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Reviving Kabul: Notes on the Restoration and Adaptation of the Great Serai

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The Great Serai is a historic property located in Murad Khane in the old town of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. Dating back to the 1880s, the building was constructed using locally available materials and techniques. As one of the largest surviving properties of its kind in Kabul, the Great Serai is acknowledged as an important example of traditional vernacular Afghan architecture. From March 2007 to October 2010 Turquoise Mountain, a not-for-profit organization with a remit to preserve and protect Afghanistan's cultural heritage, restored and adapted the Great Serai for use as a calligraphy school and administration centre by the Institute of Afghan Arts and Architecture. From January 2009 to September 2010, I was employed to manage this work.

Focusing on the practicalities of construction in post-conflict Afghanistan, these notes begin by outlining the historical, contractual and regulatory context within which the project was carried out. This article explores the trials entailed in working in an unsettled zone without an established legal framework, proper records or planning regulations and building codes. A description of the process and philosophy that guided the design and construction work then follows, exploring the intent to preserve the authentic character of the building while updating it for contemporary usage. The final section offers a critical overview of lessons learned before concluding with a personal reflection on the 'value' of the building, both as a heritage asset and looking forward, a place of study, learning and creativity.

Keywords: Afghanistan; The Great Serai; creative re-use; heritage preservation; post-conflict; urban regeneration; vernacular architecture

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Architect/Director, Founded BBE Limited

Publication date: August 17, 2012

More about this publication?
  • The International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA) is intended for those interested in urban design and planning, architecture, and landscape design in the historic Islamic world, encompassing the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, but also the more recent geographies of Islam in its global dimensions. The main emphasis is on detailed analysis of the practical, historical and theoretical aspects of architecture, with a focus on both design and its reception. The journal is also specifically interested in contemporary architecture and urban design in relation to social and cultural history, geography, politics, aesthetics, technology, and conservation. Spanning across cultures and disciplines, IJIA seeks to analyze and explain issues related to the built environment throughout the regions covered. The cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of this journal will significantly contribute to the knowledge in this field.
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