In conversation with Arif Hasan, continued

From the joint ADA Issue 53 & 54 we continue our conversation with Arif Hasan about his illustrious career. Diving further into his work, we discuss the immense knowledge he has gathered, the work he has interacted with and influenced, and his opinions regarding the current state of affairs of architecture, architectural education, the Karachi Masterplan and COVID-19.


ADA: How did you and the OPP interact with the international entities interested in its impact?

AH: We did some work, both at the OPP level, individually, and with the World Bank. Through the OPP, we were also involved with the Asian Development Bank, projects in Orangi, Baldia, Sukkur, and Hyderabad. I documented the procedures and discovered that the manner in which these agencies functioned had very little to do with the realities of Pakistan. The more I was involved with their work, I realized that their projects were based on the wrong assumptions and that is why they failed. I documented these processes and ultimately wrote a few books, one was the ‘Environmental Repercussions of Development in Pakistan’ (1993), the other was ‘Working with Government’ (1997). These books had quite an impact on the manner in which development was viewed at that time. As a result, I was increasingly invited for lectures and workshops at Western universities and African programs.

First off, I decided, for both OPP and myself, we would not work with the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. We would provide them with the assistance they required but we would not work with them on their projects. After that, my association with them was one of discussion and advising what they proposed to do in Pakistan but not of active collaboration or working together.

ADA: When you say discussion/advising, do you mean formulating new projects for Pakistan?

AH: Yes, their teams visit often, looking for what they could provide loans for, they inquire about what is happening on-ground, how things are changing, and what are the emerging requirements of the country. They consulted many people and would consult us as well because we had information about the city that most organizations, even the government organizations, did not have.

Then working with the Aga Khan Network on many areas and most of that you can find on my website. We evaluated projects for them; designed prototype schools for them; supported their housing programs – in Tharparkar, the Northern areas, Balochistan, and interior Sindh.

I kept a diary and recorded what I observed and drew the conclusion that a greater revolution was in the process of taking place in Pakistan. This revolution would bring about a very big change in family structures, gender relations, forms of community & government, which is documented in my book on the subject called ‘The Unplanned Revolution’ (2002). After its publication, there was tremendous criticism against what I had proposed that I was romanticizing about a change that does not exist. Yet, twenty years down the road, what I had pointed out and predicted is obvious, and since then what I have predicted has come to pass – it is probably time for another book, called ‘The Revolution: Consolidated.’

During this time, what helped me to pen my studies, were the OPP projects that were being replicated all over Sindh and Punjab and, to an extent, in the North Western Frontier Province (now known as FATA). They were happening in Gujranwala, Lahore, Lodhran, Faisalabad, Uch, Saidpur, and Dadu.

ADA: Did the government ever pick up the OPP model?

AH: They tried, multiple times. They also made the OPP model a part of their housing policy and of their 5-year plan. In the case of Lodhran, there were attempts to turn it into a government program. Not only that, but when the UNDP created a development program about sanitation, they also adopted the OPP model, it was very successful but when the funding stopped the projects stopped. The local governments – at the union council level, at the district level – they depended on the government but there was no sustainability because no government lasted, so the programs had to be dropped and then restarted with the new system or government.

Additionally, officialdom had a particular way of working that was all about contractors, commission, and nepotism, none of which could adapt to the OPP model. Then, in 2005, the Government of Pakistan, asked me to change the government’s sanitation policy. There were workshops at the district and union council levels, and Provincial government levels. All that was brought together at the Federal level, where the policy was approved; the policy had the OPP model embedded. There are at least two projects now that follow the policy; one in Changa Pani, Lahore and the other is in Jhang.

ADA: The term social architecture and socially responsive architecture is so casually used now, but has Pakistan truly built social architecture? 

AH: I do not think you can call this social or non-social architecture. This is simply using the tools of architecture to improve environmental and poverty conditions. If you want to call that social, you can call it social. I think the question to begin with is: responsive to what?

What is happening now is that if you raise money to build a hospital, you call it social architecture or socially responsive architecture. You raise funds, build a park and say its social architecture – it is not. To be socially responsive, architecture has to be responsive to ecology, to energy, and to the site and mostly to the inhabiting community; to the area within which it is located and its history and heritage. The architecture has to knit itself and then be responsive to its client. I do not see much architecture of that sort in this country. Instead, you have huge buildings made of glass made by famous architects, with glass facades facing West and South, and then afterwards, when people start living, they stick insulating panels on the glass from the inside – I do not think this is architecture at all.

You have cases where you have emptied out the heritage and history from the surroundings of the inhabitants that have been working and living there, for ages, and transferred history to hands that it did not belong to. That again, is not responsive to heritage. These are issues and we have to discuss them, without fear of people and politicians and without fear of repercussions – as people always say “kya karein, phir garbar hojayegi, jhagra hogaye ga.” Toh jhagar lo, aisi konsi bari baat hai? Hum toh khushi se jhagartein hain. (“What can we do – it will bungle the situation and arguments will happen. Then argue. It is not a big deal. Arguments and discussion bring me joy.”)

ADA: The community connotes your socially responsive architecture with Kausar Basheer Ahmed. Do you tally that? 

I have used the term extensively, yes. Somehow, he [Kausar Basheer Ahmed] has indicted me of coining the term; he used to say: “what I teach, Arif Hasan practices in the name of architecture, and has put into action the teachings of Dawood College.” I do not challenge that.

ADA: Creating awards in the name of socially responsive architecture does not seem right. How could, say a private hospital, be socially responsive?

AH: When I was in the jury of the Aga Khan Awards in 1995, one of the nominations was a Leper’s hospital, which was socially responsive in the truest sense of the word. In the same jury, there were two Palestinian projects, they were technically unsound but were essentially part of a struggle for social improvement and development. There was a lot of argument in the jury regarding it, but they did receive the award in the end because they were socially responsive even if the execution was not up to the standard the Aga Khan Award typically aspires to be. Disagreements happen, but they are resolved through discussions and debate, if you are open minded and rationale in a discussion.

ADA: What about your architecture? Can you share more about the journey and the projects? 

AH: I came back from Europe in January 1968, I received my license to practice in March 1968, but since I was a good-for-nothing, I never did. I only travelled the length and breadth of this country. In those days, there were no roads, no crowding and no insecurity. First on a scooter, then on a FIAT 600, I traversed this country and kept a diary. The first house I designed was for a chap called Afsar Ali in Defence Society. The contractor I had then put up a board saying ‘with architect Arif Hasan.’ People liked the house so I got a couple of clients, and then I was working on another house of PIA Pilot Mansoor sahab, the same contractor put up another board – that house got me tens of clients. The Fallingwater House, by Frank Lloyd Wright, inspired Mansoor’s home. I got many houses to design after that, so I was busy building homes for these women. I say women because men were seldom there.

One of my client’s was Farooq Hasan, whose house I built here in KDA Scheme. He was the head of Hasan Associates, a big construction firm, and they asked me to design Hasan Square, that was my first big undertaking after I had returned in 1968. Before that, in 1965, when I was here, on a year off from school, I had designed the Crescent Model School in Lahore.

After Hasan Square, developers began chasing me; it had been a great hit. It was nominated for the first Aga Khan Award in 1987 and won the KDA Best Building Award in 1983.

Just to give you some background, I never finished my architectural education; I finished my third year, some of my fourth year, but did not finish the fifth. However, I had very sound architectural education because, as luck would have it, I worked with three of the finest European architects. I worked with Neil Hutchinson on the Hiro Civic Center Competition, he was one of the awardees; I worked with André Remondet, the Chief architect of National Palaces and Civic Buildings of France, on one of his pet projects, the cultural center of Pau. When I was with him, I worked on nothing but that – right from the design drawings to developing its details. After that, I worked with Frederico Castelló in Spain, on a tourist center for Majorca.

The two and a half years it took to do these projects, taught me what Architecture with a big-A was all about. However, my first architectural experience was in Oxford where, for six months, I worked with the diocesan architects of Oxfordshire, there I learned to measure buildings, document manor houses and churches, and identify elements of churches that needed to be repaired or replaced. Removal of certain aspects of manor houses to be replaced by different materials. Therefore, my education was far richer than any education that my architectural Alma Mater could offer me. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this.

All of these experiences influenced my architecture, so, if you notice, my architecture was extremely modernist. Over the years, I made it more and more austere because I felt that that was what was required – to make an understatement. After Hasan Square, I did, what I think was a beautiful building, called Hasan Terrace and then Twin Tower Modarba. It was never fully finished; it was taken over by someone who has changed it completely on the ground and first floors, abandoning the floors above it. Then I began working full time for the OPP, and did not make any major building until the SOS Village people asked me to design their village, which they have of course ruined, they did not like the colored windows so they painted them all white.

I was one of the founder members of the Pakistan Institute of Labor, Education, and Research (PILER), which is a very political institute. They asked me to design their premises, but the experience was strange. They asked me what my fees would be and I told them I would charge them whatever it cost me and then they asked what it would cost me, I said it would cost me so many lacs. The next day, they made the full payment upfront; they said they did not want to visit the site and asked me to let them know when it is complete.

In 1989, we acquired land for the Orangi Pilot Project near Qasba, and Doctor Sahab [Akhtar Hameed Khan] said we need a building. We decided that all the labor would be from Orangi – all the elements, doors and windows, everything from Orangi; the only external element would be the electrical wiring. It is badly mauled now; I do not know what they have done next to it without my consultation. In this project, what was most important in the building was its orientation and its wind catchers, because of these features the internal temperatures were maintained admirably irrespective of how hot it is outside, the temperature is controlled without any air conditioning or fans.

Then I got involved in theorizing and research, I worked on a number of books and did a number of hypothetical studies, from land development to community development. That brought us close to issues related to density, distribution of land, land issues in general.

We also did a lot of work with the IIED, a series of studies of Bangkok, Kathmandu, and Karachi. During that time, we had many official visits to Iran and South Africa; we worked for the UN in Nairobi and Fukuoka; small teaching assignments in Leuven, Trondheim and Japan. Similarly, I was in Vietnam and then a long association with Cambodia, worked on land and housing issues in Kazakhstan. It is a very long list. Then finally, I became a member of the advisory committee on Evictions for the UN.

The process continued, along with many publications and chapters to books by various scholars on architectural and planning issues, I also became a visiting fellow of the IIED and a member of its board. Now, along with that other things were happening as well.

Graduates of the Dawood College had formed an organization within the college called the Urban Design Forum. A course initiated by Javed Haider, that I had conducted for almost 12 years that was called the Comprehensive Environmental Development Project. The course sent the students off to problem areas of the city where they gleaned information how to look at the areas through the eyes of the residents that lived there and documented it. It is interesting if you note that all the major architects that have involved themselves in social and development issues are a product of this course – Noman Ahmad, Fazal Noor, Ahmed Saeed, Parveen Rahman, to name a few. It is fair to say that this course had a big impact on architectural education and it is great to note that it is continued in Dawood to this day, also in a modified way in Sir Syed and NED, and the people who are conducting it are those who participated in it. So this tradition will probably continue. This project won the Dawood College appreciation all over the world.

The impetus that the students created, transformed itself under my chairmanship into the Urban Resource Center. The URC then became an organization whose job it was to understand and discuss the underbelly of the city. To look at development programs and projects through the eyes of that underbelly, suggesting changes and reforms. Initially it was a very low-key effort, but it challenged many government programs and challenged them quite successfully so, as a result, the organization acquired an importance. This led to my increased involvement with the government, in tandem with the OPP. I think, primarily due to the OPP, I was invited to lecture, at organizations such as National Institute of Management or Staff College, where bureaucrats are trained, and after URC took off, this engagement increased. All these experiences can be seen coming together by 2000.

In 1999, they gave me the UN International Year for the Shelterless Memorial Award; in 2000, they were kind enough to give me the Prince Claus Award for Urban Heroes. I think in the same year the government awarded me the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, and other international awards followed that. Much of what we produced at that time is now compulsory reading material for students of anthropology and architecture in various institutions around the world.

ADA: Why has the URC not taken off in other cities?

AH: The reason is quite simple. The URC was born out of an academic institution. In my opinion, if URCs in other cities were born of a similar root, they would take off. We did begin the URC in Lahore, it is still there, it works and functions, it is a good URC. It makes all the right noises, at all the right forums, but it is missing something. Where are the students? Where are the teachers? The Lahore URC is essentially a group of activists, lawyers, sociologists, and various area committees that work on it. If the National College of Arts (NCA) or University of Engineering and Technology (UET) would get involved, it would make all the difference.

Additionally, I believe, what is necessary is a shared faculty. If you do not have a shared faculty, how on earth can the students benefit from the limited knowledge we have? If all the institutes had wonderful teachers, this would not be a problem, but we are very limited in our resources in that sense, a shared faculty would overcome that.

Soon after the URC, my involvement in Tharparkar developed further, increasingly with the Thardeep Rural Development Project. They asked me for an evaluation of their work and my opinion. Then, a very brilliant CEO came in the form of Dr. Sono Khangharani. He had brilliant ideas for the development of Thar, asking me to work on a tourist plan for Tharparkar. My reasoning, however, was that you cannot develop a tourist plan for Tharparkar unless you take all of its ecological, cultural, and environmental wealth and devise a plan to protect it first. There had been a somewhat similar exercise we, Raza Ali and I, had done regarding land use in Karimabad for the Aga Khan Network. Of course, it was different there because we were part of the Aga Khan Network but here there were politicians and conflicting interests.

I founded an association with Christophe Polak, who was working in my office at the time, on his own projects for the most part, and we called the organization Hasan and Polak. Together we designed what came to be known as the Nagarparkar Urban Development Program. We surveyed the area, identified various problems that existed, problems that would emerge in the future, ecological issues, safeguards against the destruction of scenic sites; this is something we had done much earlier as well, in Swat for our friend Shaukat Ali Sharar, who was also a student of mine. We prepared hundreds of drawings and designed the future – not the future in itself but designed the principles that would design the future. We identified the sites that would need to be protected and the nature of that protection. A part of this project was the development of a tourist complex. Unfortunately, only five cottages of that complex could be built, but in those five cottages, we experimented with new materials related to insulation and timber roofs, use of local carpenters and craftsmen, use of solar energy etc. The rest could not be carried out because Sono Khangharani was appointed elsewhere and so, as typically happens; our projects are personality driven and not by organisations.

During this period while working on these issues, we conducted many design exercises on Tharparkar for village and housing development. I was also asked to design the headquarters of the Sindh Rural Development Organization (SRSO) in Sukkur, 2012, and soon after that, the National Rural Support Program’s (NRSP) headquarters in Mirpurkhas, in 2016.

The Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO) asked me to design their project in Multan. The design is complete but given the political uncertainty, it has not been built. In these three projects, I have used local brick, extremely well insulated external walls and roof, and, in the case of NRSP, double-glazed windows. I have taken special care of climate, orientation, insulation, size of windows and so the two projects that have been completed are very comfortable in terms of climate. These projects are all about large blank walls, small windows, and color.

In 2014, my colleague Mansoor Raza reflected “you receive all of these emails from students across the globe, you answer them but never fully, why don’t you create a website?” Now to put that website together, to compile all material on it, I needed some assistance.

Earlier, IIED had also suggested this but I had rejected the idea, this time, however, I contacted the IIED and then asked if they could spare about Rs. 600,000 for research, setting up the website and design – they said they would be very happy to. Durreshahwar Alvi, who now teaches at IVS, and an NED graduate, Natasha Zubair, a very talented girl, worked on the research, they took two years to put it together, and then Sabahat Muhammad designed the website. The website is extensively used, it has much of my work in it but the result has been somewhat catastrophic in a sense that the purpose for which it was built, so that nobody would contact me, has been left unfulfilled. In fact it has had the opposite effect, in the past three or four years, 53 Ph.D. students from all over the globe have contacted me, of course many of them I knew personally because of my various lectures at European and American institutions, but there are those of whom I do not have the slightest idea of where they write from. Many of them, when they come for their fieldwork, spend time here, some of them have interned here, others communicate and ask questions, we try to satisfy them to whatever extent we can.

The last work that I undertook was the development of the master plan of Malir University.

ADA: What do you think of the way architecture is taught and practiced in Pakistan?

AH: I have no relation with professional institutes here, so for me to pass judgement on them would be extremely unfair. I only know them through the architecture that they produce but it has to be very clear that I do not know them. They neither speak to me nor invite me; it is only recently that we have begun having conversations.

I believe that the architecture they produce responds neither to the climate nor to the issues of equity or even to ecological issues. The institutes do not delve in these parameters; they are not concerned. Let the ocean be, let the coast be, leave it alone; do what you want on the other side of the road. For some reason, they will not let go of it.

Much of the architecture today are bad copies of architecture of South East Asia – if you really wanted to copy, at least put some effort into it and make a good copy. Then, their involvement in urban issues of the city is non-existent. Except for some very important exceptions, such as Bilgrami sahab and Arshad Abdulla, they have never participated in the URC movements against insensitive planning. I do not want to name dead people but one of the past presidents of the IAP said to me “Arif bhai, hum toh bazaar mein baithay hain. Toh aap bataiye, hum aapki baat kaisay maan saktein hain?” [we are situated in a marketplace. You tell us, how can we listen to your advice?] – at least he was honest.

These same people then go on to teach, along with some good architects. Architectural education does have its problems. As I have been on the Board of Studies of IVS and NED, and on their Academic Committees, I know that there is a good understanding of the shortcomings of their programs. They also understand, to a limited extent, what the city or the area in which they live requires. The problem lies in transforming knowledge into some form of system of education and implementation. Is this a collective failure of the country or something else, I will try to comment on that. I believe that because of people like Noman Ahmed, Anila Naeem, and Mansoor Raza, if NED continues on this course, I think they will be able to overcome a lot of paradoxical educational issues but what they require is a good design faculty too, otherwise they are alright.

Another important factor for consideration and I dwell quite a bit on it is that previously there was only one paradigm, the modernist paradigm. Modernism is a theory that had a view of living, on history, planning, governance, and it had a view on politics, my generation was educated in that paradigm. Today you have many paradigms; you have the modernist revival, post-modernism and its various – isms, you have the green movement of sustainable architecture, eco-friendly movements et all. So, today we have these differing paradigms, with their own view on aesthetics, history and its interpretation but have not developed so far to have views on politics and governance or to architecture’s relationship with the larger environment. They are still in the process of formulating these critical revivals. In my association with American and European institutions of architecture, it has been quite an intensive debate over the past few years.

You see the biggest problem in our region is that teachers teach as they have been taught. Very few teachers break out of that framework and are actually trained to teach. The new issue is that architects are returning to Pakistan after having completed their Ph.Ds, these doctoral thesis, which may be about or related to Pakistan, often their research and the methodology is not of Pakistan. It is as if an angrez [European or American] is coming from an angrez environment. One of the best thesis I have come across of Pakistan is from Moizza Sarwar. The arguments she had with her teachers stemmed from the fact that she looked at the situation from the perspective of the people residing here.

ADA: Do you think we are able to define Pakistani architecture? 

AH: Pakistani architecture will be borne out of a response to climate. If you respond to climate, your architecture will evolve. When I designed the SRSO Headquarters, the response I received was “Yeh kya hai? Yeh toh Mohenjo-Daro lagta hai” [what is this, it looks like Mohenjo-Daro.] I told them “Mohenjo-Daro toh lagayga. Agar mausam ka khayal rakhna hai toh Mohenjo-Daro lagayga.” [Of course it will look like Mohenjo-Daro. If you want to keep the weather in mind, it will look like Mohenjo-Daro.] If you do not want to keep the climate in mind, then go ahead and use those large glass doors and windows.

Nayyar Ali Dada’s early work was of an international style, I am a huge admirer of his work, yet when he learnt that one must design for the climate as well, he also began to make Mohenjo-Daro-like architecture. To me, Pakistani architecture is the derivative inspired from Mohenjo-Daro, you can embellish it in any way, or you can use various materials to express it, that is another story, but this is a system of small fenestrations and a particular orientation. If you want to ignore the climate, using glass that absorbs the heat, if this is a design mandate then why do we not have glass cars and buses with reflective glass? Ordinary glass is for Rs.200/sq. ft., while reflective glass is Rs.2,800/sq. ft. – does the country have that kind of money? In my opinion, if you cater to the climate, if you conserve energy, you are creating Pakistani architecture.

ADA: Although you have written extensively about facets of it, I think we do want to hear what you have to say about the animal that is Karachi and its Masterplan. 

AH: Karachi is an unfortunate city. It is ugly as hell; it has been made ugly. I think the most unsightly thing about Karachi is not the physical environment it is the social environment. This social environment has four sides to it, which I have written about previously. Firstly, the social inequity and its physical segregation. Second, the absence of an articulation of its diversity, in terms of culture and history. Third, the absence of a vision for the city that is compatible with its sociology and related to its economic growth. Lastly, but certainly not the least, is an absence of a governance system that can implement a vision – any vision at all – because the current government system is all about creating privileges for those who are already privileged. The forces and powers behind all of this is a completely different conversation. Behind this, there is a whole world of corruption, disenfranchisement of population, anti-poor and ethnic biases.

To speak on the Masterplan – a plan is only as good as the institutions implementing it, what else is it even. I think, apart from that of 1975-85, the others were simply bad plans. The 2000 masterplan, for which I was one of the evaluators from the UN, it was simply a wish list. For a masterplan, one must state the circumstances, this is the reality as of today. From there we move towards what we can do with this reality, with regards to what we wish to achieve. Instead of taking that route, they began spouting the phrase ‘a world class city’ – whether that is achievable or not is a different matter, but first you must consult reality.

The Karachi Masterplan 2020 is worse than any previous plan. It is a shame and a disgrace; there is nothing in it for the city or its citizens. Even a doctor, to begin treatment, would first diagnose you, and to create that diagnosis they would research, ask questions, and have tests conducted. There has been no diagnosis in Karachi, only hotchpotch treatments.

ADA: How do you think COVID-19 will change the world and architecture? 

AH: I’m not sure. It depends on how it behaves in the coming months but I know one thing and that is, that all this talk that David Harvey and many others indulging in densities and what is going to be created, I do not believe in that, I disagree. I think the big question is what are you going to do with the existing city? It is not going anywhere, neither the people nor the city, so what do you want to do with it. What do you do with the already existing density? They say they will reduce the density, how will that happen? Do you kill people, the population?

If COVID-19 lasts a year more, then for the next 20 years, we will not have enough money to build anew. According to me, and I may be completely wrong, 84 million people must be considered for by the government; to feed, clothe, educate, and provide medical treatment, all free of cost. If that does not happen, those same cities with rising densities will have major calamities.

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