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Reimagining Karachi Day by Day

Published in Sep-Oct 2020

A day in the life of Marvi Mazhar, Founder and Principal Architect, Marvi Mazhar & Associates.

I begin my day early at 5:30 a.m. I have a cup of coffee and head out for a two-hour walk. Walking has become part of my daily routine since the lockdown; after the first seven days of being cooped up inside, I realised that staying indoors was something an outdoorsy person like me just could not do.

 I usually walk towards Phase VIII, DHA or the Deep Sea Container Terminal in Clifton (known as China Port) which are near where I live. I stop and take photographs and document my surroundings. My findings eventually formed the crux of a research-based article I co-wrote for DAWN in August called Reclaiming Karachi’s Edge and which focused on the negative ecological after-effects of land reclamation on Karachi’s coastline.

Although the lockdown has ended and it is business as usual, the walk has remained part of my daily routine; I find inspiration in nature and love to be outdoors. Back home by about 8:00 a.m., I have breakfast and change and the next two hours are spent answering e-mails and WhatsApp messages. After that, I make a note of what I have to do that day and whom I have to meet. At 10:00 a.m., my day begins in earnest, conducting site visits and holding meetings outside the office.

My field work is not restricted to designing spaces and buildings; it includes anything to do with history, be it collecting old documents, antiques or interviewing people over 60. I use this information to write articles for publications. I find this rewarding, as I derive my energy from interacting with people.

My daily inspiration comes from my field work and although I spend a considerable amount of time every day meeting clients, the work that I am really passionate about concerns heritage and ‘social-spatial activism’ (as I like to call it) which has to do with creating spaces that people can live in.

By heritage, I do not only mean the work I do to preserve old buildings; it also involves rehabilitating spaces to make them more ‘liveable’ – and sustainable. A project I am currently working on is what I call the Banyan Tree Project in Old Clifton. It is not only about maintaining the old trees there, it focuses on how to rehabilitate the strips where these trees grow and turn them into ‘liveable footpaths’ for people to walk on or relax in by setting up benches.

Such projects are all the more important if you think about the recent urban flooding and its harrowing effects on Karachi. To ‘fix’ the city and avoid such disasters in the future, Karachi has to be made more liveable in the true sense of the word. The main problem is concretisation. There is so much concrete and we have totally disregarded the importance of the ratio between porous and non-porous structures, and consequently built underpasses and overpasses anywhere we felt like it. In addition, we have constructed all sorts of buildings over naalas. Neighbourhoods like Delhi Colony, Punjab Colony and Shirin Jinnah Colony are ‘working class’ areas full of vertical and narrow buildings. No wonder we often hear about buildings falling down in these areas. Karachi needs to expand horizontally; congested areas need to be rethought and the urban planning of the city needs to be reimagined. Similarly, we pay no attention to green spaces; there are not enough parks in most neighbourhoods and when we create them, most look the same.

I return to the office at about 1:00 p.m., have lunch and then take an hour’s break away from everything. Then, the next three to four hours are spent writing articles or working with my colleagues on the design based projects we are working on. In a nutshell, the first half of my day is mostly spent interacting with people and the second half is dedicated to ‘design reflections’.

Although I spend a substantial amount of time on ‘mundane’ projects, such as designing homes and offices, the projects that excite me have to do with improving Karachi. To further this cause, I spend quite a lot of time in the afternoon tweeting about how to improve the city’s infrastructure, in an attempt to attract the attention of the powers that be – namely, government representatives.

I could say that I do not need to collaborate with the government, but it is a choice I have made because doing so has brought about results. I do pro-bono work with them and we have established a level of trust. If there is a problem in the city, they will tag me and we will discuss how to address it. This has been a mostly rewarding experience. Having said this, working with the government can be disheartening at times, because at any given moment, they will say they have run out of funds and projects come to a standstill. Nevertheless, we have managed to bring about changes, be it by restoring Cantt Station or establishing the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre (a town square) and rehabilitating the roundabout. At the end of the day, collaborating with the government is better than blaming them and not doing anything. Unfortunately, our society is divided into three segments – activists, academia and government. The academics say something ‘intellectual’, activists join them and start saying “Ye ghalat hua, wo ghalat hua” to the government and in doing so alienating them rather than working with them to improve matters.

I teach at various colleges on a rotational basis, including the University of Karachi and the Indus Valley of Design and Architecture. I enjoy sharing my ideas with my students and hearing their views.

No matter how busy or demanding my work is, I try to call it a day by 6:00 p.m. I work out and then have an early dinner and am usually in bed by 10:00 p.m. Although I love my work, I switch off on the weekends and dedicate them to spending as much time outdoors as possible.

As told to Zeenat Chaudhary.

Marvi Mazhar is Founder and Principal Architect, Marvi Mazhar & Associates.