Ownership of space

May 29, 2019


The writer is an architect.
The writer is an architect.

A NUMBER of respected Karachi citizens including entrepreneurs and well-known architects have come together with the city mayor to conserve and develop Karachi’s Frere Hall and its precincts. Unfortunately, I could not sit through the briefing that was provided by the architects on May 21 and, for personal reasons, I have been unable to follow news on the subject. What I do know is that other architects, also respectable and well known, have disagreed with the concepts that have been put forward in the proposed conservation plan — and have received a sharp rebuke.

Since I know very little about what is planned, I cannot talk about it. But in my theoretical writings on Empress Market, my approach to such projects has been clearly stated and I would like to restate it here.

For me, Empress Market is not a monument. It is a market, designed and evolved over time under various socioeconomic and demographic pressures. From the very beginning, bullock and donkey carts and horse-drawn carriages of the KMC brought in fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, grain, spices, and large crates of goods from Britain for the use of the white and its allied populations.

What is required is to reorganise what exists in a better manner.

By the mid 1940s, hawkers emerged in the morning on its precincts, and we all know of what happened in the period following Partition. A world consisting of transporters, shopkeepers, hawkers, wholesalers, retailers and porters emerged of every conceivable ethnic group, all with a common interest in maintaining each other’s interests because of their economic interdependence.

This can be judged by the fact that when in 2008, the local government decided to demolish the pre-Independence fish market, the local shopkeepers observed that their sales had gone down. Again, when the local government decided to build ugly markets around this beautiful edifice, there were also complaints that this area had been devastated. It was these entrepreneurs of Saddar that had asked for the licensing of hawkers from the KMC and not the other way round. It is they who have employed chowkidars and jamadars to safeguard their goods and create some sense of hygiene in the area.

Where such intense ownership of space exists along with a booming economy, interventions are not easy, and a number of principles have to be kept in mind before making decisions. One, that there should be minimum intervention in such circumstances, so as to safeguard the interests of those who are there. All that is required to begin with is to reorganise what exists in a better manner. Two, any such reorganisation should be the result of negotiations and consensus. In my experience of more than 30 years of documenting Saddar’s development, I can say that its formal and informal entrepreneurs are willing to go a long way to see their area beautified, and are willing to make enormous sacrifices to make that happen. The reorganisation process should also be an educational one.

This process over 10 to 12 years, sensitively carried out, would preserve not only an important part of our history and the tangible and intangible culture of the communities that are part of Saddar, but it would also lay the foundations for a more equal city.

Heritage buildings that fall within the project area should also be patiently understood in their larger context and should fulfil the needs and requirements of the people of the area rather than that of those who can afford to buy them over. In dealing with their conservation aspects, what is required is to prevent them from future damage by basic technical improvements.

The option to this process is to fossilise the area as required by those in power. This fossilisation will drive away those who have lived and worked here and open the floodgates of gentrification, dividing the city further. And it will not last, for the world has changed.

Architecture and planning theory has moved from its beaux arts romanticism and issues of form to the conditions being created by the bursting megacities of the Global South. A whole new world in terms of both theory and practice is being created. Transformative incrementalism, transactive planning, and radical planning are some of the new theories that are being developed and applied. Some of these theories, such as the right to the city, have strong international political movements behind them.

I do not know whether the teachers who teach architecture in Pakistan are conversant with this new world. However, I do know that the students at these universities are not taught all this. And in the absence of such teaching, I fear not only for the future of our cities, but also for the moral fibre of our future generations.

But there are other concerns too. Must we always live behind our times, and how can we have a discussion between people with huge egos, but little knowledge?

The writer is an architect.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2019