Lahore’s art deco heritage has lost a flag bearer

August 16, 2020

Whimsical design elements that were unique to Plaza

Whimsical design elements that were unique to Plaza.

How do we imagine the city? How do we identify with it? Kevin Lynch mentions in his book, The Image of the City, the elements based on which we imagine a city: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. It is this last element, landmarks, that warrants a discussion.

Is a city a city without landmarks? In many European cities, the building façade is declared public property, belonging to the city and not to the individual owner of a property. Will the city ever formulate a nuanced criterion for listing city landmarks?

Plaza cinema was built in the art deco style of architecture by a Delhi-based architect in the 1930s. This was the prevalent design style that defined an era of architecture not only in the city of Lahore but also in other subcontinental cities like Bombay (now Mumbai).

Lahore has a vast portfolio of art deco architecture, some of which is on and around The Mall. The Plaza Cinema building may not have been as elaborate as other art deco buildings from the period but it had whimsical design elements that made it unique. The top of the building was flanked by two statues of sombrero-wearing musicians standing in niches one at each end of the building. The exhibition hall, initially designed as a theatre, had upside down truncated pyramid shaped panels for acoustic treatment on its ceiling giving the interior a unique character.

Lahore’s art deco heritage has lost a flag bearer. How long are we to wait and see these magnificent buildings fall one by one? When will the city authorities realise that it is these buildings that make the city the city?

Lahore is peculiar as landmarks in the city have been granted protection arbitrarily. The Metropolitan Corporation of Lahore (MCL) has declared The Mall a protected heritage zone. In addition to this, there are some buildings on the road that have heritage status granted by the provincial government. The Plaza did not have any of these protections, though, in its physical as well as imagined positioning, the building was a particularly important landmark. Due to its placement on a Queen’s Road plot, two parcels of land down from The Mall, the building does not explicitly fall in the heritage zone. The building has been treated as if it stands in an empty space with no relation to its context. As if it is not part of the ensemble of buildings on Charing Cross. In fact, it was an integral part of this ensemble and has been used as a way finding marker by people for almost a century, and in all likelihood, it will continue to do so, even in its physical absence.

In general, Pakistan has weak laws for the protection of cultural heritage. These are fragmented between various federal and provincial legislations, along with some protections that the city governments of Lahore and Karachi offer. Because of this fragmented system and vague definitions contained within the laws, we keep witnessing tragic events such as these.

It has been evident for some time that the market for upscale cinema halls has moved to other parts of the city. In all likelihood, the move to replace the cinema with a center for the arts was prompted by the success of the small rented-out space on the roof of the building, which was till very recently called The Colony. The potential viability for The Plaza to be remodeled as a centre for the arts was quite evident. This is not a far-off idea, as the building has changed function and character multiple times in the past.

Where the owner has gone wrong is that he has not understood the building’s inherent value and its significance for Lahoris. The concept for The Colony worked because it was in the Plaza Cinema and not because of its location.

As we have witnessed many times before, the building has been torn down in haste before a plan was formulated for a new programme. Instead of tearing the building to the ground, the appropriate approach would have been to use the opportunity to enhance the value of the building. This could be done, in the very least, by retaining its exterior and valorising it by replacing the interior to suit the new function, as in the case of the Lakshmi building; if not through refurbishment, additions, alterations and adaptive reuse.

The writer is a practicing architect and conservationist and an assistant professor at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus. He holds an MSc in Conservation of Cultural Heritage from the Middle East Technical University in Turkey. He has previously taught at the National College of Arts, Lahore and served as in charge of the NCA Archives

Lahore’s art deco heritage has lost a flag bearer