City-Planning Ideas for Kabul

A Strategy for Reconstructing the Old Town

A German-Afghani architect worked out a plan for the reconstruction of Kabul that has now been accepted by the Afghan government. But there are still barriers hindering its realization. Klaus Englert reports

photo: Sabine Fründt
The Old Town of Kabul - ravaged by years of war and conflict

​​The architect Zahra Breshna is used to a life between two different worlds. She has lived in Germany for 24 years and has an architecture office in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. But she recently returned to her hometown of Kabul in order to carry out her ideas for reconstructing the old town.

Long ago, her grandfather had studied under the artist Max Liebermann in Berlin in the 1920s, and he married there. Later her father, Abdullah Breshna, also went to Berlin, where he trained to become an architect and then worked with Egon Eiermann. In the early 1960s he returned to Afghanistan under King Zahir Shah and made significant contributions to the modern development of Kabul.

But when the Soviet army occupied the country in 1980, the Breshnas fled. The occupation was followed by the tyranny of warring Mujahedin groups, the terrible Taliban regime, and war.

New structures and old mentalities

Zahra Breshna’s documentation of Kabul’s destruction is alarming: eighty percent of the old town and fifty percent of the entire city were decimated. And the population has risen from 700,000 to almost 3 million since the fall of the Taliban, resulting in poor hygienic conditions, increasing homelessness, a barely functioning infrastructure, and damaged public facilities. It has become the norm that empty houses are taken over by people in need.

When Breshna first returned to her home country after being away for 20 years, the airport seemed to her a “giant heap of rubble” where “ripped up airplane parts were strewn about everywhere.” On every corner she noticed “terrible disarray.” Nevertheless, she dedicated herself to rebuilding the old town.

Her perseverance paid off. At the moment Breshna is director of the Department for Preservation and Rehabilitation of Urban Heritage in Afghanistan within the Ministry for City Planning. She is responsible not only for Kabul, but for the reconstruction of all the old towns in Afghanistan. At a time when no one was yet thinking about reconstruction plans for Kabul, Breshna was working on a dissertation on “Reconstruction Strategies for Kabul’s Devastated Old Town.”

At an international city planning conference in the summer of 2002, she was asked to hone her plans; and the Minister President Hamid Karzai encouraged her in between the discussions to offer her skills to the new state of Afghanistan. Breshna is still enthusiastic today: “I didn’t hesitate for a second and went to Kabul as soon as it was possible.”

Problems were to be expected in Kabul, given poor wages, corruption and a bad work ethic. Breshna herself is still waiting for a contract from the government. In the mean time, Aga Khan Trust has taken over the responsibility of paying her, but only for a limited time. Her work is further hindered by poor coordination locally, incompetent decision-making, and the resulting misdirected investment from international institutions, and further by the hesitation of investors and disputes between the city administration and the city-planning ministry about competencies.

The government was pleased with the plans Breshna showed them, in which she consciously strove to bring together elements that preserve the old structures of the Kasbah while integrating newer urban concepts. But the Kabul city administration vehemently opposed these plans. Breshna thinks the reason for this lies in a stiff bureaucracy that is incapable of taking adequate steps toward solving the problems of a metropolis with 3 million inhabitants.

The mayor of Kabul is fixated on a master plan that he retrieved from a drawer three years ago when the Taliban were driven out. This plan was the work of Soviet architects between 1964 and 1971, and it is still considered among many officials to represent an ideal model for a modern and prosperous Kabul. The master plan promotes city planning based on Stalinist monumentalism, with wide avenues, skyscrapers and an old town radically reorganized to make way for public squares and other public facilities.

Urban particularities

Breshna rejects this plan because it violates the existing urban and cultural particularities of Kabul. Her “strategy plan” is based on the changes the city has undergone since it’s pre-Islamic period. She sees the first phase of development as typical for the morphology of Islamic cities: a Kasbah consisting of walled quarters that form central clusters.

Little is left today of these non-hierarchically organized quarters that were originally independently structured by different ethnic groups and guilds. Similarly, little remains of the original construction principles for private residences with their homogeneous facades, shielded living quarters and centralized courts. Not to mention the shaded alleys, lively bazaars, richly ornamented mosques, and lush gardens of the past.

For Breshna, all this belongs to a city’s collective memory and should be brought to life again – yet without nostalgically recreating a romanticized past which has been gone since the mid twentieth century. She points out that the formation of the new city beginning in 1878, with its wide axes and changed perspectives, inevitably changed the old town as well.

The most drastic intrusion on the old town’s structure came in 1949, when the Jade-Maiwand axis was cut through the tangled Kasbah.

Breshna would like, on the one hand, to further the process of modernization in Kabul and, on the other, to restore the old town that appears somewhat shabby today and to regenerate traditional regional styles of construction. She thus supports the idea of letting future inhabitants of Kabul II, a new city on the plateau beyond the airport, build the city themselves with traditional construction materials.

She would like to revive the old styles and construction techniques that used clay bricks, thereby promoting an economical, ecologically sound, and culturally appropriate reconstruction. She hopes that in the long run architects, city planners and engineers living in exile will join in and contribute to the people’s self-organization.

The guiding principles for Breshna refer to historically endemic structures, but also to the construction of a modern city center with business, residential and representative areas. Particularly important to her is a decidedly modern planning concept oriented around concentric rings, transitional zones and outer-lying zones. Part of the plan is to demarcate the center of the old town with an inner ring, in the center of which the historical structure with its bazaars will be partially reconstructed.

Next will come a transitional zone with above-average development potential situated between the old town and the expansions of the new city. Here, along the Kabul River, Breshna would like to layer different architectural and city planning structures and typologies and build striking high-rises. Western urban concepts will be taken into account particularly in the outer-lying areas, for example in a zone surrounding the old town made up of rivers, canals and lakes, and in a green zone that connects important cultural sites.

Breshna hopes that Kabul will regain the positive characteristics it once had when Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Uzbeks, and Turkmens lived here together and when the area was influenced by enlightened and secular thinking under Zahir Shah. These are the traditions she would like to tap into, in order to rekindle a lively urban society in the “sinful” city that had been demonized by the Taliban.

Klaus Englert

Translation from German: Christina M. White


This article was previously published in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 28 October 2004

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