Habib Fida Ali was born in Karachi in 1935. He studied at Aitchison College, Lahore, and trained as an architect at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. He returned to Pakistan in 1964 and started his own practice a year later. He was a member of the Master Jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983. His book, The Architecture of Habib Fida Ali: Buildings and Projects 1965–2009, was published in 2010 with an introductory essay by Hasan-Uddin Khan.
Mukhtar Husain. Your residences look different from your office buildings.
Habib Fida Ali. I allow my clients more leeway in their houses. And they interact differently too. The whole family is involved in the process, unlike a business tycoon or a company board for whom I may be designing an office building.
Husain. Your buildings in Karachi are mostly finished in grey concrete, referred to as ‘fair-faced’ in architectural parlance. But the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) campus that you designed is in brick.
Fida Ali. Brick is the natural material in Lahore. I have really enjoyed working in brick, and working for LUMS, now for about 30 years. I have designed every building on the LUMS campus. I have tried, however, not to be repetitive. Often the donors for a particular building have a say too, and I respect their wishes. On the whole, it has been a very rewarding experience.
Husain. Would you elaborate on the evolution of your style?
Fida Ali. When I returned to Pakistan after completing my architectural studies at the Architectural Association School in London, concrete and brick were the rage for buildings. There was Le Corbusier, who had designed Chandigarh in India. And Louis Kahn who had done remarkable work, including the National Assembly complex in Dhaka. Nayyar Ali Dada, our very own master in Lahore, had designed an auditorium in the National College of Arts (NCA) campus there. I worked with architect William Perry for a year. His work also was in concrete and brick.
So when I was developing my concept for the Shell Building [in Karachi], I decided to do it entirely in concrete. We found a good contractor who followed my instructions and did his best. We retained the concrete in its original form, allowing even the honeycomb to remain. There are no plastered patches. And it has been maintained as it was built over all these years.
Since brick is scarce in Karachi, I stuck with concrete. One building has followed another. I try to achieve a simple geometry with straight lines, rectilinear plans, flat roofs, deep-set windows, bold projections and slender colonnades. So, you could say that has become my style. No matter how I start, I end up with that vocabulary.
Husain. You were also involved with the Mohatta Palace restoration project. Isn’t restoration a completely different ball game?
Fida Ali. Yes, it is. But then, a project is usually much more than just its design. It is the way you relate with the client; how meticulously you prepare the drawings and documents; how closely you follow through during construction.