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 responses to “Architecture in Pakistan: A Historical Overview”

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  3. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    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.

  4. Aslam Bajwa says:

    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…

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