Si monumentum...

Updated January 12, 2017


WHO was it who said “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines”? It had to be another architect. It was: the American doyen Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s aphorism would have appealed to Habib Fida Ali. Habib had seen enough mistakes by well-meaning Pakistani architects litter our country’s urban landscape not to lament the truth in Wright’s remark.

Habib conjured his life, as he did his ideas, out of nothing. A Bohri from Karachi, he protected his identity in the overt Punjabi classrooms and campus at Aitchison College, Lahore. He was later to exact his revenge by designing a sports complex in his alma mater.

In 1956, at the comparatively late age of 21, he joined The Architectural Association in London, where he learned his craft. After qualifying as a member of ARIBA (Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects), he returned to Pakistan in 1964. Here he developed his practice, initially within the circumference of Karachi.

Habib found himself on the bottom rung of a ladder not overcrowded with talent. Good architects, like good cooks, came and went — some to Canada, a few to the Gulf, others to oblivion. Habib stayed. Gritting his teeth, he satiated the demand of fluttering, frothy society belles who wanted their houses designed by ‘Habib Fida Ali’. They sought status; he provided the symbol.

Habib Fida Ali conjured his life, as he did his ideas, out of nothing.

Habib’s first major institutional work is best typified by the now iconic Shell building in Clifton, Karachi. Some criticised it as an all ‘too too solid’ mass of grey concrete, a sort of Fida’s Folly. Those with taste interpreted it as an innovative architectural play of texture, light and volume. Almost subconsciously, Habib had given form to the influence of his artistic guru, a man incidentally only 10 years older than himself, the American architect Robert Venturi who won the Pritzker Architectural Prize (the architect’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize).

Habib followed Venturi’s dictum: “When I was young, a sure way to distinguish great architects was through the consistency and originality of their work ...This should no longer be the case. Where the Modern masters’ strength lay in consistency, ours should lie in diversity.”

Habib dedicated himself to diversity. He experimented with spaces, with surfaces, with silences. Ironically, his very diversity settled into a pattern which became recognisable as his style, his signature.

I met Habib soon after he moved into a ramshackle old house in Clifton. It belonged to some elderly Parsi ladies who felt that Habib could maintain it better than they could afford to. Gradually, he converted it into a wife-less home for himself and a mini-museum of artefacts that reflected his ineffable taste. Like most green collectors, he began with the obvious — the odd piece of Gandharan sculpture, some Gardener bowls, token miniature paintings.

He asked my opinion of them. I advised him that, instead of collecting disconnected ephemera and mediocre miniatures, he should build up a collection of 19th-century architectural drawings of subcontinental monuments done by local artists during the British Raj. From an incipient hobby, that became a passion. He pored over sale catalogues, he attended auctions in London, he scoured the vaults of dealers, and amassed an enviable collection.

He sold it within his lifetime. It was not because there was nothing more to buy, or that he had lost interest in the subject. He knew that after him there would be no one who would appreciate his collection with the fidelity and concern that he had done. He preferred, like Queen Elizabeth II, to see his corgis die during his lifetime.

Whenever I visited Karachi, I would make his house a point of pilgrimage. Whenever I gave a lecture, he would ensure that he was in the audience. We were a mutual admiration society with no office address — simply the premises of his open, omnivorous mind.

If there was a jewel in Habib’s crown, it must be the renovation that he undertook with such sensitive brilliance of the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi. If only Mr Mohatta — the Marwari businessman who had built it and abandoned it in 1947 — could have lived to see it now. That heartbroken parting would have converted into the sweetest sorrow.

Few architects have the opportunity to design a complete university. Individual buildings, yes, but never an integrated, organic campus. Habib was given that responsibility by the Lahore University of Management Sciences. From his drawing board in Karachi, Habib’s ideas flew northwards the length of Pakistan and took solid form to become Lums’ campus.

Habib, like anything good in Pakistan, has gone. Lums’ main building is now covered with vines, but not to hide his mistakes. Lums will remain Habib’s enduring epitaph, as St Paul’s cathedral is to Christopher Wren. Si monumentum requiris, circumspeci.

The writer is an art historian.

Correction: The print version of this article erroneously referred to Habib Fida Ali as an Ismaili. In fact, he is from the Bohra community. The error is regretted.

Published in Dawn January 12th, 2017