Urban Architectural Heritage: Curating the Heritage City

by Mr. Hashid Sarfraz

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Rahim Yar Khan, Pakistan


Curating heritage legacies on an urban scale is accompanied by the development of a sustainable tourism program that is the need of internationally growing trade culture and contributes both economically and socially viable cities and communities. International trade in this facts growing, ever changing globally is of almost importance to engage with various cultures and various backgrounds, so, curation of these heritage values in the form of an urban network of communities is another approach towards dealing on an international platform. Not only it spreads the splendor of the cultural identity one nation withholds but, at the same time, it allows other cultures to constructively indulge in its preservation and its uplift.

Whenever, we are considering the urban network of architectural heritage, it is almost accompanied by natural features and/or historical background. Natural entities include places such as parks, museums and archaeological sites. Both these features exhibit and creates a platform for present day inhabitants to create an order, a connection towards the values and existence of nuances of the past. In order to maintain these social networks and places of interaction, policies are needed. These policies are focused on developing and promoting the aesthetics and efficiency of the architectural realms of the said sites as well as to uphold the existing fabric of the heritage values so as not to harm and lose the integrity of the heritage assets in particular and their salient features in general.

The policies that are involved in the aforementioned methodology includes:

The first and foremost step taken in order to practically preserve a heritage site is to document the existing structure with all its characteristics and features that are present. Methods of conducting this research includes recording, descriptive formats and visual aids such as photography to have a definite record of the existing conditions. Drawing on interpretations through a series of interviews conducted by the users of the site, its locality, their mental imagery, significance of the context and the site’s impacts and context on each other simultaneously as well as seeking experts on board to draw appropriate techniques and data of the site, looking up the cultural significance through the literature produced, also checking its authenticity by creating parallels and conducting in depth study of all the data available.

The second method involves the analysis of the statistical data available on the given architectural asset which is done by a set of experts from the disciplines of architecture, culture, history, humanities, legislator and economist, gather their set if expertise in an integrated format. The presence of experts adds to the validation of the project maintaining the integrity of the valuable assets which the site already possess but are being neglected by the common people.

After collecting the whole data regarding the present condition of the heritage asset, the next step involves the maintenance of the architectural site in pure physical terms. This employs various techniques of conservation and restoration where needed to restore the heritage site to its past glory and making it suitable for present day usage. The restoration work is followed by the rehabilitation of the site by an appropriate function that can accommodate the respective qualities and features of the site. This selection of a proper unction is deemed very important so as to utilize the site at its maximum potential. Suitability of the function is further enhanced by the employment of proper distribution of interior spaces as required by the function itself, as well as adding the modern element to bring the best in the newly added unction o the space through lighting, materials and other techniques.

Case Study: Karachi’s Heritage Legacy

As part of the British colonialism in the 19th century, Pakistan has been gifted by the British the architectural fabric of colonial era buildings. Out of these colonial era-belonged buildings, we are discussing the ones that are present in the port city Karachi in Pakistan. The heritage policies and traditions, present and thought to be observed in Pakistan today, are inherited from this British Legacy at the time of the Raj as well as the buildings and urban framework.

The Antiquities laws of heritage sites and monuments under Lord Curzon who serves the foundation of the preservation act 1904 is also inherited through the same tradition of British Raj and was incorporated into Pakistan’s legislation in 1947 at the independence period. However, in 1968, Pakistan put forward its own antiquities act. Despite all these efforts, there have been serious threats to the architectural legacies sustaining in the modern day in Pakistan. One such case is the historical city of Karachi.

These colonial structures have faced scrutiny of the urbanization in the city and the so called reforms have been unable to be keep the integrity of these buildings intact and by far the policies have failed largely to control the damage.

One such cause of not being able to manage these historical assets, the protection of these structures is not only depended on the government and cultural organizations but the users of the said structures play a vital role, and their trust on the authorities posing changes and modifications in these buildings is of significant. Learning about the past usage and its cultural significance as well as adapting with the current usage and threats that it is imposing to the structure of the buildings and how we can create the optimum solution for their preservation and future usage.

Re-Imagining Karachi

Figure 1: Empress Market, Saddar Quarter, Old Town Karachi

While there had been any interventions in the existing fabric of the city Karachi, some meaningful efforts have also been conducted to preserve the past legacy. One such project was called “While there had been any interventions in the existing fabric of the city Karachi, some meaningful efforts have also been conducted to preserve the past legacy. One such project was called “Re-imagining Karachi“. It sets foot to restore and promote the historical character of the city to bring change in the mindsets of the inhabitants of the city. The project aimed to explore the cultural impacts of the city’s architectural legacy, the neighborhoods and its cultural identity, to pro long the life of these assets and to create sense of belonging in the minds of the inhabitants. The projects seeks to develop an integrate approach in bringing on board the experts related to fields of conservation and architectural studies including urban planners and economists under one roof to decide for the future face of the historic city.

Figure 2: Procedure of the Project, Reimagining Karachi done by SEED (www.reimaginingkarachi.com)

The program was the foundation for creating a methodology to bring in change, revive the cultural assets, awareness among the citizens and creating responsibility towards the architectural legacy that the city already possess. Impacts of social, culture and other environmental factors were considered in addition to the aesthetic magnification of the built fabric. The project seeks to investigate through the quarters of old town, studying and surveying along the lines of conservation principles and holding discussions to culminate the dilapidated condition of the said sites. This enabled the project team to come across the beauty of the structures dating back to the British Raj and at the same time the negligence towards these intricately built structures. The project envisages not only to re-imagine the city in its past glory but also to rebuild and carry on the vision through other development projects.

Steps needed to be taken for such a project are as following;

  • Surveying the city, develop zones and districts to classify buildings and the arteficts it displays
  • Assessment of the present conditions
  • Coordinate with the previous studies done on the site/area to investigate root causes of damage in depth and creating parallels
  • Context of the zone/district, marking factors such as traffic control, mobility, occupation, inhabitation…etc.
  • Threat imposed to the building in terms of structural damage
  • Planning upon the interventions to be introduced
  • A conservation plan
Figure 3: Mohatta Palace; Turned into a museum and Gallery that exhibits Imran Mir’s Collection

Impacts of this curation plan;

The old town of Karachi not only consists of residential buildings but also it has a vast array of bazar’s (market), that serves as the wholesale markets today for different products. But only a limited number of residents are frequently using the markets. Most of the residents of the greater city might know of these markets but are not quite familiar to the historicity they exhibit. This requires not only awareness of the said sites but their historic character needs to be uplifted through subsequent measures taken. Mobility plays an important role in bringing people from other parts of the city to gather around and experience the beauty of these streets surrounding these historical buildings. This will, in the end, be able to enhance the economy of the site as well. Similarly, there are other socio-cultural impacts of these strategies employed to curate the overall urban network of such a city.

Another important way to promote and exhibit these heritage legacies through an urban fabric is by creating social events like festivals, exhibitions, competitions, heritage walks through the important landmarks of the city to bridge the gap between the past and the present, this can be done easily by engaging the local community, craftsmen and other such talents that will not only provide the locals with the opportunity to showcase their talents but will also represent the cultural identity of the historical sites running parallel in the present day to create a more diverse and personified version of cultural ambiance.

Just like this project, there have been other propositions at small and large scales along the city, to investigate through the heritage city of Karachi. Most of these efforts have been led forward by small organizations that seeks to document, explore and create a meaningful experience through all these sites of the city. Such projects include ‘Heritage Walk Karachi’, that started at the end of year 2017 as part of an investigation through the old town that documented the city by developing an archive of oral history of the local inhabitants of the area, mapping the heritage sites along with their salient features, creating a digital archive of the tangible and intangible characteristics of the old town.


All these efforts to enhance the value of the urban fabric of Karachi, which not only depends on the past structures but also manages to integrate the modern day interventions to the existing dense fabric of the city, alone with the contextual analysis, its impacts and viability in the future years based on population growth, traffic control, mobility, and human management have led to curate the while town that is not just placed in a static manner in a city’s museum, rather it is the live interpretation of the original historicity, keeping intact the authentic nature of the city’s fabric thereby creating a dynamic movement between the community and the city, which now is validating its presence rather than just existing on the ground.


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