ARCHITECTURE: THE BUILDINGS THAT MAKE KARACHI

23 Aug 2020

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Aerial view of Karachi | File photo
Aerial view of Karachi | File photo

In the current Covid-19 scenario, the thought of the world ending has crossed everyone’s mind. Thinking this could very much be a possibility, I too reflected on what inhabitants of this part of the world would remember us Karachiites by 500 years from now. And one way of trying to understand the social and economic norms of a society is by studying its architecture, especially its public buildings — or so I have learnt.

So I sat down and reflected on the lessons that can be learnt from the built form of Karachi, and the message it sends across for the generations to come. Karachi, a megacity and the main seaport of Pakistan, has experienced rapid transformation in the design language of its public architecture. When compared to other major cities of the world, Karachi is a low-density, low-rise city, with the illusion of being a congested city, mainly because of poor traffic management.

Harbour Front | Photos by the writer
Harbour Front | Photos by the writer

When one searches on the internet for public architecture of Karachi, colonial buildings pop up, ranging from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Holy Trinity Church, the Karachi Municipal Corporation buil­ding, the Karachi Port Trust building, Mohatta Palace, Frere Hall and Empress Market to D.J. Science College and Flagstaff House. The only post-Partition example that shows up in the search is the mausoleum of the Quaid-i-Azam.

But wait a minute — have we not built any public buildings post Partition? Or are they not of any significance? Or are they not well-documented and recorded?

These questions led me to research this further. I set out to record post-Partition public buildings of the city, especially the ones which are located on its main arteries and within the Central Business District (CBD) and contribute towards the definition of an architectural vocabulary for Karachi, and those which will eventually be used as reference to study our aesthetic preferences, climatic responses and way of life.

Karachi has a rich collection of architecturally distinctive buildings. But can they tell us anything about our identity? Do they reflect the metropolis and the reality of its residents or are they simply an echo of our global aspirations?

When I started out, I had roughly estimated about 40 such buildings but, to my surprise, I have listed almost 175 buildings till now, and the list is not exhaustive. The typology of these buildings includes corporate, institutional, health-related, educational, hospitality and religious structures as well as government amenity offices. Some of these buildings dominate the skyline of the city (along I.I. Chundrigar Road, for example) and others sit firmly along main roads, and contribute in terms of formalistic and materialistic expressions of architectural design. The documentation of these buildings has led me to draw some conclusions, which I present here.

Tibet Centre
Tibet Centre

It can be seen that there are a number of approaches that architects have adopted over time in the design of these buildings. Some have been overwhelming responses to political scen­arios; others have been purely functional and climatic responses, while still others are purely stylistic and imagery solutions. Each of the approaches have their merits and demerits which can be highlighted through an understanding of the culture, politics and contextual influences and the resultant architectural expressions.

Generally, Karachi has a rich collection of buildings and structures of varied architectural styles, ranging from early 20th-century architecture to neo-classical buildings to classical British architecture, Indo-Gothic buildings, Neo-Renaissance and Hindu architecture. But, since 1947, the city has experienced the construction of a number of architecturally distinctive buildings that prescribe to the international concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation and are a response of the post-independence search for an identity.

Observation reveals that the docile countenance of the 1940s has been replaced by the sleek and flashy expression of today, where buildings have started competing for the title of being the ‘tallest’, as a response to the global paradigm. But a global-looking form does not mean that the internal use of the building responds to global social norms as well. A corporate building inspired by global design aesthetics will still reflect localised social practices. I write this from my recent experience of having visited a sleek-looking head office of a bank on main I.I. Chundrigar Road, with a flashy exterior prescribing to a certain standard and postmodernist design philosophy. But inside the managers’ offices, towels lined the back of newly upholstered, expensive chairs for the managers and plastic slippers were hidden under the tables, in preparation for ablution performed before prayers.

This reminded me of what theorists say about production of built form by a certain few who are the decision-makers, and how the resultant form is adapted and adopted to local requirements. The value given to local places and communities and the impact of global forces through imageability, aesthetics and style, are two sides of a see-saw, where the weight keeps shifting towards one or the other.

UBL Building
UBL Building

Karachi remained the capital of Pakistan from 1947-1967. During this period, Karachi’s public, recreational and corporate architecture achieved foremost importance, with the construction of many offices, cinemas, theatres, hotels and institutional buildings. In Karachi Mega City of Our Times, Dr Noman Ahmed mentions that some of these buildings followed a “pre-existing set of principles of early/ mixed colonial styles” whereas others were modernistic in their architectural vocabulary. Thus, the contextual influence of the immediate past played a vital role in the post-Independence buildings.

The Pakistan Public Works Department (PWD), a government-run organisation, played a major role in forming the image of Karachi as the capital of the state. Architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz mentions in his book Modernity and Tradition: Contemporary Architecture in Pakistan that architect Mehdi Ali Mirza of the PWD single-handedly worked towards the promotion and recognition of architecture as a profession, distinct from engineering, and insisted on hiring architects for designing public buildings in PWD.

Architects Mirza, M.A. Ahed, Tajuddin Bhamani, Minoo Mistry, Zaheeruddin Khawaja, R.S. Rustomjee and Abdul Hussain Thariani were subscribers of the modernist movement. According to Mumtaz, the manner in which ideas of modernity were reflected in their architecture was “modulated by the respective sensibilities of the architect, the builder and the client.” The training of the architect, the cultural dualism of society at large — oscillating between regional and European ideals — and the aesthetic values of the builder, all contributed towards the eventual shape of these buildings.

With the shifting of the capital to Islamabad in 1967, the thrust of building activity changed. Now Karachi was not the capital city but remained the economic hub and, to a large extent, the cultural centre of the country. This was coupled with a forceful entry of the philosophies fostered in the West into the local context. Buildings like the Karachi Arts Council (designed by Tajuddin Bhamani and completed in 1960) and Habib Bank Plaza (completed in 1969) were constructed during this decade. These public buildings acquired importance because of their boldness, simplicity and placement within the urban context. The typology of these buildings reflected the social norms and needs of the society to project itself as the cultural and corporate centre of the country.

In terms of architectural typological trends, the 1970s saw the construction of public buildings such as the Civic Center and Awami Markaz, both taking references from architecture of the Islamic world, with both raised on podiums and having courtyard spaces. Shallow water bodies were also included in the design of Civic Center. These public buildings were a direct result of the nationalisation policies adopted by the Bhutto government. According to Dr Ahmed in Karachi Mega City of Our Times, the process of “Islamisation of modern architecture and modernisation of Islamic architecture” continued during the martial law of General Ziaul Haq. Karachi also saw the construction of a number of mosques, with Tooba Masjid becoming iconic of religious architecture. Thus, political agenda had a direct impact on the architectural development of the metropolis.

The image of Karachi as the economic hub of the country was amplified with the construction of many shopping plazas and hotels in the 1980s. The typology of the shopping plazas was inspired by the Middle East or Western ideals, and was different from the linear bazaars. The façades were treated with glass, which got replaced by metal cladding two decades later. The shops were arranged around central atriums, with vertical movement incorporated within. Hotel buildings were mostly located in the southern end of the city and linked to the airport. These hotels tried to emulate an international style, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the city of Karachi, yet maintained their regional references through the introduction of elements like brisole (screen) or indented windows, which provided sun shade.

From time to time, foreign architects have also been involved in construction activity in Karachi. Some of the buildings designed by foreign architects are suitable examples of an adequate response to climate, materials and economic realities. Dawood Centre, an office building, designed by foreign architect William Perry in 1960, reflects a higher order mannerism which, according to Dr Ahmed, “showed a turning point in the built form in terms of functional typology and aesthetic characteristic.”

Hotel Metropole
Hotel Metropole

Although foreign architects designed some good examples of architecture — the Aga Khan University Hospital by Payette Associates and the Karachi University by Ecochard, for instance — and the solutions provided by these buildings are examples of good climatic and aesthetic responses to Karachi’s environment, these solutions are rarely replicated in other buildings of the city. For instance, French architect Ecochard used yellow stone, cement and sand aggregate in his design but, despite the fact that these materials are native to this region, they are not widely used in the finishes and construction of other buildings.

A new generation of architects, mostly trained in the West, has been engaged in the recent building activity in the city. In terms of public and corporate architecture, these architects have demonstrated their abilities in post-modernistic expression. Their contribution in the city has been the introduction of ornamentation and claddings on building facades in postmodern traditions. They have contributed with construction of the tallest buildings in Pakistan (such as the MCB Tower, designed by ASA Pvt. Ltd), which became an icon for the city and illustrated its economic dominance. These buildings do not build upon the existing architectural vocabulary of the city and are mere expressions of a global image that the city wants to portray, or clients’ demands.

In the case of countries which have deep-rooted colonial connections, they were faced with a duality which was difficult to reconcile. These countries questioned their true identity — whether it should be linked to the colonial past, or to their pre-colonial heritage. This was especially true in the case of Pakistan, a country that came into existence on the pretext that a separate and independent state was required for a suppressed Muslim minority of India: it faced an identity conflict even within its pre-colonial past.

In this scenario, some of the mainstream debates focused on a revivalist/global approach, where modernism and minimalism became the new collective identity for the emerging nation. Thus, modernism was perceived as the natural approach for expressing the new nationalism, as it was unhampered by historical or cultural restraint, and reflected optimism of a free people in their aspiration for economic development. With the course of time, this modernism was replaced by, or evolved into, something called “Alternative Modernities”, where the pretext was that modernity has seeped into the global South, but its form, presence and function is governed by local realities, resulting in an expanded definition of modernity.

The late Jawaid Haider writes in Architecture After Independence: 55 Architects of Pakistan, “the search for alternative modernities is a positive development, but the balance should not be tilted”, otherwise it could lead to something termed as “Dubaisation”, which results in nations losing their original identity, creating a pseudo world.

The negotiation of space within the local context also depends on the typology of the built form. Some buildings, by their very nature and functionality, demand a global built form — for example, transport terminals and stations, hotels and high-rise commercial buildings. If there are attempts to develop these typologies as homegrown, the local connection only remains superficial, as the functional requirements supersede any such connection. When designing buildings like schools and universities, on the other hand, it is easier to connect to the local physical context, and localisation can be achieved through materials, textures, play with light and climatic and social considerations.

The challenge, then, is to arrive at some form of reconciliation between the aspirations for a global image and with local social, economic and political realities, local material and modes of construction that fit in well with the public. This strategy falls within the paradigm of regionalism — a style in itself, but reflecting local and global connections. According to Indian architect Charles Correa, regionalism is a practice that tries to make globalisation relevant and produces forms that are connected to the context. It does not reject modernism and, at the same time, responds to local social and environmental realities.

The capital that circulates in the urban centres of today is a major factor that decides what gets built. The changed role of the state as router for capital flow also impacts on what gets built, and its location. The Pakistani state is not directly constructing buildings any more, but is channeling decisions related to built form construction. Master planning is out, and projects are in. These projects are decided on the basis of global demands. Unfortunately, with the change in the role of the government from a decision-maker to a facilitator, there is also a disappearance of any safety nets that the governments of the Subcontinent provide in terms of housing and employment for the urban masses.

In Architecture in India Since 1990, architect Rahul Mehrotra stresses that private capital chooses to build environments that are less connected to their context and do not, at times, facilitate the idea of citizenship or the identity of a city. This is mainly because capital that is looking for investment options does not make sustainable solutions a priority, and can promote copy-pasting a certain image. For the government, the economic image of the city has become important, and it doesn’t care much about the social realities of its dwellers. Thus, tall glass buildings prescribing to a certain global formula are given the go-ahead, as long as the private developer can ensure its construction, without giving much heed to infrastructure realities and social disparities that these buildings challenge.

The search for an identity, in terms of architecture for Karachi, is still ongoing, and works of foreign architects keeps contributing to this search from time to time, along with the various professionals and academics that keep contributing to the debate and practice through academic forums. Perhaps, what future generations will remember us by are these glass buildings, which may not always be the best social and climatic response to our context, but nevertheless shed light on our search for a local identity within a globalising world.

The writer is an architect, urban researcher and assistant professor at NED University of Engineering and Technology and can be reached at suneela_mai@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 23rd, 2020