Conserving Karachi’s Historic Architecture

Karachi was established in 1729 as a fortified port settlement. Although the city is only 250 years old, there are places of pilgrimage within it that go back to more than 2000 years. Most of them are still active.

After the British conquest in 1843 the European city was established. Saddar Bazar was its centre and by 1910 it had become the centre of the cultural and social life of the city elite. Beautiful public buildings were constructed between 1843 and 1947 when Karachi became the capital of Pakistan. These buildings consist of churches, educational institutions, club of various ethnic and cultural groups, hotels, bars and billiard rooms, impressive business houses, auditoriums, libraries, cinemas and residences. Nearer to the port and around the walled city buildings housing administrative, judicial, civic and trading institutions were constructed. In addition, impressive markets were built both in Saddar and around the walled city. This entire architecture was in the colonial and Indo-European style. It is exquisitely detailed in red and brown sand stone and the cinemas of the twenties and thirties were built with art-nouveou details. In addition to the buildings, water fountains and troughs were also constructed for watering animals that were used for transport purposes or for pulling trams. These troughs and related street furniture was lavishly decorated and also built of sand stone.

However, much of this architecture has been replaced by ugly modem structures. What still survives is threatened with destruction for a variety of reasons. In the Saddar area massive environmental degradation caused due to traffic congestion, pollution and the absence of bus terminals and depots, have created land-use changes that are making the survival of these buildings difficult. In the areas around the old city, the wholesale markets are expanding and their services and transport sectors are pushing residents, civic administration and retailing out of the area. The port activities have also expanded by one thousand percent in the last fifty years but storage and warehousing has not increased in the same proportion. As a result, large areas of the old city have become informal warehouses and beautiful old buildings have been replaced by storage structures. As a result, social degradation has also taken place and much of the old city is now a slum.

As a result of these developments (or lack of them) Karachi has suburbanised and its historic centre is no longer alive as a centre of culture, entertainment and civic affairs. And now, the government’s mass transit programme is introducing an elevated light rail system through the narrow roads of Karachi’s historic district. These corridors of movement contain 11 of Karachi’s listed monuments and over a hundred beautiful buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s and the land-use changes that the mass transit will bring about will also make it difficult for them to survive.

However, through sensitive planning and rehabilitation, that is compatible with the sociology, culture and economics of the city and its residents, this beautiful colonial heritage can be saved and the city centre revitalised. But the rehabilitation plan to be successful has to be a part of a larger city master plan which includes the building of roads that bye-pass the city from the port to Karachi’s hinterland; the construction of warehousing and wholesaling on locations on these bye-passes; the construction of transport terminals and the rationalisation of bus routes; the development of traffic management systems and appropriate bye laws and zoning regulations for the areas that need to be conserved.

A twenty minute film can capture Karachi’s historic architecture, its political and social dimension, its glorious past, its degraded present and its rehabilitated future along with the factors that have made or will make all this possible.


  1. Safdar Nensey

    I am planning to compile a booklet on Karachi’s “Thoughs & Fountains” of yesteryears. Would anyone have old photographs and or postcards that may help me in my compilation? Any help will be appreciated.

    Posted March 11, 2017 at 7:37 pm | PermalinkReply

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