How Art Deco helped Karachi shake its colonial look
Cities in South Asia with profoundly diverse cultural histories have started to focus on modern heritage, alongside curating conferences and debates on everyday living heritage. In Karachi, however, where heritage listings are limited to the city’s pre-partition colonial past, there is absolutely no discussion on everyday heritage.
Neighborhoods such as Bihar Colony, Messiah Mohallah, Bengal Nagar, are all part of living heritage. An important section of Karachi’s modern heritage are movements such as Art Deco of the 1940s, Brutalism of the 1960s, and modern residential and public civic buildings of the 1970s, yet conversations on them have yet to happen. A well-documented heritage timeline of a city nurtures and strengthens the Master Plan, and develops values that transcend national boundaries and are of common importance to present and future generations of all humanity—a cultural good for shared history.
Karachi, with its unpredictable and ever growing urban fabric, is now one of the most populated and fractured cities in the world, devoid of holistic and informed urban planning. It is notoriously popular for its ravaged urban infrastructure that includes a failing transport system, neglected heritage sites and unregulated land development.
This densely packed city is seeing rapid urbanisation and an obsessive vertical growth that has dwarfed the older (planned) Karachi that is typified by low rises and houses that feed into a larger neighbourhood, a mohalla strategy. Ill-informed ‘development’ of the built environment at the hands of land and real-estate developers threatens the very existence of Karachi’s older neighbourhoods and heritage sites that now, more than ever, need to be preserved.
Historic preservation efforts have been carried out under the Antiquities Act 1975 and Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act 1994, with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution shifting the management and responsibility on to the provincial governments in 2010.
The Government in Sindh has largely focused on preserving archaeological sites, where pre-partition and colonial structures are ignored or left to private owners. Within Karachi, the local government has adopted a myopic perspective of their heritage conservation efforts, with a narrowed focus on revivalist and pre-partition architecture neglecting heritage sites that do not fall under the former period. Take for example the lack of recognition and preservation of historical periods such as Art Deco buildings that have dominated a significant portion of Karachi’s architectural and urban history. This neglect is rooted in lawmaking that has failed to take into account our post-partition heritage that is eccentrically sprawled across neighbourhoods.
Progression of Karachi’s Architecture
When studying Karachi’s architecture today, we can see distinct historical quarters and old neighbourhoods that include architecture belonging to diverse time periods and architectural styles. These periods vary from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial with influences and amalgamations from British and Subcontinental/vernacular architecture.
Before the British and by the end of the Talpur reign (1729-1843), Karachi consisted of its fortified Port area and suburbs, later known as the native quarter. Architecture in Pre-British Karachi was characterised by a strong vernacular style guided by the local materials available that were most appropriate for the weather. Dried mud brick walls, reinforced with mangrove marsh with elevated stone foundations for flood protection were the norm. These structures usually had flat roofs which were easily constructed with natural materials such as bamboo and mud plaster.
Once the British annexed Karachi in 1843, they started to develop the city further. Soon many historical quarters were developed by the British around the native quarter. They included the Cantonment, Bunder, Napier, Garden, Ramswami, Preedy, Soldier Bazaar, Ranchore, Clifton, Civil Lines Quarters, Artillery Maidan and Queen’s Road Quarters. A significant portion of the architecture in the historical quarters of Karachi is typified by the bungalows constructed throughout different periods. These bungalows have a unique and complex history due to the varied architectural influences that led to their widespread use in imperial compounds as well as upper-middle class housing in the Indian Subcontinent in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The introduction of the Dalmia Cement Factory in the 1920s revolutionized construction techniques, replacing mud brick walls with concrete blocks. This material allowed different styles such as Neo Gothic, and Art Deco to be introduced to and adapted within Karachi, according to Yasmin Cheema in her book The Historical Quarters of Karachi. Though the arrival of Neo Gothic architecture had been consciously engendered in the local landscape by imperial forces, the emergence of Art Deco in Karachi’s architecture was a historically significant step taken by locals in the 1930s, as it spoke of constructing a built environment independent of its colonial counterparts.
The Art Deco Movement: Global to Local
The Art Deco design movement originated in France post-World War I, and can be traced to the 1925 International Exhibition of the Decorative Arts (Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels) in Paris. With the arrival of the Machine Age and Functionalism, many design fields such as architecture had started focusing on creating functional, machine made and standardized designs for the masses. This was met with a push-back from conservatives who wanted to retain traditional arts and craftsmanship by delving into decorative arts, which is where Art Deco was introduced to the world. This design movement, though widely criticised as solely indulging the wealthy, dominated decorative arts, architecture, interior design, furniture, and graphics.
Due to World War II and the Great Depression, Art Deco in the Western world stagnated in the 1940s, although its influence had spread to countries such as Egypt, India, and Australia. This led to the adaptation by and incorporation of many cultures and mythologies within Art Deco, and allowed for the eclectic style to encompass a variety of movements such as cubism, fauvism, futurism, functionalism and new modernism through widespread exposure. This is why the movement was not clearly defined until its reemergence in mainstream academia during the 1960s, when it was given the title of ‘Art Deco’.
Globally, Miami and Mumbai are now recognized as the two main cities that constructed architectural forms heavily inspired by Art Deco, recognized as souvenirs of their urban past.
The hidden politics behind Art Deco in South Asia
Art Deco arrived in the subcontinent in the mid-1930s. According to Maya Sorabjee, Indians were keen on absorbing the luxurious and modern style in their urban landscape with Bombay (Mumbai) being the main city to incorporate it. Here, local architects adopted the style in an unusual way to create ‘muted’ or ‘restrained’ modern buildings that differed from the Indo-Gothic/Revival architecture brought about by their colonizers, thus erecting buildings in India that felt sovereign from its colonial counterparts, which helped to generate India’s urban identity as a ‘modern nation state’.
This architectural ownership came from the use of local materials, ornaments, resources and designers, and was a conscious decision seen as an extension of the Swadeshi movement that had emerged in India. The political nature of Bombay’s Art Deco architecture was later used to inspire other Indian cities to incorporate the Swadeshi and Independence movement in their praxis.
Some of Bombay’s first locally owned insurance buildings, Lakshmi Insurance and New India Assurance Building, were inspired by Art Deco, and all materials, finances, designers and architects were locally sourced for their construction. This triggered a surge of Art Deco-inspired commercial buildings in Fort (a commercial and historical district in Mumbai) that merged native and Art Deco influences to create an urban fabric stitched from the cultures, resources and knowledge systems of the indigenous. It was a clear statement from Bombay’s industrialists; they intended to gain independence and were capable of developing as a modern, sovereign nation.
On the other hand, Bombay’s residential areas experienced the Art Deco movement a little differently—lively and vibrant neighborhoods such as Marine Drive and Oval Maidan were developed, where the Art Deco elements were far more subtle and overall much less politically driven. Instead, they created a built environment much in line with Bombay’s elite; they actively tried to communicate an image centered around a global identity, one that wasn’t rebelling against the British Imperial authority, but was simply becoming part of a cosmopolitan, consumerist and capitalist society living in a modern neighborhood.
In the meantime, while traveling across India, Bombay’s merchants found themselves attracted to Karachi’s port. In a DAWN article, Mohammad Salman states that the gradual growth of enterprises and cotton trade on Karachi’s port led to the creation of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce, earmarking Karachi’s genesis as a business hub. Soon cotton trade shot up, resulting in the organisation of the Cotton Association in 1933, and its formalisation in 1936 as a physical structure: the Karachi Cotton Exchange Building. This building adopted Art Deco and revolutionized the architectural scope for Karachi’s landscape, effectively transitioning from Art Nouveau and Revivalist architecture to a newer and diverse array of designs as part of modernism.
As Karachi’s urban landscape started forming and negotiating with architectural ideas, the city found its urban fabric being stitched by four to eight storey commercial and residential buildings and bungalows that embraced multiple styles, including Art Deco.
From the 1940s to 1960s, when Art Deco-inspired architecture was most prevalent in Karachi, people were much more conscious of giving back to public spaces and neighbourhoods through the designs of their homes and buildings; they were sensitive to their surrounding environment, and thoughtful elements such as public benches within shop windows and parks such as Chetumal Terrace cropped up. Comparatively, Karachi’s newer architecture is isolated and disconnected from society. The exteriors of houses and buildings are not as personalised as they used to be during the era of Art Deco architecture, and built spaces are not friendly to the public.
Influence on Architecture: Symbols and Furniture
Internationally, Art Deco inspired architecture featured straight and sleek lines, geometric patterns, and shapes of Greco-Roman Classicism. Ziggurat patterns inspired by Ancient Babylonian and Aztec architecture, clean rectangular designs, symmetry, and unvaried repetition of design elements were common features. Motifs using the sun (e.g. sun rays, sun bursts) were common.
The sun is the most widely recognised motif of the Art Deco Movement. It is one of the most ancient symbols in human history; all of the most important concepts were wrapped up in the image of the sun: time, life, birth, death, divinity, royalty, and power. It symbolises the dawn of a new age. South Asian Architecture uses the sunrise and sun bursts motifs plentifully in the form of grills, taking different forms, the symbol becomes what is termed as ‘Glocal’, generating local versions of a symbol or design from a globalised movement.
The Art Deco style was essentially one of applied decoration. Buildings were richly embellished with hard-edged, low-relief designs. Buildings in South Asia used expensive handcrafted decoration, others used machine-made repetitive decorations. To keep costs down, ornamental treatment was often limited to the most visible parts of the building.
Art Deco, also known as Style Moderne, sometimes known as streamline moderne, was highly influenced by the design of automobiles and planes to make them more streamlined and aerodynamic. This styling used in the aviation and automobile industries started to influence design, and can be seen in the more curved lines which came towards the tail end of Art Deco.
Windows in Art Deco designs usually appear as punctured openings, either square or round. To maintain a streamlined appearance for the building, they were often arranged in continuous horizontal bands of glass. Wall openings are sometimes filled with decorative glass or with glass blocks, creating a contrast of solid and void forms while admitting daylight.
The 1920s and 30s were all about movement. Not only was the urban cityscape growing rapidly, modes of transportation had changed swiftly ‘overnight’ from horse-and-buggy to planes, trains and automobiles. This led many Art Deco designers to use curves to represent motion.
Radial geometry and patterns were common symbols. The circle itself symbolises a sacred thing that can mean wholeness, fertility, equality and strength. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, circles also provide great contrast to harsher geometric shapes, which is why a lot of Art Deco typography mixes both hard lines with exaggerated curves. Designers made use of rigid lines by slanting them to imply motion.
In South Asia, another major Art Deco influence was the emergence of Terrazzo flooring. Terrazzo’s presence in the Indian Subcontinent has its origins in Mumbai, where it became extremely popular from 1950-1970. The company Bharat Tiles, founded to compete with British imported tiles and to help India end its reliance on British goods, was one of the first to pioneer Art Deco floors in Mumbai, installing Terrazzo tiles in the iconic cinema houses and Art Deco buildings of Marine Drive, Oval, Malabar Hill and more. Jamshed Nusserwanji, the first elected mayor of Karachi, established a tile factory in Karachi that was the inspiration for their sister-factory Bharat Tiles. Today terrazzo can be found in many homes and buildings across Karachi, and in the childhood memories of Karachiites. Terrazzo flooring feels nostalgic, comfortable and familiar to most, and is a local craft that artisans have to train to create.
Art Deco influence extended to interiors as well, and furniture from the Art Deco era can still be found in Karachi homes, preserved as valuable historical and cultural objects. Art Deco within interiors mirrored the exteriors, celebrating modern life and emphasizing luxury and sophistication. Furniture design featured new materials like chrome, Bakelite (a type of plastic) and plate glass, as well as costly materials like ivory, mahogany and dark lacquered surfaces. Lacquering was a process that coated materials like wood with many layers of resins to create hard shiny surfaces and this process was widely used in Art Deco style furnishing. When you look at an Art Deco Architecture or objects, you see common elements like geometric shapes, often in the form of zigzags or chevrons (upside down V forms).
These are just some examples of Art Deco inspired furniture found in people’s homes in Karachi: (Images provided by Kiran Ahmad, H. M. Naqvi, Farooq Soomro, Ahad Ali, Marvi Mazhar)
A South Asian Network: Art Deco Insta Family
Across South Asia, the deterioration and loss of heritage is a common ache. Local and federal governments are usually the ones tasked with preserving it, but due to their inefficiency, we now see people across the subcontinent taking it upon themselves to document and preserve their past.
The next generation of collaborators and preservationists are now online, and have created a South Asian Network through Instagram and other social media sites to collaborate, share information. Many South Asian Art Deco Instagram pages have been active for years, documenting and bringing recognition to Art Deco influences within their communities. Examples of such pages:
In our collective struggle to make Karachi and other South Asian cities more livable for the common person, we need to realise that preservation is a must. The ease of outreach and documentation through social media has been a great benefit for citizens of South Asia concerned with preserving and documenting their past. The collaborative aspect of these pages highlights the fact that this South Asian Network is working together to make information on Art Deco accessible to the general public, and to create a repository that will hopefully inspire others and help to preserve the rich heritage of South Asian cities.
Karachi’s Urban Decay and Way Forward
In complex cities like Karachi, urban planning and historic preservation are misunderstood and are usually some of the last aspects of development to be considered. New development projects are initiated without any public discussion or publication of development plans, and the decision making powers are centralised within the Sindh government, which is highly fragmented and lacks a holistic, unified vision for heritage preservation. Moving forward, we need to allow the public to have a say in what happens, and give ownership of the city’s heritage to her citizens.
To begin with, we should establish a formal, professional committee similar to New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to oversee everything related to historic landmarks in Karachi, and give the public a platform to voice their concerns. A centralised committee similar to LPC is sorely needed to establish and formalise rules on demarcating historic areas and buildings, to organise the process of approving changes to historic buildings, and to legally protect not only the heritage from the greed of owners who allow it to deteriorate, but also owners from misplaced allocations of historic buildings.
The international precedent of major cities is to have demarcated areas like historic quarters, financial districts and art districts within their cities. We too need to formally create heritage districts and zones (e.g. Art Deco District) to recognise and protect our heritage, both pre-partition and post. Demarcated zones help to preserve heritage for future generations by encouraging citizens and authorities to treat whole neighbourhoods as spaces that need to be taken care of and maintained.
We should raise awareness of the importance of Karachi’s historical sites and areas through mediums such as heritage walks and trails. Art Deco Mumbai, a not-for-profit organisation, documents the Art Deco heritage across Mumbai, advocates for its preservation, makes information public through their website, and allows people to interact with the heritage through guided tours led by informed and passionate researchers.
Guided tours/walks across heritage sites are not a foreign concept. The Walled City of Lahore Authority carries out guided tours in addition to being responsible for the preservation of the heritage district. Heritage Walk Karachi is also a local initiative that conducts guided walks across areas within Old Town, and creates a medium of interaction between citizens, historical narratives and heritage sites. Guided walks should be formalised and adapted to historically significant areas across Karachi, and should preferably be led by locals of the area to empower them to protect their heritage, and to continue traditions of passing down stories and histories through word of mouth.
Karachi direly needs cultural urban planning that allows neighbourhoods and a centralised formal committee to work together in an organised and legalised way to protect and document the rich historic and cultural urban history of Karachi. We need not just the government to be empowered, but the common people as well, to work towards the goal of creating a more liveable city for one another.
Conceptualised by: Marvi Mazhar and Associates
Written and Researched by: Marvi Mazhar, Anushka Maqbool, Harmain Ahmer, Hareem Naseer