KARACHI: Saddar town contains the largest concentration of British colonial architecture in Karachi and forms much of the historic colonial centre of the city.
From the Sind Club, once the heart of British colonial society and now a private members’ club for Karachi’s elite, to Frere Hall, which was originally intended to serve as a town hall but now serves as an exhibition space and library, the area is scattered with historic architectural landmarks built during the colonial era.
The Nanakwara area is a neighbourhood that runs through Saddar with Civil Lines to one side, Garden and Gazdarabad on the other.
Nanakwara is home to Calcutta House, located on Chand Bibi Road, a late 19th century residential building, which is a good example of a colonial construction and one of the few surviving ones on these streets.
The building, which partially collapsed recently, displaced 18 families. Five of these families were given shelter at a local school and the rest moved in with relatives.
Addressing the media and guests at the Karachi Press Club, architect Yasmeen Lari, who is the chief executive of the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, an organisation she established in the 1980’s to document and conserve the traditional and historical environment of Pakistan, appealed, “Heritage Foundation has carried out a study of Calcutta House and our findings have proved that its walls are in a robust state and the minor cracks can easily be rectified.”
Yasmeen Lari, Cheif Executive of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan calls for restoration of Calcutta House in Karachi. VIDEO: EXPRESS/ Faizah Malik
She said that threat to the structure could be minimised by undertaking restoration works, therefore making the building safe for habitation. But the people of Karachi have to come forward and own their city, its heritage and culture, she said.
Lari estimated that the cost of restoration work on Calcutta House is no more than Rs2.5 million to Rs3 million, which can be raised by Karachi’s citizens if they are keen to preserve history.
She said, “We [the Heritage Foundation] were the first ones to get about 600 historical buildings notified in the early 90s. We got a law, the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, 1994, under which 600 buildings were given protected status. Currently we have 1,200 or more notified buildings.”
Lari added that 50% of the notified buildings are now under threat owing to new development.
“In the inner city there is multi ownership of a building and overnight things would happen and things [a building] would just disappear.
This happens because there is collusion [with the authorities],” she continued.
Karachi continues to grow at a very fast pace and, among those in authority, the popular opinion has been that it is more simple, beneficial and cheaper to build new buildings instead of preserving the old ones. Demolishing the crumbling structures along with their history and constructing a shiny skyscraper instead is the method adopted.
Shanaz Ramzi, CEO at Starlinks said, “A citizen’s heritage community needs to be created, like a watch group to keep an eye around the city and raise awareness of any building work, which is damaging historical sites.”
Rapid urbanisation has caused land and property prices to rise dramatically. A one-bedroom flat for sale in Nanakwara can range from between Rs1.5 million to Rs2.6 million.
As the country’s premier industrial and financial hub, Karachi has undergone an exponential rise in its population. Saddar’s population is estimated at one million alone.
Almost every part of the city is becoming a commodity for developers who need land to construct new homes or fill the city skyline with tall skyscrapers, which they hope will be more profitable.
Calcutta House is unfortunately one of the many poorly preserved and neglected historical buildings in the city that can easily be rebuilt and preserved with restoration work.
Historical architecture is a direct and substantial representation of history and place. By preserving historical structures, we are able to share the very spaces and environments in which the generations before us lived.
Preserving a building is often called the ultimate recycling project, yet preservationists like Lari commonly fight the stigma that historical buildings are inefficient and require daunting corrective measures to retrofit for energy saving devices and systems.
A building’s architecture, its location, its spatial configurations, and the ways it contributes to its surrounding landscape, can serve as evidence of a community’s collective past.
“Other countries, especially in Europe, preserve their history but in Pakistan we are too commercially minded. We need to take start taking ownership of the city we are in and the country overall,” said Samar Khan, architect and PTI MPA Sindh Assembly.
A historical building is part of a community’s tangible past. There is no chance to renovate or save a historic site once it has been demolished.