ARIF Hasan speaks during a panel discussion at the event on Tuesday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
ARIF Hasan speaks during a panel discussion at the event on Tuesday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: The constant refrain of how dismally neglected heritage and conservation efforts are in the country, despite efforts to resuscitate it by a small but galvanised community, has all but fallen on deaf ears. And on Tuesday the Institute of Architects Pakistan organised a seminar to further highlight the apathy of the powers that be, with a special focus on how quickly the city, and in extension the country’s heritage, is fast being consumed.

Titled ‘Preserving Karachi’s heritage: challenges and opportunities’, the seminar had invited international speakers who have worked extensively on heritage and could offer those working on a similar front in Pakistan insight into the latest techniques used to preserve and conserve, as well as draw parallels, if any, regarding the different problems faced.

Architect Henry Squire spoke about working in London, and how he and his team worked along cutting-edge technology to preserve the essence of the city in its infrastructure. “Heritage means preserving and restoring historical buildings. However, a second definition has to do with culture and identity; things are much more esoteric and difficult to put a hand on unlike the physical manifestation of a building.”

‘If you want your design to be timeless, you have to root it in the past’

A modern-day London, he said, was similar to a modern-day Karachi which had fantastic heritage sites. Mr Squire explained how his team was constantly trying to find a way of heritage and modernity working together rather than thinking differently. “Is there a way of looking to your past but not being dominated by it or be a slave to it? Understanding the DNA but reinterpreting that in a modern vernacular so that people look back and say that the work done was of his time and not just a replica.”

He shared slide after slide of examples of high-quality designs of his team in London which fit within the contemporary architectural designs or early English architecture, while still allowing modernisation. An interesting detail Mr Squire shared was how his grandfather, Raglan Squire, won the international competition to design the Quaid’s mausoleum which came off as a very futuristic and modern design and was not received well by all. Later it was decided to design the mausoleum in a more culturally and traditionally appropriate way.

Cultural identity needed to be also preserved in heritage, he said. In that connection he spoke about the popular projects his team had worked on, including the Chelsea Barracks project, in west London.

“If you want your design to be timeless, you have to root it in the past because that already makes the architecture timeless. If you are trying to be completely new then the danger is that that new isn’t received and is rejected. To get timeless architecture you must always be relating to the past,” he said, especially addressing the upcoming architect students in attendance.

The seminar also had a number of panel discussions; one was focused on discussing heritage in a Karachi context. The panel comprised Sindh Building Control Authority DG Agha Maqsood Abbas, Dr Kaleemullah Lashari and M. Fazal Noor, and was moderated by Tariq Hassan.

The panel discussion zoomed in on the problems faced by conservationists and heritage experts, especially when faced with an uncompromising government set-up which tends to oscillate in its support for heritage-related projects.

The panellists agreed that though Karachi began as a small village, it was now a city with an overwhelming population. The need was now to preserve, restore and reuse “whatever we have left of our heritage in the city”. One essential thing to note in the city, it was highlighted, was that without a building being economically viable, it would never be preserved.

“Where is the master plan that we keep talking about?” Agha Maqsood Abbas was asked.

He spoke about how there was a lot of confusion regarding who was in charge of heritage issues, which was one of the reasons why the master plan tended to be neglected. He also said that private-public relationship to advise the government on such matters was important and all stakeholders must be on board with heritage-related plans.

Mr Lashari also agreed that there was a need to upgrade the reaction of society when heritage in the city was hijacked.

Architect Arif Hasan outlined and spoke in detail about the inadequacy and inconsistencies of the existing heritage-related laws and institutions for Karachi. “The laws give the government immense power to design and implement heritage, conservation and protection. However, the institutions created for implementing conservation lack capacity, capability and financial support primarily due to very little government will and support.”

The law must protect heritage sites from vested interests, he said, as well as combat a politically powerful developer’s lobby.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2017