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Review: Architecture for its times

June 18, 2013

Reviewed by Adam Abdullah

Take a drive down any DHA Phase VI street in Karachi and you see sleek façades that were unimaginable a decade ago. The materials, colour schemes, and the subtle touch of green vines contrast sharply with the usual 200- and 400-yard houses you find elsewhere in the city. In this era of commercial architectural practice in Pakistan, where capital input is considered to be directly proportional to the aesthetic appeal of the outcome, the book Architect Mehdi Ali Mirza: Pioneer of Architecture in Pakistan, highlights the journey of architecture in the country, from its rudimentary beginnings to the all-encompassing glitzy career path it has become today.

Edited by Zain Mankani and Murtaza Shikoh, the prime objective of this book is to draw attention to the key contributions of the person who laid down the foundations of professional architectural practice in a country that had a barebones physical and institutional infrastructure. This was a time when architecture as an academic stream and a practice was still in its nascent stages. Mehdi Ali Mirza set up the Government School of Architecture and subsequently the Institute of Architects, Pakistan. He also advocated a strong link between a professional body and its academic training programme, and worked earnestly to connect the profession with a regulated educational framework.

The book starts with an essay by Mirza Sahab on Islamic architecture. It highlights the search for a national and a personal identity through the physical manifestations of value systems and ideals in the form of architectural expression, in a country that was still searching for identity in the scattered fragments of religious, social, ethnic, and geographic affinities. This essay explains Mirza’s outlook on our identity as a nation, and the role architecture had to play in it as a physical expression of that identity. The new society, rather than drawing superficial inspiration from decrepit relics of Mughal nostalgia, or succumbing to the legacy of the Raj and its monumental stone buildings, had to rise up and define a new architecture for itself — one that undoubtedly drew from its deep-rooted Islamic values and regional social considerations, but that was also in harmony with the contemporary global scenario where trends of living and socialising, of education and employment, and of trade and technology, were rapidly undergoing unprecedented transformations. There was a need to create an iconic architectural vocabulary, one that was uniquely “Pakistani” in all respects, a vocabulary that merged Islamic values with local ideals and traditional materials. A vocabulary that, for example, could translate the fired brick arches and vaults from Persia and Iraq into local red sandstone constructions in Delhi. A vocabulary that could transform the ideals of community life in a mosque space in the souqs of Egypt, where social interaction was the basis of a vibrant communal life, into the intensely hierarchical society of the subcontinent, where social stratification severely restricted cohesion and unity.

While encouraging drawing from the past, Mirza strongly discouraged the senseless duplication of symbols and motifs out of context, and was weary of the way religious icons dominated façades and fenestration schemes in buildings. According to Mirza, “we pretend we are proud of the glorious achievements of our forefathers but to turn round to look at the past whenever the word Islamic is mentioned, is not emulating them. It amounts actually to a confession that we do not really believe ourselves to be Musalmans today and that the chapter of Islamic history is now closed.” He advocated improvisation on these themes and an attempt to rekindle the spirit of that tradition and not merely a meaningless physical representation that had carried on since generations and now lost its impact.

A look at Mirza’s projects reveals the same values, his attention to detail, and his keen sense of visual aesthetics. Trying to strike a balance between landscaping and the built environment, Mirza followed closely in the footsteps of his greatest influence, the American modernist Frank Lloyd Wright. Mirza’s ideals of site-responsive architecture are evident in the kind of low-lying, sprawling buildings he erected, using landscape features such as creeping vines, rock walls, and heavy trees. Quite a number of second-generation Pakistani architects have drawn from this legacy. In that respect, he broke the monotony of architecture as a tool to fulfil certain utilitarian needs and thus its expectation of being bland and bare, and invited professionals to rethink it as a tool for intellectual and aesthetic expression, one that was sensitised to the evolving needs of a society torn between the East, West and the subcontinent.

An essay by Mankani gives a brief biographical account of the architect’s life and major works, including his involvement with governmental organisations and social groups, which led to his active role in the setting up of educational and professional institutes for the practice of architecture within Pakistan. Mankani also talks about Mirza’s journey through various educational institutes, which undoubtedly enhanced his exposure to architectural practice here and abroad, so that, upon his migration to Pakistan right after the formation of the new state, he was designated to a principal government post in the Public Works Department. Here, he soon realised he could achieve little with the untrained, disorganised workforce he had been provided. To ensure that he had a qualified team to assist him in various tasks, Mirza set about laying the foundations of the first institute in the country imparting professional architectural education, the Government School of Architecture. Eventually, with the assistance of a few colleagues, he set up the Institute of Architects, Pakistan, the first regulatory framework for the profession in the country.

The book also recounts several incidents of his confidence and audacity when it came down to architectural design. One was the designing of the Pakistan embassy in Delhi, and another the site selection for a new capital for Pakistan. He refused to be part of a project that contradicted his design philosophy, and made sure he was very vocal about it, even in the face of General Yahya.

Reminiscences and personal anecdotes by Mirza’s intimate friends and clients shed some light on the non-architect aspects of his life. This section is especially interesting as it makes one realise that there is more to defining a man than his work alone. An essay by Zaheeruddin Khwaja, a close associate, describes why Mirza eventually became disillusioned with government-commissioned projects and quit his day job to focus on private practice. Some of his best known works are projects he undertook for private clients. Another one of his achievements is the way he taught some of his clients the value of art, architecture, poetry and literature, and imbued in them an understanding of the finer things in life. Some of these clients went on to become great patrons of architecture.

Some of Mirza’s prominent works have been featured at the end of the book. This includes his own residence in Karachi. An architect’s design philosophy and his perception of aesthetics and lifestyle are best reflected in the house he designs for himself, where he is not bound by client-specific needs and demands. The house Mirza created for himself defines explicitly the local translation of the modernist, prairie architecture of Wright that Mirza so fondly wanted to emulate — ground-hugging undressed stone masses composed meticulously with scrub vegetation. Some of his other remarkable buildings include Syed Babar Ali’s residences in Karachi and Lahore, where he was given a free hand by the patron to play around with materials and landscaping elements, and subsequently produced brilliant designs. A careful selection of some other fine works, such as the Qizilbash residence, the Noon House, and the Pakistan Forest Institute building also help define the man’s architectural philosophy.

Written in a free-flowing, captivating style, the book is aimed at general audiences, but would be very useful for the younger generation of practising architects as well as architecture students in Pakistan.

The reviewer studied architecture and teaches history at NED University

Architect Mehdi Ali Mirza: Pioneer of Architecture in Pakistan


Edited by Zain Mankani and Murtaza Shikoh

Arch Press, Karachi

ISBN 9789699803000