Can AI Save Karachi’s Past?

While the world experiments with the scope of AI utilisation, there is potential to preserve colonial remnants in one South Asian city with the help of this new technology.

The Sarnagati Building
The Sarnagati Building

Akin to most people and their relationship with Karachi’s colonial past, my interaction with the heritage sites in the city remains limited to casually passing by and admiring historic buildings from a distance. As a woman, my interaction with these historical sites is further restricted due to gender-specific access within the city.

However, I recently made the decision to explore the heritage areas of Karachi. To my great dismay, I discovered that the condition of most colonial-era structures is worse than I previously thought.

The Kanji Building earned its heritage site status back in 1995. However, it has since deteriorated to the point where only its facade remains intact.

To provide context, there are two distinct periods in which a significant number of buildings were erected in Karachi. The first wave came in the 1880s when the city witnessed the development of railways and the port. The second surge occurred in the 1930s, spurred by the separation of Sindh from the Bombay presidency in 1936, leading to another substantial wave of building projects.

One noteworthy example is the remarkable Sarnagati Building, constructed in the early 1930s using redstone imported from Jaipur. This stunning structure has managed to withstand the test of time, yet its metallic lettering, which bears the building’s name, is under threat from thieves looking to sell the valuable material.

Likewise, numerous heritage buildings face the imminent danger of illegal demolition. The process typically begins with the removal of the roof and internal structure, leaving only the front facade. Subsequently, the culprits patiently await the facade’s natural deterioration, providing them with ‘legitimate’ justification for the demolition of the entire building.

Behind the facade of a colonial building, there is a parking lot.

During a visit to one such building, I discovered that it had been hollowed out from the inside to create a parking lot while preserving its front-facing facade. At first glance, the exterior gave the impression of a heritage site, concealing the surprising fact that a parking facility sat just beyond its ornate facade.

Given this backdrop, the necessity for artificial intelligence becomes increasingly urgent in the endeavour to preserve and safeguard the remaining vestiges of heritage in Karachi. We have witnessed AI’s capacity to aid in the conservation and restoration process by reconstructing models of original designs and materials in other parts of the world.

Wooden doors are continually replaced with modern metal shutters.

AI can prove to be invaluable in the management of extensive datasets, encompassing historical records and data regarding the environmental conditions surrounding these sites. It can also provide visitors with comprehensive information about the buildings, their cultural significance, and historical insights, thereby enabling visitors to gain a deeper appreciation for these historical treasures. This, in turn, can facilitate governmental and private sector efforts in conserving these valuable structures.

The Sevakunj Building, originally a student hostel offering indoor ventilation, now sits abandoned

Furthermore, AI can be instrumental in assessing and monitoring the well-being of these heritage sites through the use of cameras and sensors. These technological tools can assist authorities in identifying deliberate acts of deterioration caused by vandals or illegal means.

The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) building.

Consequently, AI emerges as a pivotal force in safeguarding heritage sites against threats posed by thieves and unlawful demolition.

Menghraj Dwarkadas Nagpal, a heritage site, is subjected to internal destruction by illegal occupants. The inside of the building is rapidly deteriorating.
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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Wara Irfan

Wara Irfan is a multimedia journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her focus lies at the intersection of media, gender, and culture. She is currently working for as an Adenauer Fellow for media and communication. She is passionate about documenting and historicising indigenous forms of resistance and writing about postcolonial media and visual cultures in the city.

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