An office that screams bara saheb

April 7, 2024

How a building is created to inspire awe

An office that screams bara saheb


any Pakistani men dream of being a bara sahib one day. While gendered ratios are usually frowned upon for present-day politics, my 26 lived years somewhat attest to this. The architect I had the pleasure of speaking to this time, Noor Khan, relates a story about a man giving him (almost) complete financial and creative freedom to do anything in his capacity to design an office that expressed his bara saheb-ness.

As a man who dealt with many high-ranking professionals, he wanted his office space to inspire quiet reverence and awe.

Architecture has long been used as a tool to inspire various emotions and reactions from intended users. Courts demand reverence, banks display wealth, hospitals turn into super functional tunnels connecting colourless, sterile boxes to try and scare away people from disease. It is only fitting that an architect is summoned when such an effect is planned.

The office building in question looks out of the sixth floor of Askari Towers in Gulberg, Lahore. When shown the final design, the client expressed his satisfaction with the work, glad to have put his trust into the architect chosen for the job. But how does a client expect an architect to build an office that helps him look like a bara sahib without offering him particular design requirements? Khan seems to have found his way around it.

“We replaced design with words,” he says, acknowledging that his entire team built the strong concept together. They decided that they would call this project An Intimidating Office, visualising the project as a movie scene. Drawing up sketches from various movies, Khan listed down elements that made particular areas colder or more intimidating than others. One such element was the idea of comfort — an interior that does not create a cozy environment makes an outsider stay on guard. Many design factors went into achieving this.

The entrance to the office opens onto a cold, steel wall, refusing to extend a warm welcome to visitors. This thematic coldness continues inside — the hard surfaces that line the counters, tables and the walls, all exude a lack of empathy to the human that comes into contact with them. Sitting spaces in the spacious waiting area have been deliberately kept far apart to avoid a communal feeling that might encourage visitors to engage with the interior and with other people nearby.

Moreover, white lights have been used instead of yellow ones. One can imagine what it must feel like to someone who has come in to make a business deal. The space worships the client in a country where the guest is believed to be a gift from God. Such conflicting states of being are bound to create disillusionment. While the guests that the client receives might not try and sell him short, they could very well instead look to his visualised godfather-ly status for other favours.

Granting favours is, of course, an honour: a display of power and ability.

An indifferent reception desk greets the visitor.
An indifferent reception desk greets the visitor.


y the time a visitor has walked down the entirety of the office space to reach the client’s personal room, they have already been subjected to many psycho-spatial influences. Now they must accept whatever they are offered.

They are led to a seat physically lower than that of the owner of the office. Not only must they be located at a disadvantage, they are also reminded of their transitory presence by the way they are served tea on a separate table. The table is taken away within a few minutes. The guest is not expected to stay for too long.

Then, there is the conference room. This room was designed keeping in mind the more authoritarian principles from architectural practices employed around the world — practices more akin to the style of Stalinist architecture. With the same cold, steel finish, the conference table is illuminated from within, the blue-tinted lighting keeping one alert and on their toes.

The table also points to the head of the meeting, signifying the presence of ultimate authority. Those attending a meeting must orient their attention towards that focal point at all times. The steel finish on the walls ensures that those participating in the conference stay on the edge.

I have had the privilege of working in an office where my employer harboured similar sentiments and wanted his office space to speak that way to anyone who walked in. I cannot say I enjoyed working in an area that aimed to intimidate me, but I can say it does work to inspire awe in the common visitor. In a world where the general, subconscious motto is to “fake it till you make it,” it only makes sense to design interiors where one can diminish any signs of a developing imposter syndrome.

The writer is the editor of The Anarchitect. She can be reached at theeditor

An office that screams bara saheb