, architectural student and Colin Powell School 'Partners for Change' fellow
I study at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at CCNY. Architecture, in my mind, is an art form that influences everyone—whether they are aware of it or not. Growing up in Pakistan, environmental challenges made me especially aware of the impact structural design has on people and their everyday experiences.
But I didn’t start out pursuing a career as an architect. I was on my way to medical school, believing I was destined to be a doctor like all the other Pakistani girls (and some boys) I knew. In the summer following a year of pre-med studies, I interned at the Education Health and Development Foundation (EHD), a non-profit organization. At the edge of Islamabad, there were slums in which mostly Afghan refugees lived. The EHD had built some temporary schools there and needed volunteer teachers: I was the English teacher. Everyday, a child from the school would come to grab me from the main highway and take me through the narrow mud streets to the school. The refugees lived in mud houses with no electricity or proper drainage systems. I began to notice little inventions they designed for this environment to make do. For example, they made a cow fence out of bicycle wheels and whatever else they could find.
I was both fascinated and deeply affected by my observations. I realized then that I didn’t want to help people by becoming a doctor; I wanted to help people by becoming an architect.
Later that summer, I traveled through Pakistan with a new perspective. My parents and I took a road trip out to Khewra Mines, the second largest salt mine in the world. On the trip back, we decided to take a local road instead of a highway. After we passed the coal mines, we found ancient ruins—some of the most beautiful ruins that I had ever seen. It was an old Hindu temple made by the Mughals and later abandoned when India and Pakistan separated. As I examined the two-foot-wide walls, I tried to imagine how I would rebuild the space. Later we went to Attock Killa (Fort Attock), and I again found myself examining the structure closely: the brick and the various structural systems. I took photos for inspiration.
The switch in career paths was a tough decision, and telling my parents wasn’t easy— especially since my plan involved moving to New York City. However, I knew that this was something I wanted to do and was capable of doing. I wanted to better understand the way buildings factor into and affect our environment and society. I also felt that there weren’t enough architects and planners to solve this issue in Pakistan.
In the year that I continued living in my home country before moving to New York, I began to experience the effects of Pakistan’s energy crisis. We had heard about electricity shortages in other cities, but we never thought it would happen in the capital. We were wrong. The electricity began to go out for two hours a day, then four, then six—now it goes out for as long as eight hours at a time, and most rural villages (but also cities like Sialkot) only get electricity for four hours out of the day. Living without air-conditioning or a fan is almost unbearable in a country so hot. During this time, I realized that it was cooler in my aunt’s house, which was situated in Rawalpindi, Kohati Bazaar, an old town thirty minutes from the capital. Each home had its own courtyard, which meant that light, heat, and ventilation systems could be operated more sustainably. The capital city of Islamabad, by contrast, was developed and planned around car culture. The structure and design of the homes there did not take regional urbanism into account, and could not be adaptable in a country struggling with depleted energy reserves. The situation has only got worse in the last few years: Last winter, the country began to face a natural gas deficiency, which meant that people weren’t able to heat their homes in one of the coldest winters recorded.
While developed countries like the United States aren’t yet dealing with the awful effects of an energy crisis that other countries, like Pakistan, already face, I believe that we need to begin to address the inevitable energy shortages we’ll all face in the future through thoughtful architectural design, and “green building.” I realized that I needed to be an architect, because I want to be one of the people working to solve these problems head-on.