Karachi’s heritage buildings have many stories to tell. These sites and structures speak of bygone eras. They tell tales of community and togetherness, lifestyles and functionality, dreams and aspirations. But unfortunately, most of all, today the historic buildings in Karachi tell the story of neglect and greed.
When these buildings are lost, we lose lived archives and the fruits of the labour of this city’s dedicated craftspeople.
We, as heritage allies, stress the need to preserve the city’s lost — and fast disappearing — belongings. We propose building a ‘Museum of Ruins’ in Karachi. The preservation of historic pieces and spaces is imperative to appreciate the past, and to move towards a future with an improved understanding of our history.
The idea of a Museum of Ruins is not new. Bangladesh — then part of India — did the same with their Varendra Research Museum in 1910. China has recently established such a museum of their own. These countries place a strong emphasis on their heritage. Their efforts towards its preservation are symbolic of the same.
Karachi is fast losing its heritage sites and buildings because of neglect, illegal land distribution and outdated laws. City planners and policymakers around the world, including in our neighbouring countries, are realising the importance of preserving a city’s past to imagine a better future. Will Karachi’s institutions follow suit?
The writers are developing a detailed conceptual plan for this proposed endeavour.
It is pertinent that we, the citizens, begin meaningful dialogues about heritage conservation and protecting historic buildings and sites. There are many heritage assets that require urgent care, but are decaying due to the owners’ negligence and the government’s lack of monitoring and care. Amid the physical loss, untold stories are also gradually vanishing. Local building codes and speedy construction by developers and the ‘land mafia’ play a significant role in promoting this wilful neglect.
According to the Sindh Government’s website, Sindh has around 3,000 heritage sites and monuments altogether, out of which at least 1,600 are in Karachi. These need our attention.
Karachi is a complex city with constant negotiations to maintain its uniqueness while expanding. While there is no denying the importance of infrastructural development to keep up with the rapid population growth, this ‘development’ should not come at the cost of losing the city’s essence. The essence that lies in the city’s inheritance and historically built environment.
Conversations about protecting heritage sites should not focus solely on the buildings’ facades, but also on the environment built around them and within them. The authorities need to play a prominent role in ensuring this. And the regulations must allow to identify and retain essential features that contribute to the character of a building or area. They must also ensure that any new development is in sympathy with, and contributes to, the character of that area.
WHAT’S ON THE INSIDE
Troubling situations are at play in Karachi as far as the preservation and protection of historical pre-Partition architecture is concerned. Things are made worse by the lack of awareness and motivation on the part of the real estate developers and owners of the heritage sites. Historic buildings in this city have been torn down to make way for commercial spaces. Developers also routinely get away with demolishing the interior of heritage buildings and retaining the facade. This can be seen in buildings across Saddar.
As part of the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994, the antiquities department instructs building owners to “maintain the facade of heritage buildings”, making no mention of the interior. This leaves an irreversible void, as the features inside heritage buildings are neglected. These include wind shafts, light wells, diya-daans, chiraagh-gahs, ceramic decorative tiles and many other local architectural features worth preserving.
The Kanji Building on Outram Road and the Bhatia Bhawan Building are two examples. Both buildings were declared heritage sites. Reporters and concerned citizens did their part by raising the issue when the process of tearing the buildings down from the inside began. “What happens behind the facade is the real crime,” members of the Heritage Walk Karachi, a non-governmental organisation, said at the time to raise awareness against these daylight offences. The demolition from within continued until stay orders were issued. These buildings now await justice.
Another example is the famous Homi Katrak Mansion on Abdullah Haroon Road that has been bought by TPL Properties. Speaking to Samaa Digital, Jameel Yusuf, TPL’s chairperson, had confirmed that the building will be turned into a residential-commercial property, while maintaining the facade of the building.
The building is already overshadowed by high-rises. The land around it is vulnerable and just a few years away from transforming completely into a commercial zone.
The mansion is located close to the Frere Hall. Multiple high-rises are under construction and altering the entire landscape around this area. In the same vicinity, the Goethe Institute, housed in an Art Deco-influenced bungalow, is vulnerable to upcoming high-rises from all four sides.
Such construction compromises on the air and viewing rights of these older structures. As the land becomes more valuable, it also makes these structures, including heritage sites, vulnerable to exploitation by real estate developers.
Vandalism also plays a huge role in wiping away the essence of our heritage buildings. Doors, windows, railings and balustrades are stolen and sold. This is cause for serious concern and only institutional policies and implementation plans can put an end to the sales of such ornaments. If such ornaments keep disappearing, then there will be little motivation left for preservation.
INSTITUTIONAL DISCONNECT AND POLICY GAPS
One of the major reasons behind the poor preservation of sites of cultural and historical significance in urban and rural Sindh is the lack of coordination between the relevant stakeholders. This leads to a gap in the policies formulated at the provincial level and, subsequently, at the national level. Sindh is in dire need of extensive legislation which is aimed at preserving its cultural properties.
The impact of this lack of updated legislation is most visible in Karachi. The idea of protecting and preserving the city’s heritage is sadly limited to gentrifying and ‘beautifying’ sites with temporary measures such hanging fake plants from the balconies of historic buildings.
Karachi is slowly turning into a capitalists’ paradise. And the city’s heritage is disappearing faster than most realise. Ironically, it is colonial era legislations that are failing to protect Karachi’s heritage sites, including its colonial era buildings. The existing legislation and policies on the preservation of heritage sites are an extension of the laws introduced by the British Raj, whose foundations rest in the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904.
With only minor changes, the same legislation has been reintroduced over and over under different names such as the Antiquities Act, 1975, and the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994. These acts have not kept up with changing requirements or addressed the issues mentioned above.
The only notable distinction is the devolution of power in 2011, where the responsibility for the protection of heritage sites was transferred from the federal to provincial level as a result of the 18th amendment. Consequently, in 2011, the Sindh Government replaced the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) with the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA).
With its jurisdiction now extending to the entire province, this institution is mainly responsible for approving building plans, overseeing structural designs and issuing no-objection certificates (NOCs) to developers and builders.
The redistribution of power, however, has not proven to be of sufficient help for the preservation of heritage sites in urban centres.
On multiple occasions, the SBCA has also been accused of issuing NOCs allowing the construction of high-rise buildings in vulnerable areas. These decisions have been questioned for being in violation of the Sindh High Density Development Board Act, 2010, as well as the Sindh Environmental Protection Act, 2014.
Besides the problems observed above, vertical growth also gives rise to other infrastructural issues. The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) has warned the local authorities that it lacks the resources to supply water to the ever-increasing number of high-rise buildings. But the SBCA still grants real estate developers NOCs, dismissing the KWSB’s concerns.
Heritage sites located within Karachi’s delicate ecosystem are also impacted by these projects. The growing influx of people and businesses in non-high density zones has led to traffic congestion and attracted encroachers, all of which pose serious threats to the original landscape of the region, rich in culture and history.
Of course, a city like Karachi is always growing and transforming. We need to find a way to make room for the city’s growth, and imagine a brighter future while honouring its past.
GROWTH AND THE CITY
Karachi is a city of great economic promise. This port city is where people from across Pakistan come in search of employment opportunities. But even before ‘Karachi’ existed as it does today, this land by the sea was already an economic hub. The city is also home to a long history that needs to be protected.
World over, historical districts keep elements of important tangible and intangible heritage alive. They express the identity and collective memory of cities. Karachi is no different. We propose that the ‘old town’ of the city should be protected. By old town we mean the pre-Partition downtown of the city. This was the city centre from where everything emerged and grew outwards. It was initially adjacent to Bandar Road, which led to the port and has a huge historical importance because of its architecture.
But instead of encouraging mindful development in this area, institutions such as the SBCA can be seen neglecting the city’s past to compete in the race of progress. While doing so they emphasise on transforming the city with high-rise buildings. But, although these buildings may look phenomenal from afar, they are a false projection of the future. A future with tall buildings, contaminated air and an even greater risk of climate change is not the kind we should be aiming for.
With a past waiting to be accentuated and celebrated, and a present begging for changed priorities, Karachi needs to preserve its beautiful heritage.
In the book Climate Change as a Threat to Peace Elizabeth Longworth writes, “cultural heritage plays an important role in supporting sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and building community resilience…” It is exactly for these reasons that heritage conservation should not only be given priority on a provincial level, but monitoring methods should be implemented at a national level to ensure the process of conservation is sustainable in the long-term.
Karachi also needs to strive to transform into a ‘people city’ — a place which emphasises its history and proudly displays it for its citizens.
More and more policymakers are understanding the importance of such cities around the world. Indeed, we can see success stories not too far from home.
LEARNING FROM OUR NEIGHBOURS
In her book Perceptions of Sustainability in Heritage Studies Jyoti Hosagrahar, author and deputy director for the World Heritage Centre at Unesco, writes that South Asia has experienced and observed “unprecedented and incessant” urbanisation where “rapid growth and globalised development have transformed cities and towns, and posed a threat to the heritage assets, values and the identity of historic places”.
This phenomenon can be witnessed in Karachi and in other large cities in Pakistan as well. But while Pakistan is not the only country which is faced with the problems Hosagrahar lists, it is among the few countries which have failed to devise any plans to combat them.
It is important to acknowledge that maintaining heritage assets is even more difficult in ‘developing’ countries, where the wave of ‘modernisation’ came not in the 19th century, but later in the 1950s and 1960s, usually around the time political independence was achieved. This fast and rapid construction to compete with ‘developed’ regions has caused damage to ‘developing’ (formerly colonised) cities across the region.
But our neighbours have still managed to progress. Despite their colonial histories, countries such as Sri Lanka, Turkey, Bangladesh and India are all known for celebrating their cultures. This is reflected in their construction and planning, with great significance being placed on individual identity and community building.
The Turkish government, for example, realised that bans and prohibition do not discourage vandalism. So they focused on educating people and tried to invoke genuine concern about heritage in them. They also revisited their laws. Now a percentage of real estate tax will be spent on heritage preservation.
By taking systematic approaches, and through institutional collaboration, these countries have managed to preserve their heritage without compromising on their respective economic developmental goals.
Hosagrahar further emphasises that because of their colonial past and a widespread influence of “dominant modes of development focused on increasing GDP”, the heritage of developing cities such as Karachi is being worn away.
But if cities around us can find ways to not only protect their heritage sites but, in many cases, also tap into revenue streams by turning them into tourist attractions, surely Pakistan can do the same.
MOVING FORWARD, WITH THE PAST
In light of the expansion of cities and urban transformations, heritage districts witness everyday deterioration due to neglect and lack of monitoring. It is imperative to acknowledge how integral cultural and historical architecture is to the process of reimagining the urbanised future of Karachi.
There are many aspects to the conservation of heritage which need to be considered in order to move forward towards sustainable implementation. There is an urgent need for a long-term plan, which involves devising a rehabilitation plan that serves as a resourceful addition to the SBCA laws.
There also needs to be better integration between the SBCA and the Sindh culture, tourism, antiquities and archives department. Effective implementation of laws will remain an unachieved — and unachievable — goal if there is an institutional disconnect between the departments.
The rehabilitation plan must place emphasis on the interior of heritage buildings and also on their landscape. Karachi’s heritage buildings and sites have extensive research potential. But due to the real estate boom in the city, the landscape is compromised and, too often, heritage sites are compromised. To avoid this and to ensure more mindful construction in the future, stakeholders need to be actively held accountable.
Heritage laws discussed above focus mostly on punishments, stating that if the rules are violated, there will be serious consequences. But we can also learn from other approaches around us. For example, Bhutan’ offers owners of heritage buildings incentives for the effort they put into these structures’ maintenance. This encourages public support and also motivates building owners to support the government in preserving historical and cultural buildings.
This practice of incentivisation was also discussed by renowned architect Arif Belgaumi. In a conversation with one of the writers of this article, he said that up until a few years ago, the SBCA used to have a clause related to the ‘Transferable Development Rights’, which could serve as an incentive for people to willingly let go of their properties categorised as heritage sites by the government.
The clause enabled owners to sell their property in prohibited areas in exchange for a property in an area where development is encouraged. This would allow the landowners to gain more money from development than they would have if the TDR scheme had not existed.
The clause served as reassurance for the building owners, and provided protection not only for the heritage sites, but also for the interests of people who look after them. However, this clause is no longer a part of the SBCA laws, which makes the owners or caretakers of inherited heritage sites sceptical of cooperating with the government.
Preserving heritage sites demands attention from both the developers and the average citizens. Thus awareness programmes and campaigns must be initiated.
Heritage Walk Karachi (HWK), a project of the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre, is such an initiative started by the writers of this article. HWK enables and invites people to walk together and explore historic buildings. It provides citizens with a platform to engage with the city’s history. It also aims to narrow the gap between heritage sites and the public.
But small initiatives by the citizens can only achieve so much. It is up to the government to start analysing and viewing Karachi from a social lens, rather than a capitalist privatisation lens.
Marvi Mazhar is the principal architect at Marvi Mazhar and Associates. She tweets @marvimazhar
Daniya Yousuf Varoo, Laiba Farid and Qurat Ul Ain are currently enrolled student researchers from Habib University, Karachi, pursuing their Bachelor’s in Social Development and Policy. Shaheen Nauman (HWK) aids field knowledge
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 12th, 2022