The word “university” conjures images of a vast town-like campus, with hostels, department blocks, libraries, auditoriums, an administration block, people travelling from one building to another by car or by the university point buses or flocks of students walking around or hanging out on porches, patios and steps outside buildings.
While Karachi is home to many universities, a modern and innovative campus ecosphere seemed to be merely fantasy till now. But if one university has its way, this is about to change.
Situated behind the Jinnah International Airport runway, Habib University is gearing up for its first academic session later this year. Since the campus is not built over a large area, architects and designers have had to be creative and clever in equal measure.
“Habib University’s architectural design is an outstanding accomplishment for a smaller site model in campus planning,” claims Dr Noman Ahmed, professor and chairman of the department of architecture and planning at the NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi.
“Their architects have taken into consideration the location of the campus, where a breakdown of law and order is common, and balanced it with the need to maintain peace and tranquillity in the campus’ internal environment. Then there is adequate facilitation of student interaction through a hierarchy of spaces,” Dr Ahmed says.
What makes the Habib University interesting is its space utilisation: instead of having vast open spaces of dry arid land, the university has opted for little patches of greenery here and there.
There are two entrances to the campus. One is behind the airport, while the other, its main entrance, opens up in the heart of Gulistan-i-Jauhar. The main entrance has a sloping patch of green, while indoor and outdoor plants in pretty pots have been placed all over the campus.
“The campus design also enables engagement with the external audience through its semi-public auditorium and library and information commons,” says Rafiq M. Habib, chairman and chancellor of Habib University. “These two facilities will be community spaces that specifically respond to the needs of the city, while also creating possible linkages between academia, industry, business and society. This relationship is missing thus far in the national higher education sector.”
Habib University should also be lauded for designing a handicapped-friendly campus, perhaps the first of its kind in Pakistan. There are ramps and slopes alongside staircases, from the ground floor to the top, which is the fourth floor.
The students’ area has plenty of room for healthy activity. Nearby there is the sickroom and doctor’s office. A tiny, almost hidden passage leads to the psychologist’s office — this has been purposefully done so as to maintain the privacy of students who seek help. With pressure being what it is for students these days it is always good if they have someone they could talk to other than a student counsellor.
Where Habib University has succeeded, others have failed. The University of Karachi, for instance, is spread over 1,200 acres of land with vast lands for plantation separated by the long winding roads and department buildings scattered here and there. Due to the scarcity of water in the city, the land where there should have been green grass mostly remains muddy and dry, and during the day, one can see tired and sweaty students walking about in groups.
“The University of Karachi was planned and designed by a renowned architect Michel Echochard,” explains Dr Ahmed. “The whole concept and application focused on proportions, climatically-friendly spaces, pedestrian-friendly layout and interactive environment,” he adds.
“Unfortunately, a great many negative modifications were made to the KU master plan to add new buildings on an ad hoc basis. Instead of facilitating students, new roads and bifurcations have only made it cumbersome to approach departments on foot. It is now in a state of total confusion,” Dr Ahmed says.
If anything, the case of Habib University proves to Dr Ahmed that there is a need to return to the drawing board to rehabilitate the University of Karachi. “We need to revive the University of Karachi’s original design theme and return the architectural and landscape sensitivity given by Echochard. In my view, some of the buildings designed by Echochard deserve to be listed as protected heritage from modern era architecture,” Dr Ahmed contends.
“Appropriate planning and skilful design can transform both large and small spaces into the uses which are meant to be derived from them. We have many examples where very large sub-urban campuses have become agents of climate change,” argues Dr Ahmed. “The campus of Middle East Technical University in Ankara — spread on more than 4,000 hectares — won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995 on the basis of a successful forestation programme implemented for about three decades. It changed the micro climate of Ankara to a reasonable extent.”
Meanwhile Wasif Rizvi, the President of Habib University, says that liberal arts universities are usually residential campuses. “But due to scarcity of space we here have a non-residential or commuting campus. We wanted the campus to have spaces to nurture a learning community and streets; courtyards and bridges allow interaction among students and faculty.
“The other challenge was that we wanted it to have world-class facility in a relatively-limited space. We have addressed that by insuring that our library was the most central facility, allowing for informal interaction and formal learning books,” Rizvi contends.
“Developing a viable under-graduate environment is not readily available so we had to look for right partners and right experts around the world and we discovered that there was a wealth of knowledge that exists on flexible classrooms and even furniture designs,” Rizvi argues.
“We were fortunate to find access to this wealth of knowledge and made numerous partnerships around the world. For example, our library is being furnished by Herman Miller; leading furniture and interior design developers for universities specifically. Then our laboratories are completely designed and furnished by Research Facilities Design (RFD) — the same people who advise Harvard and MIT,” Rizvi says.