WHO was it who said “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines”? It had to be another architect. It was: the American doyen Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright’s aphorism would have appealed to Habib Fida Ali. Habib had seen enough mistakes by well-meaning Pakistani architects litter our country’s urban landscape not to lament the truth in Wright’s remark.
Habib conjured his life, as he did his ideas, out of nothing. An Ismaili from Karachi, he protected his identity in the overt Punjabi classrooms and campus at Aitchison College, Lahore. He was later to exact his revenge by designing a sports complex in his alma mater.
In 1956, at the comparatively late age of 21, he joined The Architectural Association in London, where he learned his craft. After qualifying as a member of ARIBA (Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects), he returned to Pakistan in 1964. Here he developed his practice, initially within the circumference of Karachi.
Habib found himself on the bottom rung of a ladder not overcrowded with talent. Good architects, like good cooks, came and went — some to Canada, a few to the Gulf, others to oblivion. Habib stayed. Gritting his teeth, he satiated the demand of fluttering, frothy society belles who wanted their houses designed by ‘Habib Fida Ali’. They sought status; he provided the symbol.Habib Fida Ali conjured his life, as he did his ideas, out of nothing.
Habib’s first major institutional work is best typified by the now iconic Shell building in Clifton, Karachi. Some criticised it as an all ‘too too solid’ mass of grey concrete, a sort of Fida’s Folly. Those with taste interpreted it as an innovative architectural play of texture, light and volume. Almost subconsciously, Habib had given form to the influence of his artistic guru, a man incidentally only 10 years older than himself, the American architect Robert Venturi who won the Pritzker Architectural Prize (the architect’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize).
Habib followed Venturi’s dictum: “When I was young, a sure way to distinguish great architects was through the consistency and originality of their work ...This should no longer be the case. Where the Modern masters’ strength lay in consistency, ours should lie in diversity.”
Habib dedicated himself to diversity. He experimented with spaces, with surfaces, with silences. Ironically, his very diversity settled into a pattern which became recognisable as his style, his signature.