Foundations and Form: Memoirs of a Pakistani Architect
By Mukhtar Husain
Jaal Publications
ISBN: 978-9-6923-0567-9
288pp.

The title, Foundations and Form: Memoirs of a Pakistani Architect, suggests a book about the author’s personal philosophy and practice of architecture. But the reader will soon find it is, in Arif Hasan’s words from the foreword, “a story, lovingly told, of people, places and events.”

Speaking at the Karachi Literature Festival, Mukhtar Husain revealed his primary purpose was to write his autobiography for his grandchildren. But it is not only the biography of a person but a whole generation born in the 1950s, growing up in the ’60s and starting their first jobs in the ’70s.

After setting the stage for Partition and the migration of Husain’s family from the small towns of Indore and Ujjain in India to Karachi, the book is divided into three sections. The first section is his personal odyssey: childhood and school life, studying architecture in Turkey, personal travels in Europe and the Middle East, and his architectural practice back in Pakistan that spans 40 years.

The second section is devoted to a celebration of his family — his wife, Rumana and children, Adil and Asma. The third section is devoted to Karachi and its transformation over the years, from the clean, well-managed city that inspired his father Inayat Husain, during a brief stopover in 1945 on his way to the USA for his own studies, to the chaotic shabbiness of its present condition.

Architect Mukhar Husain’s autobiography is more than just a recounting of his personal journey. It is the story of a whole generation that grew up in the ’60s and is a treasure trove for sociologists

Mukhtar Husain, who trained in architecture at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, points out the influence of its curriculum and methodology on architectural education in Pakistan. He reflects on the graduates before and after his time in the ’70s, including Kauser Bashir Ahmed, Jawaid Haider and Noman Ahmed who, through their teaching practices, established the dictum of “socially responsive environmental design.”

Husain is no ordinary architect, despite his modest reticence. He was appointed lead architect by Nespak for the Jinnah Terminal, Karachi, and has contributed to the airports of Lahore and Islamabad, as well as the Ercan airport in North Cyprus.

He has been responsible for the design of many flagship retail outlets we are all familiar with, including Liberty Books, English Boot House, Chhotani Jewellers and UBL Lounges. He has been a technical reviewer to the Aga Khan Architecture Awards and two of his projects were also nominated — the IBA Girls Hostel in 2016 and the Turkish Consulate in Karachi in 2023.

Before he established his own firm, FNHM, in 1997, his time with Zor Engineers as well as Nespak took him to projects across Pakistan over 24 years. His account of his professional life is full of interesting anecdotes that give a context to engage the reader.

We hear about the dismissive manner of German consultants on the Jinnah Airport project — “self-absorbed, egocentric and mistrustful of their colleagues” — and the sheer relief of “the thoughtful and caring attitude” of the French during the construction stage.

An aerial view of Karachi Airport’s Jinnah Terminal for which Mukhtar Husain was the lead architect | Reuters
An aerial view of Karachi Airport’s Jinnah Terminal for which Mukhtar Husain was the lead architect | Reuters

We learn how he missed his flight from Lahore to Karachi in 1975, finding himself out of pocket to extend his stay at the hotel. Serendipitously, he was requested by an Italian family of eight to help them speak to the Indian authorities at the Wagah border, to cross into India in their Volkswagen microbus.

This is not a book about architecture, but about an adventurous life shared with friends and family. A large part of the book is about his travels — to 40 countries in four continents over 40 years — in his words, “exploring, observing, comparing, enjoying, learning. That’s what travel is about.”

He set aside his pride to accept the Rs100 offered by them which, surprising for us today, bought him a fresh PIA ticket, lunch and paid for hotel dues! In another aside, we learn that Husain designed the logo for the Institute of Architects of Pakistan (IAP).

This is not a book about architecture, but about an adventurous life shared with friends and family. A large part of the book is about his travels — to 40 countries in four continents over 40 years — in his words, “exploring, observing, comparing, enjoying, learning. That’s what travel is about.”

Some of his travels as a young student found him sleeping under stairwells in France and taping fruit boxes in a Frankfurt factory while, in later life, his travels were as a highly respected architect officially visiting Japan, Indonesia, Spain or Germany.

The book is also a documentation of the times he lived in. Some are personal memories of makeshift ice boxes to stop butter melting, the first supply of Sui gas, and a much-cherished scrabble board from childhood still in his possession.

But then there are the memories of a world in turmoil: his studies at METU were against the backdrop of violent left-wing activism in Turkey, the Vietnam war, Iranis escaping the Shah of Iran’s dreaded intelligence agency Savak, the six-day war of Palestine, the killing of nine members of the Israeli Olympic team in the 1972 Munich Olympics, the 1965 war between India and Pakistan and the change of one martial law in Pakistan with another, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

The turmoil continued after his return to Pakistan in 1973, with the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, the fatal air crash of Gen Ziaul Haq, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. His visit to India with his wife and children in 1984 coincided with the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Hussian describes Karachi through a personal lens as he moved homes, from Garden to Bahadurabad, PECHS, North Nazimabad and, finally, to Defence. He grew up in a city with cycle rickshaws, trams, side cars, double-decker buses, black and yellow cabs, camel carts and a circular railway.

We learn about the first Greater Karachi Plan, developed in 1952 by the Swedish firm MRV, about a city envisaged as the heart of Pakistan, whose population was expected then to increase from one million to only three million by 2000! We hear his sense of dejection, as the city of 1945, which so impressed his father, has grown into an “unloved, poorly designed” city of 25 million inhabitants that “fails to deliver life-sustaining opportunities.”

The book is both an autobiography as well as a biography of his wife Rumana Husain, a graphic designer, author and cultural historian. The unfolding events of his father’s life run parallel to Husain’s own journey, with accounts of Dr Abdus Salaam, the construction of Kanupp, and the signing of the Indus Water Treaty. He is equally generous with his praise of his guru Arif Hasan, his Karachi Grammar School class fellows and his many colleagues and friends.

This quality of sharing the limelight is also evident in his earlier book 100+1 Pakistani Architects and Their Own Houses (2006), where he modestly places himself as ‘+1’. That first compilation of the architects of Pakistan, or those who agreed to be part of his book, is a valuable resource for scholars of South Asian architecture.

This book is a treasure trove for sociologists, and for some it will bring back memories. If there was one thing I missed, it is an insight into his design philosophy. He lists the architects whose work he admires, and writes, “I began to see everything around me through an architect’s lens, and tried to make sense of the world from an architect’s viewpoint”, but one is left wanting to know what he saw.

The book reveals a person who has lived life to the full, and yet Mukhtar Husain is unwilling to hang up his boots. Instead, he says, it’s “time to reinvent myself”!

The reviewer is a Karachi-based artist. She can be reached at durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 31st, 2024

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