Being located in the major network of ancient trade routes, connecting India and China to Persia and beyond Afghan architecture represents layers of history that are important for its development. The diversity in the history of Afghanistan has led to diverse architectural influences seen in the cities. The primary influences were seen from Buddhist architecture, Zoroastrian architecture and Islamic architecture. 

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The many Islamic rulers concentrated on socially and culturally cohesive spaces in cities like Kabul. The highly orthodox lifestyle and residences were built by the people in the community. The archaeological excavations show the rich cultural and architectural values of the traditional architecture followed by the Afghan people. 

The main factor determining the traditional Afghan architecture is the extreme climate experienced in the region. The techniques and materials used were also sourced locally as the Afghan people built their communities.

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Urban fabric

Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan today, has evolved with history. The archaeological study shows that the city has been a strategically important commercial and pilgrim centre. It also shows that Kabul, during 675 A.D., had many Buddhist temples, and the inhabitants were followers of Buddhism and belonged to the agricultural community. Later in 698 A.D., the Arabs invaded Kabul and years later, the people accepted Islam as their new religion. The people also accepted its socio-cultural values and administration techniques.

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Levine, A. (1963) Buddha statue in Bamiyan [Photograph]. (Wikipedia)
Kabul was the capital city of the Mongol empire in 1502 A.D. Babur Shah, the emperor, was fond of the city and commissioned construction projects including beautiful gardens and several buildings. The city was then destroyed during the Iranian invasion in 1739 A.D. Some of the city’s buildings and gardens were destroyed. In 1773 A.D., Timur ShahSon of the Afghan King Ahmed Shah, the founder of modern Afghanistan, established Kabul as the capital city. During this period, the city grew in prosperity.

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Later in the year 1839 to 1845 A.D., the conflict with the British Army destroyed the architecture and urban fabric of traditional afghan. Many bazaars and commercial centres were burnt in retaliation for their defeat. Commercial bazaars were the then hub of city life. During the 19th century, the city possessed Characters of a traditional Islamic city. Bridges were constructed to access the city through the Kabul river. 

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Broke, J. (1880). View of Kabul in 1880. [Photograph]. (National Army Museum)
During the later period of the 19th century, the sheer richness of the traditional urban Afghan architecture was transformed with modern urban development. Amir Abdur Rahman brought in a great physical transformation to the city. Bagh-e-Babur, Chilston palace, Arg bazaar were some of the ornate mansions inside spacious gardens, which are the typical characteristics of traditional Afghan architecture. 

Such garden spaces with architectural and landscape schemes were developed during this period. The public water system was planned through a channelled underground tunnel system throughout the city.

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Habibullah, the successor during 1901-1919 A.D., introduced piped water supply, he also commissioned lavish palaces and public buildings, electricity was also introduced. Dilkusha Palace, Edigah mosque, Habibia college were some of the public buildings constructed. 

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View of Bagh-e-Babur garden [Photograph]. (Document 3, Bagh-e-Babur garden, hiddenarchitecture.net)
King Amanullah, during his reign 1919-1929 A.D., was determined to modernise and bring reforms to the social and cultural aspects of the city. A modern project with French architects and German engineers to build a new city in the 18th-century style was commissioned. The plan included provision for necessary public buildings, educational institutions, health centres, commercial and residential centres with gardens and open spaces for leisure. 

Railway lines were introduced to connect people and trade; telephone lines were introduced to connect with the outer world. During the 1930s and 1940s, the city was developed into an industrial centre. In 1960 the city was developed into a big cosmopolitan Centre.

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In 1962 under the National economic development plan, a team of planners of the USSR were formed to plan a 25 year Master plan for the city. The plan embarked the entire Old City as a slum area that was replaced with multiple-storey apartments in the Soviet-style. 

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Panoramic view of old and new buildings in Kabul (1969). [Photograph]. (document 28, Afghanistan in 1950s and ‘60s, The Atlantic)
The 25 years of war blew away the properties and traditional landscape of the city, leaving the Old City an uninhabitable locality. A rehabilitation and conservation programme was formulated to allow reconstruction and repair the war damages. 

Residential unit

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The residential units’ in traditional Afghan architecture majorly include courtyard houses. A study shows that about 95% of people live in courtyard houses. The courtyard houses are preferred for their static heating and cooling system. These traditional courtyards serve three major purposes. 

First, it serves as an internal Open space with privacy and safety for women and children. Second, during summers, the open space is shaded by four walls to remain cool until evenings, and during winters, it protects from hard cold wind from entering the living space. Third, it houses many families in one courtyard, increasing the density of living in rural areas. 

The extreme climatic conditions made the people adopt different elements for a thermally comfortable living in the community. Energy-saving elements and proportional ratios of open, semi-open and closed spaces were part of the plan. Comfort providing elements such as wind catchers, shades, basement, ponds and courtyard were provided in a uniform pattern.

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Pottenger, B. (2014) The Great Serai after restoration [Photograph]. (Document 12, Turquoise Mountain)
Traditional houses were made with mud, timber and clay, which acts as an insulating material and is locally available. The position of windows is taken care of by placing them facing south to gain maximum sunlight during winters. Roofs are kept flat, which allows drying fruits and vegetables for the families and also for the males to sleep during summers. Shared walls are preferred between houses to reduce exposure to harsh climatic conditions. 

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Aga Khan Trust for culture (2005) Drainage after intervention (Document 23, Old city of Kabul regeneration, Archnet)

Privacy for women and children is considered their culture, which reflects in spatial planning. The kitchen is used only by women to store utensils, whereas cooking is done in the courtyard. Living rooms are made multifunctional by dining in the day and sleeping during the night. Mehmankhana is a place for male guests which is not connected with the courtyard, and women are not allowed here. 

Construction techniques 

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Traditional Afghan architecture construction techniques are derived to suit its extreme climatic conditions, frequent earthquakes with naturally available materials. The Earth is dug for 60cm, and the foundation is laid with rubbles and stones. It is extended above ground level by 40cm to avoid damages caused by weather. The walls are then constructed with bricks and timber frames. 

Timber frames act as the main skeleton of the building. Layers of bricks are laid diagonally, approximately 7-10 layers on each side and plastered with mud. It helps the building to withstand earthquakes. This traditional construction technique is known as senj. The beam is layered with woven willow branches from Zabul and bamboo to provide greater stability. A thick layer of mud is then applied above the layered beam to finish the roof. 

Turquoise mountain (2017). Construction workers moving woven mats up the roof of a new primary school. [Photograph]. (Document 7, Traditional Afghan Architecture, Google arts and culture)
The traditional Afghan architecture had a conscious thought of energy-efficient and vernacular design strategies, which were destroyed during the various wars and modern developments with different rulers. People were forced to sell the traditional properties due to the war situation in the country for 25years and move to safer places. During the early 21st century, steps were taken to conserve and restore the heritage value of traditional Afghan architecture.

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References

  • Traditional Afghan Architecture (2017). The construction process and features of traditional buildings of Afghanistan. [Online]. Available at: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/traditional-afghan-architecture-turquoise-mountain/UwLCUyulvJH3Kw?hl=en [Accessed: 31 July 2021].
  • Aga Khan Trust for Culture (2017). Urban Heritage of Kabul and post-war recovery efforts. Published at : School of Design and construction Washington State University, USA. 
  • World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology. (2016). A comparative study of Traditional and Contemporary Courtyard Housing Regarding Affordable Planning and Sustainability, Volume 10 (3), Pages 1-6. [Accessed: 31July 2021].
Author

In a predominately visual profession, Suvetha Arun who is a self-practicing architect and an architectural lifestyle blogger, desires to enlighten architecture through her writings. Keeping the traditional essence of architecture in her research and practice has made her stand out. She strongly believes in practicing what she preaches.

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