Lahore is a sprawling beast, but it hasn’t yet reached the untamable girth and complexity of a city like Karachi. Its unending magic and relentless madness can still be contained in many artistic and cultural contexts. Still, it is a daunting task to tackle any of its many facets, and one requires patience and Herculean fortitude to go through with capturing the city’s historical glory, especially when it comes to architecture. Lahore’s buildings tell a tale of battles won and fought, masters changed and abandoned, victors welcomed and crowned, and the vanquished remembered as a warning. It is, perhaps, a small wonder then that a digitally savvy architect and urban designer has championed the city’s architecture to put together an “app” that chronicles the past, present and the future of three hundred of Lahore’s most intriguing buildings in a handy smartphone application.
Attiq Ahmed is an associate professor at the National College of Arts’ Architecture Department and heads the Office for Conservation & Community Outreach (OCCO), which he founded in 2005. Along with Ayesha Sarfraz (Architect, Urban Designer) and Khizer Ishtiaq (Architect, Urban Planner), he originally conceived of the idea to highlight “the lesser known buildings that give Lahore its unique urban charm that lay hidden for both city dwellers and tourists”. A true labour of love that included 18 months of mapping, photographing, researching, writing, and coding, the app was launched in November this year accompanied by an exhibition that highlights some of the buildings from the app.
[quote]”This exercise made me realize how much of the rich historical information about our cultural and architectural heritage we have already lost”[/quote]
The app, called “OCCO Lahore”, can be installed on internet-ready smartphones which have Android or Apple iOS systems. The availability of cheaper smartphones meant the kind of accessibility that encouraged Attiq to persist with developing an editable, enhancable app; overriding his initial desire to do a book, which would be a static and hard to carry medium. “Essentially, we wanted to treat Lahore like a living, breathing, evolving organism that has much to offer to not just its citizens, but also to people across the world who have an interest in the architecture and history of this vibrant city,” states Attiq Ahmed, while pointing out significant aspects of the app on his phone. “We started small by researching the buildings, consulting books, archives and historical records to get as much information about the selected locations as possible. This exercise made me realize how much of the rich historical information about our cultural and architectural heritage we have already lost.”
[quote]”We wanted to encourage app users to add to the information already present in the app, which is why we have also included buildings with limited or no information”[/quote]
Attiq is concerned that outside of the famous and well-documented buildings such as Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan and Wazir Khan Mosque, there are hundreds of buildings across the city in various states of ruin and neglect that we don’t know much about. He cites the example of Budhu’s Mausoleum, for instance, which doesn’t have much history attached to it in written form. “We wanted to encourage app users to add to the information already present in the app. This is one of the reasons why we decided to include buildings with limited or no information about them in the app anyway. There must be learned people out there who may have resources and insights into these landmarks, who can come forward and supplement what is already in the app.” The app further links to users’ Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts in an effort to utilize varied social media to get the app’s information out.
It lists the selected buildings under five distinct categories: pre-Mughal, Mughal, Sikh, colonial and post-colonial, encompassing the multi-cultural and ethnically and religiously rich and varied history of Lahore. Attiq points out, “Although about architecture in this city and the evolution of it through the ages, the app also inadvertently hints at Lahore’s social, political, religious and ethnic history and heritage. The buildings signify the trends and thinking of the time period they were built in, and essentially also hold keys to understanding the changing lifestyles and beliefs of people as well.” The “Lahore Timeline” feature of the app lists out the important events and happenings in the history of the city according to a running calendar. The maps themselves have been developed using Google Maps, which have revolutionized digital cartography in recent years and are free for all to use.
[quote]There is an engaging reading of a cheeky excerpt from Kanhaiya Lal’s Tareekh-e-Lahore about the first few female students of Government College, Lahore[/quote]
The launch of the app, which took place at the Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq Gallery in NCA, included an ongoing exhibition titled “The Lahori Sounds Project”. It includes soundbytes captured on the streets of the city close to the highlighted buildings, archival audio clippings from cricket matches and news bulletins, “the sixth promise” portion of Imran Khan’s speech from the 23rd March PTI jalsa at the Minar-e-Pakistan and readings of excerpts from books about the history, art, architecture and poetry of Lahore. The readings are done by members of the civil society, students, architects and artists such as Sanam Taseer, Ahmad Rafay Alam, Nadeem Hasan Khan, Ayesha Sarfraz and Kamiar Rokni among others. One can find engaging readings of Kanhaiya Lal’s Tareekh-e-Lahore, a cheeky except from the Government College University website about the first few female students of the institution in the 1930s, and couplets from the doors of Gulabi Bagh. The languages are English, Urdu, French and Persian to serve as a reminder that Lahore remains an incredible living remnant of a glorious past. It is increasingly becoming clear that the citizens of Lahore, particularly the more privileged ones, do not proudly own public spaces in the city because of social stratification issues, and because of a clear and present gender bias. Lawlessness adds to the lack of interest in this regard. Attiq hopes with the mapping of these buildings, perhaps a drive can be initiated to compel local authorities to provide people with adequate security and infrastructure that supports the public’s use of these spaces.
“We must use our artifacts, our historical texts, our buildings and our architecture as a living creature so that it may thrive,” Attiq says pensively. “If we do not interact with our heritage regularly, of course it will become a dusty, useless mess of nothing! We owe it to ourselves to remember our past and keep learning from it.” On the question of modern classics, which the app and the exhibition highlight in the form of WAPDA House, Shakir Ali Museum and more, Attiq jokes that Nayyar Ali Dada is “It!” when it comes to comparing him with great architects and builders of the past. “What is modern and new today will be heritage some day; it is important to take into account great pieces of modern architecture as well.”