The Mohatta Palace was constructed in 1927. Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a Marwari entrepreneur, commissioned a palatial house in the affluent seaside neighbourhood of Clifton. The architect commissioned for his palace, Ahmed Hussein Agha, was one of the first Muslim architects of India and had come from Jaipur to take up an assignment as chief surveyor for the Karachi Municipality. (Courtesy: White Star Photo)
The Mohatta Palace was constructed in 1927. Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a Marwari entrepreneur, commissioned a palatial house in the affluent seaside neighbourhood of Clifton. The architect commissioned for his palace, Ahmed Hussein Agha, was one of the first Muslim architects of India and had come from Jaipur to take up an assignment as chief surveyor for the Karachi Municipality. (Courtesy: White Star Photo)

IT is an established fact that architectural outputs are one of the most vocal and pronounced features amongst all environmental ingredients, mainly due to their dimensional magnitude and instant impact on the human mind. Notably, the degree of excellence is directly dependent upon several factors that affect architectural development during the process. It also requires a considerable amount of professional acumen and institutional arrangement to develop a built environment that has the right blend of design finesse and utilitarian merit.

It is interesting that some of the best edifices developed in Pakistan belong to the pre-independence era. The Sindh High Court, Mohatta Palace, Sindh Assembly, KMC Head Office, the KPT building in Karachi, Punjab Assembly, GPO and Lahore Museum in Lahore, and countless other heritage buildings are a reminder of the unrivalled design excellence and functional quality acquired many decades ago.

Recent times have marked many changes and brought new dimensions to the architectural fabric of the country. Corporate head offices are a distinct addition to the built environment. Karachi has witnessed their growth correspondingly. The head office of Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) on main Sir Shah Suleman Road was a dominant structure designed and supervised by the late Habib Fida Ali. In his simple, straight-lined yet ornate approach, he designed the exterior in fair face concrete. The elegant grey cement appearance provides a weatherproof effect, which makes the building not only efficient but also contextually relevant. The intelligent use of glass enhances the optimum use of daylight, making the building energy efficient.

The Faisal Bank Building on Sir Abdullah Haroon Road, by another eminent architect, Yasmeen Lari, made a fine addition to the city architecture. Aesthetically balanced use of granite and glass has given the assemblage a smart appearance. MCB Towers by Arshad Shahid Abdulla comprises a balance of glass fenestration and industrialised panels with subtle grooves and niches. The building acts as a dominating edifice of its kind.

Pakistan’s built spaces have transformed over the years to better reflect the aspirations of its upwardly-mobile social classes. There are pitfalls that must be avoided for building spaces in the future.

The skyline in Karachi and other prominent cities is being added upon by corporate structures, most of which possess design inputs of reasonably sound quality. In Lahore, the foremost addition is the Allama Iqbal International Airport complex. Designed and supervised by Nespak, it has added a worthwhile edifice which shall remain the gateway to the historic Mughal town for times to come.

Mixed responses have been received about the new Islamabad Airport. Whereas it is grand in scale and possesses a wide range of purpose-built transportation infrastructure for its connectivity, its overall aesthetic and functional performance leave many steps to be covered.

Besides the strength and vigour of the corporate sector, other influences also show in the buildings and spaces created in the recent past. Flexibilities in financial markets and new products in leasing/loaning have allowed large-scale real estate ventures to flourish. Many local and international realtors can also be found developing joint projects and ventures with their local counterparts. Sprawling, up-market real estate ventures abound in major Pakistani cities. The element of comfort is now facilitated by the use of multi-ranged technologies, gadgets and products.

The ideas and images related to the built environment are largely developed to show gloss and glamour, which has become the ultimate aspiration of all and sundry. However, the building solutions available for low-income groups are extremely limited and sub-evolved without the input of professionals. For this reason, we find that the quality of life and the corresponding built environment for low-income groups is degrading fast. In Karachi, one finds many visible architectural developments in the above respect.

A significant trend is the patchwork of corporate spaces in existing buildings. In this phenomenon, corporate enterprises choose a portion of an existing building and transform it according to their requirements. Building interiors, partial external elevation, signage and décor, partial landscape and even invisible infrastructure are changed to suit corporate standards. Hundreds of buildings in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan have been given such partial facelifts. This approach has created melodramatic effects on the built fabric. One finds a shining, well-articulated and bright-looking built space in an otherwise shabby and run-down structure. In other words, the contrasts in input and appearance of buildings are too sharp to be ignored.

Automobile showrooms of very gaudy kinds are another visible trend that has consolidated itself during the past few years. Major arteries where the elite and upper-middle-income groups move have converted into outlets for glowing auto showrooms. Khalid Bin Waleed Road, Shahrea Faisal, Rashid Minhas Road, Korangi Road and the New M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi are a few examples where this phenomenon is visible. Similar trends are also found along the M-9 motorway.

Glass façade structures, outlandish building elements and powerful illumination are a typical configuration of this mundane assemblage. The architects who have designed such structures have been pinned down by their demanding clients to increase the capacity and visibility of their merchandise. The trend is growing fast. As automobiles are being marketed and acquired with flexible conditions, car showrooms are likely to rise in number, though not in quality.

Condominiums and multi-storied apartment projects are also on the rise. Due to international partnerships, foreign entrepreneurs have brought their formulae and images for new avenues of luxuries and comforts corresponding to a global lifestyle. Exotic verdures, gymnasia, restaurants, fitness centres, swimming pools and clubhouses are a few of the ancillary spaces now routinely incorporated into real estate development projects. This rising trend has taken over prized locations, such as beachfronts, highway edges and affluent neighbourhoods. Ecological considerations are compromised against the prospective revenue gains.

The fact is that architects can be engaged in socially responsive approaches and practises through exposure and awareness attempts. Professional bodies may be sensitised to their social responsibility. Vocational training in building, surveying and construction-related trades must be up-scaled. Every profession possesses a ‘para’ category – paramedics, for instance. Architecture shall also benefit from para-architects if a properly designed course and curriculum are imparted. The Technical Training Resource Centre (TTRC) in Karachi has successfully taken steps in this respect. After careful analysis, this model can be upscaled widely. The TTRC team was able to take cue from Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s inspirational teachings and practical interventions in various low-income settlements in Karachi and elsewhere in the country.

Architecture in Pakistan, as elsewhere, is governed by numerous factors that have a direct bearing on societal dynamics. No worthwhile architectural project is approved that lacks commercial potential, especially in the short term. It simply follows the proverb ‘all is well that sells well’. The attitudes and working relationships that exist between architects and their clients are fairly amorphous in nature. With the exception of established multinational corporations, enterprises and individuals of repute, the general clientele has not yet understood the material value of the design and execution service that an architect provides under a contractual agreement.

A myopic perception remains that architects charge ultra-high fees for a few criss-cross scribbles and doodles. Such a conception brews misunderstandings, ultimately resulting in the qualitative decline of architectural products.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

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