SAH Blog

  • Former U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Saved as Heritage Building

    Barbara Lamprecht
    Apr 3, 2013
    Designed by the partnership of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, the former U.S. Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, has much in common with the Cyclorama. Both were prestigious commissions acquitting complex briefs scrutinized by powerful branches of government. Both were designed in the 1950s and completed in the early 1960s.

    They shared the same structural engineers, Parker and Zehnder. The strong forms of the Cyclorama and the Embassy, intended as monumental expressions of mid-century American confidence and prowess, were both eventually emptied, their functions moved elsewhere, to await an uncertain fate.

    However, in contrast to the actions of the National Park Service, a group of Karachi citizens led by the Institute of Architects, Pakistan (IAP) succeeded in having the property listed on December 17, 2012 as a heritage building by the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh. Under the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994, the structure is protected from demolition and any external alteration. It will be sold, rehabilitated and adaptively re-used.

    The embassy complex is located on a pivotal corner in a smart area of downtown Karachi, opposite leafy Frere Park, Frere Hall, and the Sind Club, all developed by the British in the 19th century. The east-facing building servicing main embassy duties comprises a large sleek rectangular glass and concrete four-story structure, its horizontality underscored by bands of louver-clad clerestory windows. Its full-height glass entry façade expressed a transparent democracy, a characteristic typical of Cold War Embassy design. The north façade features a series of louvers fronting glass windows, a strategy Neutra began employing in the late 1940s.

    To the west, a broad lawn fronts a one-story masonry warehouse linked to the main building by an interstitial two-story building. The warehouse is roofed with an array of nine thin-shell barrel vaults. The foot of the eastern most vault curves into the large reflecting pool terminating the angled main lobby, symbolically integrating the warehouse to the larger composition. The team’s careful distribution of landscape elements included reflecting pools, areas for prayer, water channels, and ablution basins for Islamic employees that percolated throughout the compound, even reappearing at the curved entrance driveway. While reflecting pools are a well-known Neutra trademark, seen to great effect at the Cyclorama, here they were even more important because Neutra well understood the significance of water in Islamic architecture and the need for ritual cleansing.

    There was a tortured path through planning and completion. On the heels of the “Red Plot” of the unrealized Eylsian Park Height housing project, Neutra had to defend his loyalty to his adopted land. Alexander’s protest at learning that payment would be tied to the unstable rupee almost lost them the commission. Construction was no easier, in part undertaken by local Pakistani workers unaccustomed to American methods and materials, which were hard to procure in any case. The concrete mix was so erratic that Alexander feared structural failure. Yet a terrible irony awaited the Embassy. During its construction, Pakistan moved its capital inland to Islamabad, 700 miles to the north, away from the vulnerable coast and Raj associations. In 1966, the Embassy was reclassified as a Consulate. Though “hardened” with new security measures, the building could not sufficiently withstand the terrorist attacks that began in 2002. It was vacated in 2011.

    While the U.S. demolished, Pakistan preserved.

    Barbara Lamprecht, Lamprecht ArchiTEXTural

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  • This Week's Links

    Mar 29, 2013
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  • Why the Humanities Matter

    Mar 27, 2013

    How will the Society of Architectural Historians address the financial crisis confronting the Humanities? Many of our peer organizations, the American Historical Association and the American Philological Association, have formally initiated conversations at the local, regional and national levels. Pauline Saliga, our Executive Director, has wisely urged us to voice some support for the general plea for the Humanities but also articulate responses that might be specific to our discipline. As we activate our SAH Blog towards greater connectivity, we should use it as a venue to begin this conversation. 

    Our conversation might begin with a historical perspective, assessing the role of architectural history in the humanities revolution in American education. Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) offers the most concise historical overview. According to Menand, the humanities were inserted as general education to bolster the development of professional fields in the late 19th century, a process that peeked in 1970. Accordingly, between 1870 and 1900, most disciplines were outfitted with external national organizations that helped define the disciplinary integrity of academic life within the university (ASSA 1865; MLA 1883; AHA 1884). In this respect, our SAH was a relative late-comer, established in 1940. Since 1970, enrollment in the humanities began a reverse trend. By 2000, the number of undergraduates majoring in the humanities was down to 4%, almost half of the number 30 years earlier (7.6%). At the same time, the majors in business have grown to 22% of all college graduates. In contrast to other countries of nationalized education, America prides itself on mechanisms of the free market that can swiftly respond to societal needs, rather than linger in sclerotic bureaucracies. The shrinking demand for the humanities has facilitated an economic crisis in its academic departments and professional organizations. The equation becomes even more complicated when graduate education enters the system. Universities have been adjusting to the humanities crisis by continuing to produce PhD and then exploiting them as cheap labor (see SAH Blog post on adjunct labor). To use Menand's words, "Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall." An organization like the SAH can wait it out, ride the crisis and hope for the best. It can also try to highlight "the value" of the humanities with the hope of inserting it back into market demand. Joan Ockman's new book, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, might help us situate the teaching of history in one of our strongest constituents, the training of American designers.

    Architectural history has an added burden in the recent financial crisis once we consider the role that architectural practice has played in contributing to the crisis. On the one end of the spectrum, architecture has contributed to economic speculation by means of the star-architect system that we have implicitly endorsed. Frank Gehry's success at Bilbao has contributed to "the Bilbao Effect," where desperate cities bank the future of their economic development on a brand-name building. This pseudo-urbanist strategy has wreaked havoc, since most Bilbao attempts have failed (see Witold Rybczynski's discussion of the problem in Makeshift Metropolis). The same strategy has been deployed in the speculation over university finances, known as the Edifice Complex. A recent investigation by the New York Times has shown that such real estate binges by college presidents have fallen on the shoulders of tuition-paying students.

    On the other end of the spectrum, architectural history's relationship to domestic architecture indirectly implicates it in the cause of the financial crisis, the housing bubble. The construction industry artificially sustained the American economy through the 1990s but caused its inevitable collapse. When times are good for building, times are also good for teaching architecture. But when times are bad, disintegration is vividly evident in the disintegrating urban fabric. The ruins of Detroit or Camden generate an architectural discourse as objects of reception, excavation, preservation that fall into the domain of our discipline. Thus, on both sides of production and destruction, architectural history has a disciplinary presence. 

    Our discipline has an additional purview in the form of vernacular architecture and alternative forms of dwelling. We must thus turn our deepest attention to the development of new architectural objects like shanty towns, favelas, man camps, or Occupy tent-cities. Both desperate and new, these new architectures offer a fundamental challenge to our natural tendencies towards the collection of architectural masterpieces that fill our surveys. We could, therefore, de-commodify our object of study while also recognizing the risks of losing our standard of quality. Moving far down the masterpiece ladder, for instance, would fold our discipline into Anthropology and would make us extinct. The choice to hold the 2012 Annual Conference in Detroit and to invite geographer Don Mitchell as plenary speaker shows that our institution is developing such sensitivities. "La Casa de Esclavos Modernos: Exposing the Architecture of Exploitation," revealed one way by which architectural history is more vital at a time of crisis.

    The crisis in the humanities is complex. We need to join forces with other disciplinary organizations, while also addressing the particular challenges of our own architectural discipline. Hard questions need to be asked. As Howard Zinn has taught us, historians are never neutral observers. So, where do we stand? Our we part of the problem, or part of the solution?

    Photo above: Detroit Fire Station across from SAH Annual Conference in Detroit, 2012
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