Remembering a pioneer

January 27,2017

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It came as a great shock when I heard about the demise of Habib Fida Ali, the man who had come to symbolise Pakistan’s architectural identity over the last half century. I spent the day immersed in an inner sorrow because it was hard to accept the fact that Habib Fida Ali was no more and that we, as a nation, had become all the more poor with his passing.

Habib Fida Ali was a true Pakistani. He was not just an architect whose language was drawings and theories based on mathematical calculations of loads and stresses. There was a human side to him as well.

He was a man of simple habits and an organised lifestyle and these traits were reflected in his work as well. He was a music lover and adored the classical genre. He had a great collection of symphonies, operas and sitar recitals. Fida Ali was also a great fan of stage plays and every time he travelled to London or New York, he would take out the time to watch plays. He read stage reviews diligently and selected what play he wanted to watch on that basis.

Fida Ali was a devout fan of literature and his library was full of books. He especially loved books on art and architecture and had a vast collection. Habib Fida Ali had the peculiar habit of flipping through magazines at auction houses.

He loved films to the extent that as a child he would bunk school to watch films. It was because of this that he was sent to the Aitchison boarding school by his parents. Fida Ali always said that if he had not been an architect, he would have become a film director.

One of the highlights of this life was when he visited India in his youth. Habib Sahib visited film studios in Bombay and got an opportunity to meet the heartthrobs of those days – Nargis, Nutan and Meena Kumari, to name a few – and returned with their autographs. Besides travelling, Habib Fida Ali also collected art.

It would not be wrong to say that Habib Fida Ali’s name was synonymous with Pakistan’s functional architecture. The great difference between him and other well-known architects was that he did not practice his art and craft in the manner that many of his contemporaries did. Other would opt for designs that were based on the whims and fancies of their clients.

Most clients tend to have had their houses built by replicating designs from photographs that appear in magazines. This explains why a truly homegrown architectural movement has not emerged in the country and Pakistan’s architecture has always remained a hotchpotch with no distinct identity.

The government is perhaps not bothered about developing a national architectural heritage. Most decision-makers simply approve any design that appeals to them. Islamabad, a city that was built from the ground up, is an amalgam of all forms of architecture. From the flowing lines of Islamic architecture to straight lines of modern western styles, the metropolis has a great deal to offer. What it does not offer is a genuine Pakistani signature. The only leading practitioner of Islamic influences merged with the Pakistani heritage is the Aga Khan Foundation and the many other buildings in Pakistan associated with the Aga Khan.

Habib Fida Ali was a major exception to the general trend. He thought originally by keeping the national ethos in mind and set into motion new directions of architecture that were based on the soil and climate. But he worked strictly on his own terms.

His work created vibes of finesse which only a person of his vast understanding and knowledge would have been able to execute with such confidence. He strictly believed in using right angles in his designs and it was rare to see him deviating from this approach. He believed that a space is always utilised at its best when there are straight lines intersecting it.

There are many great pieces of architecture that Habib Fida Ali created for both institutions and individuals. He built the Shell House, the LUMS complex and the SSGC and SNGPL head office buildings. Habib Fida Ali also designed the National Bank of Pakistan’s head office and The Forum and restored the Mohatta Palace. He designed the Faysal Bank Building on Shahrah-e-Faisal as well as the CAS School.

He was also asked to design the Dubai Jumeirah Beach Residence. Habib Fida Ali also designed more than 700 residences in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad and Dhaka.

He was recognised for his modern minimalist style of architectural design. Although Fida Alidid not opt for the ‘bare bones’ style, he made good use of it in his functional and efficient buildings.

Despite all the obstacles in his path, Habib Fida Ali went on to become one of Pakistan’s most celebrated and distinguished architects and it brought him numerous awards and accolades. A book on Habib Fida Ali’s greatest works was appropriately titled ‘A Labour of Love’. Fida Ali’s architectural insights were heavily influenced and inspired by the famed American architect Robert Venturi, who opposed traditional opinions and provided alternative approaches in the face of established conventions. Fida Ali qualified as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and started practising in Pakistan in 1964.

One of Fida Ali’s close friends approached him with a copy of Time magazine which carried the advertisement of Rolex with a palatial house in the background. The friend said he wanted his house designed just like the one featured in the ad. Habib Sahib looked at the advertisement and then flung the magazine out of the room, saying he would never put his name on someone else’s design.

He once said, “Something grand will probably tell how rich the owner must be, but its mere feeling will describe my reputation. I would never like to be associated with such a thing.” May his soul rest in peace.

The writer is the president and CEO of CMC.


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