Mountain Studio – Water and Land

An ADRL Travel Internship Program 2023

Traveling studios are a great way to learn architectural discourses, vernacular styles, cultural and social practices and most of all life skills outside  conventional learning spaces for students of architecture. On the faculty’s end it’s a way to explore alternative pedagogies such as learning by making, learning by culture and on-site adaptive learning.  

The mountain studio called Water and Land focused specifically on issues related to the scarcity of resources in both the contexts of Gulmit and Karachi. Students not only participated in the daily on site exercises but also indulged in the local cultural activities related to food, music and dance. Students had a full day of field visits to various types of architectural design and construction being practiced in the Hunza Valley. Learnings from the studio included intense hands-on experience of measuring contoured land, familiarity with mechanical and electronic tools, exposure to joinery systems and prototyping of a section of the wall with materials available on site and without terraforming land.

The studio was an initiative of Architectural Design Research Lab (ADRL) at Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture, in collaboration with the maker’s space Mountain Getaway, led by Ibne Sajjad, an architect and a maker based in Hunza. 21 student’s from third and fourth year of the architecture department attended the studio. The studio was held for 4 days in Karachi & 10 days on-site live project in the remote tucked away village of Gulmit in the Hunza Valley of the north-eastern Karakoram Range.

Both Karachi and Hunza face the brunt of the changing climate, however the small-scale and place-based lifestyles of the Hunza Valley have many learnings to offer. We are living in an epoch of rapid shifts in architectural practices and the construction industry – quickly depleting resources, erratic climatic challenges, and growing populations are leading towards nature based passive solutions and designs all over the world. Karachi and Hunza are 2000 km apart, yet seamlessly connected by and dependent on the country’s many vital but depleting resources such as the waterways, agricultural land, and energy systems. 

The aim of the studio was to examine and extend knowledge of the physical and cultural influences of the north(Hunza) on the built environment to be able to re-understand, realign and replicate in the south(Karachi).  Setting this as a base, the focus of the studio was to harness a dialogue of the practice and academic discipline of architecture and beyond, by questioning Can a shift in the process of making space counter the depleting resources? What kind of nature based materials, construction techniques and methods make possible the change in the way we live? How can we learn from the cultural values, lifestyles and communities of the mountain landscape and re-align our practices in the city? 

The Studio

In Karachi students spent 4 days preparing for the mountains. This included a brief introduction to the landscape and lifestyles of the Hunza Valley, spatial stories of architecture through the material palette of the valley, initial understanding of spatial elements through case studies, reading sessions and preparing to travel to Gulmit.

The studio in Gulmit was a rigorous and demanding exercise, where the tone of possibility was a crucial and vital part of the studio. After a 2 day journey from Karachi to Gulmit, the students spent a day in the old town visiting cultural heritage sites and settling in the mountain atmosphere. For the next 9 days students hiked every morning for 40 minutes to get to their site which was at an altitude of 2500 meters. They dove into the heart of the mountain landscape by working outwardly and exploring how land is inseparably connected to place through its materiality, culture and history, while closely examining the relationship between structure, material and spatial language. The objective was to initiate a maker’s space with minimum land manipulation, using material available on site, and techniques and methods which are easily applicable in the terrain.

Students started off by understanding the steep mountainous terrain by measuring the contours in both the conventional way of using anthropometrics, and the technological way of documenting and measuring with a total station. Through this, they learnt how the watershed system of the site works by analyzing the drawings of contours. Unfortunately or fortunately there was rain the next, due to which work had to pause on site, however it confirmed the analysis done on paper.

Students were introduced to tools and machines with safety instructions for woodwork in order to make joinery of columns and beams. They themselves became the carrier of building materials by making a human chain to transfer materials, as there were no carriers available on site due to limited infrastructure, remote location and scarce resources.

Since the aim was not to change the lay of the land, the studio experimented with making existing matured tree trunks of poplar trees as structural columns. Riverbed stones were used from a dried river nearby as wall fillers in the load bearing structure. Apart from hard skills learnt, students also learnt to adapt to everyday climatic impacts such as flash rains and unpredictable weather due to which time management was key, as we had to be very careful about taking advantage of the window to work. Through these interconnections between spatial realities the tectonic character of the place was explored and understood, constantly looking out for specifics of its context both physical and cultural, stressing to provide social value by offering sensitivity, diligence and conscientiousness.

The success of this 14 day reformative studio was based on active participation and following routines and schedules diligently. The group acclimatized to the elevation of Gulmit by including local traditions in terms of eat-sleep-work cycles. The studio re-convened every evening for 2 hours after dinner to discuss and reflect on daily learnings, writing travel logs, drawing and wrapping up the day.

It was important to have a holistic experience in order to realize the sensitive realities of the valley and to have an immersive learning experience. At the end of the studio students were taken to trek the Passu glacier, they tried a variety of local cuisine during the 10 days, and visited architectural sites where architects are working towards sustainable construction and design using vernacular material and techniques but also hybridizing with rammed earth constructions.


It was important that as part of the first Mountain Studio team, we consider landscape and terrain as sacred and fragile and respect the community, traditions and ways of life of Gulmit and Hunza Valley. transformation. Students developed the ability to see and make architectural space sensitive to human needs and the land by critically thinking through material, scale and use. The live project fostered fundamental design skills through effectively using architectural principles in an intuitive and iterative process of drawing, critiquing, and making. Collaborative skills were developed by working together on site, and by living, traveling and exploring together. 

The studio was led by Assistant Professor Mehmooda Maqsood, who teaches the thesis year currently. She has lived and worked in Hunza in 2020 and is deeply interested in alternative pedagogies, learning by making and ways to build in remote communities. Dr Suneela Ahmed, the head of department co-led the studio and the studio was hosted by Mountgetaway the maker’s space.  

More details of the Mountain Studio can be found here, and on the instagram page of ADRL

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