NICHE OF LIGHTS – Thoughts By Architect Murad Jamil …


Text by: Architect Murad Jamil, Photographs: with Mariam, Ramisa, Yumna & Monayya

Architect Murad JamilFor more than a year of shying away from the very kind offer of A+I to publish my house in their magazine, I finally conceded. I have put together this photo essay, which is a peek into my mind, narrating how I perceived and designed my house as an architect.

Why I contemplated for so long about publishing my house, while my professional work has indeed gone in print in the past, is because in all honesty I really did not consider my house magazine-worthy and even if it were, I would hold it back because of my private nature before sharing such personal facets in print.

I have avoided divulging any technical details or data relating to the location, size, square footage, interior themes, etc. and shown only glimpses of these aspects to maintain a focus on the concept of the house and the area that surrounds it.

As the title suggests, this house is named ‘Mishkat Al-Anwar’ from a Quranic verse known as the “Light” verse which has had a tremendous impact on my thinking in interpreting parables, especially in relation to one’s connection with the Higher Being.

For centuries, several scholars have tried to interpret this verse in various different ways and one such interpretation, which became the source of my imagination in naming this house, is the treatise by Abu Hamid Ghazali, namely “The Niche of Lights (Mishkat Al-Anwar).

This verse is the most spiritual metaphor I have ever come across that connects one’s inner self with the divine cosmic awareness. Here I have made a humble attempt to interpret the design of my house through this verse.

The verse reads like this:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within a glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things. (24:35).

Spirituality is a universal phenomenon, without being confined to religion, race, culture or class. Spirituality in architecture can be characterized by an enhanced state of mind with which one can perceive the environment beyond one’s consciousness. These perceptions vary in nature according to a person’s imagination, intuition, intellect or a moment of transcendence in space and time.

For me, my house went through a series of moments which have led me to perceive it spiritually. One such moment was when my mother, who is extremely frail in her physical condition yet exceedingly high in spirit, visited us from Karachi recently and blessed this house by installing the plaque “Mishkat Al-Anwar” (Niche of Lights) at the gate with her own hands. This was the most revered moment for this house. This suddenly completed our house. For us, this has made our house “The Niche of Lights”.

In 2002, after having lived at various locations in Islamabad, we finally rented this house, primarily for the green woods which came as an added advantage, beyond the domain of the house. Proximity to my architecture practice also played an important role in its selection, which allowed me to spend more time with the family. These two factors compensated for this 35 year old, worn out structure which was in dire need of major transformation. In 2010 we acquired this house and went about doing what we always thought it had the potential for.

We took apart some fifty percent of the old house both from the inside and outside and put it up as quickly as possible to avoid disrupting the family routine, especially the children’s education. A fast track schedule, which required close coordination of design and construction, resulted in many pleasant surprises, even with details meticulously planned and my wife on board with all the decisions.

Ghazali’s interpretation of the “Light Verse” continued to be my driving source of inspiration while I designed this house. As complex as this concept is to digest on its own, translating it architecturally is an even greater challenge for fear of being misunderstood. In this article I have shared my own humble interpretation of this parable in architecture.

Ghazali explains this verse by saying that the five elements mentioned in this verse, can broadly be related to the five perceptual faculties of human beings. He further explains these faculties in the following manner:

  • NICHE as the Sensory Faculty; Takes in the information brought in by senses.
  • GLASS as the Imaginative Faculty; Records the information, and presents it to the reflective faculty, when required.
  • LAMP as the Reflective Faculty; Apprehends ideas beyond sense and imagination.
  • TREE as the Rational Faculty; Deduces abstract knowledge from pure reason.
  • OIL as the Prophetic Faculty; Prophets/Righteous People through which the knowledge of mystery/guidance is transferred.

Architecturally speaking, the literal sense of the word ‘Niche’ has its own functionality as a supporting and enhancing feature. These physical characteristics of a ‘Niche’ are felt in the site as a whole, which contains the house, that would in this metaphor translate as a ‘Lamp’. The site is amassed in natural landscape and has the ability to enthrall one’s senses, just as the ‘Sensory Faculty’ would.

One can find the landscape, the foliage and the greens are like physical barriers that permit a visual continuity, just like the ‘Glass.’ And like the ‘Imaginative Faculty,’ foliage on the site subtly shares the passage of time in terms of seasons and growth. The green narrates stories about those that have passed and those that are present. It presents signs to those willing to perceive.

With the site like a ‘Niche,’ the house sits in its midst as a ‘Lamp,’ that sits in the niche and illuminates what is around it. As a Reflective Faculty it questions beyond a natural progression, the complementing interference of man in nature.

The ‘Tree,’ in its physical attributes connotes to being firmly rooted, yet touching the skies. Where it is restricted in verticality, it branches out and spreads providing shelter and shade around it. As such it retains the ‘Rational Faculty,’ protecting what is near it in its shade.

The ‘Oil,’ in its natural form is ever flowing and supports the functionality of other things. It is the igniting inspiration and also the lubricant that eases function. In its ‘Prophetic Faculty,’ it is like the people who add life to that space. Their movement lets them affect the space they inhabit. People with their own characteristics foresee a change in spirit of the space, which comes with their own auras and perceptions.

You can feel these faculties further stimulated through Light, Form, Materials and the Landscape that surround them. Occupants find themselves constantly dealing with a greater sensation and perception beyond mere physicalities, thus being constantly reminded of their role as a participant in a greater realm of aesthetics and creativity.

On arrival at the gate, the visitor is immediately able to see past the limestone clad niches and masses, and experience a welcoming feeling of warmth through the integration of spaces with the exterior. The space starts to transcend from here. There is continuity in sight and thoughts of the partially hidden landscape that is looming in the background. This invokes in you the curiosity to go there to experience that space first hand, and to feel the landscape of what were once green woods.

When you look at the house, which is partially hidden by the two old araucaria trees, it will strike you as simplistic in style and I would not assign any architectural language to it either. What I want to share here is that the reader should be able to see this house in a sublime manner as designing it and experiencing it has become a journey of harmony and discovery for us.

The layout of the house is such that while it gives privacy to all built areas, yet there is a lot of breathing space to make it a contemplative environment. The spaces are organized along the cardinal axis. The house looks outwards mostly toward North and East with views capturing a clear glimpse of the Margalla mountains and the sunrise. The West side of the house has a lot fenestration by way of numerous trees from other houses and climatic factors.

As you enter the house, the verandah plays an intermediary role between the house and the greens around it, predicting a guest and letting them into the house even before they actually step in. In a similar role, the small terraces on all corners of the house provide a strong connection to the outdoors, letting imagination flow freely, without any restrictions.

There is a natural division of order in the layout. The interconnected spaces are designed so that they do not become a barrier and one keeps going beyond in their imagination and perception even if they were to stand still. Particular attention was paid to the unity of spaces so that you don’t feel a sense of fragmentation in the house. This creates a sense of oneness resulting in complete harmony as you physically move about from one area to another.

Since the internal walls are also unified in their colour, the change of space is hinted subtly in the change of floor material, where wood links with stone, just as a subtle directive to the inhabitant moving between spaces. Even the doors, with their sheer glass, do not limit a space or disconnect it with the rest of the house. The altering levels of formality induced by this hinting of floor material advises the inhabitant rationally, keeping alert the faculties of the mind.

The selection of materials for the house has also been along the same conceptual lines. This sanguine shade of limestone depicts the passage of time in its shading at various times of the day, harking to the colours of the sunrise and the sunset. A natural maturity through weathering and our input with the landscape over time has permited the house to merge in with nature. Solid masses are interjected with pergolas and trellises to keep continuity with the exterior yet giving privacy and shade to the interior.

For one willing to perceive it as such, Ghazali’s five elements relating to the ‘Light Verse,’ felt both in the indoor and the outdoor spaces, are a reminder of God’s grand scheme of design for our Universe. Upon stretching your imagination further, this “Niche of Lights” can also be interpreted as the human heart and soul.

I am not going to say that I have put the entire extract of all my skills as people do when they make their own homes, but it has been an honest exercise in that moment which makes this house a journey of discovery and contemplation for us, with our doors wide open for friends and family.

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