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Moses Somake: the man who built Karachi

August 19, 2018

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THE exhibition on Moses Somake under way at TDF Ghar.—White Star
THE exhibition on Moses Somake under way at TDF Ghar.—White Star

KARACHI: Moses Som­ake, the man whose arch­itectural imprint Karachi can never forgo, is the topic of an exhibition at the TDF Ghar which aims to explore the buildings he helped build in the city.

Using virtual tours, documentaries and interviews, Somake’s inspirations and their manifestations are shown in detail. Not much is known about Somake, and research about him and his contributions is limited. However, it is a known fact that Somake was a member of the Society of Architects in the first decade of the 20th century.

His impressive portfolio in Karachi includes the Flagstaff House, Mules Mansion, Edward House, BVS Parsi School, among many others.

Somake was born on June 6, 1875, in Lahore to a Jewish family. His family was from Spain and had also lived in Iraq for some time. He passed away in London from a heart attack. Some sources also describe him as an Iraqi Jew but differ as to whether he was born in Iraq or was of Iraqi descent, born in India. He spent most of his life in Karachi before migrating to England in the mid-1940s.

Very few people know about Somake which is why different aspects of him and his work are captured in the exhibition. There is a 360 degree virtual reality tour of his buildings including the BVS School and Karachi Goan Association so visitors can see how they look in reality. Arched doorways and splendid stonemasonry represent Somake’s buildings.

The Flagstaff House is considered among Somake’s finest. Somake’s work was confined to the main double-storey bungalow, while the annexe was added later. The building boasts of arched openings, carved pillars, semi-circular balconies and spacious rooms.

For Hiba Zubairi of The Dawood Foundation, “TDF Ghar connects visitors with the rich and vibrant history of Karachi. We want people to relive the true spirit of this cosmopolitan city. While researching for a topic to do a new exhibition we saw it’s the birthday of Moses Somake on June 6. So, we decided to do an exhibition on the buildings he designed for Karachi because Moses gave up his practice of architecture after leaving Karachi; whatever he did for Karachi was among his last work.”

An interesting element in the exhibition is the inclusion of Somake’s granddaughter Doreen’s reminiscences: “Papa was a kind and caring person and loved to play games with his grandchildren. His house in London was bombed during World War II. Luckily, he was safe because he had already moved away during the Blitz. Most of his belongings (including many of his papers and designs) were destroyed or badly damaged. He stayed with us in Norwich (where we had evacuated during the war) for some time. After the war, he moved back to London and lived in a hotel. When we returned to London, he came to live with us. He died peacefully on April 6, 1947 in London, from a stroke at our home.”

Most of the buildings in the city are fast deteriorating and are being eaten away by pollution and dust and thus are in really bad condition. Zuberi hopes that the exhibition will allow Karachiites to understand the need of preserving history “because once a piece of history is destroyed, it is lost forever. We want people to go and see how they look in reality. Efforts should be made to maintain these buildings in good condition.”

The exhibition on Moses Somake at the TDF Ghar will continue till Sept 10.

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2018