From Bungalows To Boxes: How Architecture In Pakistan Changed Over 75 Years

From Bungalows To Boxes: How Architecture In Pakistan Changed Over 75 Years
Much like Rome, Lahore too was not built in a day. The sprawling city as we know it today did not always look like it does now, with its futuristic flyovers and underpasses and divisive trains, orange, purple and blue. The present day cordoned off sections that make up housing societies with the same regurgitated, unimaginative names and the same monotonous square houses might make it hard to believe that this is the same Lahore that was known as the city of gardens. But then every summer the Amaltaas trees blossom, and the streets are decked with the happiest sunny yellow foliage, and suddenly, you remember why this city served as the seat of power and the capital for so many historic dynasties, not just the Mughals, although that remains the strongest association for many.

Amaltas trees in bloom.

A question was put forth recently: what happened to Pakistan’s architecture? We went from such unique, characteristic buildings that were representative of whatever the current ruling powers were, to monotonous modernist boxy houses in a row, all the same size, color, and shape. Even our commercial buildings all look the same: glass towers that add nothing to the aesthetic value of the city. A valid question, I thought, but as I soon discovered, like most things, the answer was clouded and made even more complex by layers of colonial havoc, politics, environmental disregard, and untapped reflexivity.

Contemporary modern housing.

When I spoke to Fauzia Qureshi, who was the head of the architecture department as well as a former principal at the National College of Arts (NCA), in addition to being a well-regarded architect in her own right, she told me that the concept of the modern day bungalow as we know it, with the actual house in the center of the lot, was a configuration that the British brought with them when they first came to India. Urban housing before the arrival of the British were inwards facing, as opposed to outwards facing like the bungalows, which is a concept that kept coming up in subsequent conversations.

People of the subcontinent preferred closely connected houses that sat on the edge of the roads, with entrances that opened directly onto the streets. In the center of these houses would often be a central courtyard, which would be the source of sunlight, fresh air, and outdoor space. All the rooms in the house would face the courtyard, which would also afford the residents a degree of privacy from neighbours. “There was an entrance and then the mardaan-khana (men’s section) was in the front, then there was a central courtyard, and then the zanaan-khana (women’s section) would be at the back,” she tells me, explaining that because the houses and havelis were built wall-to-wall, the central courtyard was the only source of sunlight and ventilation.

Traditional havelis with central courtyards.

Stereotypical British bungalow with a veranda.

But the arrival of the British brought bungalows —a mouthful, I know. Now houses were outside facing; situated in the center of the plot, these houses looked to the outwards, which made sense for the British, who were curious about their new domain. The houses often had verandas which helped keep the rooms inside cool and had plenty of outdoor communal space.

A rest house from 1928.


While initially the plots were large, covering areas upwards of three or four kanals, modern day spacing issues and the rapid population increase doesn’t allow for plots that large anymore, which means that houses are now restricted to one or two kanals maximum in most cases. Suddenly, there is no more room for a veranda, because everyone wants more rooms, and so the houses become bigger and outdoor spaces become smaller.


And then comes 1947, and we become an independent nation, free to design our houses however we please, and yet for a while, we continue to model everything in colonial fashion, because first architects in both India and Pakistan had been trained under the British. Eventually, as more and more Pakistani architects went abroad and came back to Pakistan, the architecture evolved into a more modernist style, and as one of the heads of the Aga Khan award and celebrated architect Hasan-Uddin Khan tells me, this lasted for a while, well into the 70s, at which point he says we became aware and decided that we wanted our architecture to reflect our Islamic history as well. “And so the architects tried to look at Islam as a point of inspiration, and began constructing buildings that copied some traits of Mughal architecture,” he says.

A cinema in Karachi in the 70s.

Alhamra Arts Council designed by Nayyar Ali Dada

Around the early 1980’s, there are two things that are happening simultaneously when it comes to architecture. On one hand we have buildings that look back towards history and the Mughals, such as Nayyar Ali Dada’s work, as seen in the Alhamra Arts Council, or the Gaddafi Stadium. And then we have people who remain steadfastly modern, such as Habib Fida Ali, who designed LUMS and the Shell House in Karachi.

Shell House Karachi designed by Habib Fida Ali


But then, a third group began to emerge. “There was a bunch that looked at what I would call vernacular architecture and historicist architecture, which is people like Kamil Khan Mumtaz, who said that when he first came into contact with the Aga Khan Award, it made him rethink modernism,” says Hasan. Kamil then went on to develop a form of architecture that was more a synthesis of the historic and the modernist as well as more indigenous.

Sketches by Kamil Khan Mumtaz.

“What’s interesting to me is that while the first patrons of architecture in Pakistan were these early entrepreneurs, and the government who felt like it needed to build or develop new and old cities, the entrepreneurs began to move away, and the role of the government changed,” Hasan tells me. Eventually, new developers and corporations took over the government’s responsibility and began to construct small townships within the cities, the biggest of which, Hasan says, is the Defence Housing Authority (DHA). “So what’s happened is that there has been a shift from government responsibility to a kind of public-private partnership, so now we are designing more for the private developers, as opposed to for the people.”

Hasan points out that almost all of the private developers like the DHA, or the Bahria Towns, really cater to the rich, and hardly ever cater to the poor. “So the poor are left to do their own development in their own areas, where local builders will construct the houses for them, and there’s really a kind of exuberance in what they do, if you go to lower or middle income housing,” he says, explaining that there are normally embellishments and decorations on these houses that is almost the architecture equivalent of truck art. “I find that really positive because it transfers individuality much more than the housing done by the DHA.”

An embellished house in a lesser known housing society.

In this capitalistic rat-race to make the most money, developers began to use imported materials in construction as an added selling point. But the downside to that was, we were now using material that wasn’t meant to be used in our climates. Hasan calls it the Dubai effect: towering skyscrapers and offices made entirely out of glass that reflects the harsh Pakistani sunlight, or aluminium or steel. “These materials are not really appropriate for us, but they talk about modernity and they talk about development, and being a part of an international order,” he says. But there are architects like the now-retired Yasmin Lari, who are experimenting with local resources like bamboo, lime, and brick and trying to incorporate that into local construction.

Yasmin Lari and one of the zero-carbon shelters she designed.

The transfer of responsibility from the government to private developers had another major drawback: nobody seemed to be interested in developing public spaces anymore. Architect Raza Ali Dada, who is the son of veteran architect Nayyar Ali Dada questioned why, in the 30 years since Alhamra Arts Council was built, have we not built another such cultural space? And it’s a good question. Raza is also the co-founder of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, and through the foundation, which has had two editions thus far, one goal is to open up public spaces to art, and art to public spaces again. According to him, when it comes to architecture, we’re just not having the right kinds of conversations. “We need to talk about the health of our cities and communities, and good design and what we can get out of it,” he says, asking “What does good design mean and how does it affect you and me?”

Scenes from the Lahore Biennale Foundation's first run in 2018.

Raza says that even in architecture, the conversation has to be about the future. “Whatever you’re designing today, will take four or five years to get ready,” he says, adding that it is imperative to think about what’s going on now, and what will be happening in the five years ahead. “It’s about everything else but style, if you ask me. It’s not about how to design a building and connect rooms and build walls, you have to understand so many aspects about our lives as part of a community, a city and a region.” He says economics, environment, society and politics all play a very important role in the planning and construction of a building, but ultimately the bigger picture nowadays is that everything is about money. “Everything that had to be my or your basic right is now a big money-making business, from health to education.”

Collectively though, the country has put art and culture on the back-burner. Theater, music, and film are all making feeble attempts at revivals, but there is such a long way to go before as a community we cultivate a genuine appreciation for the arts. While Raza acknowledges that sometimes by a fluke accident you’ll come across an expression of genuine creativity and individuality in the city, for the most, everyone seems to be caught in the same old rat race. “A city will always reveal what’s going on inside, no matter what you do. So, if you’re disappointed at the monotonous state of Lahore, it’s because that’s how all the people in the city have become,” he states.

Aerial view of Lahore's walled city.

And it’s not just the architects and the urban planners who are to blame here. The institutes and the government play a huge role as well. Raza teaches architecture at universities in Lahore as well, and he tells me that each year, a majority of his students pull up pictures of architecture from Norway or Finland as examples in class, as opposed to looking at local examples of architecture. He says he encourages them to go out and explore the city, and use that as a reference board, because the architecture they will eventually be designing will be in Pakistan and not Norway or Finland.

Additionally, even in a city as big and developed as Lahore, there is no central unifying body that oversees all the various independent townships or developmental authorities. Therefore, there is nobody to regulate them, nobody to voice grievances, concerns and suggestions to, and therefore, no say in the growth and expansion of an already expansive city. “Nobody talks to each other, everyone has their own rules, and nobody cares about the environment,” he laments. “There needs to be a local government, so that we can have awareness and studies on a neighborhood level.”

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.