Habib Fida Ali’s design philosophy throbs in the architectural marvels that he created during his lifetime

When my architect husband, Mukhtar Husain was documenting houses for his book 100 +1 Pakistani Architects and Their Own Houses (FNMH Architecture 2006), he decided to make an exception and include Habib Fida Ali’s distinguished house, even though it was not designed by him. The restoration and various interventions by Fida Ali (though visually inconspicuous and minimal) merited its inclusion, and the book is indeed richer for it. Husain has quoted the master architect, “I am attracted to understatement. I prefer a limited palette of materials to create an uncluttered, no-nonsense effect”. “This,” says Husain, “aptly sums-up his [Ali’s] attitude and distinct architectural style.”

Habib Fida Ali’s residence.
Habib Fida Ali’s residence. - A spectacular 12 ft x 12 ft pichvai (temple curtain hung behind the deity),on the dining room wall was one of his most treasured pieces. Dating back a hundred-and-fifty years, the pichvai surely takes your breath away. It is from Nathdwara in Rajasthan, a town famous for renderings of Krishna. Fida Ali had purchased it from a famous collector and specialist in the UK.

Habib Fida Ali has left behind a legacy that few can match. The range of his work is enormous — from private houses to public buildings to historic preservation.

He attended St. Patrick’s School in Karachi but was unhappy at the school and started to play truant to watch movies in cinema houses instead. Films remained a passion throughout his life, and influenced his aesthetic sense. In 1952, his family moved him to Lahore, to Aitchison College. He thrived there. He was amongst artists and his creativity flourished. He directed a school tableau The Dream of Anarkali, for which he went to the composer Naushad for the music! His art teacher, painter Moyene Najmi had a major role in instilling and furthering his aesthetics, and suggested that he should study architecture.

Fida Ali went on to The AA — the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Founded in 1847, the AA is the oldest architectural school in Britain and Fida Ali was the first Pakistani at the school, followed by Kamil Khan Mumtaz and Javed Najam. He duly qualified from there in 1963 as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (ARIBA), travelled extensively and returned to Pakistan in 1964. He joined the American architect William Perry, who was then working in the country and started his own practice, Habib Fida Ali Architects in Karachi in 1965.

Habib Fida Ali has left behind a legacy that few can match. The range of his work is enormous — from private houses to public buildings to historic preservation. But it is not the numbers of his buildings or the residences of the well-heeled, nor the high profile corporate and institutional clients that matter. What matters is his masterful compositions; his simple and clear lines, the use of fair-face concrete and clear geometric design that makes his architecture so distinct and appealing. He won several awards and served as a jury member for the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The design philosophy of Habib Fida Ali Associates stands on three principles: timelessness, simplicity and minimalism, with a view that architecture which transcends fashion can withstand the test of time. Which, indeed, it does.

Architect Hasan-ud-Din Khan’s splendid book, The Architecture of Habib Fida Ali has documented a large body of Ali’s work.