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Naeem Pasha – Craft, Creativity, and More by Haroon Shuaib

Architect, artist and curator Naeem Pasha former partner of Suhail and Pasha Architects, a partnership that dissolved around 2000 and Naeem Pasha then started his own practice; recently received the 2020 Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (Medal of Distinction), one of Pakistan’s highest civilian honours, for his lifetime contribution to architecture and art from the Government of Pakistan

Elaborating on his design philosophy; according to Louis Kahn, a virtuoso that Naeem Pasha considers an inspiration, “A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasurable.” Pasha himself is a firm believer that a building should always be designed pragmatically from inside out. According to Pasha, “A lot of times people make an envelope and then try to fit their function into it. That is where their failing is. When you are evolving an idea, you should have a certain scale in mind. For every project I asked the client what they wanted. What sort of spaces are they looking at? Do they want a big house or small house? Large spaces or large bathrooms? Large wardrobes? – it is only after understanding their needs that I make a ratio proportion of those spaces. So in geometric terms they are multiple or divisive of those larger and smaller spaces. The small spaces should fit so many times into a larger space.”

Having designed some of the most remarkable structures in the country such as The National Art Gallery; St. Thomas Church; the Peshawar University Museum of Archaeology; Art and Craft Village; and the sculpture-like Pakistan State Life Office and so many more within the partnership of Suhail and Pasha Architects. Be it in designing buildings, creating art, writing poetry, or running and curating Rohtas, a prominent art gallery of Islamabad for 35 years, Pasha has always covered layers with layers and assembled pieces and units to form a whole. Serendipity and design are not mutually exclusive for Pasha. “When a building is in the design and construction phases, there is a lot of noise and excitement. Everybody hovers over the drawings and plans. The building feels that it is important and it talks and everyone listens. When the building is in servitude it still tells the story but nobody listens –but once the grass starts growing out of a building’s foundations, people again want to listen to it. You go to Gandhara, Takhtbai, or Taxila, and the structures tell you a story in ratios and proportions and the scales of those spaces. I believe that every edifice should be able to reconstruct itself. I was recently reading about a discovery of a corner of a 5000 year old town in Scotland. They stared reading it and the centuries old imprint led them to a whole town buried under ground because it had been done in a very scientific and mathematical way,” says Pasha.

Pasha landed at NCA in 1960 but decided to leave the college after two years to join University of Engineering and Technology. NCA only offered a diploma in architecture at that time but the university offered a degree. Nayyar Ali Dada was studying at NCA and was two years Pasha’s senior. Pasha would quietly observe Nayyar adding perspective to his drawings by using water colours. Till date, he credits the way he uses colours in the renderings of his drawings to the hours spent observing his senior. “Sometimes I would stand on the upper floor at the university looking at the labourers below constructing some new blocks. I would draw them from a top view but for some odd reason they appeared elongated in my sketches – as if I was looking at them from below. That perspective rather became very interesting and gave me some innovative ideas on proportions and how to deconstruct objects. My facility with drawing and my sense of proportions is a strength I am really proud of,” he reflects.

Having done his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore and then going on to do his Master of Science in Architecture from Penn State University in 1973, Pasha specializes in urban design concepts in new towns and environmental psychology. “When I got into second or third year of architecture, I started hearing this conversation about what is Pakistani and what is not Pakistani in terms of architecture. For an embryonic stage that we are still in, it is too early to expect a style of architecture which can be described as prototypical Pakistani. In this dialogue what irks me most is that more often than not we do not talk about the past before or after the Mughal period. How can we trace our heritage if we drop links within your evolution? How can we come out of the Mughal era and get straight into Pakistan, while ignoring the contribution of the Hindu and the Buddhist and the colonial periods – twisting and turning to adapt lotus with Ionic and Doric columns. So if someone says that they want to do a detail which is Mughal and not consider the British brickwork as opposed to the brickwork of the Mughal, where are these borrowing going? For me that would be a sin,” Pasha reflects.

Talking about his own style of architecture, Pasha feels that no artist or architect could define his or her own style. It should be something that should develops unconsciously and subconsciously. “If you look at the early work of Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq it has a lot of similarity with Shakir Ali but then he evolved beyond that and discovered his own unique expression. Zahoor was a mathematician and I have seen him sitting in a crowd and putting proportions on a piece of paper – working on how to divide a canvas If someone sees a building and says it looks like Pasha’s design then they are defining a certain style for me.”

As he concludes the discussion, Pasha recollects how when the first few batches of architects graduated in Pakistan, there was a lot of confusion. “When architect became an institution and commercialization took place that is when they separated the masons from the architects. In 1962 there were only 17 architects in Pakistan. Out of that only five were Pakistanis; Zaheer Uddin Khwaja, Tajuddin Bhamani, Roosi Surti, Minoo Mistry – they were all from Bombay and established their offices here. The other12 were either British or Polish. When the first few batches from colleges in Pakistan graduated, there were not a lot of jobs and definitely not much freedom. Aga Khan Award for Architecture opened certain doors. In art too, we were not going anywhere till Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq and his contemporaries took the miniature to the larger scale. That became our own niche. The young architects of today are much brighter, more promising and much conversant with vocabulary and practical know-how. We will eventually find our own identity in architecture too – may be not today or tomorrow, but definitely in another 100 years. It is important to identify our roots attached to this land and its traditions – once we start identifying ourselves as subcontinental, there will be no stopping our growth.”

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Haroon Shuaib is a development communications specialist and a documentary filmmaker based in Islamabad. He also likes to write about art, culture and media. Haroon tweets at @hhaarroonn and can be reached at hhaarroonn@hotmail.com

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