Namal Knowledge City
The master plan of Namal Knowledge City is the brainchild of the Srinagar-born American architect Tony Ashai Image Credit: Supplied

Namal University in Mianwali, Pakistan, is one of the most important [pre-prime ministerial] philanthropic projects of Imran Khan. His vision for Namal was simple and positive yet huge: “If we are to have a balanced society, people must be provided with equal opportunities to grow and prosper in life. Availability of quality higher education creates such opportunities. If we make higher education available and affordable for our talented youth, it will lay the foundation for a vibrant and growing society, enabling us to stand amongst the leading nations. Namal Institute Mianwali is exactly that kind of equal opportunity for the marginalized rural youth.”

Namal Institute, spreading over five acres by the Namal Lake, was established in 2008 on land donated by a local resident. Affiliated with UK’s University of Bradford, in 2019 Namal was granted its current degree-awarding status.

Namal Knowledge City, the next expansion of Namal, will have School of Science and Engineering, School of Medicine, School of Business, School of Humanities, School of Agribusiness, and Technology Park. Most of the construction is expected to be finished by 2027, the first part of which will be done by 2023.

With a large number of students studying on partial or full scholarships at Namal, Prime Minister Khan, as Chairperson of Namal, is confident that “the establishment of Namal Knowledge City brings the vision of a sustainable Pakistan one step closer. Under the multidisciplinary Namal Knowledge City, students will become tomorrow’s leaders.”

The master plan of Namal Knowledge City is the brainchild of the Srinagar-born American architect Tony Ashai. Hailing from a renowned Kashmiri family, Ashai as a child was an introvert who used to daydream of things that were unique and beautiful. After doing his postgraduation in architecture and urban design from the University of New York, he worked in New York and Los Angeles before setting up his own company in 1993, and an office in Dubai in 2006. The world is Ashai’s drawing board. He has worked in many countries, including UAE, KSA, Africa, India, and Pakistan.

I asked architect Tony Ashai a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted on August 7, 2020 about the Namal Knowledge City, the master plan of which is developed by you. What will this set of educational institutions comprise?

Architect Tony Ashai: On completion, Namal Knowledge City will be an all-inclusive learning institution, spreading over 1,100 acres of beautiful land nestled in the mountains by Mianwali’s Namal Lake. The university will be developed for ten thousand students, who in addition to studying there will have on-campus accommodation. The five hundred faculty members and one thousand other staff will also be living on the campus.

Becoming an economic engine to the future growth of the entire area that for decades has been left behind in terms of development, Namal Knowledge City is set to create huge employment opportunities for the people of the Mianwali region.

Planning a city for ten to fifteen thousand people is a colossal undertaking; other than the academic buildings, the campus will have housing, shopping, recreational and sports facilities and a hotel for visitors. We have also drawn plans of miles-long walking trails in the protected national park next door and water related activities in Namal Lake. I truly believe it will be a campus like no other in the world.

What is the idea behind your design for Namal that you think would make it one of a kind campus not just in Pakistan but the entire region?

I am fortunate that I was given the opportunity to create a master plan for Namal. Not many architects have the skill and the experience that I have gained over the last thirty-five years working worldwide, which would help me design a campus of this size on a mountainous terrain, a feat that is not easy. My inspiration for the design comes from the campuses like Cornell of New York, and Stanford of California, educational institutions that have developed like cities of knowledge. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was educated at Oxford, said to me that he wants Namal Knowledge City to not be any less than Oxford. Because of its natural surroundings and topography, I feel that this campus, in its own way, will be even better than Oxford.

The layout of the academic campus will have different schools built around quads or large courtyards with one iconic building, a library, in the centre. The Namal Village will be built around a town centre and a piazza. I have planned the village as the residence area for students and professors, and it is just a ten-minute walk from the academic campus. All buildings are conceptualized with local materials, such as stone and plaster, enhanced with an architectural language that is timeless. Only zero carbon emission cars will be allowed on the campus. The university plans to provide electric buses, or students can use bicycles to protect the nature from pollution.

What is the feasibility of the campus that you plan to build in one of the most backward areas of Pakistan?

This is a question that keeps coming up: why build such a large campus in such a remote area of Pakistan. Although I did not have any input in the choice of the location, PM Khan who chose the site says he believes that a learning centre of an excellent standard should be in its natural surroundings rather than in a city. With new expressways being made in Pakistan, Namal is approximately a two-hour drive from Islamabad.

I believe that when this project is complete and operational, it will change the economic status and demography of the area. Not only new jobs, but I am also sure there will be investors who are interested to build a new town around this campus, thus ensuring that Mianwali is no longer a backward area.

Your friendship with Prime Minister Khan, would your personal awareness of his ideas and ideals make it easier for you to turn his dream project into a reality?

I have known PM Khan for quite a long time now. After the 2005 devastating earthquake in Kashmir, I got a chance to work with Mr Khan in building shelters there. I saw how selfless this man was, and how dedicated and fearless he was in his commitment to the people of Kashmir. Ever since then I became a fan of Imran Khan.

I was not the first architect PM Khan asked to design the campus. The Namal board worked with multiple architects from Pakistan and reached a point where they felt they needed a master plan. About two years ago, on a visit to Los Angeles, Aleema Khan, PM Khan’s sister, shared Khan’s vision with me and asked me to visit Namal. When I visited Namal, it was love at first site with its natural surroundings. I returned to Pakistan after six weeks and presented my vision, which was an enhancement of the vision of Imran Khan and Aleema Khan, and the rest as they say is history.

Namal is now my baby, and I visit the site at least once every six weeks to supervise it and check the progress. Hundred years from now when young people from all over Pakistan are studying and living there, maybe one of those students will remember me as the Kashmiri architect who made the master plan for the Namal campus, and who used to fly from Los Angeles to Mianwali almost every month to make it what it is today.

I always thank Allah for giving me this opportunity. And I thank Imran Khan and Aleema Khan for starting the Namal journey and taking me along.