The Nineth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2007
Berkeley Prize 2007

Talha Khwaja

the promised land

The afternoon sun glints off the windshields of cars slowing down to stop at a red light and an eight year old boy casually unwraps a tobacco “pan” and stuffs it in his mouth as he surveys them from his usual vantage point under the traffic signal. His bare feet quickly step off the curb as he rushes towards a black BMW 5 Series and implores the lady sitting in the back to buy one of his plastic wrapped dolls for 15 rupees only. Before the chauffer can shoo him away the lady lowers her window a little and extends a folded hundred rupee bill through the narrow gap, careful not to touch his filthy fingers. The boy’s face spreads into a grin exposing three missing teeth as he grabs the bill, stuffs it into his tiny shirt pocket and quickly moves to the next car. His mother looks on from the curb, sitting holding a grimy shawl over the baby nursing in her arms and yelling at her other children, running around barefoot in the blistering heat. At sunset the family will take an over-crowded bus home to one of the many squatter settlements outside the city of Karachi; one of the largest in the world with over 14 million people, 32% of whom live below the poverty line.

Located on the southern coast of Pakistan along the Arabian Sea, Karachi is the financial capital of the country. Ethnically and religiously diverse, the city has struggled for years with over population, sectarian violence, crime and poverty. A stunted urban infrastructure has failed to deal with an ever increasing population and over five million people live in the nightmarish “Katchi Abadis”, or squatter settlements on the periphery of the city. The glittering decadence of the city’s powerful elite afforded in many cases by unchecked corruption and greed, sits surrounded by the hungry glares of the impoverished, disillusioned masses many of whom resort to crime, heroin or suicide. In the bitter struggle to make ends meet many families opt to send children to misguided religious schools that provide food and shelter, along with a lethal dose of fundamentalist indoctrination, fueling the ever growing sectarian divide in the city.

Decades of unplanned urban growth, resulting from a multitude of problems ranging from feudal hegemony in the rural areas to the Afghan refugee influx after the Soviet invasion, have created a strange, bustling metropolis where the raging vehicular storm of buses, trucks and cars merges with the defiant donkey carts, and the odd band of stray cows. Hip-hop music from a music store interweaves with the hypnotic sound of the “azan” from a nearby mosque, as the sunset is mirrored on the golden glass curtain wall of a newly constructed shopping mall, where the rich kids with their cell phones and SUVs get their caffe lattes and designer jeans and children from a neighboring slum sit outside on the curb waiting to clean their windshields for a rupee or two. Every now and again a child selling roses by the street carefully smoothes out his oily, film-star hairstyle and breaks into a song from the latest Urdu song-and-dance fiasco playing at the local theaters, as he follows around young couples window shopping, filling the air with his infectious joy. Two burqa-clad girls riding in a horrendously noisy rickshaw-taxi returning from college giggle at the lady with the Gucci glasses petting an ugly little poodle in the back of a Mercedes Benz passing them by. The systems, relationships and networks created by a an enormously diverse population crammed into an unplanned, disorganized and massively troubled municipality have created an incredibly surreal urban experience that inexplicably sears itself to the souls that inhabit its chaos-ridden streets.

Security, shelter and health are fundamental human needs, and when 40% of the city’s 14 million people live in shanty-towns, without electricity, water, proper sanitation or drainage, something is very wrong. That coupled with a several decades old, bloated and corrupt system of bureaucracy that enables shameless violations of zoning laws and land-use plans by greedy developers and government officials, makes for a sorry state of affairs. Yet the squatter settlements of Karachi are often seen as ugly, illegal encroachments on government land instead of desperate final attempts at survival by a severely destitute people, let down by their government and failed by a hopelessly crooked system. The city government continues to demolish ‘Katchi Abadis’ to make way for new super highways and shopping malls, destroying communities that have existed, in some cases, for over 15 years and include thousands of people. Evictions are often forceful and without compensation. There is a direct correlation between the country’s socio-cultural devastation by a potent mix of poverty and decadence, and the physical reality of its most major city.

I propose a housing project, located along the sea where the city government is currently developing a series of parks and recreational facilities. The Karachi sea side has long been the only affordable recreational destination for the common man, where entire families can go and simply sit watching the tide, forgetting their worries for a while. A new wave of development, including parks, restaurants, play areas and shops threatens to turn it into yet another playground for the rich. I propose a housing scheme, along the sea, providing homes to the thousands of evicted squatter settlement residents in Karachi, and coupling the new wave of recreational development with a far more important and desperately needed settlement of the displaced poor. A project such as this could have immense social implications. We place at center stage the plight of millions of Karachiites without access to fundamental human necessities and we work to end their suffering, through creativity. The housing project could be tackled not just as a utilitarian set of housing units but a community open to all. The residents could be allowed to use the ground floors of their new houses as shops, restaurants or other small tourist-oriented businesses, creating multiple, small sea side villages. The beach-parks that are currently underway along the Karachi coast will bring in a lot of people from all parts of the city, and these new villages could become an important part of the new beach experience. The rich in Karachi live their cocooned lives utterly disconnected from the suffering of the common people, which is viewed through air conditioned car windows, like a movie. This new community of displaced Karachiites could begin the process of erasing those boundaries. It would be essential to create an environment that reflects the residents’ identities and the key to achieving that lies in giving them creative control of the new development. Architecture students, professors, professionals and local artists from every field could get involved and work with the residents to create a new home for the displaced people of Katchi Abadis, and at the same time a recreational district that provides the residents with a means to make a living, and the city as a whole with a new destination. A public works project, much like the ones proposed in 1933 in the United States, under the New Deal reforms, funded by the government, employing the future residents of these homes as the actual builders of their own community, with the help and guidance of local artists, architects and engineers could finally trigger what is so desperately needed in this part of the world; a renaissance, a push towards re-discovering the incredibly rich cultural, artistic and social heritage of the sub-continent. This project could be the starting point for a new movement, a new urban conscience, that seeks to unmask the city’s most hideous scars and finally, begin the process of healing.

The symbolic value of a housing project is unquestionable. It represents the home that Pakistan was meant to be, back in 1947 after the Partition of India. The process of building it is representative of the struggle that lies ahead for the citizens of the country. It establishes a noble precedent, asserting the importance of understanding and easing the suffering of the lowest stratum of society first, in order to move forward as a nation. The objective is not to simply fulfill some pedantic notion of low-income housing and urban development that has nothing to do with the realities of the people involved. These sea side communities must act as real homes that are provided with all the basic necessities that human beings have rights to, like water, electricity, sanitation, drainage, health and safety. In addition, the people must also be provided with the opportunity to paint their own way of life onto the bare canvas of the architectural form, and live the way they feel is dignified. Forcing ideas and conditions onto them that have nothing to do with what they want or feel comfortable with would be a tragic mistake. There has to an element of surprise that will take shape as the people move in and go about living their lives, finding an equilibrium with their new environment. From a cultural and religious point of view, that is so important in this part of the world, a home that a family can call its own is truly sacred and its creation will definitely resonate with the mass psyche. The new villages by the sea will connect back in time, with the small fishing village named Kolachi, in the 17th century, which later became Karachi.

The Architectes de l’Urgence organization can help with a low income housing project such as this. They have a broad mission statement that includes providing design services to people who are suffering anywhere in the world, and are also interested in preserving cultural heritage. The most essential role for the Emergency Architects would be to organize and direct the various local professionals, students and future-residents who would all be working on the project together. They would bring their expertise and international experience with different building materials, techniques and sustainability. In addition, their help in collecting data on the environmental and urban implications of the project would be crucial. The Emergency Architects could also help set up temporary living facilities for all the people who get involved and create a community of builders, designers, artists and volunteers who take part in the project. A creative approach to bringing people together is an important part of this effort in order to have a joyous atmosphere of learning, discovering and creating. The organization is working on a training program for Afghan builders, students and architects in Kabul, to help them rebuild their homes, much like their expected role here, and is already helping with the earthquake relief effort in northern Pakistan. They have an understanding of the cultural climate of this part of the world and their stated goals indicate an important sensitivity to local customs, traditions and practices. The work would begin with extensive research on climate, materials, and indigenous building practices, and move into a full blown exploration of the cultural context and history of the region. For instance, the characteristics of traditional Muslim architecture, like the open courtyard, the raised entry, the multipurpose spaces, and other local building practices like the perimeter wall around the house, provision of area for growing crops, keeping livestock, all need to be combined with the modern day understanding of human nature and successful urban design. The concepts of boundaries, zones of influence and ownership are also very important and need to be addressed carefully given the fact that this will be a community open to visitors and tourists, and there needs to be a sharp focus on innovative strategies to create a home for the poor without making them feel unsafe or like exhibits in a museum. The system of public circulation needs to be handled in a way that allows for the residents to keep an eye on their visitors. The fact that these families would be able to run their businesses from their homes will allow the women of the households to take an active role in providing for the family, but an important part of the solution would be a safe, protected environment that does not conflict with any cultural beliefs and practices. The importance of neighbors is a powerful aspect of how local communities live and also has cultural weight, making the connections between individual housing units very important. Shared outdoor space, used for drying or washing clothes could be an interesting place for interaction between neighbors, without compromising basic needs of privacy. In time the other necessities of a community, like schools and clinics, will need to be addressed as well. The residents’ input in the layout and design of this community is a critical issue and the Emergency Architects will help organize and educate their ideas and wishes. The 7000 tons of garbage produced in Karachi in the form of paper, metals, glass and plastic could also be recycled and used in exciting new ways.

The houses built would serve as models for economically viable, artistically important and culturally significant pieces of architecture, setting the stage for a new era of rediscovery and enlightenment that is not restricted to architecture alone, but encompasses all aspects of a modern urban existence. Like the European Renaissance, which used a humanist mindset to rediscover the region’s Classical roots, the leading artists and intellectuals of Pakistan would find the essence of the collective hopes and aspirations of the nation’s masses, and forge a modern, adaptable, and progressive identity that is firmly rooted in the region’s cultural history. The sea side village could become the first in a series of housing projects all over the country. It is an absolute certainty that very little change can be brought about without first creating a safe and just society with a democratic government that actually works, but a project such as this can set a precedent for devotion and excellence, research and artistic credibility, and most importantly, validity of purpose.

Karachi, the city of my birth, is the urban poem that echoes maddeningly in the hearts of those who have experienced it. The people who live here share the unspoken bond that unites those in constant contact with the resilient fabric of humanity stretched thin across social inequality and disorder. The dream that Pakistan once was, 60 years ago has faded to a whisper. Only when the basic needs of the population are met will higher goals be possible to achieve. It is meaningless to preach about social order and responsibility when over 32 % of the population is struggling to stay alive. Recent economic growth resulting from new government reforms and policies is a good sign for the future of Karachi, but the true face of the city is the 6 million residents of the Katchi Abadis and any attempt at development is futile if it fails to address their suffering.


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Talha Khwaja, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA
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