Karachi’s superwoman: Architect Marvi Mazhar is shaping the city’s future while protecting its past

Karachi’s superwoman: Architect Marvi Mazhar is shaping the city’s future while protecting its past

The architect is one of the biggest names when it comes to preserving Karachi's heritage and fighting for public spaces.
Updated 18 Mar, 2024

In every city’s time of need, there arises a saviour, and Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city which faces multiple challenges every day, has been fortunate to witness the emergence of remarkable women who have played the role of its rescuers, leaving an indelible mark on its history. Among them, one stands out today — the courageous and resilient Marvi Mazhar.

“It’s disheartening to find myself alone in this battle sometimes,” an exasperated Mazhar told me as we strolled through the labyrinthine streets of Saddar on a serene Sunday morning. The bustling city serving as the perfect backdrop to our conversation.

An architect, heritage advocate and urban social thinker, Mazhar has dedicated her life and career to saving Karachi’s cultural and urban soul. She is not hopeless, she said, and that’s what defines her — her resilience, resistance and will to keep moving forward.

As the timeless charm of Karachi’s pre-Partition buildings and its diverse ecosystem face threats in the form of relentless encroachments, vandalism, and illegal demolitions, the fight to preserve the megacity’s cultural beauty is a daily struggle for Mazhar. Following in the footsteps of other courageous women such as the great architect Yasmeen Lari and fearless social worker and urban planner Perween Rehman — though their fights looked slightly different from hers — she is a force to be reckoned with.

“In court cases or legal judgment we are few who are expected to be the face of it all, fighting for heritage justice in countless places. It is important that more join this movement and focus on historical past as part of urban planning and it is now critical for academic institutes to focus on architecture education keeping history as an important annexure as way forward,” she told me.

Not backing down in her pursuit to prevent Karachi from becoming another contemporary grey jungle, Mazhar is persistent in her struggle.

From the remarkable restoration of the Karachi Cantt Railway Station to the phenomenal revival and restoration of Pakistan Chowk, her list of giving life back to historical buildings and spaces is commendably long.

Along with complicated and longstanding legal cases, she actively takes to social media to voice concerns about illegal demolitions and the government’s incompetence when it comes to it. Many times, the provincial government has taken action due to her perseverance.

Reflecting on the love-hate relationship with the government and its development-related authorities, she described it as both frustrating and a necessary first step for making better decisions and envisioning a brighter future when it comes to urban sustainability.

“Many of us tend to avoid collaboration with the government due to the perceived notion of how discouraging our government is, but now I believe that working together is necessary or else change won’t come,” she said.

Calling for partnership and communication, she added that government officials are also dealing with challenges and providing them with guidance can only benefit in protecting the city’s heritage and hence, its identity.

The power of female influence

Just as a strong and beautiful structure requires a solid foundation to distinguish itself from others, so too does an individual stand out with the support of certain influences. For Mazhar, the women in her life served as this foundational support, shaping her into the person she is today.

Though lost to her early in life, her mother instilled a deep love for Karachi within Mazhar and her sisters from a young age. Taking them on drives through the city, her mother showcased its vibrant hustle and bustle, especially during religious festivals, including visits to the famous Old Clifton area with its architectural marvels and heritage sites — very much the subjects that now form the essence of Mazhar’s work.

The other major influence on her life was the master architect herself — Yasmeen Lari — who is hailed as Pakistan’s first women architect and a giant in the building and urban planning industry.

Mazhar’s eyes glimmered when she mentioned Lari, whom she worked with for about seven years. She described it as one of the most valuable times of her life — a time she learned how to be resilient and patient while taking on both government and goons.

“It would simply be an understatement to say that she was merely my inspiration behind everything in life; for the courage and resilience required in my profession, I give her full credit.”

Sharing an interesting anecdote from her first meeting with Lari, she recalled being asked by Lari herself to speak to her after having read the architect’s book. Reflecting on the moment, she saw it as a learning experience that had come full circle as she has contributed to a book on Lari herself.

The Banyan Tree Conservation Project

Mazhar, who is unique in her battle and commitment to preserve Karachi’s monumental heritage sites, its rich cultural fabric and intricate ecological landscape, has proven to be unique with her projects and initiatives too.

From curating and promoting heritage walks, to holding insightful lectures on heritage and history and even producing a film documenting the region’s rich past, she has made a real difference with her efforts to improve the state of the city we live in and the spaces we occupy.

When you visit the old areas of Karachi — especially Old Clifton — and look at the historic buildings or even the banyan trees, it’s likely Mazhar contributed to efforts for its preservation.

For the past few years, Mazhar, along with a group of concerned Karachiites and advocates, has successfully managed to save many centuries-old banyan trees that are an important part of Karachi’s eco-system and landscape but are always at risk of being chopped down by authorities in the pursuit of ‘development’.

The persistence of Mazhar and the rest of the team paid off and in December 2019, they managed to make the authorities declare the banyan trees “protected heritage”.

Her success has inspired many others also to take her struggle forward. Last July, 17-year-old Aneeqa Bashir approached Karachi Mayor Barrister Murtaza Wahab and was able to have the historic banyan trees along Amir Khusro Road declared protected green heritage as well. When she spoke to the media, she credited Mazhar for inspiring her and providing guidance.

Staying true to her name

Just like her name ‘Marvi’, which has roots in the history of Sindh and means beauty redefined, everything seems to fall perfectly into place as she redefines the beauty and identity of our city.

Through celebrating her, we honour both history and the future, intertwining the past with the promise of what’s yet to come.

This March, Images is profiling trailblazing women who are, in their own ways big or small, stirring change in our society. Women who inspire us and women who make us proud. You can read all our stories on inspiring Pakistani women here.

Trailblazers and change makers


Masood Zaidi Mar 18, 2024 10:46am
90 % of old buildgings are going to go to ground due to lack of maintenance either bu owners or tenants - I wii be a sad day
m.s.hanif Mar 18, 2024 12:41pm
keep on doing the good work.i hope someone can keep eye on other cities of pakistan.
Taj Ahmad Mar 18, 2024 12:46pm
Our women are more responsible than men, let’s have a woman Mayor and CM and Governor in all major cities of Pakistan and see the difference.
Taj Ahmad Mar 18, 2024 12:49pm
Masood Zaidi… 100% agreed with your comments below.
Taj Ahmad Mar 18, 2024 12:51pm
Hope current Mayor and CM and Governor of Sindh Province also noticed this poor conditions of old buildings in mega cities of Karachi and other parts of Pakistan as well.
Musleh REZVI Mar 18, 2024 01:07pm
Marvi's restoration of Pakistan Chowk is a brilliant. I have walked through those fascinating lanes in my banking days spread over fifty years ago, getting congested at a fast pace. She has transformed it as a Chowk of peace & tranquillity. Yasmin Lari designed the best bank building in metropolis opposite Frere Hall in full harmony to the environ That was my project in ABN-AMRO.
NYS Mar 18, 2024 01:25pm
Tour dé force Marvi saving the day ... She is a force to be reckoned with.. Shine lady!
Syed Hasni Mar 18, 2024 01:56pm
Karachi’s architecture is a journey through time. From the colonial imprints to the sleek lines of modern design, the city’s buildings are a reflection of its vibrant history and dynamic present. As we look to the future, it’s crucial to cherish and preserve the architectural treasures that make Karachi so unique. After all, these structures are more than just bricks and mortar; they’re the soul of the city, echoing the stories of those who walked its streets long before us. She is a beacon of hope, otherwise it is a city of Immigrants both from India and people from other parts of the country looking for work. انشإ جی اٹھو اب کوچ کرو، اس شہر میں جی کو لگانا کی وحشی کو سکوں سے کیا مطلب، جوگی کا نگر میں ٹھکانہ کیا
Fast comment Mar 18, 2024 02:39pm
Only steps on war footing can save Karachi from property Mafias.
Maryam Mar 18, 2024 02:50pm
Best of luck Marvi Ap bhut ACHA Kam Kar Rahi Hain or humein ap jaisi women's ki zaroorat Hai Jo apnay apko qabliyat Kay dam par prove karein Na Kay aurat March Kar Kay as a women I am proud of you Inshallah ap kamiyab hon gi
Absar ul Hasanain Mar 18, 2024 03:51pm
Well done. Great work for preservation and restoration of historic places and buildings. Hope for better and beautiful Karachi. More power to you Marvi
Hammad Mar 18, 2024 04:23pm
If Punjab can run by a woman than why not Sindh? Bakhtawar Bhutto as a CM of Sindh. She reminds me of Benazir Bhutto.
Jamil Soomro, New York City Mar 18, 2024 05:38pm
" Just like he name Marvi, which has roots in the history of Sindh and means beauty redefined." I commend her for her endeavours and hard work in this regard.
Jamil Soomro, New York City Mar 18, 2024 05:56pm
@ Masood Zaidi In what language have you posted your comment here.?
zarmeena azeem Mar 18, 2024 06:47pm
Good luck to you girl if you can beat the Land Mafia in Karachi. It's a good thought I hope it doesn't cost you your life like other female warriors like Pervin.
A Subhan Mar 18, 2024 08:49pm
Happy for Karachi and Karachiites that they have Marvi Mazhar amongst them -- Praying for my hometown Hyderabad (not too far from Karachi) to get a powerful force like that of hers - Aameen
Shakil Khan Mar 18, 2024 10:50pm
I will consider Marvi, indeed a Super Woman if she could design suitable Drain Covers for bulging drainage of Karachi. Good luck to her
Irfan urfi Mar 19, 2024 05:07am
Marvelous Efforts Superb job
MAR Mar 19, 2024 06:13am
Happy to read about the efforts made by Marvi Mazhar for the preservation of Karachi heritage from the profits thirsty builders mafia. In addition to old builders some efforts needed to be done on the commercialisation of residential properties in areas like Nazimabad and North Nazimabad which has destroyed the entire culture and past of these areas. Commercialisation of Seaview and Clifton Beach needs the attention of the co conscious citizens of Karachi. Corporate Sector and heads could play a very effective role in supporting the protection of prominent heritage buildings and sites of city.
Shamim Mar 19, 2024 07:10am
Love this article
Amir Mar 19, 2024 06:43pm
Awesome contribution
Waseem Mar 20, 2024 12:25am
Privileged individual, no more. A private company , Envicrete was spending money to upgrade and improve the layout of Frere Hall, she had issue with that as well, she would have known better if she had seen the park end to end , what a great service that company was doing. What about the road infrastructure and other facilities, no voice on that? Sorted financially, mingling with the Elite of the city she has a selected agenda!
Shahid Niazi Mar 20, 2024 10:20am
Onwards and upwards
mazumba Mar 20, 2024 09:42pm
Good endeavors deserve encouragements!
Appa R Maganahalli Mar 21, 2024 06:26pm
Nice article about the talented architect. Keep up the good job- ma’am!