Noisy, chaotic and empowering to the senses, Karachi, which is known as “City of Lights”, was full of life.
I only had four days with lots of places to go, things to do and architecture to see. I did my research prior to traveling (architecture nerd alert!) and created a list of the top buildings I would have liked to visit. During my trip, I generally noticed that the architecture in Karachi, especially the “Iconic ones” such as Frere Hall and Empress market, were heavily influenced by the British colonization. The 200 year long rule left an impact on most of the architecture in the city, creating buildings that were simple, functional and boasted strong elements of Gothic style embodied in local materials.
Since most of the Mughal and Sultanate Architectural styles were found in Lahore, Karachi’s architecture wasn’t necessarily celebrated. Before the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act was passed in 1994, a lot of old buildings were demolished in order to build newer ones. Yasmeen Lari, who is the director and founder of the Heritage Foundation in 1980, said, “back then, there was very little understanding of urban historic architecture. Cities like Karachi were not considered to be historic because the British, with whom there has been a love-hate relationship, largely built them. Traditionally, people thought British buildings were of no value, and it was better to demolish them and be done.” Walking through older parts of Karachi, like Sadar or Old Clifton RD, you can find many poorly maintained colonial-era facades belonging to retail buildings. Actually, with the exception of the few “iconic” ones, most buildings are in poor shape, falling apart and/or empty.
Karachi is one of those cities that have experienced major political changes; this is reflected in its historical buildings. It’s also interesting to see how these restrictions translate into the more modern architecture. What is considered “modern” in Karachi is a far cry from Dubai’s (blue/green) glass cladded skyscrapers. Residential areas ranging from “rich” and modern communities to slums dominate the majority of the city’s expansions. It is clear that Karachi’s architecture (like many other cities) is mostly driven by its economic conditions. It is also worthy to note that even the humblest architecture (referring to lower Middle Class areas, not the poorer overpopulated areas) have some unique characteristics to them (it is debatable if they have “nice characteristics” or not) when compared to architecture in the UAE, as an example. Humble buildings are super minimal, and not in a Tadao Ando way.
Due to the low-income scenarios, you can see multiple typologies reoccurring throughout the city. Those typologies seem to appropriately respond to the function and urban scenarios they exist within. The school of Décor (a) carries a modular theme in its façade; very brutalist with deep-set balconies and angled windows create an interesting shadow play on the façade. The materials used were pink limestones, which are popular in Jaipur (India). Many of the older structures in Karachi city used that particular stone, a clear indication of the trade that linked the two cities before the “partition”. Across from the street is a residential building (b) with shops on the street level and a full screen wrapped around the façade, allowing privacy the residents in an otherwise commercial block.
There are strong elements of Brutalism in the city, not only in the bulky, raw, concrete clad buildings, but also in the bridges, roads and public spaces. This style is another byproduct of low-income scenarios, where the roughness of the materials and modularity of the form is more accessible and efficient than aluminum and glass cladding (Dubai’s approach), which needs more maintenance, especially when used in towers. Karachi has very few high-rises, most buildings being 4 stories max. However, there are a few popular sky-high buildings; one being the Habib bank Plaza (HBP) designed by American Architecture firm Leo A Daly (c). HBP was the tallest building in Karachi at the time, and still remains an icon. I could not access the interior, as it was an office tower; It would’ve been interesting to see how the bulky façade and inset windows affected the interior. However, you have to appreciate how even though the tower stands out within a block of shorter buildings, it still blends well with the overall urban context of the area.
The Brutalism style also exists within public squares such as the Pakistan Chowk (meaning square) (d). It is a rehabilitated public space surrounded by small shops and apartments, and offers relief to the community, providing newly installed benches with engraved names of some of the countries heroes. It is also home to a newly erect marble structure that offers shade to the public, allowing for the space to become lively in most hours of the day.
Karachi’s architecture is rough around the edges, stuck in a time capsule, limited by financial restrictions, beautiful in some instances and neglected in others. The city’s inhabitants are aware of their needs and their city’s limits; this is portrayed in their own responses to their site specific conditions, creating unique living units that still follow the same rules since the birth of the city. Architecture of necessity is Karachi’s response to the political conditions and consequential restrictions from its low-income scenarios. Neighborhoods continue to make tailored and informal adjustments to their living spaces, thus creating original typologies of architecture that are spread within the urban fabric of the city.