A Pakistani Architect's Profile
This is a profile of my husband, published in today's paper.
Mukhtar Husain: An Inspiration Unto Others by Amra Ali
Mukhtar Husain’s strong bias towards modesty is reflected in his architectural projects in which respect for material and comfort takes priority over opulence and cosmetic fixing. He is of the view that it is best to let the internal expression of the material be exposed, rather than covered superficially; light, air movement and comfort: these are the priorities that this Karachi-based architect has adhered to as values that seem to have been overlooked by many architects.
The architects own house, built in the mid-’90s, is testimony to his Bauhaus approach. The red brick house where the Husains reside has a strong rustic bias and an organic quality which reflect a preference for local material. Despite displaying an eclectic collection of art and craft collected over years of travel by his wife Rumana and him, Husain’s relationship to simple lines reaffirms his respect for the structural basis of form.
An architect’s house is perhaps the best or an apt gauge of his expression as it is free of a clients intervention, providing a framework with opportunity to express and experiment with space and material as well as the relationship of the outside and the inside without restrictions that may other wise play an important part in any architectural project. It is this facet that becomes the basic thesis used by Husain in his publication 100 +1 Pakistani Architects & their own houses, published by FNMH Architecture, in 2006.
The book provides the first comprehensive documentation of architectural values and their evolution in Pakistan since the ’50s. It was designed by his wife, Rumana, while most of the photography was done, on sight, by the couple. It’s easy to follow format and language, along with appealing layouts, provide easy access to the layperson. At another level, it is an important documentation that ‘can add enormously to an understanding of architectural theory and criticism. It is equally important for social scientists as it deals with social history’, writes architect-planner Arif Hasan in the foreword of the book.
“The houses reflect how lifestyles, tastes, social values and spatial requirements have changed over time among the elite and upper middle class…by relating the houses to decades in which they are produced and by identifying the schools where the architects who designed them were trained, Husain has, in essence, produced a history of architecture in Pakistan,” elaborates Hasan, who along with the senior architect Prof Kausar Bashir Ahmad, provided editorial guidance through the compilation of the book. Another key element of the book is that the author has not been selective in choosing pet houses in terms of a personal preference, but provided a cross-section of houses across Pakistan, that in turn reflects a true picture of architectural concerns in this country.
In the three essays in the book, he triggers many questions, one of which is to ask if there is anything such as a Pakistani house: “The diminishing time lag between ideas generated abroad and through images being projected on our TV screens has led to an uneasy amalgam of the earlier more traditional pattern of living with contemporary big city life.”
The orientation towards documentation and research is an engagement that runs parallel to his architectural assignments, and must undoubtedly provide him with a sense of achievement and gratification in being able to contribute on that level. At the same time, many architectural projects for houses and commercial buildings are undertaken through his firm, FNMH Architecture, set up with a visiting architect and friend Farooq Noor Mohammad, from East Africa who lives and works in Vancouver. The two architects worked together on the Womens’ Residency and the Juma Research building at the AKU Karachi, and later at the Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The offices in Karachi and Vancouver work independently, but collaborate on shared assignments from time to time.
Husain’s most well-known projects include the Airport project as Principal Architect, also responsible for the design for interiors and landscaping for the New Passenger Terminal Buildings and related facilities at Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad Airports. These projects were undertaken while he was employed by Nespak, the largest government-owned private corporate consultancy, through the ’80s and mid-’90s. As chief architect at Zor Engineers, from the mid-’70s to early ’80s, he was engaged among other assignments on hospitals.
Travelling through the rural areas of the country on past assignments taught the architect the value of non-glamorous building values. Work especially with mission hospitals emphasised the utilitarian aspect of building and designing as against an ‘image building’ approach. The first ten years after his return were, Husain looks back , the crucial learning years that taught him the nitty gritty of construction in Pakistan. It involved a fair amount of travelling in mostly non urban areas. He recalls asking his father for Rs. 200 for a train journey in third class, to areas up to Peshawar, for a 15 day trip, back then. Invariably, the type of life experiences in the early years shape an attitude that becomes a constant throughout ones career.
When with Nespak, he enjoyed being able to visit international seminars and contributing to publications. It was when he was working in Dubai from 1976-77, that he met his life partner, and as some would call her, his soul mate, Rumana. They got married in ’77, in Karachi, in what Husain recalls with fondness, the simplest wedding ceremony he had ever been to. Rumana, herself a trained designer, has been involved for many years in book designing and illustration, as well as in education programmes, such as with the Human Rights Education programme.
Husain traces a similar artistic sensibility in their two children Aadil and Asma. While Aadil did consider architecture as a career option, he went to university planning to become a lawyer. He is now based in Shanghai as a management consultant. Asma, now half way through her Masters programme at Rice University has got the fathers’ germs for travel and enquiry. “By visiting Brazil and Chandrigarh respectively, she explored the utopian principles applied to their architecture through recording and analysing the structures of their urban fabric. After a degree in art/sculpture, she chose to spend a year travelling in Brazil and India — two countries where urban poverty is the norm,” explains the proud father.
Husain’s own father now retired from a career in Engineering, and his mother live with the family, in a section designed specially for them in their house. Mukhtar recalls his childhood years in the ’60s, when the family used to reside on Garden Road. The American Embassy was located near his house. The family later moved residence to Bahadurabad, but Karachi has been their home, and they have witnessed the gradual transformation of a once sleepy seaside city into its present cosmopolitan face. Husain reminisces about the good old days when the tram ran from Bunder Road and the Mazaar-i-Quaid to Kemari. It used to take him 10 minutes to reach the Grammar School, in Saddar, from where he got his early education. After his A levels, he qualified for admission to the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, to study Architecture.
Departure to Turkey in 1967 was a turning point in his life, and the diversity of lessons learnt during his student days not only broadened his perspective to life and politics, but was an eye opener in many ways. A relatively vast amount of travelling within Europe, especially Germany during the post war reconstruction, was an enriching experience for the young architect who stopped there on his way home after studies in Turkey in the ’70s.
A secular Turkey without any class distinctions or stratification gave the realisation that life could be lived differently. This was the Turkey of 40 years ago, where people ate publicly during Ramzan, and where there were no mosques on campus. An important learning experience came in seeing that the Turks valued their own language as opposed to English that was looked down upon. The METU was the only institution where English was used. Still, he was almost forced and cornered to learn and communicate in Turkish by fellow students, recalling it as a challenging time. It was a time when he found himself amidst a very politically charged student environment, when Mao was the hero and America was in a defeatist mood at the end of the Vietnam War. At home, East Pakistan was being separated from West Pakistan.
The transportation into a Turkish speaking person must have helped Husain shed more than the inhibition of acquiring a new language. A summer internship that was part of the University programme in the remote and most backward part of Turkey in Eastern Anatolia provided valuable exposure to rural building methods, something that has been assimilated in his appreciation and value for local material and building methods.
His involvement as member of the review team for the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture has also been based on promoting the optimum and affective use of local materials and concepts of space. The contribution of an approach that relies on the use of space with respect to indigenous material and methods is bound to provide long term benefits to the collective aesthetic and sociological framework in urban Pakistan. It also becomes the voice of activism and inspiration for a younger lot of professionals entering the field.