XQs XXXI - A Conversation with Faiza Moatasim

Posted by sepoy on December 21, 2023 · 35 mins read

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Sangeeta Banerji for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous thirty XQs.

FM Book Cover

Faiza Moatasim is Assistant Professor of Architecture in Urbanism and Urban Design at the USC School of Architecture. Her first book, Master Plans and Encroachments: The Architecture of Informality in Islamabad was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2023. She specializes in history and theory of architecture and urban design, modern colonial and post-colonial architecture and urbanism, low-income housing and urban informality. Moatasim’s research explores how the agency of individuals and communities in shaping their built environments is integral to our understanding of the planning, functioning, and everyday lived experiences of cities everywhere. Her research has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, Graham Foundation, American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Mellon Foundation, International Institute for Asian Studies, Teagle Foundation and Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies.

Q. In this fascinating book you present a nuanced distinction between the imagination of “entopia” that the Greek architect and city planner Constantinos A. Doxiadis had for the city of Islamabad and the visions of “utopia” held by other modernist architect-planners of the time such as Le Corbusier who designed the city of Chandigarh in India. While the modernist lineage of his vision and the contradictions within it are beautifully elaborated in the first chapter of this book, can you speak to the particular political economic moment in which these modernist architect-planners and their grand visions for urban development are emerging within prominent centers of the Global South?

As an ideology, high modernism is rooted in the conviction that scientific rationality and technological progress can improve social and natural worlds. High-modernist cities are imagined to be highly efficiency because of their simplified organization and reliance on technology. They typically feature a rational geometric grid of repetitive neighborhoods, a strict separation of functions in clearly defined zones, expansive green spaces, and an automobile dependent transportation system.

It is no coincidence that the most ambitious and thorough examples of twentieth century high-modernist architecture and urban design are found in emerging economies and post-colonial nation states like Brazil, India, and Pakistan. The ruling elites of these nations invested in expensive city building projects in the post-World War II era to fulfill their political and economic agendas. By representing experimentation and innovation, these cities were intended to help their nations project an image of a modernized present and prosperous future. Building new political centers held symbolic significance in the newly independent nation states of Pakistan and India, which had lost important political centers to each other because of the 1947 Partition of British India. Western modernist architects enthusiastically accepted design commissions in the so-called global South because they offered unique design opportunities that were not available in Europe or North America at the time. High modernism thus emerged as the dominant planning and design ideology across diverse contexts because it aligned so well with the political and economic visions of progress, development, and modernization of the ruling elites and the ambitions of design professionals at the time.

Master plan of the Capital Territory. Source: Capital Development Authority Planning Wing, Maps and Records Unit, Islamabad.
Master plan of the Capital Territory. Source: Capital Development Authority Planning Wing, Maps and Records Unit, Islamabad.

Q: Given that one of Doxiadis’s guiding principles was that “time and not space as [are] the real dimension of the cities,” and that his ideal city would develop in a “predetermined one directional path” – how do you think would he react to the “living document” that is the masterplan of Islamabad today?

Getting commissioned to design a building or a city is a deeply personal experience for architects; it is a test of their creativity and innovative thinking. If I could take the liberty to overgeneralize, then I would say that most architects like to have complete control over their design projects. Even though many other people eventually occupy their designed environments, architects see themselves as the primary decision-makers of the creative design process. For these reasons, I think that it becomes very challenging for architects to leave major design decisions to other people or to chance.

I think Doxiadis would not entirely appreciate the evolution of his master plan as a “living document,” because while he left room in his design for the city to develop over time, he was careful about identifying the pattern (the sector) and the direction (southwest) in which the city would grow (i.e., “predetermined one directional path”). While he anticipated Islamabad’s growth, I think he would not appreciate a deviation from his prescribed form and direction of future growth. The concept of the master plan as a living document is about growth but it is also about competing interests and negotiations of different types of people in Islamabad. All these factors lead to constant revisions to the overall planning framework and urban forms by multiple authors. This mode of planning is very different to conventional design practice that very much revolves around the creative genius of the principal architect.

Q: One of the central arguments in your work is that “informality is an orientation to law, rather than an absence of it.” You argue that both the encroacher and the planner negotiate to come to an understanding that is either temporary or long-term, but never really permanent. Yet, the Bheka Syedan case in the first chapter seems to point to an instance where the Capital Development authority (CDA) reneged on the terms of the land acquisitions deal with the residents of one of the villages in the planning area of Islamabad and operated within what Ananya Roy (2009) has called a “state of deregulation” a mode of urbanization that allows the “state considerable territorialized flexibility to alter land use, deploy eminent domain, and to acquire land.” How can we think of this violent tendency of the planning authority to privilege the interests of some over that of the poor? Can the poor really negotiate for a permanence with the planning authority?

Violence of the state in dispossessing communities of their land in developmental projects must not be underestimated. To answer your second question directly, I do not think that underprivileged people living in highly regulated cities can fairly negotiate with their powerful planning authorities. The point that I make in the book is that despite all the power that state authorities wield, I have observed how low-income communities sometimes successfully negotiate their right to space by relying on various modes of informality, particularly temporariness. Temporariness has an effect of tolerance. Occupying land on a temporary basis is a survival strategy that allows builders of informal spaces to claim land, often for long periods of time. Temporary modes of informality do not mean that the constructions or claims are fragile or fleeting. They are a part of a discourse and practice that makes it acceptable for transgressions as long as they are imagined to be temporary.

But returning to your example of the violence and dispossession of property experienced by the people in Bheka Syedan as well as the many evicted katchi abadis in Islamabad, we can see a correlation with what Ananya Roy has described as the state wielding its power to deregulate territories and dispossess communities. However, while the state is fully capable of abusing the power of laws that it helps define, state power is never absolute. It is this tension that shapes my understanding of the relationship between informality and the law. I am interested in how deregulation and eminent domain policies often unleash a new set of challenges for powerful state actors.

For instance, even when CDA acquires land through eminent domain, it does so under its own terms and conditions. Usually the payment to each household for both undeveloped land and the built-up property that exists on that land varies. When CDA announces its decision to acquire places like Bheka Syedan and other existing rural communities, some residents and speculators (often with the help of CDA staff) immediately start building new structures (referred to as “dummy” houses) so that they can claim more built-up property. By taking inspiration from the law, speculative builders undermine the forceful land acquisition process. There are examples of both acquired and unacquired villages in Islamabad that negotiated more successfully with CDA because of similar tactics. These practices can sometimes delay or stall developmental projects because CDA doesn’t have the ability to pay for all the built-up property under its own laws. Of course, not everyone impacted by forced acquisitions participate in such tactics, and unfortunately, many small landowners are forced out of their ancestral villages as a result of CDA’s acquisition process. While it is difficult to imagine fair negotiations between two unequal groups: powerful corporate bodies like the CDA, on one side, and small communities of low-income people living in existing villages or informal katchi abadis, on the other, this does not mean that state planning authorities cannot be forced to tolerate or negotiate with low-income builders whose actions are oriented towards CDA’s laws.

Q: In the chapter on “Ordinary Informality” in your book, you present an incredible history of France Colony, an informal settlement inhabited by construction workers, settled by the planning authority, within an area that is marked as a greenbelt on the masterplan of Islamabad. It is an excellent example of how spatial non conformity is essential to the development of the city space. However, you also tell us how the original plan of Doxiadis had accounted for the provisioning of low-income housing for these very workers. Why do you think the CDA saw fit to not adhere to its promise of providing public housing for its workers? Can you speak more to the practices of squatting in these spaces and the minority status of the residents? Who and how do you believe such instances of “authorized transgressions” benefit?

During my research at the Doxiadis Archives (in Athens), I came across reports and correspondence that showed how Doxiadis shared with CDA officials, designs and locations of housing for low-income workers like sweepers and laborers. In his correspondence, Doxiadis also warned CDA officials about how in the other modernist capital cities of Brasilia (Brazil) and Chandigarh (India), housing for low-income workers had not been built as part of the official master plan. Consequently, low-income workers ended up living in informally built communities, often outside of the master planned areas.

The discovery of Doxiadis Associates’ unrealized plans for workers’ housing at the archives helped me disrupt one of the major narratives around the emergence of low-income informal communities in high-modernist cities like Chandigarh and Brasilia. According to this narrative, self-built communities (i.e., informality) first emerged in high-modernist cities to house essential workers, whose housing needs had been overlooked by modern architects and planners. But in Islamabad, low-income informal neighborhoods developed because CDA officials did not follow Doxiadis’s recommendations for building low-income housing. But while CDA officials ignored Doxiadis’s proposal, they could not completely ignore the shelter needs of low-income city workers.

CDA officials address the housing needs of its essential workers by identifying locations according to the master plan where the workers could build their own communities. The official location of these authorized informal settlements in green areas next to nalas (ravines) that exist naturally all over the city and where CDA’s Christian sanitation workers live in self-built dwellings in the middle of elite master planned sectors. France Colony presents a rare example of a minority yet functionally important community benefitting from an authorized transgression in the middle of a highly regulated city. While it may seem like the residents of France Colony benefit from this official allowance, the actual beneficiaries of these authorized transgressions are people who live outside of France Colony and who depend on the labor of its residents to clean their city and maintain their comfortable lifestyles. City officials, instead of providing proper housing to its workers, ended up setting up and facilitating the process of self-built informal housing in a comprehensively planned city.

Layout plan of sector F-7. France Colony is shown in gray in subsector F-7/4. Source: Layout plan of sector F-7, Capital Development Authority Planning Wing, Maps and Records Unit, Islamabad.
Layout plan of sector F-7. France Colony is shown in gray in subsector F-7/4. Source: Layout plan of sector F-7, Capital Development Authority Planning Wing, Maps and Records Unit, Islamabad.

Q: Mr. Ahmed and his conflicts with the people of France colony are the kind that are witnessed in other cities of the Global South where affluence and abjection must live in close proximity. He arguable suggests that the “moral failings” and “lack of purity” of the residents of France colony are reasons for their own abjection. Can you please tell us more about the socio-economic (caste/class) background of Mr. Ahmed and similar residents in the vicinity of France colony and their understanding of the labor contributed by their neighbors (residents of France Colony) in producing the city?

Upper class people like Mr Ahmed who own houses in areas around low-income self-built communities like France Colony behave the same way as NIMBYs behave elsewhere. In Islamabad, differences in religion in addition to economic status contribute towards the segregation and stigmatization of people living in low-income informal communities like France Colony. During his interview, Mr Ahmed mentioned that the earlier settlers of France Colony were honest hardworking people but now they have been replaced by drug dealers, criminals, and prostitutes. I suspect that as France Colony grew in size, and received official recognition over time, people like Mr Ahmed started to feel more resentful about the intrusion of a low-income Christian minority community asserting its presence in a predominantly elite Muslim neighborhood.

It is important to emphasize that most low-income Christians living in places like France Colony engage in necessary yet polluting and undesirable work. Based on economic and religious discrimination, low-income Christians find their employment options limited to sweepers, garbage collectors, and sewer cleaners. They are underpaid and work without any protective equipment and are treated with scorn because of the supposedly unsanitary nature of their work. Keeping in line with the discrimination, danger, and humiliation they face at work, low-income Christians in Pakistan (and other countries in South Asia) mostly have no choice but to live in religiously homogenous, and therefore segregated, village communities and informal urban settlements.

While functional necessity ensures that France Colony is tolerated at the official level, it is not enough to pacify the resentment of elite neighbors towards the residents of France Colony. While the elites in Islamabad need poor people to clean their homes and make tea for them in their offices, they do not wish for their low-level staff and servants to be their neighbors. It is expected that low-level city workers, like sweepers, gardeners, and domestic help, work in the city but reside outside of it, spending hours commuting each day to their places of work. For high income Muslim elites in Islamabad, the rightful place of these workers performing essential, yet polluting jobs is outside the city.

Q: The modalities of property transactions that you describe in France colony through the examples of Baji Perveen, Zara, Fahima, Saima, and Shaheena is fascinating. Their experiences and stories reveal so much about kinship and property within the informal settlement. I was however struck by the similarity of “mimicking procedure” by the elite “housewife” Mrs Nabila Sheikh and these women within informal settlements. It is almost by repeating some bureaucratic utterances and practices these women were able to conjure property. Is there a conscious decision in choosing these women as your entry points into this imagined property scape? Do you think gender relations play a role in the manipulation and creations of property relations within the planning regimes of Islamabad?

The so-called “house-wives” play an integral role in informal residential property regimes and bureaucratic procedures in Islamabad. When I did most of the research for this book project, I wasn’t as attentive to gender and property relations as I could have been. During my interviews of home builders in France Colony and Bani Gala, I repeatedly encountered strong women who were deeply invested in building homes for themselves and their families, and navigating bureaucratic procedures and property transactions, using informal means. I realized that this was not a coincidence when I started writing my doctoral dissertation, on which this book is based.

Even though the protagonists of my book belong to different socio-economic backgrounds and literacy levels, their homes were their primary area of concern and responsibility. And this is in keeping with the socially prescribed gender roles in places like South Asia where the home is the woman’s principal domain. But the women protagonists in my book were not simply figurative homemakers; they were the actual makers of their residential properties, including how they get built and transacted. The women I met figured out where and how to buy or sell property, how to add a room so that it could be rented for additional income, how to get water or electricity for their homes and neighborhoods, how to respond to government letters and notices, how to protest city officials and actions, all while maintaining their obligations of care at home.

Q: You move through a variety of spaces while analyzing the informalities within the master plan of Islamabad. First, we encounter the model villages and the Katchi Abadis, then we meet the khokas or the stalls of the street vendors, France colony and the neighborhood surrounding it, the very elite neighborhood of Bani Gala, other elite spaces such as salons within residential areas and also some of the unbuilt sectors around the lake. How did you choose these locations? Can you speak more to the methodological choices involved in choosing these locations and actors for analysis

The quintessential spaces of informality like katchi abadis and khokhas were easy to identify because of my long-term association with the city. I knew how there were these spaces like informal settlements and roadside kiosks and cafes that contradicted the pristine image of Islamabad as a modern, beautiful capital city. I selected France Colony because it is one of the iconic katchi abadis in Islamabad, because of its prominent and visible location next to a popular commercial market in the middle of an elite sector.

At the time I was doing my research, there were two well publicized court cases about large mansions (called “farmhouses”) built on land officially designated for farming purpose, and the unlawful lease of a public park for a privately owned and operated mini golf. Because of these high-profile cases, I became interested in the trend of elite-driven illegal constructions, which were the norm at the time of my research. Things have changed a lot now but at the time, it was nearly impossible to avoid a non-conforming business operating from a building designed as a house. From the dentist’s office to a hair salon, clothing boutique, gym, or a cafe, large houses were used for unauthorized functions. Non-conforming, informal activities were prevalent all over the city so identifying places to study wasn’t difficult. Based on these experiences and observations, it became apparent to me that in order to study informality in Islamabad, it was important to study both its high- and low- forms.

Because most of the spaces I examine in this book are legally contentious, it was often not very easy to speak to people involved in making different types of elite and ordinary informal spaces. I interviewed roadside khokha owners, residents of a katchi abadi, low- and high-ranking government officials, wealthy homeowners and businesspeople, store managers, architects, real estate agents, political activists, and NGO workers. Most people were very generous with their time and insights. Residents of France Colony were always gracious in sharing their stories with me whenever I showed up in their neighborhood. But they exercised caution while describing their dealings with the state. I gained access to my interlocutors for the elite informal neighborhood of Bani Gala, through friends and colleagues. The level of response from people in many ways correlated with how secure they felt in the informal spaces that they occupied in the city: residents of Bani Gala and France Colony were relatively more comfortable with sharing how they built their homes; builders of roadside kiosks and elite non-conforming stores were less so.

Lake-front residences in the protected nature reserve. Photograph by author.
Lake-front residences in the protected nature reserve. Photograph by author.
Dwellings next to the open nala (drain) in France Colony. Photograph by author.
Dwellings next to the open nala (drain) in France Colony. Photograph by author.

Q: You argue that the official concessions for some of the temporariness for informal commercial and vending uses of space in Islamabad is written into the municipal bye-laws which results in inconsistencies between the CDA’s planning process and the city planning practices of the municipality. Can you speak a bit more to the specific regulations through which the municipal bye-laws codify temporariness? What role do you think institutional differences between the CDA and the local municipal authority play in ensuring such slippages?

In Islamabad, CDA is a powerful corporate body in charge of both its planning and management. All municipal administration comes under a CDA department called DMA (Municipal Administration Directorate), so the discrepancy between the master plan and municipal regulations can be explained as a function of reconciling differences between an imagined ideal and lived reality, between bureaucratic planning systems and pressing global challenges such as urban poverty and lack of resources.

While CDA officials have the difficult task to maintain the impression of Islamabad as a highly planned city, they are also responsible for managing the large number of underprivileged people who live and work informally in the city. Temporariness emerges as an important strategy for city officials to make room for spaces of informality in Islamabad. For instance, to manage street vending in a modernist city where street commerce has no place, concessions are written in existing bye-laws to allow “encroachments,” defined as erecting “an immovable structure, hut or khokha or overhanging structure” on government land. According to these bye-laws, street hawking is one of the licensable trades and hawkers can be issued “temporary” monthly licenses that be revoked on a short notice can be issue. The material characteristics of “licensed encroachments” contribute to the logic of temporariness, as the stalls for which these licenses can be issued are characterized in the bylaws as “roofless” and “movable” structures that can be easily removed. It is the discrepancy between the bye-laws and the master plan that tolerates spaces of informality in the city.

Street vendors on a sidewalk next to a commercial area. Photograph by author.
Street vendors on a sidewalk next to a commercial area. Photograph by author.

Q: In the penultimate chapter on the making of non-conforming spaces within the elite neighborhoods of Islamabad, you describe a series of negotiations in creating such space that one of the transgressors describes as “chote motey masle (little issues)” which in reality are anything but little. How do these issues get resolved? Do they only involve the establishment of paper truths or are there some more material surveillance mechanisms that need to be adhered with? Can you speak more to the system of negotiations that you allude to in regularization of non-conforming uses in this chapter?

Building-control officers at CDA maintain sector-wise lists of non-conforming uses in elite residential buildings in Islamabad. The purpose of this detailed record-keeping is not to deter the practice of using large houses for commercial functions, but to use these lists to send notices of violation to their owners. The owners of non-conforming businesses respond to these notices in a number of ways: they give bribes and use their political connections with powerful people to avoid getting their businesses sealed. Another common practice at the time of my research was to get a court stay order against CDA’s legal notices and actions. In terms of material surveillance practices, owners of elite non-conforming uses in existing or new large houses carefully maintain the appearance of these buildings as houses. Many owners of home-offices (where owners live in one part of the house and run their businesses in the other part like beauty salons and architectural firms) do not display any signs of their businesses on the outside.

The regularization of non-conforming elite residences in the protected nature reserve was based on judicial mechanisms that mediated between an official planning framework and personal property rights. A series of court rulings in favor of non-conforming elite residences in 1998 and 2007 exposed a tension between planning rules and regulations and the rights of non-conforming property owners. Both these cases featured elite homebuilders who have built large mansions in Islamabad’s protected nature reserve called the National Park (Zone IV).

In 1998, a judge upheld the constitutional rights of the elite homebuilders who had built in the protected National Park area and declared CDA’s actions of placing restrictions on the use of privately owned land as illegal. The 2007 court decision declared existing bylaws for National Park unjust and without legal force because they restricted the use of privately owned land only for agricultural purposes. These court decisions upheld the proprietary rights of landowners who had violated the master plan by building their lavish homes on their legally owned properties. Elite homeowners made substantial material investments on land that they bought at throw away rates from local villages to build their lavish homes in violation of the master plan. These legal decisions and material investments have made it impossible for CDA to free protected land from elite encroachments and instituted major structural changes to the master plan and zoning laws in Islamabad.

Google Earth images (from 2009 and 2021) show the transformation of a part of the National Park area from an agricultural farmland into a modern residential community.
Google Earth images (from 2009 and 2021) show the transformation of a part of the National Park area from an agricultural farmland into a modern residential community.

Q: How did you get interested in instances of informality within the modernist master planning processes of Islamabad? Can you speak to the process of researching for your dissertation and then the process of transforming the dissertation into a book?

I grew up in nearby cities, so I would often visit Islamabad either on family vacations or school trips. Certain impressions of the city from these visits sparked my fascination with its distinct urban form and experience. For example, I came to know Islamabad as clean, green, and an elite city. I also noticed pockets of extreme destitution in the form of self-built informal communities in the middle of very wealthy neighborhoods. I first became interested in informality as topic of research during my undergraduate studies in Pakistan. For my final Bachelor of Architecture thesis, I researched and proposed an upgrading plan for a large (and now evicted) katchi abadi in sector I-11/4 (Haq Bahu) in Islamabad. These early informal and formal understandings of Islamabad as a highly planned and unequal city led me to my PhD research project, which formed the basis of this book.

The process of turning my dissertation into a book was long but enjoyable. It involved figuring out how to communicate the main contributions of the project along with its various details and evidence in an engaging and intelligent (and not clunky) manner, so that it would appeal to a wider audience. Because I was dealing with disparate, messy, and contingent urban processes, it was important to identify a clear overarching framework to organize my research. My thinking and writing got clarity over time, as I became comfortable with my own work and its contributions by writing journal articles and a book precis, presenting at conferences, and organizing a book manuscript workshop. These writing exercises and engagements helped me develop the framing of the project along the lines of elite and ordinary encroachments and their orientation towards the master plan and zoning regulations.


Sangeeta Banerji is the Assistant Professor of Human Geography at the New York University in Shanghai. She works at the intersection of anthropology of the state, Urban Geography and Development Studies and is broadly interested in the politics of informality within megacity regions.