Footprints: Kanji building in limbo

Updated December 14, 2018

Email

The pre-partition building located off Outram Road was declared a heritage site back in 1995. About two months ago, builders started to tear it down bit by bit; all that remains now is the facade. — Photo by author
The pre-partition building located off Outram Road was declared a heritage site back in 1995. About two months ago, builders started to tear it down bit by bit; all that remains now is the facade. — Photo by author

THE only residents left behind in the rubble of what was the Kanji Building are the rats.

Located off Outram Road, residents of the area claim that the process of pulling the building down started about two months ago.

“This did not happen overnight, but got highlighted only when people started to remove the debris,” said a man who lives nearby.

The people who live in the building behind Kanji said it lay abandoned for years before a family moved in on the first floor last year. This raised eyebrows in the close-knit community around it.

One of the residents said one day he noticed some renovation work going on and figured someone had moved in. He told Dawn that he had been living here for the last 50 years or so.

Ali*¸ who lives on the third floor, said his father, who moved to Karachi in 1947 with his parents, had told him the property was originally called Kanji Munji buildings, named after two daughters of a Hindu trader.

“There used to be an orange slab here, with the year 1868 engraved on it. Someone broke it somehow and my family picked it up. We eventually ended up throwing it out because we thought it was trash,” he said.

A few months ago, Ali added, the family which had been paying rent as per the pagri system for a year had emptied their portion.

Then as if nothing had happened, the building was vacant again...till a bulldozer arrived and now all that remains is debris. While the façade of the building is intact (for now) there is nothing inside the ground-plus-three residential flats.

The pre-partition building located off Outram Road was declared a heritage site back in 1995. About two months ago, builders started to tear it down bit by bit; all that remains now is the facade.— Mohammad Ali/ White Star
The pre-partition building located off Outram Road was declared a heritage site back in 1995. About two months ago, builders started to tear it down bit by bit; all that remains now is the facade.— Mohammad Ali/ White Star

As the building was being torn down in front of Ali’s eyes, he made videos and took photos, and passed them on to people who might be able to help. His plea was: “This is a beautiful old building and someone is tearing it down.”

When heritage consultant Marvi Mazhar got hold of these images and video, she realised Ali was talking about a listed heritage site in the city.

Demolishing a listed heritage site, she told Dawn, was illegal and impossible without an NOC.

“Listed properties have no vigilance or check. NOCs are issued without any due diligence. Everywhere in the world internal changes and adaptive reuse is generally allowed, but external changes will always be subject to scrutiny. Here we see that the facade is not braced and will eventually be dilapidated,” she said.

“Today, over a decade after the formulation of the heritage notification, there is still no system or follow-up on the condition of the listed properties. The regulation can only be successful if the institutions protect vulnerable historic structures and acknowledge colonial, pre-Partition heritage and urban grouping of buildings as worthy of preservation in Karachi’s old town,” she added.

Explaining the background of the Kanji building, architect Yasmeen Lari said that the property was first notified under the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act 1994 as part of the inventories published by the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.

“At the time, the foundation had prepared inventories of over 600 structures in Karachi which were all provided protection under the 1994 law that had been spearheaded by the foundation to save urban historic architecture. As the Kanji building was part of the Serai Quarter, it had no. KAR/SEQ/071 in our document for Serai Quarter,” she explained.

“The building reflects the architectural imagery of the late 19th century which I call Anglo-Vernacular in my book The Dual City: Karachi During the Raj. Built during the British rule and carrying features of 19th century European architecture, it was built by local artisans who used their own skills to add local character to the ensemble,” she added.

Referring to a petition she had filed earlier, Ms Lari said she told the apex court that at least 500 historic buildings (like the Kanji building) were under grave threat over the next decade as there was no concerted effort to assist the owners in stabilising and restoring these structures.

“In fact there were attempts by the builders’ groups to demolish them in order to replace them with nondescript multi-storey buildings, destroying heritage structures which lend identity and special character to the city of Karachi,” she said.

So this raises the question: how does one demolish a listed heritage site?

Ms Lari explains: “The route normally taken is that the building is declared dangerous by the Sindh Building Control Authority and then a process of de-notification takes place by the Heritage Advisory Committee since without being removed from the list nobody can resort to pulling down a notified heritage structure. If the advisory committee has not removed the structure from the list, they have the power to halt the demolition action immediately.

“However, if past performance is anything to go by, we cannot expect any action on their part. The case of Calcutta House, which was declared dangerous but was found to be in a perfectly restorable state by the Heritage Foundation, is still pending with them.

“On my petition, the Supreme Court had ordered that no de-notification should be allowed unless a report is submitted by the Sindh government’s culture department and permission granted by the Sindh High Court. So the demolition that has been undertaken is wholly illegal,” she added.

However, as the SC has overturned the ban on high-rise buildings in the city, the Kanji building’s fate has become more interesting. City planners and architects fear a “new and taller building” might be the motivation behind this demolition.

According to Ms Lari, high-rise buildings can be allowed only in selected, defined areas of the city and certainly not in areas which are part of the old town or historic core of the city.

“In fact as more projects are taken up by the World Bank and the Sindh government, there should be a limited Floor Area Ratio (FAR) imposed in historic parts. In majority of the old town areas FAR was usually only 1:2 ratio and that is the FAR that should be imposed in the city core.”

Talking to Dawn, Dr Anila Naeem of the NED University’s heritage cell said that the Kanji building was declared a protected heritage site in 1995 after it was adjudged to have fulfilled strict criteria.

Discussing the Kanji building, Dr Naeem said that she had contacted the culture department and learnt that the owner(s) had applied for delisting the property a few months ago, but their request was turned down and the owner(s) was advised to submit a development proposal for review by the heritage committee.

However, she told Dawn, no proposal was received and no NOC was issued.

“If demolition is undertaken without acquiring an NOC from the Sindh culture department and the SBCA, it is illegal. If the demolition is illegal, then as per the SBCA regulations no NOC will be issued for fresh construction on that piece of land,” she said.

For now the fate of the building’s facade hangs in the balance.

*Names have been changed to protect the residents’ identity

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2018