The city of Karachi has no socio-economic, administrative or cultural identity of its own; therefore it has no personal architectural identity or language as well. It is a mixture of several languages as well as myriad individual characteristics that have been brought to this city with the colourful array of immigrants, whether foreign or local.
The architecture consists of different personal, public and private abodes ranging from ramshackle makeshift rag and mat huts, to the 1,000 sq yard mansions and the constantly mushrooming high-rise buildings, either in the commercial hub or in the suburbs, advertised as new luxury apartments.
However, one thing that remains persistent everywhere is, there is no such thing as consistency here. Buildings are designed, planned and executed in anyway the owner, contractor or an architect pleases. Volumes could be written about the styles and construction methodologies adopted here since there is not just one way to go about the business.
Buildings from the British Raj look strongly anchored to the ground with their limestone and sandstone facades or at times merely limestone claddings laid on top of a concrete layer - a significant feature downtown. Whereas on the other hand are the government quarters on Martin Road and Jehangir Road that have two large rooms with a covered veranda serving as a transition space from the rooms to the kitchen as well as the separate latrine and bath facilities situated in the courtyard. Although these quarters have changed a lot of shape, one must mention here the much larger quarters that used to grace Jacoblines, where there are the 40 sq yrd ghettos. with some atrocious high rise apartments, designed/proposed by the famous Yasmeen Lari in the ‘70s. The so-called low income houses are more of pigeonholes then residential quarters, with a minimum area of 40 sq yards per family. Nevertheless, apartments they are, monstrous or not.
There are also those concrete houses from the 40s and 50s that display at least one cylindrical element or room in the plan, giving way to the styles, where to cater to the large families and less space, there emerged blocks of houses to make housing a more available necessity. These houses use the maximum covered space and have several small inter-connected rooms within, mostly opening onto a narrow passageway within the house and windows facing the narrow lane at the back of the house, generally referred to as the ‘gandi galli’ owing to the accumulated garbage.
Houses and buildings from the ‘70s have a solid looking structure, with mostly horizontal elements defining separate planes, having been influenced by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Houses. These houses often have a chimney like wall, with stone cladding, that appears to be holding the rest of the structure together, although, mostly this wall is random and not a chimney at all. Perhaps this was the time when the local Architecture schools started having a market and henceforth the American influence increased.
Or it had to do with General Ayub’s friendship with Doxiadas, making people mimic a mixture of foreign architecture and architectural practices.
Moving on, although one must also mention amongst all these, the cheap copies of different buildings, which imitate from Greco-Roman to the Colonial Architecture. Nevertheless, copies they remain with their overtly over-done facades and badly executed arches, or the ‘sort-of’ Ionic or Doric Columns with a hint of the Corinthians.
All in all, the architecture of Karachi is a mixed palette, with either the unsung traditional architecture springing up here and there, or the overrated modern architecture with the ugly glass surfaces.