Architect Habib Fida Ali (1935-2017) died earlier this month in Karachi, Pakistan. He was from amongst the generation of Pakistani architects whose work helped define the country’s contemporary architecture. Many of their buildings are landmarks in the country’s urban landscape. Ali studied at the prestigious Architectural Association, London, in the 1960s. It was from this institution that some other Pakistani architects also graduated, including Kamil Khan Mumtaz and Javed Najm. All of them have shaped the country’s architectural heritage. Ali’s work was inspired by the modernism of Le Corbusier. His other favorite architects were the Americans Richard Meier and I.M. Pei, Sri Lankan Jeffery Bawa and Japanese Tado Ando. Each one’s influence is seen in Ali’s work. Meier’s grids, the houses with breathing space from Bawa, heights with natural lit spaces of Ando and the Corbusien windows in some of Ali’s work – all unify to create a distinct vocabulary of Ali’s own architectural language.
Habib Fida Ali started his practice in 1965, when the market for architects was limited. There were not many local architects and even some foreigners practiced in the country. A newly independent country rooted in a rich history was searching for a way to define its contemporary architectural identity. This is when Habib Fida Ali and some of the other architects brought modernism – i.e. the approach of ‘less is more’ – to Pakistan. Habib Fida Ali continued to adhere to it throughout his rich and impactful professional practice. It remained with him until the very end of his life and influenced the subsequent generation of architects. His followers willingly dropped decorative aspects where the context did not require them. His work was simple and yet it had a presence of its own. Ali designed a wide range of buildings: residences, office towers, academic institutions and health facilities to name some. Despite his modernist moorings, his sense of history and desire to preserve heritage were evident from his best known conservation, that of the historic Mohatta Palace, and from his lifelong project of conserving his own colonial-era residence.
Habib Fida Ali and some others brought modernism – i.e. the approach of ‘less is more’ – to Pakistan
Ali’s first major professional breakthrough, completed in 1976, was the fair-faced concrete Pakistan Burmah-Shell Oil Company headquarters in Karachi – with straight lines, grid design, deep windows and shades catering for the orientation of the site. A clean looking office building with well-lit spaces, it remained a signature façade for his buildings. The main office building is a simple block but the masses of the functional part of the building help distinguish the two spaces and create masses on the exterior. The fair-face look stood well in Karachi’s urban and environmental context and responded to materials available locally for construction.
Habib Fida Ali’s own residence – built in 1979 and called the “the 17 Street” – in which he did not live, is like a textbook modernist home. It features the characteristic straight lines, a mass over another bigger mass and well-defined living-, public and private spaces. Everything is in lines – straight or slanting – and masses. The top floor moves out and so do rainwater drains protruding from the roof within the masses. The division of space is clear as one drives into the residence. To enter the house you move to the built area on the left and for the open area move to the right, for a big lawn.
His National Bank building in Quetta is an octagon with a fair-faced concrete finish. He continued the same finish when he designed the Sui Northern Gas building in Lahore, an office tower with straight lines, masses and big windows. His later buildings, the Siemens Head Office, Cavish Court, Islamic Chamber, the Sui Southern Gas building and others followed the clean concrete look and playful functional masses defining the elevation.
However, as he was commissioned by the Lahore University of Management of Sciences (LUMS) campus, he responded to Lahore’s traditional construction material – brick – and its historic architecture, thus providing a bridge with modernity. Besides the use of brick, the design of LUMS revolves around a main courtyard (serving as space to connect people and functions) and a symmetry in design. Even the master plan of the university is slanted, facing the pure north to get maximum light and symmetry. It was also Ali’s big foray into academic buildings, leading to other commissions. The LUMS campus as a whole has been a successful academic building design in terms of the planning and creation of functional spaces.
Despite his modernist moorings, his sense of history and desire to preserve heritage were evident
Ali’s details are addressed in simple grids in the horizontal and by stepping up levels in vertical – and sometimes feel somewhat too simplified. Grooves running around the buildings are exterior detailing. His interior projects and residences are mostly in lighter colours but also address the requirements of his corporate clients. One of his close friends, artist Naima Dadabhoy whose functional house Ali designed, mentions how he convinced her to use local marble, Burma teak and white paint and not to get into any fancy materials when aiming for what Ali used to call “Little Doll House” – a classic and timeless look.
Habib Fida Ali remained an active voice in improving Karachi’s urban character and will be remembered amongst the pioneer architects who have defined Pakistan’s r modern architecture.
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