RUNNING the risk of sounding trite, let’s revisit the same premise: Karachi has countless buildings made at the time when Pakistan had not been carved out of India. Some are readily recognizable which is why they hold a special position in the city’s architectural profile ? the Sindh High Court, the Sindh Assembly, the State Bank of Pakistan, Hindu Gymkhana, Mohatta Palace, Quaid-i-Azam House, Mules Mansion, the BVS School etc, to name a few.
Then there are buildings that students of history and architecture hold dear, and are not as commonly known as structures in the category mentioned above ? Bristol Hotel, the Karachi Goan Association Hall and Commissioner’s House being a few examples.
A majority of old buildings built in colonial times lie in densely populated localities and bazaars. They are inhabited either by the people who reside in them or by businessmen who use these structures as their offices. These can be spotted only through a detailed (on foot, mind you) visit to the vicinities where they stand. This helps understand what kind of architectural richness Karachi once had, and yet it was not very in-your-face.
However, there is a big number of per-partition pieces of stone masonry which, in spite of them being placed in prominent neighborhoods, get inadvertently (in some cases knowingly) overlooked. This overlooking can be ascribed either to the disharmony that exists around them or to sheer ignorance. But once you discover these beauties, you have only yourself to blame for not chancing upon them earlier.
Karachiites visit the area around the old (campus) NED University’s Department of Architecture and Planning and Burnes Road on a regular basis. No matter what section of society they come from or what part of the city the denizens belong to, they cannot take their eyes off the DJ Science College Building or the magnificent chimney in one comer of the NED University.
If you are headed towards Burnes Road and the chimney falls on your left, do not cross the traffic signal and wait for a moment. A sea of people and a bevy of vehicles can drive you crazy. Patience is the key. You will turn left to reach the university’s gate, do not do that. Stay at a point where Deen Mohammad Wafai Road intersects left and right, back and straight (towards Burnes Road). You are likely to see a wonderful building, on whose ground storey there is a bank and some shops try and belie its age. It has an off-white shade, which may not be the colour of the stone used in its construction. The structure is, as told by a senior shopkeeper, called Gidumal Building.
Gidumal Building is a two-storey lovely work of art on whose roof nice balustrades are more than visible. The rectilinear windows, some open, some appear to be shut for a long time, are good to look at; and the stone, which is the mainstay of its built, seems to be pretty strong. It is the first building that you will see if you head towards the fresco signal, and opposite it (on the right side) is a huge, not in use, building, Shafqat House, the most prominent feature of which is a big, cracked dome on top. Those who love architecture will surely feel saddened to have a look at it, since it comes across as a facility ravaged by some kind of man-made or natural calamity. Let’s stick to the side where Gidumal Building is, and move in the direction which leads to the NED gate.
The structure to Gidumal’s left is small in size, and is quite different in makeup. It has arched openings and the front of the building has been stuffed, nay closed with cement bricks, as if to block entrance. There are stories attached to this building not meant for the faint-hearted, so we shall not cause their hearts uncalled-for trouble.
Next up, and you can see it while standing at the university’s entrance, is Alfalah Building. Again, it is not easy to ascertain whether that is its maiden name. Though it is nothing like the above-mentioned two structures, it is clearly em oldie (with bigger balconies) which needs to be looked after.
Architect Noman Ahmed says: “Basically these were residential buildings, and some 10 years ago warehousing activity gained impetus here because a printing market exists nearby. A few buildings on this road have also been lying abandoned. We have often tried to contact the people concerned so that their property could be restored, to no avail.”
Sometimes it sounds rather tasteless to finish off a write-up with a quotation. The following line by Richard Meier is one such utterance: “An important work of architectur e will create polemics.” Mr Meier could not have been more wrong. Karachi’s neglected works of architecture have failed to create any polemics whatsoever. Reason: no one gives a darn about them.