The journey was not filled with loneliness. Indeed, trees were keeping us company, just recovering from the heavy monsoon showers, purged from the dirt of a long, dry summer. Trees that prevised life, that were considered the lungs of the city. We went higher, came closer to entities that were not visible for the human eyes. Once at top, we were surrounded by the beauty of the nature God had created. Glancing towards an existence man had created from scratch, The city of Islamabad.

Settlements tend to grow slowly – planned or organically - into towns or cities in long terms. Occasionally, cities are created from scratch by putting certain lines on a thin sheet of paper. These lines are a determination of a certain philosophy carried out by the planners trying to translate these into something tangible. Chandigarh (Indian) and Brasilia (Brazil) are great examples of planned cities of the 20th century, both a physical translation of modernism on an urban scale. The works of Lúcio Costa (Brasilia) and Le Corbusier (Chandigarh) got worldwide recognition for their works. However, little is known about another planned city in the east from the same era; Islamabad.

The new capital city of Pakistan was a great work of Constantinos Doxiadis, based on the same philosophy of his aforementioned colleagues, with a slight difference. After gaining independence from the British in 1947, the country started developing rapidly from the 1950s. The port city and capital of that time, Karachi, was characterized by great expansion and industrialisation. The developments attracted people throughout the country who tried to seek their fortunes in the city designated as ‘The City of Lights’. From a certain moment, the government started considering moving the capital to the hinterland located in the northern part of the country; Karachi, situated in the southern coastal areas, was considered as vulnerable. Furthermore, the government was hoping to get less interference from the larger enterprises in the south and move to centre point more upwards.

Constantinos Doxiadis – a Greek architect and city planner – was appointed in 1959 as advisor and later town planner by the Federal Capital Commission. The new-born country was trying to position its new identity as a modern Islamic Republic. The former Mughal Empire seemed to be disillusioned from the past and untouchable followed by a colonial era, implementing standards that blurred the purpose of their own existence. It was time for something different that would reflect their identity, characterised by and respecting a culture that had shaped them for centuries, in a contemporary era.

Located in the northern part of the county – at that time fifteen kilometres from the city of Rawalpindi – and surrounded partly by mountains, this spot was considered invulnerable (figure 2). Furthermore, the future capital city would border the centuries old Grand Trunk road (Urdu: مظعا کڑس ), as this route running from Calcutta (via New Delhi, Lahore and Peshawar) to Kabul was considered as an essential arterial trade route for more than two millennia.

Plan of Doxiadis

Doxiadis considered five elements as compelling for the conception of the masterplan; patterns of natural landscape, continuous traffic flow, unity of scale, expansion and engagement with the existing elements – such as the city of Rawalpindi.

The two main highways – Kashmir Highway and Islamabad Highway - formed the main frame for the city structure and future metropolitan area, aligned to the Margalla Hills (figure 1) in the north and other existing plateaus on site. Within this frame, a grid of 2 by 2 kilometres was laid down. The grid would imping the boulevards running through the city. This same grid defines the outlines of the neighbourhoods that would fit in the grid. Some exceptions are visible though; a few blocks in the grid are serving a different purpose, such as a city park, university campus or medical centre. Other exceptions are the blocks of the government centre – Red Zone - in the northern part, housing the parliament, ministries and other governmental organisations. These blocks are shaped differently, as the main roads are directed by the contours of the existing landscape.

The neighbourhoods are all constructed with the same formula. Every neighbourhood is divided into four equal parts, specifying different communities of each neighbourhoods (Zone I till IV). The socioeconomic background of each community may differ, allowing lower income groups to be part of the society. However, planners were convinced that possible social issues should be prevented by avoiding intermixing without gradual integration. In the centre of each neighbourhood, a fifth zone (Zone V) is added with a civic centre housing different facilities like educational institutes, medical centres, shops and food court, to serve the neighbourhoods’ inhabitants and make them self-sufficient. However, different recipes have been used in order to diversify habitations; each neighbourhood is shaped differently in terms of density, varying between 20,000 to 40,000 dwellers, routing, architecture and the types of functions, while the principles of spatial planning are similar. Notable is the embracement of the natural elements which are still visible on the ground layer. In the strong, rationally planned neighbourhoods, creeks evolving from Margalla Hills are infiltrating the neighbourhoods like veins, preserving the existence of mammals other than humans (figure 3).

As the main transportation in the city is provided by an intricate road network, the neighbourhoods are characterised partly by pedestrian streets. In the drafts, most of the roads are designed as cul-de-sacs and mainly serve as access roads. In-between, a maze of pedestrian streets would allow the inhabitants to roam around freely (figure 4).

It is not only the presence of nature that has something soothing yet vibrant. Most of the landmarks — helpful in wayfinding — and buildings from the past are a contemporary translation of oriental Islamic architecture, characterised by modernism’s minimalism. A great example is the Shah Faisal Mosque (figure 5 & 6) completed in 1987. The place of worship, designed by the Turkish architect Vedat Dakolay, is considered one of the major landmarks in the city. It is notable how the outlines of the mosque are not aligned to the grid of the city, as the mosque is directed towards the Qibla (Mecca), the direction Muslims face while praying.

Modernism is not only present in the west; it can be found elsewhere. In the city of Islamabad, modernism was probably not the main element, but the modernisation of the existing culture and the engagement of Ekistics – science of community and human settlements coined by Doxiadis – characterized the developments of the city. People often tend to believe that modernism on an urban scale has failed miserably. The city of Islamabad was designed throughout multiple scales and layers, preserving the human scale. This had preserved a sense of community in a rationally planned city.

At the same time, the spirit of place – Genius Loci – was preserved, as the planners took the existence of natural elements, culture and climate into account. By integrating the sense of art and ornamentation (in moderation), the city felt familiarised by the users. The city is not just a rationally planned production machine. But there is sense of life that made this place humane. Modernism often neglects the existence of the Genius Loci and tends to build without understanding the essence of the place. This was the case in the developments of Bijlmermeer, a suburban satellite town of Amsterdam that did not take the spirit of the place and culture of users into account.

Islamabad is a city designed for the future, whether connecting to the Grand Trunk Road linking to the capital cities of neighbouring countries or having a certain formula to expand he city according to a certain method. However, the future is unpredictable. No one had foreseen military coups of that time, or terrorism that would haunt the country for more than a decade. As the city started expanding in a pace the government could not keep up with, slums had appeared in the outskirts of the city. And even when the borders of Islamabad and Rawalpindi met, their relationship remained complicated (figure 7). In the empty pockets of planned neighbourhoods, new working class communities gradually appeared (figure 8), like organic changes mushrooming in the city. However, the developments of the last 10 years have been devastating for the city and its users. The municipality has failed to provide affordable public transportation or promote the use bicycles, resulting in massive traffic jams on the boulevards. In response to this, several boulevards have been turned into highways characterised by underpasses, fly-overs and pedestrian bridges, destroying the beauty of the boulevard once defining this city’s character (figure 9: before). New high rise buildings started to appear that have no link to the context; even after the country started recovering from the turbulent past, the developments are still precarious.

While looking at those high rise buildings and civic centres along the boulevards in the middle of the city I keep asking myself one question over and over: Does Islamabad even have a city centre?

National Monument (Source: Flickr; Weng Wei)