Viewing Development in Lahore City

As we grow older, our lived experiences tend to colour our perception of the world. Even the simple act of walking in the city holds a different meaning at each stage in our lives. It is shaped by numerous factors like our physical ability, gender, ethnicity, and economic and educational backgrounds, to name a few. Our training as architects primarily makes us hyper-aware of our built environment and the biases it represents. It’s all very intentional, the way our cities are designed and developed almost always has an underlying agenda.

Before architecture school the simple task of commuting via public transport and walking back home from the bus stop was admittedly a challenge riddled with anxiety, however, there was no deeper analysis as to why this was the case. As citizens, we are often encouraged to accept the failings of our environment as the status quo, which offers no better alternatives. However, it’s partly due to the neoliberal policies which convert cities into wealth accumulation centres, often at a human cost. 

Simple planning rationales of prioritizing car owners, writing off the public transport as financially unviable, not maintaining footpaths, streetlights, and zebra crossings for vulnerable pedestrians, and creating gated housing in the suburbs largely disconnected from the central transport system. These aren’t merely failings due to poor maintenance, oversight, or lack of funding, it’s a means to undermine the people’s claim to the city and its public spaces. Where at first one saw the city as simply mismanaged, now it’s seen as a collection of self-contained gated communities which are both physically and financially inaccessible to the vast majority. 

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Private housing scheme_ ©Author

The simple act of visiting a park or walking in the dense urban centers are acts of transgression though the messaging is often confused like calling a park ‘public’ when in fact it is only open to the residents of a private housing scheme. Or how certain gated communities market themselves as eco-friendly due to their usage of solar panels when in fact all housing units employ material with very high embodied energy.  Another is the constant addition of housing schemes with the rationale to overcome the housing backlog when in fact it is primarily speculative housing. Even the sense of why certain single-use and income-segregated neighborhoods feel unsafe while the older mixed-use developments create more engagement and visibility. These casual inferences about one’s built environment are the product of architectural critical thinking.

Why certain things from a design standpoint work, whilst others don’t, can be perfectly understood through the concepts of the golden ratio. We learn to see patterns, in geometry, scale, and symmetry but alongside we also learn to see the deeper meaning behind seemingly well-meaning developments. To give an example Lahore cities underground metro stations are infrastructural marvels equipped with the latest tech but the stupendously expensive station remains wheelchair inaccessible and its largely empty connection corridors make people feel unsafe. Architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz observed how buildings and sites that “make Lahore what it is with its history, its heritage, its culture” had been destroyed in the process. “Entire neighborhoods, like the old Anarkali where people lived and had worked for generations, look like a Nagasaki” he rightly stated how this was a “violation of historic monuments” and thus a “criminal act”.

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Orange Line Passing through the Historic towns of Old Lahore _© Ali, A. (2020).

The architecture allows us to be more informed as to the whys and how’s which shape our built environment and the experiences it generates. How certain streets in the old town are shaded and offer a sense of enclosure due to the simple ratio of road to the building. Why does the flashy overhead bridge in the heart of the city’s heritage center create a visual sequence for the car user but is over designed to the point of being a spectacle in itself? Often time’s infrastructure isn’t merely utilitarian but politicized and designed to remind onlookers as to who is in power and deserves their vote. 

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Azaadi Chowk Lahore_© HCS (2017)

Architectural training equips one to acknowledge these patterns in their built environment and make informed decisions based on them. Development and infrastructure may primarily be required to solve a core issue but often the monumentality behind built projects carries heavy propaganda. Not to mention the environmental impact of these built projects is never really assessed, as is evident from the large tracts of agricultural land and jungle being converted into gated housing enclaves. Or the damage to historical towns and buildings that comes with laying expensive underground metro lines. The cost-benefit analysis of these development projects prioritizes commercial viability, gimmicky aesthetics, and the ‘illusion’ of development at a human cost. The Built environment is now not just a scenic backdrop to our Instagram lives but a battlefield for politics and problematic messaging.

Eiffel Tower (replica) in Bahria Town Lahore_©

Fresh out of architecture school Ana is actively exploring the intersection between architecture and planning in her role as an Urban Designer in Lahore. Questions of inclusive planning systems in the south Asian context with a focus on climate change ,affordability and gender are her key areas of research.