A wise veteran — I

June 19, 2022

Prof Gulzar Haider inverts prevalent paradigms with remarkable finesse and dexterity

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e appears Socrates-like. He is soft-spoken and frank but contemplative at the same time and always at ease with himself. He is always thinking about ways and means to promote wisdom among people at large. Asking probing questions in an extremely soft tone, another Socratic trait, comes naturally to him.

Even when he is making a specific assertion it is usually phrased like a question. He never brags about his wisdom or experience, of which he has plenty. On Islamic architecture, his expertise transcends national boundaries. He has won an astonishing number of laurels for his work.

Dressed up in Western attire, with snow-white locks falling down his head unevenly, Prof Gulzar Haider displays the innocence typical of cherubic toddler. His innocence is coupled with erudition and theoretical profundity.

I have met him on numerous occasions and found him to be an epitome of Socrates’s motto, “You have to know yourself before you can say something about yourself or about what you can know.”

Prof Haider is a veteran academic/ practitioner of architecture. I am paraphrasing here a profound and pithy lesson he once gave me, “if we cannot capture the good in one form, we will have to take hold of it in a conjunction of three: beauty, proportion and truth.” Prof Haider reveres Iqbal. Once when he was quoting from his poetry, to my utter astonishment, tears started welling up in his eyes. So deep is his love for Iqbal, whose mausoleum he visits quite frequently.

The sense of nostalgia about the past is a good escape for him because of the uncertainty of the present. The attenuating times notwithstanding, he strongly believes that knowledge and wisdom should achieve practical results for the greater good of the society.

In a frank conversation in all three languages that he is very comfortable in - his native Punjabi, Urdu and English - he espouses the establishment of an ethical system based on human reason and inflected with religious tradition.

Socrates pointed out that human choice was motivated by a desire for happiness but Prof Haider reposes great faith in empathy and pathos. Here he diverges from Socrates.

Islam became a necessary ingredient in his sensibility from reading Nasim Hijazi’s novels including Insan aur Devta and Dastan-i-Mujahid. His mother too inculcated Islam as a source of culture that subsequently reflected in his work. A rod about Prof Haider’s background won’t be out of place here.

Gulzar Haider hails from a Syed (Gillani) family settled in Gujrat, where he was born and received his early education at Islamia School. At that school, Prof Haider recollects the influence he imbibed from the headmaster, Ghulam Abbas, a great disciplinarian yet a very gentle soul.

His family is descended from Shah Badr-ud Din Diwan whose mausoleum is near Batala. Gulzar Haider was the youngest of five brothers and three sisters. He did his matriculation from Central Model School, Lahore. For his FSc, he went to Government College, Lahore. The panel interviewing him for admission included Dr Abdul Salam.

He did his BSc (civil engineering) at West Pakistan College of Engineering and Technology from Punjab University in 1958 (later University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore). At the engineering college, he was a student of Dr Mubashir Hassan.

Despite Dr Mubashir Hassan’s influence, Prof Haider does not subscribe to socialism. Nor does he demonstrate an admiration for Marxism. It seems that he has remained focused on studying buildings and the ways they are built. After completing under-graduate studies, he got a Fulbright scholarship in 1961 and did an MS (engineering), A BArch and a PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Later, he was a professor of architecture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Prof Haider was a professor and head at the Department of Architecture, College of Architecture and Planning, King Faisal University, Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in 1977-1978.

He also worked as a visiting professor of architecture at Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA in 1980-1981. He was the director of the School of Architecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He was a design consultant to 11 architectural practices in the USA and Canada from 1979-2005.

Prof Haider was a United Nations consultant to Karachi Development Authority on housing and environmental issues in the development of Karachi Master Plan 1981. He addressed an international Conference on Islamic Environmental Ethics and delivered a lecture on the Future of Muslim Ummah in July 1987.

Prof Haider was invited as a guest of the Ministry of Education, Government of Malaysia. During his sojourn to Malaysia, he lectured on the topics of Cosmology and Islamic Architecture, Architectural Aesthetics, and Environmental Ethics.

Prof Haider inverts prevalent paradigms with remarkable finesse and dexterity. Architecture is generally regarded emblematic of a culture, which is perceived to be a larger social reality. But Prof Haider turns the notion on its head, saying, “Architecture makes culture possible. A house is made to assert existence. Its form is a declaration of a view of life. Tools are created, not merely used. And form is given, not merely executed. In this sense architecture becomes the stage as well as the choreographer of culture.”

The novelty this assertion is steeped in is a peculiarity of Prof Haider. He has written quite extensively on the Muslim Ummah with reference to its heritage and its territorialisation. He writes in one of his articles, “we notice that the universal Islamic paradigm is absent from the collective affairs of the Muslim people. They show a monotheistic world view and are perpetually talking of an Ummah. The fact remains that Islam is not an operative idea in their overall art of living. Far from being an Ummah (a commonwealth of people under one God) they are split into more than forty nation-states that artificially territorialise their histories of Islam, fabricate national cultures and project heritage as it suits their myopic objectives.”

Here it seems that he is groping for the tradition that has the elan vital enabling it to synthesise with contemporaneity on its own terms but it is sadly missing. It indeed is a dilemma for every contemplating (Muslim) mind.

(To be continued)

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He can be reached at tahir.kamranbnu.edu.pk

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