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WORK to restore the iconic British-era Empress Market to its original shape is in full swing on Saturday.—APP
WORK to restore the iconic British-era Empress Market to its original shape is in full swing on Saturday.—APP

KARACHI: In the past few weeks, thousands of shopkeepers of the Empress Market witnessed the demise of their livelihood after the Supreme Court directed the authorities to take action against encroachments that resulted in their shops being razed. Now heritage experts have raised alarm over the government’s decision to start a mission of sandblast cleaning on stone materials of the heritage monument.

Without any input from historians, urban planners and heritage consultants, the ‘beautification’ plan of the iconic British-era structure to restore its original shape has been denounced and labelled as “vandalism and insensitive”.

Architect and heritage consultant Marvi Mazhar severely criticised the move by the government: “Who are the people working on the building; were they given workshops on how to deal with heritage? Is there a committee which knows and has a plan about what restoration will look like? Did they even document the building before this brutal ‘preservation’?”

The govt should form a consultant committee for the iconic British-era structure

She explained how the recent interventions seem to be devoid of archival and on-site research, which in no way will increase the lifespan of the building to last another 20 years.

Govt slammed for using water to wash the building

It has been a few days since the government’s latest intervention has been under way to clean the building, she said, adding: “Gushing water was first used to wash the building which broke the windows. Even the glass pane of the clock tower has been damaged. Also stone is a porous material and it breathes so chemicals must not be used on it. There needs to be a step-by-step analysis of the building; immediate therapy is not needed as the building needs a proper investigation.”

Sandblasting makes building vulnerable, she said. “Cleaning an old building is not always bad, but the methods used can be disastrous. Sandblasting is a particularly destructive process and has long been an ongoing discussion for people who are concerned with the preservation of old buildings. Studying precedents from South Asia, many projects have been denied approval because they used sandblasting or other destructive techniques that damaged historic buildings,” she explained.

The current intervention boils down merely to beautification, she said.

“There are just very basic guidelines and regulations in the law on how to go about with regards to preservation of heritage buildings in the province. With regards to Empress Market, was there a condition survey report developed post-encroachment removal drive? Do they have internal and external reports on the building which will help in developing preservation strategy? The question of minimal damage to historic fabric is critical at this point.”

Ms Mazhar put forward suggestions on what the government must immediately do. “They must develop an Empress Market heritage consultant committee and appoint a heritage consultant for legal and professional advisory for on-site interventions. There is a need to document and develop a condition survey report of the current condition of the building so that a strategy can be developed for its usage and project planning for the future. Also, workshops heritage awareness should be held to train artisans and craftsman to work on heritage buildings.”

Prof Anila Naeem, head of the architecture and planning department at the NED University of Engineering and Technology, questioned the rushed interventions by government officials at the Empress Market.

NOC from heritage body needed

Prof Naeem, who is also a member of the technical committee for heritage on Sindh which comes under the culture department, explained that such conservation projects should be based on pre-intervention research and by evaluating the state of preservation of the existing building. However, none of this was done by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation or the Sindh government.

“According to the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, listed heritage buildings, such as the Empress Market, require a scheme of interventions; a proposal needs to be sent to the heritage committee for review and then a no-objection certificate has to be issued. In the case of the Empress Market an NOC has not been issued. From the looks of it, there also seem to be no conservation architects involved and the KMC team has no idea about the correct conservation methods.”

Similar interventions have been done before on the Empress Market as a result of which the problems of the stone have aggravated, she said, adding: “The approach is always cosmetic as with other heritage projects in Sindh; all over the province there has been bad restoration work done by government-based organisations.”

The Empress Market in previous interventions was plastered with cement which caused extensive stone damage; a few years later the same was done again, arbitrarily, without involving experts. The recent interventions on the Flagstaff House saw similar restorations techniques in which a yellow colour was used which destroyed the look of the building.

“Different categories of stone deterioration need different remedies; it is not the same for the entire building. Cleaning of stone technically needs mapping and analysis of stone damage. However, colour or sandblasting tends to be the go-to conservation techniques for historic buildings in Karachi and other parts of Sindh,” she added.

The idea of a bazaar, which is a very significant part of our culture, is also being dissolved with ideas being floated by government officials that restaurants or art galleries will be established, apart from other commercial activities, inside the Empress Market. Instead of celebrating the concept of a bazaar, which is practiced in so many other parts of the world and attracts thousands of tourists, heritage experts claim an alien concept is being forced into the cultural fabric of Karachi.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2018

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