Habib Fida Ali was a true Pakistani. He was not just an architect whose language was drawings and theories based on mathematical calculations of loads and stresses. There was a human side to him as well.
He was a man of simple habits and an organised lifestyle and these traits were reflected in his work as well. He was a music lover and adored the classical genre. He had a great collection of symphonies, operas and sitar recitals. Fida Ali was also a great fan of stage plays and every time he travelled to London or New York, he would take out the time to watch plays. He read stage reviews diligently and selected what play he wanted to watch on that basis.
Fida Ali was a devout fan of literature and his library was full of books. He especially loved books on art and architecture and had a vast collection. Habib Fida Ali had the peculiar habit of flipping through magazines at auction houses.
He loved films to the extent that as a child he would bunk school to watch films. It was because of this that he was sent to the Aitchison boarding school by his parents. Fida Ali always said that if he had not been an architect, he would have become a film director.
One of the highlights of this life was when he visited India in his youth. Habib Sahib visited film studios in Bombay and got an opportunity to meet the heartthrobs of those days – Nargis, Nutan and Meena Kumari, to name a few – and returned with their autographs. Besides travelling, Habib Fida Ali also collected art.
It would not be wrong to say that Habib Fida Ali’s name was synonymous with Pakistan’s functional architecture. The great difference between him and other well-known architects was that he did not practice his art and craft in the manner that many of his contemporaries did. Other would opt for designs that were based on the whims and fancies of their clients.
Most clients tend to have had their houses built by replicating designs from photographs that appear in magazines. This explains why a truly homegrown architectural movement has not emerged in the country and Pakistan’s architecture has always remained a hotchpotch with no distinct identity.
The government is perhaps not bothered about developing a national architectural heritage. Most decision-makers simply approve any design that appeals to them. Islamabad, a city that was built from the ground up, is an amalgam of all forms of architecture. From the flowing lines of Islamic architecture to straight lines of modern western styles, the metropolis has a great deal to offer. What it does not offer is a genuine Pakistani signature. The only leading practitioner of Islamic influences merged with the Pakistani heritage is the Aga Khan Foundation and the many other buildings in Pakistan associated with the Aga Khan.
Habib Fida Ali was a major exception to the general trend. He thought originally by keeping the national ethos in mind and set into motion new directions of architecture that were based on the soil and climate. But he worked strictly on his own terms.1
- 1. The writer is the president and CEO of CMC.