December issue 2010

By | People | Profile | Published 13 years ago

“I was in St Patrick’s primary school in Karachi and I failed and failed… I just loved the movies, and I loved to paint. I would go to the studios in Bombay and get autographs from Madhubala and Dilip Kumar… I really wanted to be a movie director,” says Habib Fida Ali. But a career in the celluloid world wasn’t in the stars for him. Fame, however, was.

Today Fida Ali is recognised worldwide for his contributions to the field of modern minimalist architecture — Pakistan’s very own Mies van der Rohe. Not surprisingly then, internationally renowned architect, Hasan-Uddin Khan recently published a book featuring Fida Ali’s greatest works — “a labour of love,” according to Shahab Ghani (president of the Institute of Architects of Pakistan). The book launch was fittingly held at the Karachi Club Annexe in Lalazar, which is also a Fida Ali creation. (See the slide show of a sample of his work below).

His greatest works, among others, include the restoration of the Mohatta Palace in Karachi, the campus of LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), Sui Northern and Southern Gas buildings, National Bank of Pakistan, The Forum and residences of eminent businessmen, intellectuals and entrepreneurs. And driving up to Habib Fida Ali’s house, one crosses one of his earliest projects — the groundbreaking Burmah-Shell building. “When working on the Shell House, I was often asked, ‘Habib sahib, when will you paint it, when will you plaster it?’ And I would say, ‘It will remain like this, the very first concrete building in Pakistan.’ I set a trend there.” Having completed the building in 1976, KDA awarded Fida Ali a gold medal for it, calling the Shell House the best building constructed after Partition.

As I arrive at his house, a white gate flings open to reveal a 100-year-old colonial edifice — older than the Mohatta Palace. The gargantuan banyan tree at the entrance is probably as old as the house itself. I had heard of this house: its terracotta-lined roof, the arched doors, the teak floors, the ceiling-high book shelves crammed with classics and travel books, including Louis Theroux and William Dalrymple and, of course, its quintessentially stark contemporary furniture. Fida Ali’s friend, lawyer and educationalist, Irshad Abdul Qadir had called it “a three-dimensional backdrop for Habib Fida Ali’s art collection.” Fida Ali recounts that when he got the house it was in ruins. “It was crumbling. The trustees of the house say I saved it.” The white stone structure stood grand at the centre of the property, flanked by outhouses on either side — now occupied by Fida Ali’s office staff. But before I took my tour of the house, I had an interview to conduct.

We walked across to his office — unmistakably a Fida Ali enterprise, with ceiling-to-floor glass windows looking out to a serene water body tucked in between leafy greens and pebbled paths. Natural light gushed in through the windows, and reflected off the white walls. Behind Fida Ali’s desk where he sat, stood a wall-to-wall bookshelf crammed with books from eminent architects and his mentors, including Le Corbusier. Fida Ali singled out all the greats of architecture, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Luis Barragan, Tadao Ando in Japan and Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka. He called them “my heroes.”

“Hello, hello, young lady, welcome,” sang Fida Ali, charming me in the very first instance. Animated and eloquent, Fida Ali put me at ease instantly and the next hour flew by immersed as we were in anecdotes from Fida Ali’s college days, following a stint at Aitchison College, where he had been pushed by one of his teachers to study architecture. An alumnus of one of the leading architecture schools in the world, The Architectural Association School of Architecture, Fida Ali spent seven glorious and glamorous years in Europe with his college buddies, attending the Venetian opera for five nights straight or going out to the theatre, buying tickets to the latest productions. “Opposite the Architectural Association (where Fida Ali went to school) was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, on Bower Street. I had a wonderful group of friends and we would get tickets to see Sean Phillip, Albert Finney and others, standing in theatre halls.”

He spoke of projects completed 20 years ago, like it was yesterday. His passion was electrifying, as he recounted his time spent completing a certain building and ending with, “Ah, it was so much fun!” However, a yearning for his roots prompted him to return. “Eventually I wanted to come back to Pakistan. I missed home because in all my seven years, I came back only once,” says Fida Ali, and so the young architect returned.

“I work on a grid and I develop ideas. My buildings are very sculptural. I’m interested in pure forms, I don’t distort forms,” he says, and that is exactly what Siemens, the global engineering giant, spotted in him when looking for an architect for their office building in Pakistan. The head of Siemens, en route to Fida Ali’s house, passed by the Shell building. The design was inspired by Fida Ali’s mentor, Richard Meier. “The head architect from Siemens who came here worked for Richard Meier and on the way to my office he stopped at Burmah-Shell and asked which architect had designed this building. The caretaker didn’t know.”

“Later, at my office, he saw Richard Meier’s book on my shelf as I was teaching my boys to not copy but learn from Meier’s drawings. His name was on the last page. He then said, ‘You are my architect for Siemens in Karachi.’ And that was it!”

Fida Ali’s meticulous attention to detail and style of working won him praise for the building from Siemens’ regional head in Bombay. “I got a letter from their head office saying we have worked in the region extensively but especially enjoyed working with you. I still have that letter. This is my reward; my buildings are my reward,” says Fida Ali. (See gallery below).

As for residences in Karachi, Habib Fida Ali says, “Residents are a pain in the neck and one has to satisfy the egos of husbands, wives and children — it’s agonising. My nephew always asks me why I do them. I say maybe I’m a masochist. But I just really enjoy them.” His first home in Karachi was the Ismail House near the Mohatta Palace. Completed in 1969, the residence is still refreshingly modern. G.M. Adamjee’s house built soon after was the talk of the town for several years and many copied its layout and design. “I built a house for myself,” says Fida Ali, “a triangular simplistic house, but I sold it to a client. My nephew is living in another house I built — the ‘Kerai House’ is in the book. I always like a dialogue with my clients.”

In the process of building EFU’s office in Karachi, Allied Bank’s office in Lahore and hoping to complete the Pakistan Mall one day, Fida Ali declares that he still has much further to go. With over 50 years of experience, he glows at the mention of new projects. With a staff of over 40, including fresh graduates, his team still includes stalwarts who have been with him from the very beginning. Kalam Baig is mentioned again and again — Fida Ali’s right hand when it comes to residences. Retirement, he says, is out of the question, although Fida Ali hints that Adil, his nephew, is slated to take over. Until then the maestro continues to take his particular line for a walk.

Click any photo to begin a short slide show of Habib Fida Ali’s “rewards.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Newsline under the title of “The Maestro.”

Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.