Documentary film and animation makers attended the 11th Istanbul International Architecture and Urban Films Festival, where many architects' works were showcased. TRT World spoke to Mahera Omar from Pakistan and Atom Saskal from Turkey.

Mahera Omar's film on Perween Rahman won second prize at this year's architecture festival.
Mahera Omar's film on Perween Rahman won second prize at this year's architecture festival. (Courtesy of Mahera Omar / TRTWorld)

In his Pritzker Prize ceremony speech in 1989, famed architect Frank Gehry said architects “believe in [architecture’s] potential to make a difference, to enlighten and to enrich the human experience, to penetrate the barriers of misunderstanding and provide a beautiful context for life's drama."

City planner and architect Perween Rahman was murdered by gunmen in Karachi in 2013 at the age of 56.
City planner and architect Perween Rahman was murdered by gunmen in Karachi in 2013 at the age of 56. (Courtesy of Mahera Omar / TRTWorld)

Gehry may as well have been talking about Perween Rahman, an architect who chose to help the underprivileged until her dying day rather than erect buildings as part of an architectural office.

The documentary Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist has just won second place in an architecture film festival in Istanbul, Turkey. It sheds light on her life’s work with interviews of her friends and family reminiscing about the departed activist.

Rahman was murdered on March 13, 2013. She has left behind her legacy in the slums of Karachi, Pakistan. Many believe the motive behind her murder was her constant struggle to protect the poor, which pitted her against the mafia and corrupt officers in the government.

After receiving her postgraduate diploma in housing, building and urban planning in the 1980s, Rahman set out to work with low-income migrants who lived in dismal conditions. She helped develop sanitation solutions for Karachi’s slums, as well as creating neighbourly relations among residents who worked in groups to lay down sewage pipes when there were none.

A gardener in the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), Rehman Baba, laments Rahman’s death by calling her “an awesome director” who had asked him to plant vegetables. Rehman Baba smiles wryly as he notes that “This year we have vegetables in the garden, but she’s not here to see them.”

In the film, Rahman herself says the goal of OPP is “to come up with our own solutions, using our own resources and not of others.” Urban planner Arif Hasan notes that Rahman had rejected funding from USAID, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, to name a few, but that she was a willing consultant who would provide guidance and criticism.

Rahman explains her strategy simply as to prevent Pakistan from falling into a vicious cycle of poverty. “We keep piling on debt,” she says in the film, “and no work gets done. Our model provides an alternative solution.”

A part of her alternative solution lies in mapping out slum territories, initially by hand, then in later years, with Google Maps, in order to establish residents’ existence in lands that appear empty or are not up-to-date in government maps.

She laughs when talking about mapping settlements so the government would put aside plans to raze them. “Fait accompli,” she smiles. Since there are too many residents to evict, “you might as well give land title.”

Rahman is also seen helping youth who couldn’t further their education beyond the 10th grade by establishing youth resource centres that offer English language classes and forums to get together and provide emotional support to one another. Otherwise, she notes in the film, the youth “either get depressed or very angry.” The depressed find some unfulfilling job to make ends meet, while the angry risk being recruited by terrorist groups.

Director Mahera Omar says she was drawn to Perween Rahman’s story “because she was doing a lot of good work for the poor of Pakistan.
Director Mahera Omar says she was drawn to Perween Rahman’s story “because she was doing a lot of good work for the poor of Pakistan." (Courtesy of Mahera Omar / TRTWorld)

The documentary filmmaker Mahera Omar says even after Rahman’s death, her team continues undeterred to carry out the humanitarian work initiated by the architect. “[Rahman’s death] is a great loss for them, a great loss for the people of Orangi, for the people of Pakistan.” she says.

“But [Rahman’s] work is spreading, and the model [she and the Orangi Pilot Project colleagues] developed of sanitation and housing, has been replicated in many other villages and towns of Pakistan,” she solemnly smiles. “I think [Rahman has] left behind a really special legacy.”

The festival also features a film by Atom Saskal, a 21-year old Armenian-Turkish director. The Man Who Can’t Get Enough of Architecture introduces audiences to Nisan Yaubyan, a humble architect in his late eighties. Saskal is currently a university student, but his award-winning documentary far surpasses the average student film.

Yaubyan, an elderly Armenian-Turkish architect, is known for his modernist buildings. Some of his buildings have withstood the test of time, while others were torn down decades after they were erected, despite some being fully functional.

A graduate of the Istanbul Technical University, Yaubyan looks into the camera with smiling eyes. As a kid, he says, he thought he’d become an engineer, until an engineer friend of the family asked probing questions about his plans and exclaimed “You want to be an architect!”

The 89-year-old Nisan Yaubyan has been an architect for 64 years.
The 89-year-old Nisan Yaubyan has been an architect for 64 years. (Courtesy of Atom Saskal / TRTWorld)

As a young graduate of limited means, Yaubyan is invited by a colleague to pursue a master’s degree at Michigan University on a scholarship. He then ends up working for Eero Saarinen, famous for his TWA terminal at New York’s JFK Airport.

Saarinen’s death in 1961 sees the office move to the east coast, so Yaubyan, preferring to remain in Michigan, starts working for Minoru Yamasaki, even contributing to the plans for New York’s famed World Trade Center which was first being designed in the fifties by Yamasaki’s office.

On his eventual return to Istanbul, Turkey, Yaubyan sets up an office with colleagues and wins many private and public projects. In later years, he becomes a university teacher: Yaubyan’s students describe him as a dedicated, soft-spoken master whose evident love for architecture spurred them on, too.

His friends say Yaubyan is a fine example of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s adage “God is in the details”, Yaubyan, they say, approaches design as a holistic exercise. Yaubyan himself talks of “solving the problem” by making architecture people-friendly before focusing on the finer aspects.

Yaubyan tells TRT World that even though they never met or spoke, legendary architect and teacher Mies is his true guide, a world-famous architect who has laid the path for Yaubyan to follow.

Yaubyan says his approach to architecture, like Mies, is simplicity, and being straightforward. He says he has tried to steer clear of ornamentation, and that he subscribes to Mies’ dictum “Less is more.”

Young director Atom Saskal is a student at Koc University’s Media and Visual Arts Department.
Young director Atom Saskal is a student at Koc University’s Media and Visual Arts Department. (Courtesy of Atom Saskal / TRTWorld)

The director Atom Saskal says he was invited by HAYCAR, the Association of Armenian Architects and Engineers [in Turkey], to shoot a documentary about Yaubyan, and says he felt honoured to introduce a lesser known yet significant master to the public.

“[Yaubyan] has constantly tried to bring a new, modernist outlook with his buildings,” Saskal says. “And I find it a great necessity for Turkish architects and the younger generation to know about him, a treasure trove [of historical proportions].”

Source: TRT World