Muhammad Arshed Rafiq’s blog

GLF 2017 Blog Competition
Muhammad Arshed Rafiq

The skyline is an important indicator of a city’s economic potential and cultural activity. It is usually determined and demonstrated through architecture – old or new, such as the Empire State Building, Stonehenge, Egyptian Pyramids, the Colosseum or Badshahi Mosque. Although, the state usually finances and takes care of such monuments, the people ultimately identify themselves with these glorified urban images and associate personal romance with the symbolism they represent. A city’s skyline is instrumental in attracting foreign tourists and boosting its economy. Besides, other political and social reasons, the inability of our cities to draw and develop their distinctive skylines can be held responsible for getting a dismal share from international tourism. Just take a look from a vintage point in the city of Lahore, you will find a celestial portrait drawn by some naïve child. Whereas, other countries pride in their human prowess exhibited through buildings and built environment, we pick up the images of Himalayan peaks or Arabian shores to divert some lonely travelers to our ‘drear’ homeland.

The city skyline is undoubtedly an index of the quality and quantity of economic activity happening within its boundaries. The ever-changing skyline maps the geographical landscape of economic and spatial development across temporal axis and can be used as a planning tool by city authorities. Most Western cities have a single economic district, others like New York have two, and so are their skylines. Urbanists attribute their development to resilience of bedrock, access (transit systems) and clustering of talent or high-end shopping centers at some place etc. Whatever is the reason, the fact remains that it is people’s organic movement decisions (not the government decision) that evolve the financial hub(s) and consequently the skyline(s).

City skyline remains a public policy issue. The urban institutions and civil society have to decide: Whether we will continue to sprawl on the ground or take leaps in the sky; whether we can generate agglomeration effect through vertical growth or it should remain an alien concept for another century; and whether, we will see innovation happen in our lifetimes or shall die treading the beaten paths. Sooner ifs and buts are resolved, the better it would be for urban dream to come true.

While the government tries to get out of its ‘to be or not to be’ dilemma, the public cannot afford to sit on all fours indefinitely. “Architecture is symbolic; it reflects the spirit”, announced Friedrich Hegel in one of his philosophy lectures. The public has to keep the spirit alive if it is already there or take pains to develop it if it is not. They cannot wait for the reincarnation of Mighty Mughals to grace modern cities with their architectural taste or the ghost of Sir Ganga Ram to haunt the municipalities again for monumental inspiration. The people have to develop and preserve the city skylines themselves- especially the ones that even ‘God’ cherished and ‘Adam’ recognized in Heavens:

“His eyes might there command whatever stood

City of old or modern fame, the seat

Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls

Of Cambalu, seat of Cathian Can,

And Samarcand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,

To Paquin of Sinaen Kings, and thence

To Agra and Lahor of Great Mogul…” (Milton- Paradise Lost)

The city skyline is a perfect source for city inhabitants to think and express themselves in a symbolic way. Once the prerogative of royals to express their greatness, the city skyline today may be determined more democratically and modestly. There is no need to remain affixed to the ancient concepts of faith, power, wealth and life expressed through magnanimous architecture. The economic utility, freedom of choice and other popular needs and cultural values may set today’s urban architecture onto a very different paradigm and in the words of Nadine Beck (2005); a city skyline may simply be ‘a two-dimensional silhouette-like simplification of the horizontal and vertical extension of a town or city’. However, that does not mean a license to informality that currently prevails in our cities to defy every credible notion of balance and beauty of built environment. A participatory approach may be the right answer not only to develop the distinctive city skylines but also to determine the contours of every important building within, which may merge in to produce a cumulative effect.

Will we be able to produce a notable city skyline anytime soon? They say, history moves in cycles but it does not seem to repeat itself in the case of our regional architecture. At least, indicators say so. Europe owes Renaissance for some of the finest city skylines from the 14th and 15th century. The technological revolution in the 18th and 19th century Americas achieved miraculous growth while the economic boom erected distinguished skylines in some Asian countries (China, UAE and Singapore etc.) more recently. The socio-economic and cultural revolutions of that scale may not happen in other parts of the world. Alternate routes need to be explored, including pragmatic ways of civic engagement with city authorities, innovative ways of public and private financing; learning and sharing pathways among cities and most important of all, development of public taste and ownership of such initiatives.

Today, none of Pakistani cities are able to sneak in any of the international skyline rankings (such as Emporis). An investment of the magnitude of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may help develop one but the billion-dollar question is how to generate and where to look for the much-needed big money. Perhaps a combination of policy and cultural prodding can shake off the indigenous private investment and attract the required foreign technological prowess. More so, a societal level consensus and bipartisan political support can draw a decent skyline for cities in Pakistan and facilitate them to make an entry in the skyscraper club ultimately. To win support may be the most difficult and hitherto ignored part of the whole exercise but to maintain the spirit of the city alive, this is the perhaps the most crucial one.

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