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Urban heritage takes on virtual presence

Saleh Mohammad Street.
Saleh Mohammad Street.

KARACHI: Arif Hasan is an architect, urban planner and social thinker of undisputed credentials. Over the years, he has been involved in many a project related to urban planning, including the ambitious and large-scale Orangi Pilot Project. His profound interest in Pakistan’s, especially Karachi’s, colonial past, its development and its post-partition architectural mishmash has inspired many to contribute their bit to preserving the cultural legacy and heritage of the country.

Now a website has been launched. It is a veritable source of information on many subjects ranging from development issues to cultural and heritage-specific matters; and from environmental degradation to images and map-related studies of some important areas of Pakistan that the distinguished architect has worked in.

The need for the website was felt when Mr Hasan was inundated with requests for information on the topics he specialises in. His colleague Mansoor Raza floated the idea for an archival website that could be updated on a regular basis. UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) agreed to look after the financial aspect of the venture after which architect Durreshahwar Alvi was asked to choose from Mr Hasan’s substantial body of work (books, seminar papers, articles and reports) to be uploaded on the Internet. It took a year to complete the task and the website, designed by Sabahat Mohammad, is now up and running.

The Old Alliance building on M.A Jinnah Road.
The Old Alliance building on M.A Jinnah Road.

It would be fair to suggest that there is something for everybody on the site. The first important link is to do with human settlements with reference to land-use, transport, security and demography. The subject of architecture contains, among other things, the discipline’s education and its finer points. Environment and ecology, both with respect to rural and urban issues, have been given a separate space, highlighting their importance. Then information on the architect’s work on the Orangi Pilot Project and Urban Resource Centre and his pivotal role in the development of both schemes are there as well.

Pictorially, one of its special features is the images gallery where the visitors can look at some of the most nostalgia-inducing pictures of pre-independence buildings at a number of places such as Gilgit, Hunza and Tharparkar. Some of them had stone-made structures, some had mud houses and some were built with material that is not used for constructional purposes these days.

A special link on Karachi has some striking black and white images of old city precincts, particularly of buildings on M.A. Jinnah Road (formerly Bunder Road). It was in 1996 that Mr Hasan began and supervised the historic thoroughfare’s photographic documentation. It warms the heart to see Moriswala Building (1915) and Talpur Building (1895) in their original form and shape.

Providing a glimpse into the architect’s somewhat personal outlook on life, the website also comprises his political writings and poetry. One of his poems titled ‘Poetry and Development’ draws an insightful parallel between the two ostensibly diametrically opposed subjects in the following lines at the end of the poem:

“Wisdom, the sages say, makes complexity simple Yet simplicity is not accepted by the merchants of knowledge for it has no market. Because of this perpetual conflict with myself I seek relief in writing poetry. And poetry is more honest if not more meaningful than my work. What a painful contradiction!”