By Syed Akeel Bilgrami
Quite often, those associated with the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture at Karachi have been asked:
‘What was the need for the Indus Valley School to spend so much time and effort to relocate an old building on its campus,’ and, ‘why the Nusserwanjee Building?’
The answers to these questions can be linked to the day, May 1, 1991, when twelve prominent architects of the city brainstormed at the Indus Valley School to evolve a design criterion for its new campus. The school had just acquired a plot and since it was the first time that a custom-designed campus for an art and architecture institution was being built in Pakistan, it was expected the brainstorming would generate some fresh, innovative, ideas. Interestingly however, the consensus at the end of the day, reached, perhaps half in jest, was that an ideal environment for a school of art is in and around an old building, and that the School should find such a building and move into it!
Hardly a week later, Shahid Abdulla, one of the founders of the Indus Valley School, excitedly called to say he had found a beautiful old building, right in the heart of Kharadar, which was for sale and about to be demolished. Before one could express one’s reservations about the location, he quickly added, ‘we will save it and move it to the campus in Clifton’.
What he had seen was the 100-year-old Nusserwanjee Building, a stone structure in two blocks of three and four storeys with large halls and high ceilings, originally used as warehouses and offices; ideal for art and design studios.
If this building was to be transplanted at the new campus, the school would be able to (i) save it from the inevitable demolition and destruction (ii) introduce a novel method, an alternative way, to save our architectural heritage (iii) provide a hands-on, once-in-a-lifetime experience to both the faculty and students, in the area of architectural conservation and, finally, (iv) through this process of giving a fresh lease of life to the building, pay tribute and homage to, and perpetuate the memory of, the Nusserwanjee family, particularly of Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, philanthropist, theosophist, the first mayor, the architect and father of modern Karachi and without a doubt, its most outstanding citizen.
The Nusserwanjee Building was originally constructed in 1903 by Jamshed’s father, Nusserwanjee Rustomji Mehta, as the warehouse and offices of Nusserwanjee and Co., a very prosperous trading and manufacturing enterprise. An additional wing was constructed in 1919, using R.C.C. for columns, beams and roof, the latest construction technology then prevalent and plastered rubble stone and coursed stone masonry.
Jamshed Nusserwanjee was born in 1886, and as per the wishes of his father, was educated in commerce and joined his father’s firm as a clerk. Over the years he rose in position to become his father’s partner, eventually taking over the business. Despite being born and brought up in the lap of luxury, Jamshed gradually moved away from the material world to a spiritual existence, and to a strictly spartan life. With a keen acumen for business, he derived from it handsome profits and vast earnings, all of which were channeled to philanthropic causes.
The extent of his involvement with public affairs can be judged from the fact that he was active in as many as 77 institutions, mostly charitable and welfare-oriented, many of which he had himself founded, and many of which were for the welfare of communities or denominations other than his own, i.e., for Christians, Muslims and Hindus. He was the Founder-President of the Karachi Theosophical Society and was adopted by Mrs. Annie Besant, the founder of the Theosophical Movement, as her spiritual son. He remained deeply committed to her and her ideals till the end. During his lifetime, many honours came his way including an offer of the coveted knighthood from the British Government, which, in his inimitable style, he politely declined. Jamshed never married and died in 1952 after a short illness mourned by thousands of people all over the world who had happened to cross paths with him during his eventful life.
Coming back to the Nusserwanjee Building the price was negotiated with the sellers.
There were numerous suggestions about the various possibilities of dismantling, transportation, conservation etc. Also discussed was the possibility of inviting an expert conservationist through UNESCO or one of the funding agencies. The school however, in its wisdom, decided to use indigenous means and local know-how.
Detailed documentation of the building was carried out through measured drawings and photographs. Three demolition contractors were invited to offer bids and to suggest the safest and quickest means of dismantling, transporting and storing.
Contractor Haji Mohammed Shah Akram Baloch was selected not only for his lowest bid but for what, understandably, was a very sound dismantling methodology suggested by him. A period of three months was specified for the whole process. The sale of the property however did not materialize until almost four years later, in 1995.
In the meantime the new campus of the Indus Valley School was designed and constructed, with an appropriate space earmarked for the location of Nusserwanjee Building.
Detailed identification of all the material was done and each stone, piece of timber etc., properly marked prior to the dismantling which commenced in April 1995, stone by stone, piece by piece and completed within three months.
The illiterate demolition contractor with a team of unskilled labour managed to do all this, a mere 50 stones having being broken or damaged out of the 26,000 that were retrieved. The procedure involved the careful removal of each piece of timber and stone which was then tagged permanently for identification, carried to the ground floor, stacked temporarily, loaded on the trucks for transportation to the Clifton site, unloaded and re-arranged according to a given layout.
One has grave doubts if the mortality rate of the stones and other material could have been any less if an expert was to handle the operation!
When complete, the Nusserwanjee Building will provide an additional space of 25000 sft. It will house the Architecture, Design and Painting studios and also have an exhibition hall and a gallery to house Indus Valley School permanent art collection.
Although the exterior of the building and most interior spaces would look almost exactly the same as the original, the construction methodology had to be altered to cater to the current building codes. Vertical and horizontal steel sections, (which are encased in masonry during construction), had to be introduced to brace the structure
Contrary to popular belief, the cost of relocating the Nusserwanjee building has not been any higher than that of any other similar new institutional building. The school makes no tall claims about the Nusserwanjee Building as an ideal case of architectural conservation or restoration. A modest attempt has been made to relocate a historical building for adaptive reuse in an art school.