ARCHITECT Marvi Mazhar, through social media, informed the people of Karachi that a gate had been designed and was under construction for the Frere Hall Gardens. She also pointed out through photographs and sketches that the gate would obstruct the view to perhaps the most important landmark, after the Empress Market, of Karachi, which, along with its gardens, is listed as heritage under the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994. The Sindh High Court a couple of days later declared the gate illegal and ordered its demolition. The KMC has responded.
A gate for Frere Hall was also discussed about 10 years ago. But then, it is possible that it will resurface 10 years later unless a change in the culture of our local government takes place and unless our architectural community embraces professional ethics.
Many reasons have been given for the building of the gate. One was that a fee could be collected from visitors for the maintenance of the park. Another reason was that vandalism could be controlled: drug addicts take away parts of the park furniture which they sell to purchase drugs. Yet another reason was that by imposing a fee, you get rid of the ‘riff-raff’ that degrades the social ambience and is responsible for the harassment of women. And also that hawkers licensing and entry into the park would be easier to manage.
There are answers to these reasons. There are other ways to generate funds for maintenance than a fee or the support of philanthropists for the purpose. It needs a serious discussion which can perhaps benefit all parks in Karachi and make them entrance fee-free as they should be. In many countries of the world, there is park vandalism and it is contained by developing vandal-proof park furniture. We can also do this. Better surveyance is possible but not if maintenance contractors pay their chowkidars Rs1,200 a month. After all, during the time that entry to the park was banned for the security of the American consulate, there was no vandalism. Regarding the ‘riff-raff’, it seems that those who cannot pay an entrance fee are not considered Pakistanis. As far as hawkers are concerned, anyone who knows how the street economy functions, also knows that they are quite capable of organising themselves, maintaining accounts and membership registers, and they can do the same in a park provided they are consulted and made a part of the process of maintenance and operation.
For 150 years, this historical building had survived without gates.
Frere Hall was built approximately 150 years ago. Since then, it has survived without any gates; even during periods when it was abandoned and misused. It has always had a fence, but its height is well below eye level and as such, it does not restrict views to the Hall itself and is in a design that reflects the Gothic Revival style of the building. The low height of the fence also integrates Abdullah Haroon Road and Fatima Jinnah Road to its east into the Frere Hall Gardens. It almost seems as if they are part of the same space.
During every period of Karachi’s post-Ayub history, the layout of the gardens, its paths and their building materials have been changed and ad hoc tree plantation now obstructs views to the building. In addition, high-rises, which are not part of any urban design project for Civil Lines (where Frere Hall is located) as they should be, are being constructed all over the area and overshadow all heritage buildings and open spaces in the area.
It is important that the present land-use and existing elements of the Frere Hall Gardens are accurately documented and that a Master Plan for the Gardens is prepared for all times to come. Civil society participation in the preparation of this plan should be guaranteed by making its representatives members of a committee that develops the plan. People’s participation can take place by having surveys of 1,000 persons on two consecutive Sundays to understand why they come to the park and their preferences for the future. This can be followed up by an exhibition within Frere Hall of proposals and comments from the visitors. And finally, this should be put before the heritage committee of the Sindh government’s department of culture and made binding for the future.
This procedure should be followed not only for Frere Hall but for all future developments of public spaces for Karachi. It is important that the huge walls that enclose open spaces in the city are removed and replaced where necessary by fences which make them visible from the road. This has been done in Burns Garden and at the YMCA ground and one can feel the change. Simply doing this will change the suffocating prison-like environment of Karachi to one of freedom and happiness for its citizens. Let us all work to make this possible.
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2022