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Somake`s Karachi

May 22, 2011


IT was on May 17, 2009 that this column, Stone Age, saw the light of day. Beginning with the oft-mentioned marker of the city, Merewether Tower, this writer thought it wouldn’t take more than 20 write-ups to cover all of the important historical landmarks and neighbourhoods of Karachi. It was an awfully wrong estimation. It’s been two years and the journey to discover Karachi’s quaint, and architecturally opulent, past is still on. There are hundreds, if not a touch more than one thousand, of buildings made of beautiful Gizri and refulgent Jodhpur stones whose stories were supposed to be told. Some have already been told, while many await a befitting narration.

It had become abundantly clear, understandably so, when research work began, along with peregrination, that a few architects of British descent were instrumental in giving Karachi a particular look in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And my word, what a picturesque ‘look’ it was. Two names especially sprung up with regularity for whom respect and reverence increased every week: James Strachan and Moses Somake. While a reasonable amount of information was available on the former, it’s the latter whose hauntingly beautiful designs and lesser-known personality that this piece looks back on and pays homage to. Moses Somake, the genius, who architected astounding structures Mules Mansion, BVS School, the Karachi Goan Hall, Edward House and Flagstaff House. If you’re a Karachiite, this list is enough to dazzle your eyes.

There’s not enough source material on Moses Somake; only a couple of references tell us that he was born on June 6, 1875 in Lahore. His parents were of Jewish extraction. He passed away on April 6, 1947 in London, four months prior to partition of the subcontinent. No one knows where he learnt his art, what’s known is that he was a member of the Society of Architects in the first decade of the 20th century. Therefore, what else could he have been other than an architect?

Mules Mansion: Though most of the structures that Somake designed were on or near Victoria Road (Abdullah Haroon Road), the first building that this writer fell head over heals in love with was Mules Mansion in Keamari. The structure has human attributes. It talks to you. It has watery eyes. It has aged, but refuses to feel emaciated.

Built in the Anglo-Oriental style, Mules Mansion (named after Charles Mules, commissioner in Sindh) has renaissance elements too. As one expert suggests, its columns, its keystone, and its grooving are a sight to behold. Pollution and the effects of the fire that it caught a few years back have obscured its true splendor from students of art and architecture.

Karachi Goan Association Hall: The Karachi Goan Association Hall was perhaps the first work of construction that catapulted Moses Somake to fame and earned him more projects. Made in the English Renaissance style, it has a pediment, lovely pilasters, hipped roofs and dormers, and semicircular window openings. Located across the Karachi Grammar School, the Karachi Goan Association Hall is a lovely example of stonemasonry.

Flagstaff House: If the KGA hall has semicircular window openings, then Flagstaff House (Quaid-i-Azam House) has semicircular balconies that stand out. The building is not heavily embellished, but its carved pilasters and arched openings look special. It’s understandable, because the structure was originally meant to be a residence, and it was quite later that it assumed official status.

BVS Parsi School: BVS Parsi School is no less exceptional. It too has nicely carved features in its pilasters and a pediment that enhances the entrance’s effect. The building is imposing without compromising on elegance, an aspect that Somake took extra care about.

Edward House: The one building that Moses Somake has used strong detailing and rusticated masonry on is Edward House. It is a visual treat to look at and be in. The structure has a ‘feel’ that no other Somake creation can boast of. The moment you enter Edward House by going up a wooden staircase into the fairly airy rooms, you can’t help appreciating the artistry that’s gone into its making.

Architect and conservationist Yasmeen Lari says, “Moses Somake’s expression was robust, showing the strength of material he used along with a combination of some interesting elements. The balconies of Flagstaff House, Edward House and Victorian Mansion (we’ve discovered that Victoria Mansion next to Edward House too was designed by him) have been treated really well. Edward House and Victoria Mansion are different buildings, yet go well together. “The most wonderful aspect of discussing Somake is that at the time he was at work, Karachi was a tolerant city. Imagine the Portuguese Christian community asking a Jew to make a club for them. My team and I have recently discovered that even the Muslim community had commissioned Somake to design a mosque for them. We have the maps for it. It’s a three-storey early 20th century mosque.”

“The difference between James Strachan and Moses Somake was that the former was an engineer designer. After the opening of the Suez Canal, books started coming into the subcontinent which was why people like Strachan were able to read them and come up with designs. On the other hand Somake was a trained architect, as we have recently come to know, and had more consistency in his expression. Strachan was moved by whatever he saw and was successful in making diverse buildings; Somake was on his own and was better trained.”

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan was a known social worker. Few knew that he dabbled in Urdu poetry as well. The homage to Moses Somake, given the surrealistic nightmare that Karachi has become, can be best summed up by quoting one of Dr Khan’s couplets:

Imarat haey kuhna dekhta hoon To tees uth’ti hai pehlu-i-jigar mein