Architecture in Pakistan: A Historical Overview

Posted on February 2, 2009
Filed Under >Pervaiz Munir Alvi, Architecture, Culture & Heritage
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Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Muslims first arrived in areas now constituting southern half of Pakistan – mostly Sindh and Balochistan in Eighth century A.D. when ships of Arab general Mohammad bin Qasim landed somewhere near the mouth of the Indus river and then traveled upriver all the way to the important city of Multan in lower Punjab. Thus bringing most of the commerce routes from the Indus valley to Mesopotamia through Balochistan and Persia under their control.

The areas now constituting northern half of Pakistan – Punjab, Kashmir and Frontier did not come under the Muslim control till the beginning of the eleventh century when the armies of Sultan Mahmood of Gazna, present day Afghanistan, came down through the mountain passes demolishing temples and the statuary within, unfortunate enough to be in their way. The newcomers, along with a new religion, also introduced new forms of visual arts and architecture to this land and its people.

Mosques were built, forts and palaces were erected, mausoleums and garden cemeteries were created where no such structures existed before. The old temples and ashrams, stupas and monasteries ultimately became the relics of history. So significant was the introduction, and later on the proliferation, of this new art form that in historical terms the architecture of the areas now constituting Pakistan could be designated to two distinct periods— the earlier as pre-Islamic and the later as Islamic period.

By the middle of the eighteenth century Muslims lost control of the areas now constituting northern half of Pakistan to the Sikhs of Punjab. Even though they made architectural contributions of their own, the Sikh period also saw, not unlike their predecessors, destruction, stripping and neglect of the earlier buildings of the Islamic period. Particularly affected were the Muslim religious places such as the historical mosques and mausoleums.

The areas now constituting southern half of Pakistan fortunately remained under Muslim control long after the fall of the Mughals and therefore did not experience the similar fate. However invaders from Persia and Afghanistan routinely damaged the historically significant structures and looted whatever they could on their return trip home.

The mid nineteen century saw the start of another short but architecturally significant period. By now the British had successfully taken over all the territories later to become Pakistan and set upon building new administrative institutions and infrastructures of their own. They were going to built collages, hospitals, post offices, museums, court houses, assembly halls, city halls, libraries, country clubs, parks, stadiums, cantonments and residential bungalows, railway stations and yes architecturally significant bridges and tunnels.

In one century of British rule hundred and hundreds of new significant public structures were commissioned throughout the country. This was a period of not only European and English architecture but also of unique hybrids created by fusing the elements of English with the local Islamic architecture. Most of these colonial buildings are still standing and in use in Pakistan. British also help restore and some times deface some of the old historical buildings. In balance British period is the most significant period for Architecture in Pakistan.

The year 1947 is the beginning of the post colonial Pakistan period. British had left behind a running administration and infrastructure for the new rulers of the new country. In the first decade very few new architecturally significant buildings were added in any sphere of the society. The first major architectural surge took place when the national capital was moved from the commercial port city of Karachi at the Arabian Sea to the newly designed modern city of Islamabad located at the foothill of picturesque Margala ridge.

Almost all major buildings in the city were designed by the foreign firms with some local input. These designers have often tried to create modern functional structures with infusion of their perceived local styles and traditions. The result is another hybrid architecture which over the time will be known as Pakistan period. Other than Islamabad every major city in Pakistan has also added few new structures in the mix. These are mostly educational and administrative buildings, hospitals, commercials centers, hotels, mosques and national monuments. Lately new airport terminals and sea ports are also added too.

Outside Islamabad no new major library is built. Other than those left behind by the British there has been no new world class museum or art gallery built in the last six decades. There are no opera houses, night clubs, significant theater halls or palaces to host performance events. None of the new bridges over major rivers or canals have any architectural values to them. The country has no internationally renowned architects or architectural firms of its own and thus heavily depends on foreign based designers. It is possible that with time a distinct Pakistani Architecture, like French or Italian Architecture may evolve. But it might be by default and not by conscientious design.

(See an earlier ATP post on architectural neglect in Pakistan, here and here).

Pervaiz Munir Alvi is a Ravian and trained as a Civil and Geo-technical Engineer with a deep interest in buildings and architecture in Pakistan.

29 Comments on “Architecture in Pakistan: A Historical Overview”

  1. Daktar says:
    October 10th, 2006 12:07 pm

    Very nice topic. I have always wondered what the fascination is with all the ‘White Houses’ in Islamabad. Big pillars. Horizontal triangle at teh back. But sqeezed in a tiny space with no sense of proportion. A statement of ‘I am wallait pallat’ rather than of any aesthetic value.

  2. Owais Mughal says:
    October 10th, 2006 1:26 pm

    Pervaiz Sahib very nice topic. My favourite buildings from post colonial Pakistan period are:

    PNSC, Habib Bank Plaza and FTC buildings in Karachi for their symmetry.

    Aga Khan university campus in Karachi for its earth-quake proof architecture,

    Serena Hotel and Baluchistan Assembly building in Quetta for blending local architecture into modern architecture.

    Wapda House Lahore for modern architecture.

    Supreme Court building in Islamabad for modern architecture

    Alhamra Arts Center in Lahore for using bricks for outside architecture.

    Ones that I don’t like are the National Assembly building as well as the presidency in Islamabad. They Look like lots of big rectangles on top of eachother.

    I also do not like the MCB building in Karachi. It is currently the tallest building but is outright ugly. The top two floor are so unaesthetically unsymmetric. Looks like when a family adds an extra room on the roof without getting the map passed as the family size increases :)

  3. October 10th, 2006 1:45 pm

    Pervaiz Sahib, thank you for this insightful post. I do wonder, however, if your assessment in the last paragraph is a little too harsh. It seems to me that in recent years we have seen the beginnings of an authentically ‘Lahore school’ – characterized most visibly by the use of red brick and more gemetrical shapes (including a lot of tall and straight lines) but also focussing on the revival of some more traditional building features (the return of the ‘roshan daan’, use of clay and mud as insulation, appropriate window placement and sizes, etc.) It may be nascent but it seems that with some semi-monumental works (Alhamra and LUMS campus) already out there and a lot of architects (and home builders) gravitating towards this style we may be seeing the emergence of a ‘Lahore style’ that is increasingly apparent as you drive through certain parts of the city. A number of Pakistani architects (Nayyar Ali Dada, for example) do seem to have also begun establishing their own style and following. Kamil Khan Mumtaz, for example, seems to have also done much for the ‘return of the jharoka’, although the jury may still be out on the future of the Kharoka.

  4. October 10th, 2006 1:47 pm

    On another note, my understadning is (please check me if I am wrong) that the Sikh architectural influence is as strong, if not stronger, in the old parts of Peshawar.

  5. Akz says:
    October 10th, 2006 3:16 pm

    partially true adil..have a look at sethi mohallah here

    At the rate peshawars historical places are being turned into plazas these pics might be the last lol

  6. Owais Mughal says:
    October 10th, 2006 3:53 pm

    Does anyone know who designed the dome of masjid-e-tooba in defence Karachi?

  7. Samdani says:
    October 10th, 2006 6:40 pm

    Since the flavor of this post is historical, Multan seems to have a flavor of its own, also Bahawalpur. Both are also very dependent of materials found nearby and have special flavor.

  8. Samdani says:
    October 10th, 2006 6:41 pm

    Those Peshawar picturs from Akz are quite striking. Pity we are losing this heritage.

  9. MQ says:
    October 11th, 2006 12:17 am

    Pervaiz Alvi Sahib,

    A good and instructive post.

    I agree with Adil that Lahore has taken the lead, like in everything else, also in architecture. You see a lot many more buildings, both residential and public, that are modern and at the same time rooted in the local tradition.

    People, all over the world, tend to emulate the rich. If a rich person builds a house, say in Karachi, that looks like a cheap replica of the White House, very soon you will see White Houses sprouting all over the country even on 10 marla plots. This is what happened when the “neo-Greek” epidemic hit Pakistan in the 80s. That is why, it is so important that more visible or prominent buildings should be tastefully built.

  10. Khalid R Hasan says:
    October 11th, 2006 10:59 am

    The designer of the Masjid-e-Tooba in DHA Karachi is Dr.Babar Hamid

  11. Owais Mughal says:
    October 11th, 2006 11:27 am

    Thankyou Khalid Sahib

  12. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    October 11th, 2006 3:25 pm

    Daktar: Thank you for the nice comments.

    Owais: Thank you to you too also. You have listed some of the buildings from the Pakistan period. May be you could tell us more about these structures in your future postings. Thanks again.

    MQ: Thank you for the kind words.

    Adil Najam: Thank you for prompting me to write this essay. The addition of graphics from you makes it look nicer. May be my last paragraph is a bit harsh. But our architects have to stop being lazy. They must take the leadership role in preserving our heritage and developing a uniquely Pakistani Architecture. We need an organized ‘Architectural Survey of Pakistan’ and ‘National Architectural Standards’. I am aware of the slow development of the informal ‘Lahore School’. The National Collage of Arts has to be credited for that. Alhamra and Avari(then Hilton) Lahore were the earlier attempts. Particularly Hilton borrowed many features from the Shalamar and Lahore fort. The atrium of the hotel has featured wooden ‘Jharokas’ and that was three decades ago. I have not seen LUMS campus yet. May be you could provide us a post on that. I also like the six Serena hotels recently built by Agha Khan group in various cities in Pakistan. Nayyar Ali Dada & Kamil Khan Mumtaz; could you please name some of their significant works along with photographs. Again, thanks for allowing this indulgence.

  13. Akif Nizam says:
    September 7th, 2007 5:23 pm

    In the upcoming issue of Newsweek: Islamabad’s new art gallery.

  14. October 26th, 2007 6:42 am

    Dear Readers,
    I am glad to see the information and data here, I hope it will provide first hand knowledge to the students and researchers about the Architecture and harritage.
    I will appriciate all the comments and qurries regarding Architecture of Pakistan.
    M Adeel Qureshi,
    Researcher and Lecturer,
    University of Karachi,

  15. ayesha sajid says:
    October 26th, 2007 10:33 am

    I am not an expert on this subject but like any citizen with a bit of aesthetics, i take interest in the architecture of my country.
    For example a recent trip to neelam valley made me come across a very unique style of houses , ones that are not visible in other northern parts of Pakistan.
    Surprisingly they were very north European, specially resembling houses built in say Sweden or Austria.
    Three or four storied with sloping roofs ( for snow ), the attic mostly used for storage and the living on the mid stories.
    The only difference being that the European houses are perhaps better kept and better painted. Although the ruggedness of these houses had an allure of thier own.

    The Kailaash valley too has unique housing where the house is built around a hollow cylendrical space that is covered by a common roof. The idea is to keep the cattle on the ground floor so the heat from them rises up to heat the rest of the floors.
    It is amazing to see how architecture has adapted according to the needs of the locality and the climate.

    Having said that , what of buildings like the Centaurus ( excuse the spellings ) towers ?
    i recall some one here saying it will be a landmark that Pakistan badly needs .
    I personelly think its ugly and does not go with the surroundings of the green hills of Islamabad. But I guess i know not what i speak of for i am all for straight lines that never go out of fashion.
    I’d rather stick with the tried and tested then want to be a wannabe ( dubai style ).

  16. Abdul Saboor says:
    November 19th, 2007 10:44 am

    This is a very good try to give knowledge to others. I appreciate you….

  17. CalArch says:
    February 13th, 2008 6:08 am

    Love the blog, if i may ask, what software are you using? how much does it cost? where do you get it? If it’s not a secret email me some details wouldya?

    thanks in advance!

  18. touseef says:
    August 4th, 2008 10:12 am


  19. August 19th, 2008 2:28 pm

    Very interesting read.


  20. September 20th, 2008 3:29 am

    The Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) is located within the Shah Burj block in north-western corner of Lahore Fort. It was constructed under the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631-32. The ornate white marble pavilion is inlaid with pietra dura and complex mirror-work of the finest quality. The hall was reserved for personal use by the imperial family and close aides. It is among the 21 monuments that were built by successive Mughal emperors inside Lahore Fort, and forms the jewel in the Fort

  21. Anand says:
    February 3rd, 2009 2:25 am

    Thank You! Fascinating post!

    P.S: A better job at screening the final copy for editorials, next time, perhaps ;)

  22. Gardezi says:
    February 3rd, 2009 11:35 am

    I think this is harsh on recent architecture. There are actually quite a few distinctive Pakistani buildings now. WAPDA House, like it or not is an icon. The red brick architectural style of Lahore that has developed. The straight lines of the Aga Khan University and Hospital in Karachi. And many others.

  23. ali m. m. khan says:
    February 3rd, 2009 7:49 pm

    I love architecture but architects just create more clutter

  24. Watan Aziz says:
    February 3rd, 2009 8:41 pm

    WAPDA House had another distinction, it was a very well kept building. The floors was spotless and the glass crystal clear. During the ZAB agitation, one man accidently ran into one of them, not realizing the large panes were glass. Poor man, was badly injured.

    And it housed the first mainframe in Pakistan, in it’s 3rd or 4th level basement. It was a punch card / magnetic tapes on spools based system. And you had to dress up in those silly gowns to go inside. It did the WAPDA’s billing and also rental for PIA, if memory serves me right.

  25. wasiq says:
    February 3rd, 2009 9:08 pm

    Trying to cover pre-Islamic, Islamic, Colonial, and post-Independence architecture in one short post is a little ridiculous. A more substantial description on the architecture of a particular period, region, or building would be more informative and would have prevented the author from glossing over the fact that the post-Independence period is not entirely barren architecturally. Clearly, the subject is high on the list of interests among ATP readers, but justice can only be done in such cases if the subject matter is more focused. I’d suggest the author read Owais Mughal’s posts on Model Town Lahore for guidance.

  26. Aslam Bajwa says:
    February 4th, 2009 3:58 am

    Good post. Also pakistan is rich in culture, Pakistaniat editors should also write posts over Cultural background of pakistan or Indian sub contentinal area.

    I also submited to but needs 15 kicks to be published at url below…

  27. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    February 4th, 2009 11:02 am

    wasiq: You are right. To cover the entire 5000 year history of Architecture in Pakistan in one short article is not possible. However there is no intention to gloss over any particular period of our rich heritage. This two-year old article serves as an introduction to those who may not be familiar with the historical high marks in the development of architecture in Pakistan. For advanced readers like yourself I refer to an excellent two hundred page long book ‘Architecture in Pakistan’ by an eminent Pakistani architect Mr. Kamil Khan Mumtaz.

    Also the post-independence period is not barren. More structures have been erected in the post-independence period than all preceding periods combined. It is that most of the buildings erected in the past half century, save few, have mostly functional and not architectural or aesthetic value to them.

    The pool of Pakistan based indigenous architects is very small. Most Pakistani architectural firms are not capable of handling large projects. That is why most of the post-independence buildings are designed by the non-Pakistani architects unfamiliar with the local traditions and aspirations. To unfamiliar eyes these unremarkable newer structures could be placed any where in the world.

    In essence by out sourcing we have missed what could have been an excellent opportunity to develop a ‘Pakistani Architecture’. You may be surprised to know that there are only half a dozen colleges that offer architectural degrees in Pakistan. There are only one-per-million architectural firms in Pakistan. Most of Pakistani architects are involved with low budget projects. However in that genre with the generous use of red brick they have now developed what is termed as ‘Lahore School’. But like every thing else, we have a long way to go yet. Thanks for the interest and valuable input.

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