Architects, Local Government and Karachi’s Buildings and Public Spaces

A discerning visitor looking at buildings and public space in any city can easily assess four things. These are the state of the architecture and planning professions in the city; the quality of education provided by academic institutions in these disciplines; the culture of the local government representatives, decision makers and the elite; and the state of civic agencies. Karachi scores poorly on all four counts.

Over the last decade and a half, a very large number of institutional and public use buildings have come up in Karachi. These include schools, colleges, private sector universities, additions to public sector universities, hospitals, maternity homes, pedestrian bridges and administrative buildings. Except for a handful, they are all climatically unsuitable, functionally inappropriate, aesthetically displeasing and of no particular architectural style. Most of them are aggressively monumental and adorned with fake Islamic symbols. The architecture of the marriage halls is better for at least it has a certain style and reflects its function and the culture of its users.

A few good commercial buildings have been built in Karachi, especially in the last decade. However, most of them fit badly in the urban landscape adding to vehicular congestion at their entrances and exit points, especially to their car parking spaces. This is more serious in the congested central business district and the old city and on the corridors that have been declared “commercial” by the city government. The reason for this is that byelaws and zoning regulations for these sensitive areas have been developed without urban design exercises. An urban design exercise relates various social, environmental, architectural, heritage, governance and infrastructure issues to each other and to the larger city context. Such exercises have never been carried out for any area of Karachi although volumetric studies for the planning of Nazimabad were carried out in the 1950’s. It is a matter of concern that in this city of 15 million no academic institution offers a degree in urban design, conservation or in urban and regional planning.

In recent times, a lot of monuments on roundabouts have been built by commercial concerns as a “gift” to the city. Again, most of them are aggressive and aesthetically displeasing if not down right ugly. In many cases, the roundabouts and the green spaces developed in them are inaccessible to citizens. In addition, the city is becoming increasingly unfriendly to pedestrians and to the hawkers and vendors that serve its lower income citizens. Pavements have disappeared and away from the VIP corridors where the majority of Karachiites live, they are non-existent.  There is no planning for accommodating activities that evolve around bus stops or a proper relationship between them and pedestrian bridges. There are no pedestrian prescient or enforcement of rules related to zebra crossings. Being a pedestrian is simply hell in Karachi and this hell is increasing with every passing day.

The issues above do not say much for the architectural and planning professions. The vast majority of their members produce bad work. Also, as professions they have failed, unlike in many other countries, to influence the decision makers and their clients. They must honestly ask themselves why this is so. The issues above do not say much for the decision makers and clients either. The present state of architecture and public space is the result of their bad taste, wrong priorities, neglect of heritage, lack of interest in the needs of the pedestrian and commuting public and their failure to involve the best in the profession in the development of the city. It is only through such an involvement that they can develop the necessary knowledge and institutions required for the creation of a better physical and hence a better social environment.

For instance, the building of the Muhammad Bin Qasim Park was well-intentioned and is a great contribution to the city of Karachi. However, if a conservation architect had been associated with it, the new construction would have been somewhat different in colour and texture from the Jahangir Kothari Parade so that the Parade would stand out as a historic monument of a different age. Also, if architectural profession had been associated, it is unlikely that the fences would have blocked the view to the ocean and to the entrance pavilion to the Parade. May be certain aspects such as the street of sea shell and fish vendors would have been preserved in the design; the physical and social relationship between the mazar, vendors and the ocean (which had evolved over time) would have been respected; and the relationship of the various functions within the mazar would have been enhanced rather than violated. And perhaps lime mortar instead of cement would have been used for conservation related work.

The recent development projects also point to the need for a major improvement in management and technical skills within local government agencies. The flyover and underpasses which have been built, except for the Hino Chowk flyovers, are of a very poor quality as compared to those built in other Asian cities. Also, no project is ever completed. Debris is not lifted, the last paving stones and manhole covers are not installed, the spaces below the flyovers in many cases remain in shambles for months after the completion of the flyovers. The massive road works that have been carried out in Karachi over the last few years have resulted in terrible sufferings for the people of this city simply because of poor planning and management. The question one is forced to ask is whether this was because of professional constraints or simply because the decision makers did not care?

To create a better physical environment, the architecture and planning professions and the decision makers have to come closer together and this relationship should be institutionalised. The professions should create a cell with full time architects working in it for this purpose. Given the large and lucrative architectural practices in this city, the cost of such a cell can easily be afforded. The local government should consult with this cell on all architecture and planning related issues. It should also be decided that for all institutional buildings architectural competitions will be held and will be judged by an international jury. In addition, international urban design competitions should be arranged (through an association of the professions and local government) for Saddar, the inner city and the new developments on the Northern Bypass. These competitions should be exhibited in a big way and discussions, with NGO and CBO involvement, should be arranged around them. This will not only create an awareness of important urban design and architectural issues but, if properly managed, will also create a new vitality in the professions and in local government institutions which Karachi desperately needs. Many cities, such as Istanbul, have benefited enormously from such a process. However, for the process to be meaningful, professional institutions and local government agencies have to have a certain level of dedication and competence. How does one assess this? If it is not there, how does one create it? These are important questions that need to be answered.

In the print and electronic media many commentators constantly point out that our people do not follow rules and regulations, they are rowdy and in some cases the word “uncivilised” has also being used. However, it has to be understood that the physical environment to a very great extent determines how people behave. The difference is obvious if you compare how people behave at the Daewoo bus terminal or at the airport as compared to Badami Bagh or the Cantonment Railway Station. The same difference was visible when travelling in a Karachi mini bus as compared to the green bus (when they functioned) although the people in both cases were the same.

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