The portrait of an architect

April 7, 2024

A compelling social history of Karachi from the 1950s to the present

The portrait of an architect


riting an autobiography involves revisiting a familiar past. The process may not be as exhilarating as time travel, but it can allow us the distinct opportunity to confront forgotten, as well as latent, versions of ourselves. Armed with the benefit of hindsight, autobiographers can open the doorways to self-awareness. However, a self-written biography cannot resemble the site of an archaeological excavation; the retrieved material cannot be put on display for an overseeing audience without being carefully sifted. Writers must exercise discretion to determine what biographical truths merit mention and what must be withheld.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of formal autobiographies that we now come across have become tools for self-glorification. These accounts are laced with a dull, self-congratulatory tone and suffer from occasional bouts of name-dropping. It is rare to come across an autobiography wherein the portrait of the writer appears life-sized, untainted by feigned ideals of heroism.

Mukhtar Husain’s Foundations and Form: Memoirs of a Pakistani Architect isn’t burdened by the hubris that has hampered most formal autobiographies. On the contrary, the respected architect’s memoir is steered by the humble intention to chronicle the vicissitudes of life as he experienced them, without resorting to excessive self-praise. The author has not restricted his canvas to his own private memories, but has also captured the circumstances that influenced his life in unique ways.

At first glance, Foundations and Form builds expectations of an architect’s reflections and observations about his career in a Pakistani context. This immediately causes readers to sit up and take notice, as few Pakistani architects have penned autobiographies about the intricacies of their professional lives. Husain’s memoir, therefore, stands out as a welcome anomaly.

The title is drawn from the image of an under-construction building that gradually evolves from skeletal foundations to its finished form - a nod to the author’s credentials as an architect. As readers dive deeper into Foundations and Form, it becomes obvious that Husain isn’t just writing about his profession. In his foreword, the architect Arif Hasan draws attention to the broad scope of Husain’s autobiography, which reveals “a story, lovingly told, of people, places and events.”

Husain’s memoir relies heavily on a strictly fact-driven chronicling of events that, at first, appears almost clinical. Some readers might find this astonishing because memory is a beguiling beast; it has the power to lead people astray until they are forced to conceal or prevaricate crucial facts. The author doesn’t surrender to these self-effacing impulses. Instead, he produces a dispassionate linear narrative unobstructed by gaps and blind spots. Through his structural choices, Husain fashions a tightly wrought, well-modulated account of his life.

Throughout his narrative, the author uses subheadings - an unusual stylistic choice for a formal autobiography, but one that helps readers navigate through the text and compels the writer to remain concise. 

Husain’s autobiography has been divided into three parts. The first section delves into his youth, his student life in Turkey (now Turkiye) in the 1960s, his early career as an architect at ZOR Engineers and NESPAK and the milestones he achieved after establishing his own architectural practice in 1997. In the second section, the author shifts gears and ventures into the realm of private memories. Husain writes passionately about his family and provides a moving account of his “love story” with his wife, the artist and writer Rumana Husain. At the same time, he traces her numerous professional achievements as well as those of their children. In the penultimate section, Husain recedes into the background while his family members shine as overpowering presences. The author’s willingness to step away from the spotlight prevents Foundations and Form from coming through as a self-serving account.

While Husain shares these personal recollections with a heady mix of pride and joy, he doesn’t reveal more than what is necessary. As a result, readers don’t feel as though they are casual interlopers eavesdropping on a family’s personal lives.

In the third section, Husain enlightens readers with his architectural input on the substandard urban planning and development in Karachi. In this segment of the autobiography, Husain stops being a dispassionate observer and shares his concerns about Karachi’s plight. “The city of 25 million has no art museum or a botanical garden,” he laments, “ has to beg for funds, for leadership.”

The final part of the book includes insights into Husain’s architectural philosophy. He writes: “I see architecture as a language, a means of expression, each new work as a chapter in the book of life.”

Throughout his narrative, the author uses subheadings - an unusual stylistic choice for a formal autobiography, but one that helps readers navigate through the text and compels the writer to remain concise.

Husain’s account benefits from an enviable attention to detail. Discerning readers may wonder if the text has been fashioned out of mere recollections or whether the author has relied on diaries he might have kept over the decades. The latter has an equal chance since the narrative is a rich mosaic of memories and experiences.

Foundations and Form presents a compelling social history of Karachi from the 1950s to the present. The city emerges as both the backdrop of Husain’s story and an enigmatic, ever-evolving character in its own right.

Foundations and Form: Memoirs of a Pakistani Architect

Author: Mukhtar Husain

Publication: Jaal Publications, 2023

Page: 288

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of No Funeral for Nazia.

The portrait of an architect