Pakistan’s crumbling architectural heritage

In amongst Karachi’s new concrete builds, remnants of the colonial legacy can still be seen – recognisable by their state of neglect

Syed Raza Hassan
Saturday 17 March 2018 19:33
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A residential building, built in the British colonial period, in Karachi, Pakistan
A residential building, built in the British colonial period, in Karachi, Pakistan

​When British colonial rulers hastily left South Asia during Pakistan’s painful birth in 1947, the ensuing chaos and violence meant little attention was paid to the architecture they built or influenced in Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi.

More than 70 years later, architectural gems have been torn down and many are either crumbling or under threat from real estate developers in Pakistan’s commercial capital, which is mushrooming into a mega-city.

The structures, weathered by the salty air, open the door to Karachi’s colonial scars, say researchers, pointing out that many of the original owners were among millions of Muslim and Hindu refugees who fled their homes amid communal and religious violence that accompanied the end of British rule in India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan.

A staircase for an emergency exit is seen on a building built in the British colonial period

“Every brick of the heritage building narrates a story of those who left in 1947,” said Akthar Baloch, a researcher who has written several books on Karachi’s heritage. “They built them with love and affection.

“When people like me feel bad looking at the neglect of these heritage sites, one wonders how the families of the owners must feel if they ever visit Karachi.”

Karachi’s population has skyrocketed to nearly 17 million people in 2017, from an estimated 400,000 at independence, and every inch of the city has become a valuable commodity for developers building homes or drafting plans to alter the city’s skyline with new skyscrapers.

Jehangir Kothari Parade promenade, once an imposing British heritage site, is now obscured by a maze of overpasses and the shadow of Pakistan’s tallest building.

The promenade is part of a handful of buildings, along with the colonial-era Imperial Customs House, which have been restored to their former grandeur, but such projects are rare when the focus is on tearing down the old and building new.

No relief... many of the old buildings in Karachi are rundown

Rapid urbanisation has ensured large-scale destruction, particularly in the old city areas, where more profitable multi-story residential buildings have sprung up.

But amid the new concrete, remnants of the colonial legacy can still be seen, often recognisable by their state of neglect.

The Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi has perhaps the largest concentration of British architectural history, while in the city’s eastern district the old colonial jail has been declared a heritage site by Sindh province’s antiquities department.

Frere Hall now serves as an exhibition space and library

So far more than 1,700 premises have been listed as heritage sites by the antiquities department – and the process continues.

The Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, introduced in 1994, has helped provide legal protection for structures of historical significance. But courts are also busy with cases of developers trying to circumvent such protection.

Reuters

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