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”

  1. wasiq says:

    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.

  2. Watan Aziz says:

    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.

  3. ali m. m. khan says:

    I love architecture but architects just create more clutter

  4. Gardezi says:

    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.

  5. Anand says:

    Thank You! Fascinating post!

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

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