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ARTSPEAK: THE CITY AS AN IDEA

Published Jun 18, 2017 07:24am

One thinks of architecture as designed buildings intended to, if not be permanent, at least exist a long time, serving generations, defining cities, reflecting history. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” And then an earthquake or flood or war or wilful damage occurs, such as we have witnessed not just in Pakistan but across the ancient cities of Iraq and Syria. It questions and undermines our authority over our lives, our ability to construct our futures. It makes our lives impermanent and fragile.

A basti or riverbank in Karachi is suddenly bulldozed, a politician forces the neighbours to vacate their homes at three-day’s notice, a road expansion pays off homeowners to sell their collective family memories, a dispute over inheritance forces previous owners to see the painful dismantling of their childhood paradise.

We live in a time of the insensitive commercialism of builders, who take down an exquisitely planned 100-year-old building in the inner city to construct an ugly concrete substitute that maximises sellable floor space. Owners of beautifully designed homes in Amil Colony ‘modernise’ their homes ripping out historic Nusserwanji tiles and double-windowed doors.

Does architecture have to be seen only through a lens of permanence, structures meant to last an eternity?

Does architecture have to be seen only through a lens of permanence, structures meant to last an eternity? In its most abstract sense, architecture is essentially enclosed space or defined spaces. In this sense, a burqa is an architectural device as it carries the chaar dewari into public spaces, as does the air-conditioned SUV. The sofa armchair and lamp without an electric connection, placed by rag pickers under Baloch Colony Bridge, are an interior space in an unlikely outside space.

In its most abstract sense, architecture is essentially enclosed space or defined spaces.

In this sense, a burqa is an architectural device as it carries the chaar dewari into public spaces, as does the air-conditioned SUV. The sofa armchair and lamp without an electric connection, placed by rag-pickers under Baloch Colony Bridge, are an interior space in an unlikely outside space.

More deliberate forms of temporary architecture are shamiana constructions erected every Friday for prayers or for weddings in a reassuring rhythmic system of organised constructing and dismantling.

Even more fascinating must have been the mobile tent palaces of the Mughal emperors. They housed up to 300,000 people for months. Centred around a lavish two storeyed Emperor’s tent, the tent palace had an adjoining harem tent, administrative and military sections, kitchens, stables, workshops, bazaars and even a royal mint recording the name of the town nearest the imperial camp. Two palaces were required, one made functional while the next was constructed by a 2,000-strong work force that went ahead levelling roads, building bridges, arranging supplies of food, livestock and fuel and gaining the cooperation of local rulers. A man could be standing 15 hours waiting for the caravan of materials to go past. The notion of ‘urban’ and a ‘capital city’ as a geographical location is challenged and instead becomes an idea.

The city as an ‘Idea’ can also be seen in the parcelling of cultural spaces in Karachi: once privileged city dwellers were called “Society” people, since PECHS society was designed to house civil servants of grade 17 and above. Today they are called “yeh Clifton aur Defence ke loag.” Teen Talwar is a divider between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There may be richer people living in Ranchore Lines or Lyari, but the architecture defines the perception of elitism.

Housing areas in Karachi are divided into the housing “society” which implies a consensus to dwell together; the “colony”, suggesting an intuitive gathering like a colony of bees or ants — Geedar Colony, Machaar Colony, Khamosh Colony. To this has been added an aspirational space housing the socially mobile — the Gulshan and Gulistan, full of possibilities for change of circumstances.

The city is constantly and invisibly on the move, reclaiming spaces intended as containment by city planners. The bland organised maps of the city bear little resemblance to the experience of the street.

Road names are largely ignored and re-mapped with personalised landmarks. In the old days it was Trampatta, Lal Kothi, Cheel Wali Kothi. Today it is the now non-existent Ayesha Manzil, Kala Board, Mukka Chowk, and even Do Mint Chowrangi, where the bus 4J stops for two minutes.

The personal roadmap of 24-year-old Quratul Ain written for “Meethapani”, an art project, reads: “Travelling to Buffer Zone from Gulshan-i-Iqbal, one crosses two bridges. I recognise the first from the stench of the open drain it crosses and know I have entered Federal B Area, and when I smell the next I know I have entered Buffer Zone.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 18th, 2017