ADA Dialogue V – Do You Know Your City? – Islamabad

September 9th 2019, ADA held its fifth dialogue titled “Partition, Planners, and Politicians” in COMSAT University Islamabad, hosted by IAP for the ARCASIA Summit. The dialogue was the fourth in the “Do You Know Your City” series and focused on the development of two of Pakistan’s major cities since Partition: Karachi and Islamabad. Both cities hold significance as one was the capital of the newly made state while the other is the current capital of Pakistan.

After the partition of 1947, the first capital of Pakistan was Karachi, a port city developed under the British Raj and home to many ethnicities, grew to be the most prolific cosmopolitan city of South Asia and the financial hub of Pakistan. Dubbed as the “Paris of the East” and “The City of Lights”, Karachi went through extraneous mega changes socially, economically, and politically in a short span of two decades.

Many independent nations, post-WWII, planned new Capital cities or districts for their governance. Pakistan was no different, choosing to build Islamabad for that purpose in the 1960’s, which was conceived and masterplanned by Doxiadis, a Greek architect. The focus of the dialogue was to explore the shift in the seat of power and the ramifications of that action in both cities. The speakers included architects Arif Hasan, Anwar Said, Shahid Abdulla, and Maria Aslam.

The event commenced with Maria Aslam who spoke about the ever-expanding “Do You Know Your City” platform. The importance of the platform, as Aslam explained, was to bring together anyone who had an interest or association with the city they inhabit, be it on a professional level or an emotional level. The concept of the series was to engage audiences in shaping their own environment.

“If there is place-making then I believe it is possible to make our homes, and when we make our homes that is when we take care of our surroundings,” remarked Aslam on the occasion.

Sharing his vast knowledge of the city, Arif Hasan began with the population demography of Karachi. Prior to partition Karachi was a city of 435,887 (in 1941) and as of 2011 that population approached over 22,000,000. Karachi, being incredibly important to Pakistan’s economy, generates 20% of the GDP and employs 75% of the working population in the informal sector. Over 84% of Karachi’s population consists of migrants from India and other parts of Pakistan between 1947 and 2015. This has brought diversity to the city and resulted in Karachi being a non-Sindhi speaking capital of a Sindhi province, a feature that has proved to be a source of major conflict. There is also religious diversity, which results in turmoil but has also achieved architectural diversity with respect to places of worship.

Hasan also spoke on Karachi’s origins stating that when a vital port called Kurrack Bandar was flooded due to heavy rains, many residents migrated and built a new settlement. The settlement was approximately 35-38 acres with walls and two gates “Meethdar” which faced the river, and “Kharadar” which faced the sea. These gates are still intact even though the walls were removed by the British. Throughout its history, Karachi has had many names, but the first mention of it arises in a Pehlavi text in 230 BC.

Hasan also highlighted vital events including the establishment of Karachi fort in 1729, the annexation of Sindh by the British in 1843, the rebellion of 1857. Karachi’s role as the headquarters of British Intervention during WWI was also significant, which was why parts of Karachi, such as Cantonment area, were built as soldier barracks and military housing.

Hasan shared various maps of the city to show the gradual change that was taking place and what features were becoming vital. Post-partition there is a vital shift in Karachi as the population increased from 450,000 in 1947 to 1,137,000 in 1951, creating a major housing issue. Multiple plans were drafted to address the housing of displaced migrants.

Karachi also underwent huge changes as a consequence of General Zia ul Haq’s Islamization. Various bars, billiard rooms, discotheques, and nightclubs were shut down overnight, along with music and dance schools, as well as 136 cinemas. This greatly impacted the city, particularly Saddar. Hasan also noted that in the period 1951 to 2012 there is a vast expansion in the size of Karachi’s wholesale markets. “These markets eat up the heritage of the city,” said Hasan, linking the degeneration of old heritage to spill over of these markets. Hasan also spoke extensively on the ecology, land use and other pressing concerns of Karachi.

Anwar Said shared details of his role in the development of Islamabad. He was part of CDA (Capital Development Authority) for 32 years and was both witness to and served under 14 government changes and 17 Chairmen of the CDA, each with their own ideas and motives for the development of Islamabad. Said spoke about how Doxiadis Associates, the Greek firm that designed Islamabad, had initially planned it as being a dynapolis, when all activities (housing, shopping etall) grew in a linear unidirectional formation as the city grew in contrast to traditional cities where growth is concentric and restricts the growth of the city centre.

Said specifically mentioned some of the earlier works and decisions of the CDA which in his view “were instrumental in setting a pre-figure that the development of the city was constrained to follow for better or for worse”. These decisions he categorized into the following:

  1. Decisions relating to the design of the major buildings of national importance in the administrative areas – national assembly building, the library, the museum;
  2. Decisions relating to the designing of all governmental and non-governmental buildings including hospitals, housing, community centres, and shopping centres;
  3. Decisions relating to the central core of shopping, offices and apartments (AKA The Blue Area);
  4. Decisions related to the Shah Faisal mosque;


Said sequentially discussed each of these decisions and their shortcomings. He began by discussing the verdict not to follow the examples set by the then under construction capitals Brasilia and Chandigarh. These capitals had appointed one architect to oversee the design of all national buildings; however, the government of Pakistan opted to appoint a panel of architects whose work complimented each other’s. Proposals were given for parliament house and various other national buildings by various architects notably Louis Kahn, who was later dispensed as an architect in favor of Edward Stone. The dismissal of Louis Kahn was in Said’s view “one of the greatest unfortunate decisions made vis-à-vis the architecture of Islamabad”

Said also highlighted some flaw in the initial proposal of the Doxiadis proposal. The Blue Area was supposed to have the 8 to 10 storey blocks on either side of the avenue with constrained development ideology. Each storey was to be an individual plot to be sold and once all the individual blocks were constructed and sold then the block would be considered complete. This was a major shortcoming of the proposal as at that nascent stage of development the buyers were short numbered who would invest in such tall structures because of the limited population at the time. The proposed tall structures would cut the city into two depriving the G series residence of any views of the mountains

This was countered with a proposal that would make the avenue more practical and the plan was based somewhat on the Champs-Élysée. It proposed to build single 4-5 storey blocks to host the commercial activity of the city. The shops were designed so they could be built and purchased as individual units also the single storey blocks were planned at regular intervals between the taller blocks to allow view of the mountain for those on the southern side. On the northern side of the avenue they proposed blocks of 12-15 storeys in height in a cluster formation with vast spaces between the clusters reserved for future two storey cultural buildings

In addition to this Said shared his own contributions to the architecture of Islamabad, both with the CDA as well as in his private practice including the design of the National Library, the Supreme Court building, Church, Embassies and residences.

Shahid Abdulla posed the question to the audience “do we know our city’s needs?” in his view architects and architecture students have to be uniquely attuned to the needs of the city. He shared some of his projects which addressed the needs of the city in particular he focused on Karachi’s need for better healthcare, education, and urban recreation. Despite Karachi’s rapid growth it lacked vital facilities in certain parts of the city. Commissioned by the Jaffar brothers, Murshid Hospital (1985-86) was meant to cater to the poor “But it was very necessary for us not to make the hospital look poor” said Abdulla because the assumption at the time of construction was that when something was poorly designed it had to be for the underprivileged so with the hospital the intent was to grant equal access to the underprivileged.

With regards to education Abdulla spoke of his long running association with the citizen’s foundation and the planning and building of the schools. He also spoke of his firms work with the Hunar Foundation building. While addressing Karachi’s need for public space and urban recreation, Abdulla also presented his work on Pursukoon Chowk, the square near Avari tower as well as his proposed work on Clifton Bridge and Nehr-e-Khayyam in the Boat Basin area.

L to R Ar.Zain ul Abideen: Arif Hasan, Anwar Said, Shahid Abdulla, James Weirick & Zafar Akay

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion featuring Arif Hasan, Anwar Said, Shahid Abdulla, James Weirick and Zafar Akay moderated by Architect Zain ul Abideen. The conversation revolved around the future of Pakistan’s urban centres, the impending and ongoing ecological damage these cities face. Hasan suggested we reevaluate the role and involvement of institutions that have been sidelined and to some extent depoliticize issues such as water and sanitation so that constructive an productive results are achieved. A recurring discussion in the panel was on the usage of water and other resources and methods of conservation. Said spoke of the growth of road traffic and congestion in Islamabad, highlighting that Islamabad’s growth suffered greatly due the lack of a lead architect to design all the buildings. He also spoke of the lack of action from the architectural community which he felt is often tied down by rules and regulations and debates on these matters. James Weirick spoke of the importance of empathy and education in the face of such pressing concerns. Zafar Akay highlighted a misconception many face in the architectural field by gravitating towards the fashionable or the sleek architecture rather than focusing it on the needs of the people involved.

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