The fabled city of Lahore is one of South Asia’s urban jewels. Under the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), of which it was briefly the capital, Lahore was endowed with major monuments – mosques, fortifications, palaces and gardens. These include Lahore Fort, a World Heritage Site, and the Wazir Khan Mosque. In 1947, significant sections of its Walled City were destroyed by the arson and looting that accompanied the partition of the South Asian subcontinent. It fell into increasing disrepair, as newer areas became the centre of urban development.
Today, Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest city and capital of the province of Punjab, with over 11 million inhabitants. A major industrial agglomeration, it has shifted in recent decades from manufacturing to service industries, becoming the country’s largest software producing centre. Its location and economic potential have attracted labour and capital for many decades, but little infrastructure investment and haphazard development have limited economic growth and caused severe traffic congestion, increasing pollution and, for many households, an ever-poorer quality of life.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), through its local entity Aga Khan Cultural Service-Pakistan (AKCS-P), entered a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with the Punjab Government and the World Bank. The goal: contribute to the preservation of the Walled City of Lahore's Mughal monuments and support socioeconomic development in the surrounding low-income areas.
During the initial period, AKTC elaborated a Preliminary Strategic Framework for the urban regeneration of the Walled City and actively lobbied the Government of Punjab for the creation of a local body to take administrative responsibility for the historic sites. In 2012, the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) was created and has since been an instrumental partner in developing technical capacity and ensuring local ownership – a precondition for the long-term sustainability of these cultural treasures.
Conservation and restoration of key monuments
These efforts have been based on the most advanced conservation principles and technologies, while also responding to local needs and expectations. Key elements of the Trust’s methodology have included: preliminary documentation, studies and surveys; archival research; use of traditional construction methods combined with modern conservation techniques where required; minimal intervention and respect for the aesthetic and physical integrity of the historical fabric; reversibility and compatibility of conservation measures; training of skilled professionals and craftsmen; pilot projects and sample prototypes; detailed project documentation and archiving.
Priorities were organised at three levels, beginning with the most urgent. To start with, emergency stabilisation measures: unsafe or unstable buildings that posed risk to the security of visitors and the integrity of the structures. Next, measures such as rainwater management and the establishment of proper drainage to eliminate the most acute cause of deterioration. Third, interior and decorative finishing. The last step has been “site presentation”: re-establishing missing components and details that have been lost or modified so as to attain as much of the Fort’s original configuration as possible.
The Walled City comprises about 252-hectares. Many of its historic houses rise to many storeys as generations of families have built on top of each other. They include brick façades, flat roofs, richly carved wooden balconies and overhanging jharokas (windows with wooden shutters). Unplanned construction has led to many illegal encroachments, open wiring and sewage in the streets. These not only detract from the beauty of the centuries-old buildings, but also cause traffic jams in the narrow streets, putting their physical structures at risk and becoming a hazard to the inhabitants (World Bank).
AKTC and the WCLA have together restored a 383 metre-long heritage trail running from the Walled City’s Delhi Gate to the Chowk Purani Kotwali market area. The restoration has also involved the replacement of infrastructure and services including underground telecommunications, electricity, gas, water and sewerage, encroachment removal, street paving and street furniture.
"I was always wary of sending my children out to play before the restoration work in our neighbourhood. But now, at least, I know that the environment around my house is clean and safe," said Samina Afzal, Walled City resident.
Social mobilisation was the key to the project’s success. A community-based organisation led by the WCLA was formed, consisting of local residents and engaging around 1,500 households. As residents became convinced of the benefits of conservation and rehabilitation, they became actively involved; in fact, many came forward to request that their homes be restored.
Vocational training and employment
The restoration has involved the training of close to 500 local people from low-income areas in conservation and traditional crafts. Over 14 years, it has provided an estimated 1,500 people with direct employment. As the Punjab Government has asked AKTC to continue working on further monuments (such as Badshahi Mosque) and to expand its work across the region, demand for conservation skills has increased. What is more, a positive attitude towards urban rehabilitation has taken hold locally. Some employees who have grown alongside the project (watch Interview with Haider Ali) have further developed skills in areas such as engineering and architecture that will afford them many job opportunities beyond this project. (read more in Good Practice in Vocational Training)
Simultaneously, AKTC has begun work on a Lahore Fort Site Museum and a sustainable tourism management plan for Lahore Fort. Many jobs have been created for tourist guides, rickshaw drivers and maintenance staff. These efforts generate further income by providing venues for corporate and other events, exhibitions, bridal shoots, and so forth.
WCLA also holds public events such as Sufi gatherings, encouraging visitors from different social, ethnic and religious backgrounds to make use of this space. The Shahi Hammam site was used for the Lahore Biennale 01 contemporary art installations in 2018 and the British Council/MADLAB Sheherazade Arts-Tech festival in 2019.
This project demonstrates how public- and private-sector efforts can be combined in innovative ways and has attracted significant international contributions: from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, the United States Embassy, the German Foreign Office and the French Government (full list below).
Spotlight – the Picture Wall
A principal feature of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Lahore Fort is the massive exterior mural known as the Picture Wall. Recognised as the world’s largest mural (450 metres long and 17 metres high), the Picture Wall is exquisitely decorated with glazed tiles and faience mosaics, embellished brickwork, filigree work and frescos. Work on it began during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1624 AD and was completed in 1632 AD under the reign of his son, Emperor Shah Jahan.
Each mosaic on the Picture Wall gives a rare insight into life and entertainment in the royal court, with royal portraits, battle or hunting scenes, animals and mythical creatures, dance and music, and geometric and floral patterns. These unique elements were amongst the principal reasons for the inscription in 1981 of the Lahore Fort on the World Heritage List.
In 2015, AKCS-P began the documentation, presentation and promotion of the Picture Wall. Three years later, the organisation together with the WCLA took up the conservation of the western façade, which is almost 73 metres long and 16 metres high on average with 635 decorated recessed panels composed on three levels. Today, almost 60 percent of the conservation work on the Picture Wall has been completed. (watch Interview with site chemist, Zeina Naseer)
Full list of contributers to AKTC’s Walled City of Lahore project: Government of Punjab, World Bank, Agence Française de Développement, Royal Norwegian Embassy, Embassy of Germany, United States Embassy, the United States Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, J.M. Kaplan Fund, Habib Bank Limited, Jubilee Life Insurance, Jubilee General Insurance, Residents of Gali Surjan Singh