Habib Fida Ali was born in Karachi in 1935. He studied at Aitchison College, Lahore, and trained as an architect at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. He returned to Pakistan in 1964 and started his own practice a year later. He was a member of the Master Jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983. His book, The Architecture of Habib Fida Ali: Buildings and Projects 1965–2009, was published in 2010 with an introductory essay by Hasan-Uddin Khan.
Having carefully drafted a set of questions and read through his book, The Architecture of Habib Fida Ali, I was well prepared for an afternoon’s discussion at his office. Or so I thought.
Fida Ali was in a casual and expansive mood. Offering me a cup of tea, he allowed the photographer to shoot. Once she had left, he asked for the door to be shut, and no calls! There I was, in the company of one of the foremost architects of Pakistan, one with a portfolio of remarkable landmark buildings. His designs include offices, academic and public buildings, mosques and, of course, houses galore, located not only in Karachi but also in Quetta, Lahore and elsewhere. And many of these are buildings you would know and easily recognise because of Fida Ali’s distinctive and fairly consistent style over more than 40 years. Here are excerpts of the conversation:
Mukhtar Husain. Your residences look different from your office buildings.
Habib Fida Ali. I allow my clients more leeway in their houses. And they interact differently too. The whole family is involved in the process, unlike a business tycoon or a company board for whom I may be designing an office building.
Old buildings are our history and must be conserved to inspire our younger generations someday.
Husain. Your buildings in Karachi are mostly finished in grey concrete, referred to as ‘fair-faced’ in architectural parlance. But the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) campus that you designed is in brick.
Fida Ali. Brick is the natural material in Lahore. I have really enjoyed working in brick, and working for LUMS, now for about 30 years. I have designed every building on the LUMS campus. I have tried, however, not to be repetitive. Often the donors for a particular building have a say too, and I respect their wishes. On the whole, it has been a very rewarding experience.
Husain. Would you elaborate on the evolution of your style?
Fida Ali. When I returned to Pakistan after completing my architectural studies at the Architectural Association School in London, concrete and brick were the rage for buildings. There was Le Corbusier, who had designed Chandigarh in India. And Louis Kahn who had done remarkable work, including the National Assembly complex in Dhaka. Nayyar Ali Dada, our very own master in Lahore, had designed an auditorium in the National College of Arts (NCA) campus there. I worked with architect William Perry for a year. His work also was in concrete and brick.
So when I was developing my concept for the Shell Building [in Karachi], I decided to do it entirely in concrete. We found a good contractor who followed my instructions and did his best. We retained the concrete in its original form, allowing even the honeycomb to remain. There are no plastered patches. And it has been maintained as it was built over all these years.
Since brick is scarce in Karachi, I stuck with concrete. One building has followed another. I try to achieve a simple geometry with straight lines, rectilinear plans, flat roofs, deep-set windows, bold projections and slender colonnades. So, you could say that has become my style. No matter how I start, I end up with that vocabulary.
Husain. You were also involved with the Mohatta Palace restoration project. Isn’t restoration a completely different ball game?
Fida Ali. Yes, it is. But then, a project is usually much more than just its design. It is the way you relate with the client; how meticulously you prepare the drawings and documents; how closely you follow through during construction.
I have designed every building on the LUMS campus. I have tried, however, not to be repetitive.
Mohatta Palace was one of my more difficult assignments. The restoration of the Flagstaff House and the Jaffer Faddoo Dispensary in Kharadar had already been undertaken by [architect] Yasmeen Lari. I was asked to oversee the restoration of the palace in 1995. But I had a difficult time with the client team. At one stage, I was so frustrated that I was prepared to give it up.
The building was a complete disaster when we started. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had occupied it until 1959, had constructed another building on the grounds, which I had to tear down. And Jinnah’s sisters, who lived in the palace after that, had really messed it up. One corner of the building had sunk and actually had to be jacked up into alignment. We got stonemasons from the traditional biradari of Rajasthani master craftsmen (who belong to the Silawat community and made most of the buildings during the Raj period), to do repairs to the stonework. The work was completed in 2001.
I have been unhappy with the way the exhibitions have been arranged, with temporary walls veritably hiding the beauty of the interiors. It was supposed to have been a museum with its own permanent collection, but it has become more of a venue for special exhibitions and events.
You also wanted to know about my house. It was one of seven similar large houses, all in a row. All the others have gone. Although I have only been a tenant, ever since moving in during the early 1970s, I have continuously restored and maintained it. It belongs to a trust and, I believe, is now on the list of World Heritage Sites in Pakistan, so it cannot be pulled down easily.
Husain. You once took a stand against billboards in Karachi.
Fida Ali. I was a member of a committee to advise the Karachi Municipal Corporation on improving the city's image. And I spoke out against these giant billboards that deface our roads and buildings. The city government claimed that they were a major source of rental income. Some were grudgingly removed, but only for a while. When a windstorm blew down a number of billboards some years ago, there was a hue and cry. Again, most of them are back. And they keep getting bigger.
In fact, I would say there are several pedestrian bridges built across major roads merely to erect billboards, because hardly anybody ever uses the bridges otherwise. Worse than the gaudy new graphics are the blank ones which say "To Let". But worst of all are the remnants of old advertisements, torn and tattered, fluttering in the breeze, adding to the city's chaotic ugliness. They look so terrible.
Husain. Do you have to deal with the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency for any of your larger buildings?
Fida Ali. Yes, in fact, I do. But I am amazed that it tolerates all this environmental mess all over the city, all the garbage, broken or half- completed structures, the potholes, the missing footpaths. What good does it do?
Husain. What is your opinion on the past, present and future of our architectural heritage in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi?
Fida Ali. Karachi has already lost most of its architectural heritage. Look at Elphinstone Street or Bunder Road or Burnes Road: They have been neglected and mutilated almost beyond recognition. The majestic Karachi Municipal Corporation building is so badly treated that it may also soon be damaged beyond repair. And Empress Market is a filthy mess, with garbage and squatters all over. However, what remains can still be resurrected, if we only care for it and make the effort. What is lost is lost. Old buildings are our history and must be conserved to inspire our younger generations someday.
In Lahore, much has also been lost or has changed in appearance. However, The Mall has its grandeur, with several colonial-era buildings still standing as landmarks amidst those handsome tall trees. But that is Lahore. Trees are an equally important part of our streetscape. In Karachi, we neglect and destroy trees more willfully than even the buildings.
When I travel, and I often do, I seldom get calls or emails from the office. It just carries on. I hope it carries on the same way after me!
Husain. Whose work has influenced yours, and who do you admire?
Fida Ali. I like I M Pei's work, and that of Tadao Ando and Geoffery Bawa. And Luis Barragan – he is my favourite. Each one is a master of something that is perhaps special and unique to his work. Admittedly, Bawa cannot be replicated here, nor Ando. But the discipline, detail and sculptural character of their work is worthy of praise. My work, too, is always disciplined, always on a grid. Even when designing a house, I first establish a grid and then set about organizing the floor plan.
In a sense, you could say Richard Meier has been an influence, too. He always works on a grid and has maintained a consistent and recognisable style for years. He even manages to do houses in the same language.
Husain. Do you still collect art and antiques?
Fida Ali. People say I have an eye for things of value, and I have often managed to procure these things at bargain prices from London, Bangkok, Kathmandu or Dhaka. It feels good to be surrounded by these hand-picked objects and curios.
Husain. How do you handle work in your office?
Fida Ali. I still put in a full day's work and develop the concepts. Everything is passed by me before going out. But when I travel, and I often do, I seldom get calls or emails from the office. It just carries on. I hope it carries on the same way after me!
This article was originally published in the Herald's April 2014 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a Karachi-based architect and oversaw the design of Jinnah Terminal Complex at Karachi Airport.