Zain Mustafa is an architect and interior designer with a passion for animal rights and the rights of the neglected city of Karachi and its rich herit
Zain Mustafa is an architect and interior designer with a passion for animal rights and the rights of the neglected city of Karachi and its rich heritage. Mustafa has lived and worked in various parts of the world during his illustrious career, including Europe, Asia and North America, settling in Dubai in 2003 before moving back to his childhood home in Karachi in 2010. It was perhaps his apparent patriotism and desire to make a change that fuelled this decision, and many of the initiatives he has undertaken ever since stand as a testament to that, including his brainchild CUBE School of Design, the edu-tours and the project to redesign the Karachi Zoo. He believes that our cultural heritage is largely ignored when it comes to design inspiration and our youth needs to realign its references and break from the mainstream Western ideology for a more unique approach to design.
Mustafa gained a Bachelor’s degree from Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, New York and a Master’s in New Technologies in (architectural) Education from Columbia University. He has worked on various international projects with an interdisciplinary approach spanning academia, fashion design, art installations, publishing, corporate communications, web design and interior design before setting up his own architecture and interior design firm, ZM Design Studio, which he still heads in Karachi. His approach to design focuses on creating experiences rather than spaces, working with a sound understanding of geographical and historical context, as well as the character essence of the individual the design is meant for. “I need to smell it, sense it… I need to visit the site to be able to create an experience for you. I need to talk to you to learn a little about your life. Only then will a coherent picture emerge of two scents – one of you and the other of your space. Together, these help me design,” he tells Carolina D’Souza of the Gulf News (2010). The result is a rejection of the mechanical, copy-paste approach that worships Western methodologies, in favour of a more creative and emotive process, drawing inspiration from eclectic sources while remaining rooted in the local culture and resources. He believes that before looking outside for inspiration, we need to look within. There is a necessary awareness of contextual relevance and a concern with who it is for, what its purpose is and where it is situated.
This makes the rich cultural heritage of the area very important for Mustafa. After moving back, he initiated the “Cube Edu-Tours” to sites like Makli, Thatta, Ranikot and Mohenjo Daro, which began as educational tours for university design students but soon evolved into full-fledged guided tours for foreign diplomats and ambassadors in collaboration with the Sindh Tourism Board as part of Mustafa’s Cube Education Program, a cultural bridging initiative. The tours allow for visitors to enjoy the sites in a secure group while being provided with relevant information, and aim to inculcate a sense of pride in our local heritage and our roots while also providing these sites with much needed attention and exposure. He first became passionate about the preservation of heritage sites when he visited Makli for the first time in 2010, and soon began working with Endowment Fund Trust, a non-profit established by the Government of Sindh for the preservation of the heritage of the province in 2008.
Apart from promoting the heritage of Sindh, Mustafa is also a proponent of animal rights and believes in speaking up for the innocent, oppressed animals of the city. He is the president of SPAR (Society for the Protection of Animal Rights) and is currently leading a team of 8 dedicated young designers on a project to revamp the Karachi Zoo and make it more “animal-centric”. The masterplan for this new and improved design was developed through a close study of best practices in the care of captive wildlife at some of the top Zoos around the world, including Berlin, San Diego, Singapore, London and New York. Zoos around the world are facing harsh criticism and even closure for being inhumane at their core, teaching young children the wrong values, rather than being an educational opportunity and rare, unique experiences for young minds. Caging animal meant to roam wild into small cramped spaces stunts their development and has a toll on their mental health.
Mustafa discussed some of these ideas at his keynote speech for the KB19 discursive program, focused on the “rights of Karachi”; how the public spaces of the city can be activated and optimised for public use and the role the civil society needs to play in order to make that happen. He focused specifically on Frere Hall, Bagh Ibn Qasim and Karachi Zoo, suggesting possibilities for the former 2 to be upgraded and maintained to better serve the public, and speaking briefly about his team’s plans for the latter. The colonial era space with its heritage as a botanical garden with over 200 century old rare trees will be preserved, while the animals will be provided large, comfortable enclosures that resemble the animals’ natural habitat as closely as possible. He also spoke about how the team planned to provide intellectual stimulation, relief from boredom, and a life enrichment program for the animals, simulating the ways in which animals hunt, socialise and learn about each other in the wild, through movable furniture, toys, and active feeding through challenging games rather than passive feeding schedules.
Through this “crisis management” as he calls it, he hopes that children can be taught the virtues of empathy and love for the less fortunate, the helpless, the poor, the marginalised, and those that are different than them. They will learn to work to create a better world for others to live in so their city can be shared equally by all, as these children are the leaders of tomorrow, and they can ensure the ecosystem is in balance and harmony. He spoke about how the rights of Karachi’s citizens, children, poor, street animals, beasts of burden, its heritage and architectural spaces, are all under direct threat of exploitation under the guise of development. It is the job of those in power to give us these rights, but it is also our duty as citizens to hold them accountable and demand these rights, and the first step to that is to be aware. We need to be aware of the city’s master plan, of expenditures and resource allocation, of policies that affect us, of laws that protect us that already exist or should exist, so we have the right knowledge to be able to raise our voices. We need to get active and involved, as Mustafa concludes: “active participants in the holistic humane design of Karachi’s masterplan.”