Driving down Lahore’s Walton Road, just south of the Cantonment, an expansive building site becomes visible in the open space beside a fenced military site. The sole crane at its heart stands stationary and there are no workers to be seen, but the process of construction is signaled by an array of half-finished buildings, steel reinforcing cables shooting out wildly from their concrete foundations. In the early evening, this vision is temporarily obscured by dust clouds kicked up by multiple cricket games on the area’s periphery. The site’s emptiness contrasts starkly with this surrounding activity: young men at play, autorickshaw drivers chatting on the roadside, shopkeepers assembling at juice bars or the busy stall of Baba Chaiwalla across Walton Road.
Building work is a ubiquitous sight in Lahore. The city appears besieged by concrete skeletons of all sizes – structures shielded by ordered forests of scaffolding and with tall stacks of red brick standing like sentries at their feet. Along Lahore’s main thoroughfares, these buildings grow steadily behind tall hoardings with images of the future: the promise of new shopping malls, residential complexes, investment opportunities, parking garages and so on.
Approaching the Walton Road site by foot, however, it is clear that any growth and activity here is restricted to the natural world. This is not a landscape of overturned soil but of new plant life taking over long-neglected trenches, weeds encircling steel cables, new brush occupying cracks in concrete. Animal life, too, has asserted its claim to the space. The main complex at the heart of the site was, during my cautious visits, unapproachable due to an aggravated assembly of stray dogs. These defensive residents worked in concert with the many birds hovering above, singing their warnings of an approaching stranger.
On the 21st of January this year, Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif hosted a rally near the site to announce the provincial government’s support for the construction of the Bab-e-Pakistan memorial complex. Putting aside the peculiarity of Sharif’s ‘inauguration’ of a project that had already started, one might forgive a skeptic’s response to the declaration. This memorial has a long history of inaugurations, approvals and endorsements, stretching back to the time of Zia-ul-Haq and including foundation ceremonies presided over by both Nawaz Sharif in 1991 and Pervez Musharraf in 2005. As Pakistan heads toward an election later this year, how and when accelerated investment in the site will materialise is yet to be seen.
Memorial sites are attempts to freeze time, to capture the past and secure its representation in the present. The Bab-e-Pakistan project, in contrast, seems an exercise in passing time, a monument to the trials of waiting. The origins of the Walton Road scheme lie in a 1983 Bachelor’s thesis completed at Lahore’s National College of Arts by the architect Amjad Mukhtar. Mukhtar wanted to commemorate the vast refugee camp that had occupied the site after the Subcontinent’s partition in 1947, sheltering thousands of arrivals from India to Pakistan. His design, officially sanctioned following an open competition in 1991, combines sensitivity to this particular history – the base of the main structure was to be dotted with tent-like forms. This was to be combined with the deterritorialised premise of Muslim nationalism: the central monument would be an architectural manifestation of Arabic calligraphy, the towering vertical forms of la illaha illallah, ‘there is no god but God’. With this structure, Mukhtar solidifies one common response to that famous nationalist slogan, “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” (What is the meaning of Pakistan?)
A speculative future for the stalled construction site is seen in the digital representations of Mukhtar’s design widely available online, presenting an idealised Bab-e-Pakistan with manicured green lawns and bright blue skies, the unswerving pathways of the memorial complex populated sparsely with pixellated visitors. Like the physical site, this computerised scene has an uncertain relationship with sequential time: it is presented as a vision of the future, but one so obviously conjured by technology that it is clear such a place can never exist. The half-finished buildings, in contrast, look forward to completion but, in fact, are already ruins.
The design for the monument evokes the deterritorialised premise of Muslim nationalism: the central monument would be an architectural manifestation of the kalima in Arabic calligraphy. With this structure, Mukhtar solidifies one common response to that famous nationalist slogan, “Pakistan ka matlab kya?”
The name given to the memorial complex, Bab, or gateway, is evocative here in that it signifies a threshold, a place of transition. This sense of being ‘in between’, of moving across places, is appropriate for a geography haunted by the figure of the migrant; indeed, the refugee camp is a place characterised by ambiguous futures and lingering pasts. But the uncertain historicity animating the Walton Road site is also characteristic of memorial culture in Pakistan more generally.
What function should monuments play in this future-oriented nation-state, where ‘history’ and ‘culture’ are often criticised as the inheritance of divisive local or regional identities? It is perhaps unsurprising that most purpose-built memorials in Pakistan are inspired by the black-or-white certainties of military success or sacrifice – Mukhtar himself has designed quite a few. If Bab-e-Pakistan seeks to affirm a vision of the country as a place of refuge, for now, at least, it cannot untangle itself from a process of ruination.
Chris Moffat is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of History, Queen Mary University of London