Text | Maria Aslam & Anushay Zehra

Visuals Courtesy | Arif Hasan

Issue 53|54

Whether you are an architect, urban planner, technocrat, in the government or interested in culture, history, heritage, or Karachi – most likely you will have heard of Arif Hasan. A legend in and of himself, he has carved a space for himself in many histories; it does not matter if he is painted as rational or not,a cynic or a critic, his name lends an immense and undeniable impact on both the built and the intangible culture of Karachi, is synonymous in the understanding of Karachi and in weaving the very fabric of its being. Arif Hasan is the author of 18 books, and have contributed chapters to an additional 48 books, and authored over 100 reports, films, and working papers. He is the first architect to use his architectural skills in upgrading settlements through organizing communities in Pakistan. ADA conducts a tête-à-tête with one of the greatest ‘social scientist’ – title coined aptly and deservedly for architect Arif Hasan, pride of the nation who hails from Karachi, Pakistan.


ADA: Illuminate us about your childhood. 

I was born in Delhi, 1943. There we lived near the university, where my father was a professor of Law to begin with and later on, he became the Secretary of the Institute of International Affairs. We came to Karachi on August 15, 1947. I do not remember much of the migration myself; I only know of the scenes because my mother spoke of it. I do remember arriving in Karachi at the Cantonment Railway Station. We got off at the station and went to a refugee camp, a cramped space where the public school stands today. 

My father went to see the Prime Minister to get a house and came back within five or six hours after acquiring one. We went through a dimly lit town with almost empty streets, to a barrack in Intelligence School. That is where I lived thirteen years of my life – near the sea and so, I spent much of my time with it. I got to know it – the tides, the seasons. Learned how to swim long distances, learned about the native jetty, where sailing boats from the gulf ports would dock with the southwest monsoon winds, and leave with the northeast monsoon winds. If you read my poetry, a lot of it is about that.


ADA: What motivated you to get involved in architecture? Where do your beginnings lie? At the time, my father was constructing the building of Institute of International Affairs, so architects would often come and go, including some Spanish architect who made the designs for the building. So I thought it would be good to become an architect, you did not have to do much except draw. I thought I wouldn’t have to put in too much of an effort. I went to the Karachi School of Architecture, which was run by the PWD [Public Works Department]. I was there for three months, after that I got an acceptance to the Oxford School of Architecture, provided I could pass my aptitude test – which I did – and that is how I began to study architecture. By the time I had finished my second year, I had done very well in design, history, and theory but barely scraped in construction and materials. As such, the School asked me to take a study leave and explore more of the profession and the practicality of building – at that time there was a lot of emphasis placed on the practicality, but it wouldn’t matter much now. They sent me off to an office of the DIOCESAN architects of Oxfordshire, who looked after church buildings and properties and manor houses. It was the most boring work in the world that one can imagine that entailed managing those buildings, making details and so on. I had a very close friend, a Spanish man, who had met the same fate. 

He too was bored of the situation and so, we decided to go to Paris. He left before me to secure accommodation and I joined him later however, on my arrival, I realized that we were in a lurch, there was no money, hence no accommodation and so we ended up sleeping under a bridge, having cheese every day for one Franc. We found ourselves at the bazaar one day, where they would advertise jobs. I got a job, luckily with a very famous architect; his name was Neil Hutchinson, who was then working on an International competition for the Harrow Civic Center. After the internship, I went back to studies for the third year. 

Once again in the last term we were required to apprentice somewhere, and so I found myself back in Paris where I got a job with André Remondet. He was one of the most famous architects of Paris at the time and I got the job through sheer luck. Remondet was what is known as the Chief Architect of Civic Buildings and National Palaces of France. He was working on what was to become his most famous building, the Cultural Center of the town of Pau. I had the privilege of working there, and that is where I learnt my architecture. It was the best education for me. The project architect in the office was a Russian, Alexander Alimov, who became a dear friend and I decided to stay with them a little longer. When I finished with the Center for Pau, I went back to Hutchinson’s practice, where he was working on a housing scheme. I was lucky interning with both was an enriching experience as that both were outstanding and well known – it was sheer luck.

Eventually I went back to school, but with my accumulated learning from the two maestros, I soon lost interest in studies. Realizing my dilemma my teacher, Mr. Henley, believing I had matured beyond the conventional education, encouraged me find a quick way to begin a practice. In the following holidays, when I returned home to Karachi, my uncle, who had a consulting firm at that time, offered me the chance to design my first major complex, which was the Crescent Model School in Lahore. I applied for a license to practice, which was awarded through a licensing exam conducted by the KDA, and once I had the license, I never went back to school. 


ADA: Did you ever think about joining other disciplines?
My time in Paris coincided with the days of the Vietnam struggle, the ArabIsraeli conflict, the Algerian civil war, and the beginnings of very strong leftist movements. The sentiments of people were strong, and I was exposed to a coterie of political movements hence my involvement in the anarchist party should not be a surprise.

I was an avid worker; attended their meetings, sold their newspapers on the streets, and that is where I fell in love with the cinema. I developed a strong desire to be a movie director, in that moment architecture seemed pointless. 

Unfortunately, I did not have the money to enroll myself in any institute to formally learn the craft. That is where the dream began and ended but I learned a great deal about the cinema, especially the new wave cinema that was taking place. In Paris my exposure to art, its history, literature, fashion all that is synonymous of a Parisian. 

My close association was because of the spaces I inhabited and the people I engaged with, many of whom subsequently became very famous, such as Kanas, and that is where I met Sadequain for the first time, in the Café Copule. From Paris I moved to Spain. In Spain, I worked with Frederico Castelló and again, by sheer luck. I had the pleasure of knowing his son when I was working with Remondet’s office,he invited me to visit Spain and meet his father. I didn’t know if that would work out but once I was in Madrid, I did join the office. Frederico then sent me to Jaen, to his subsidiary office, where they were working on a tourist plan for Majorca. Briefly, before returning to Karachi, I also worked, to earn a livelihood, in Geneva, for architects doing projects in India. That was a very different Europe, without visas and restrictions. I travelled throughout France and Spain getting to know the countries. I went to Italy, to the port city of Bonassola, and worked with a naval architect, another opportunity I owe to a very dear friend. However, I eventually returned in early 1968, establishing an office and beginning my practice in Karachi.


ADA: Since you were already involved in architecture, what happened in Pakistan that drew you into your social activism and fight for land rights?
Once in Pakistan, a number of events unfolded, and one thing led to the other. First off, I began travelling through the country, from the North to the South. I learned about the country and the people; these travels were not about staying in guesthouses, it was about staying with the people. I did a number of voyages down the Indus, became familiar with the Mohana tribe and their culture. I also designed my first house, it was the house of a PIA pilot, Hassan Mansoor, once completed the contractor I worked with, had placed a sign with his name and mine, and as a result, I received many assignments for designing houses. One of the people who wanted their house built was Farooq Hasan, who was to become the Chief of Hasan Associates, a development firm, and he asked me to design Hasan Square. That was 1972 but a number of incidents happened before and immediately after that which were important to my development.  

As I told you, I had grown up in Intelligence School, in the barracks that housed the senior government officers after Partition. In between those barracks, there were open spaces where poor refugee families came and squatted. Growing up, the children of those families and I would play cricket or go swim in the sea – we developed a deep bond, as children often do. 

During that time, while I was designing the house of a very senior police officer one of my old friends from the area, from a poor family, came to see me. He told me the government had promised them the land on which their homes stood, so they thought that it would be good to upgrade their facility and of their neighborhood and so requested my assistance. 

Now, I had never been trained in urban-socio intervention – mine was a very conventional architectural school and I had worked with very conventional architects. I applied my mind and began planning, until one day they were served a notice of eviction. They came to me, saying they had been given a three-day notice to gather their belongings and leave. So I went to my client, the senior police officer, informing him of the matter and asking if he could help. 

He said to me, “Arif, you are too young to understand these things, these are not good people. Their women have bad character, they dirty the society, and their men are good for nothing. It is better that they are removed from places where decent people live.” I vouched for their character and told him that I had known them since they were kids. Still, he refused and insisted on their removal. I didn’t build his house, I never completed it and never had anything to do with it. I was absolutely disgusted. I knew these people – perhaps if I did not know them, I would not have reacted. On the day of their eviction/demolition, I went back; I saw the women trying to pick up whatever they could, the men sitting there completely helpless. After the demolition, they sat on the ruins of their houses abject. That evening, I took them food; the next morning, I took them breakfast. There was one girl I will never forget. She was hiding behind her window, scared to death by the bulldozers. In my office, there is a photograph, not of the same girl, but of a Palestinian girl in a very similar situation. 

These friends of mine were shunted off to the distant Baldia hills, which, at the time, were far away from the city. I tried to help them in rehabilitating themselves. I would say that was my first social project. One day in 1973, I received a telegram, which said “situation bad. Suleiman.” I knew Suleiman could not read or write so someone else would have sent it for him. I left for Sukkur to see him. 

There he told me that the government was removing their settlement, in accordance to the Sukkur masterplan, and throwing them onto the other side of the river, a space where there would be no fish for their livelihood or consumption. We sat down and made a small sketch, mapping the plot size that the Mohanas inhabited and the area of land they could release for the masterplan while remaining settled on the same side of the river. We then wrote a letter to Ali Hasan Mangi, the MNA of the area sent him both the sketch and the letter and waited. When Mangi found out I had helped the Mohanas in devising this plan he met me in Karachi and asked me “why are you spoiling these people?” 

I told him that the entire situation was a terrible tragedy; he listened to me, giving his word to look into it. The Mohanas were not shifted. Then other events transpired. The Mohanas, in whose boat I would travel up and down the Indus, were illiterate people, they did not know how to read or write but had a rich tangible and intangible culture, that I have documented in both photographs and writing. Again in 1973, I met Khalil-ur-Rehman, the secretary of the Grocers Union of Karachi, demanding if forty shops could use the whole pavement and the street could be pedestrianized. We drew up a plan, which was submitted to the KMC, and it was done. This was in Mithadar, near Sunehri Bazaar. This is when I wrote my first paper. It was very nascent; just some ideas of how an architect could help the city through planning and could preserve history. 

ADA: How then do you get started with the Orangi Pilot Project? 

Well, one day I got a phone call from someone named Ghulam Kibria. He introduced himself as the Chairman of the Appropriate Technology Development Organization and said that he would like to meet me. I told him I could only meet him the next day but he insisted and turned up at my office 20 minutes later. He looked at me and asked, “Where is Arif sahib?” I told him that I was indeed Arif, and he was taken aback. He called me young and questioned himself for giving me more respect than warranted. We spoke for a short while about housing, after which he said that he would like to appoint me as his consultant. He claimed that he did not need to know me but he would simply get to know me. I accepted his offer; he then brought over his secretary and a portable typewriter, dictated a basic contract, made me sign it and signed it himself, handed me a cheque and told me to come to Islamabad the next day for a detailed conversation. I worked with Ghulam Kibria for three or four years, we travelled all over Pakistan working on experiments for low cost housing, putting up windmills in Sindh, and many other projects. We had a grand plan for development of housing in Lyari through the Lyari Development Project but in July 1977, Zia Ul Haq came into power. 

Mr. Kibria and I resigned, and that was the end of it. Afterwards Kibria sahib and I formed our own company, which was called Ghulam Kibria Arif Hasan Associates. We took turnkey jobs, big ones and made a loss, so the company drowned, and we returned to architecture. One day, Kibria visited me and informed Akhtar Hameed Khan’s sanitation project is encountering many problems, it is not working out and that he had promised Akhtar Hameed Khan that I would help. I agreed, and we went to their office. Unfortunately, that day was a particularly bad one – when Kibria sahib and I were entering the office, Akhtar Hameed Khan was exiting. Kibria sahib introduced me, telling him I was here to help, and Akhtar Hameed in his evident annoyance and with a heavy dose of sarcasm, invited me in claiming that I would be the same as everyone else who came through, charging exorbitant amounts for unreasonable projects. Now that he had spoken to me so rudely, I told Kibria sahib that I did not wish to work with him but Kibria sahib implored that, for his sake, I should spend  a few days and see how I could advise Akhtar Hameed. I stayed in Orangi for three days, at the end of which I wrote a short three-page note on the project. 

The reasons for its failure and the route that the OPP needed to take. That small note laid the foundation stone for the OPP Sanitation and Housing Program. Once I handed over the note, I forgot about it. A while later, Akhtar sahib called me and said he wanted me to visit the office again and I told him I could not, at that point, he conceded but two days later, he ended up at my home. For a short while he spoke of old familial ties, and then stated he wanted me to work with him, handing me a cheque of Rs. 10,000. I told him, I only worked for him for three days, which would amount to Rs. 4500, Rs. 1500 per day, and he was flabbergasted, asking if I really took that much money and what I would do with it. 

This left me confused, he had handed me a cheque for 10,000, much more than what I had stated. He then clarified that that was meant for six months of work. That was the beginning of my work with the OPP, in 1981. The OPP was meant to challenge conventional ways of doing sanitation and housing. I was no sanitation expert but somehow I developed new standards of sanitation, new gradients and all. 

Then came John Pickford, the great guru of sanitation; after he spoke to Akhtar Hameed Khan, he called me and said that Pickford’s opinion is that the system would not work for even a year, he too thought I was a quack. I agreed with Pickford, I did not know if it would work because it had been developed through observation and not through any theory. I told him I would get him an engineer if that is what he wanted but he refused. To this day, that same system is still in place in the Orangi Pilot Project. Even the housing components we had developed are used in the OPP and all over Pakistan. The systems have not collapsed. I must praise the honesty of John Pickford, because when he came back and saw that the systems were working, he asked how I made the calculations to which I had to admit, I had made no calculations, it was just based on observations and existing systems. He then sent his students to see if they could figure out some sort of a theory behind it, something to use as principles for future sanitation projects. This ordeal had managed to make me very famous, as far as the world was concerned. 

ADA: How did OPP’s success change your works’ trajectory? 

After that, people began reaching out, NGOs and community development programs wanted advise on how to organize communities around certain issues. I started writing; my hands on experience in Orangi had led me to learn that area from a completely different perspective, and by eventually establishing the Urban Resource Center, I got to know the city of Karachi and its rhythms from a different assessment. It was then in 1979, that Javed Haider asked me to teach in Dawood College. 

I remember telling him that I would not teach in a conventional manner, I told him I would teach from the viewpoint of the relationship between the problems of the city and the poverty and depravation of the people. Javed agreed with me and so, I began to teach. In 1981, Javed coined the term ‘comprehensive environmental design’ and he began a project that would reflect exactly that. For the next twelve years, I would work on that project at the Dawood College. A number of my students at Dawood eventually worked with me on social projects and have become masters in their own right. They include Saleem Aleemuddin, Parveen Rehman, Asiya Sadiq, Noman Ahmed, Fazal Noor, and Ahmed Saeed.
Then I worked quite a bit with the Aga Khan network on a number of development initiatives. In 1989, the Aga Khan Award asked me to be a technical reviewer, and then in 1992, He asked me to join the steering committee, where I stayed on for about two terms, and finally I became a member of the award jury. Meanwhile I was also on juries for UNESCO, UNDP, and a number of international competitions. I became a consultant for UNICEF in NWFP and Baluchistan and set up a number of social development projects in the northern areas and in Tharparkar. 


ADA: Do you think there is anything similar in terms of social architecture on ground today? 

I think there is a difference between now and then. Back then, almost everything was about breaking new ground and challenging the conventional. I was a member of a number of UN Committees on policy and development and had various dialogues in which the World Bank was involved. My way of looking at strategies and propositions was very different from theirs as well as their consultants’ because they were consultants and I was not. I was coming from a different mindset and I was not working for them, I was communicating to them the ground realities that I had observed. Coming back to your pertinent question, architecture as a profession is socially responsive.


ADA: How has Arif Hasan managed to make a visible impact in the development sector of Karachi and Pakistan at large?
In my opinion, the work that I did had a very great impact on the manner in which development projects in Pakistan eventually worked out. I believe that was because I did not talk exclusively in theoretical terms, these were practical projects requiring on-ground observation, and wherever I worked, I left behind a fairly large corpus of theoretical work, which I later documented in my books and lectured on my learnings and derivations around the world. I don’t know if it was right or wrong methodology, but it was certainly different. This also prompted the International Institute of Environment and Development to make me a Fellow. I also ended up taking to journalism, writing regularly for newspapers and magazines. I joined editorial boards of various journals on social and urban development published by universities, managing to influence their policies and views. Through all of this, I was able to connect with people who thought in similar terms to me, Sheila Patel, Kirti Shah, Prof. Hosaka from Japan and many others. Together, we were able to form the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, which managed to have a very big impact on international policies on development. 


I cried so much after reading this nazm, and I asked my mother why God was so cruel, why he would make people blind. She told me that everything has a reason; I refused to believe it and told her that I see no reason for it. For a while afterwards I would walk around with my eyes closed just to see how it felt. Then in high school, I had a teacher, who read us another poem, 


ADA: Who was your inspiration, a figure you may have aspired to follow? 

Many strange things happened when I was a child. When I was 7 or 8 years old, we studied a poem (nazm) in school that went something like, 

Oh those eyes that have been deprived

of sight

Eyes that do not shine

In which there is no light

For those eyes, I wish to become a prayer

This poem (nazm) drove me mad and left me disturbed for a long time. These were my inspirations. There were other events and personalities that left a huge impression on me such as the Indian Rebellion against the British in 1857. At a very young age, I knew all there was to know about it and hated the British vehemently for it. The philosophical writings of Voltaire and Comte, both French writers, also left their mark on me. One of the biggest influences I had was an architect I worked with in France, Philip Kritikos. His father was Greek, his mother was Tunisian and he was a Communist. I was very impressed by him, and I learned immensely under his tutelage; similarly, Ghulam Kibria, you might say he was my mentor. 

To be continued in the next Edition of ADA.


Maria Aslam is a prolific writer, architectural historian, and environmental activist, working in the fields of interior design, architecture, and heritage conservation. As the founder and editor-in-chief of ADA Magazine, she has pioneered the ADA Awards, the first of its kind, in the disciplines of Architecture, Design, and Art. Alongside her architectural and interior design practice, ArchWorks, she is the chairperson of Pakistan’s Institute of Interior Designers. 


Anushay Zehra Rashid, is a graduate from the Communication and Design program at Habib University. She is a writer and illustrator with an interest in the design and experience of the physical and digital space. Her thesis revolves around the retelling of folklore to create interactive and immersive pedagogy.

4 thoughts on “In conversation with Arif Hasan, Part I”

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