Remembering Habib Fida Ali

Moni Mohsin pays a very personal tribute to her friend, the great architect

Remembering Habib Fida Ali
I met the architect Habib Fida Ali twenty-five years ago when I was sent by my newspaper editor to interview him. I was in my late twenties then, a fledgling writer, uncertain and gauche. Habib, at more than twice my age, was a celebrated architect and a popular fixture on Karachi’s social scene. He was everything I was not: urbane, successful, assured. I did not expect him to remember my name, let alone bestow his friendship on me. And yet, from that very first meeting, that is what I received from him: a constant, generous friendship that ended only two weeks ago with his sudden death.

Habib bestrode his profession like a colossus and much has been written in recent days about his work. Uncompromisingly modern, he revolutionised the understanding and practice of architecture in Pakistan. Over a fifty-year career he imprinted his creative vision on the country, designing restaurants, university campuses, corporate buildings, mosques and a multitude of distinctive houses. He created one iconic building after another - Shell House, Kabraji House, Commercial Union Office, the campus at LUMS, Haleema Mosque, British Deputy High Commission, Siemens, to name just a few. But this article is not a homage to HFA the architect, but a personal tribute to my friend, Habib.
His clean, modern vision, his rigorous work ethic along with oodles of charm ensured his success from the get-go

Habib often spoke of the two defining periods in his life, his stint at Aitchison College, Lahore, and then his five year stay in London where he attended the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture, better known as AA. It hadn’t been a smooth progression. His father, a sober Bohra businessman, had wanted his eldest son to follow him into business, but his young, cinema-crazy son - he’d play truant at school to watch movies - had other ideas. Unable to bring him to heel, he sent Habib off to Aitchison at the advice of a friend. Habib thrived at Aitchison, relishing the beautiful campus and the vast array of extra curricular activities.

But most importantly, he met his mentor at Aitchison. An artist himself, Moin Najmi was Habib’s art teacher. He spotted and encouraged Habib’s precocious talent for draughtsmanship, his instinct for scene setting (a legacy of his love for cinema and theatre) and his interest in material culture. Najmi guided Habib towards architecture. But Habib’s conservative, cautious father had already lined up a job for him on a tea estate in Assam. When Habib broached the subject of architecture his father was aghast. “Architecture?” he expostulated. “What’s architecture?” But eventually Habib’s will prevailed and in the mid-1950s, just shy of twenty, he departed for London and the AA.

The Mohatta Palace, renovated by HFA
The Mohatta Palace, renovated by HFA

The invigourating environment of AA unleashed Habib’s creative talent, fostered his interest in aesthetics and design and inculcated in him a habit of industry. It also introduced him to the works of Modernist giants like Kahn and Corbusier, which instilled in him a lifelong passion for Modernism. But his education was not just confined to AA. London, too, was his inspiration. He roamed its museums, palaces, churches, art galleries, theatres and restaurants, soaking up all he saw, heard and tasted. “All of London was my university,” he’d often say to me.

He returned to Karachi in 1964 and soon after set up his own practice, Habib Fida Ali Associates. His clean, modern vision, his rigorous work ethic along with oodles of charm ensured his success from the get-go. No design challenge was too daunting for him, no commission too humble. If he believed in a project, he took it. Inspired as he was by the sheer love of his work, to each commission he brought the same exacting standard, the same attention to detail.

Habib was that rarity, an ambitious, aspirational man, who knew contentment and was at peace with himself

When he gifted Alam - his long-serving Bangladeshi cook - a house, he didn’t fob him off with a wad of cash. Well into his 70s at the time, Habib travelled with Alam to his village in Bangladesh, surveyed the plot Alam had bought, listened carefully to Alam’s wife’s wishes and then personally designed the house and went on to find a suitable Bangladeshi contractor to execute the plan. A year later he returned to review the project and when Alam’s wife belatedly voiced a desire for a sitting room, he gladly planned and built the extension.

Little wonder, then, that his employees were so loyal to Habib. Generous in every sense of the word, Habib showered them with opportunity and delighted in their advance. Mr Kalam Baig, young and inexperienced when he joined HFA Associates fifty years ago, is now a senior architect there. They have collaborated on building over 300 houses. Other colleagues like Mansoor and Majid all began as juniors and are, thirty or forty years on, also established architects.


Habib had the confidence and optimism of a man who had gained recognition on the back of his own application and talent. He did not owe his success to familial connections or a political backhander from a shady godfather. He was therefore philosophical about projects he had lost and was not threatened by the success of his competitors. The only project I ever heard him grouse about was Mohatta Palace, to the conservation and renovation of which he had given his all. That was not a commercial project for him but a labour of love, his gift to the city of his birth. He was cut to the quick when he felt that his contribution had gone unacknowledged, his effort overlooked.

Aside from his generosity, what I admired most about Habib was his enthusiasm. Even in his 80s, he was hungry for knowledge, for experience. The world was a wondrous place to him and he retained an undimmed enthusiasm for its enchantments. A voracious consumer of culture and an inveterate traveller, he took off at least three or four times a year, going wherever his interest and curiosity took him - Chiang Mai, Sao Paulo, St Petersburg, Mexico City, Fez, Barcelona, New Orleans, Sydney, Pondicherry, Colombo. Whenever I travelled to a new place I’d give him a call to ask for a checklist of things to do and see. He never disappointed. “Galle?” He’d ask. “Great choice! Go see the fort. Check out Bawa’s Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, a masterpiece. And if you miss his garden at Luna Ganga, I’ll never forgive you!” “Mexico City? The Anthropological Museum is a must. Visit Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s house and see Diego Rivera’s murals at the Ministry of Education. And you must go to Luis Baragan’s house. Stay at the hotel he designed, Camino Real.”

The LUMS campus in Lahore
The LUMS campus in Lahore

Like a pilgrim, he went to places where he could worship at the altars of his professional gods - Luis Baragan, Geoffrey Bawa, Mies van der Rohe. I don’t think I ever met anyone who was as committed to the continuance of his education as Habib was. Though his values remained fixed, his tastes and opinions evolved continuously. A diehard fan of Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis - All About Eve was one of his favourite films - he also admired Helena Bonham Carter’s quirkiness and Jennifer Lawrence’s versatility. Though a devotee of Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray, he also loved Bollywood. When he insisted I watch Yay Jawani Hai Diwani and I made a face, he snapped: “Don’t be ziddi (stubborn). Go and watch it!” When I eventually saw it and enjoyed it, I called him in Karachi to tell him so. “See?” he cried, “What did I tell you? It pays to have an open mind.”

He would breeze through London often but never in the summer. “Nahin bhai,” he would say, “I can’t bear the hordes of tourists. Maza nahin aata. (It’s not fun)” Instead he would visit in spring and autumn, timing his visits with the biannual Asian Art Week. He would do his homework before he arrived, reading up on all the latest art exhibitions, plays and films and then going to each one. He would call me when he arrived and take me out to lunch and dinner. He loved good food and characterful restaurants, be it a dive in Soho or an elegant eatery in Mayfair. I was never allowed to pay. “Nahin, no question,” he would scold, shoving my wallet into my bag. I would tease him for being a dinosaur and he’d chuckle in response. But delightful though the lunches and dinners were, his real gift to me were the leisurely walks we took together during which he would show me his London - its first Modernist house; its finest Georgian Square; its hidden gardens and museums; his favourite markets and antique shops; and little known auction houses and art galleries. He taught me to pay attention, to train my eye and observe, and then observe still more closely. Sometimes mid-stroll he’d stop abruptly outside a shop and peer at the window display. “Notice,” he’d tell me, “the symmetry of those lamps, the console and the mirror. Beautiful, no?”

Habib had an extraordinary eye for beauty and was a discerning collector of art and antiques. His tranquil, beautiful house in Karachi was a treasure trove, albeit a strictly curated one. Though a self confessed shopaholic – “kya karoon (what can I do) Moni,” he’d say with a rueful shake of the head, “yai bimari hai” (this is an affliction) – he never struck me as one. He didn’t buy for the thrill of acquisition but for an object’s inherent merits. And merit for him was neither a coveted brand nor a received reputation. He trusted his own eye. “Kachra!” he’d pronounce in his booming voice, with a dismissive wave of his hand at million dollar paintings by famous artists in the hallowed halls of Sothebys and Christies. He splurged hugely on his beloved antique pichhvai that he carried on his lap all the way from London, but he could also get excited about an inexpensive but stylish little gee-gaw he’d spotted in a market stall. Unlike many collectors I have met he was not secretive or possessive about his sources. On the contrary, he would not just take me to his favourite antique shops but happily introduce me to the dealers, often whispering in my ear: “He has the best stuff but be careful, zara badmash hai.”

Habib was that rarity, an ambitious, aspirational man, who knew contentment and was at peace with himself. One evening, invited to one of his elegant dinner parties, I arrived early and found him alone in his sitting room. Unobserved, I watched from the side door. Habib was sitting quietly on his sofa, legs crossed at the knee and hands folded in his lap. There was a contented smile on his face as he contemplated his uncluttered, serene sitting room. Though sociable at one level, his own company held no horrors for him. He lived alone and travelled alone. The very first time I interviewed him he told me, “My home is my castle.” A couple of years before he passed away he extended his house to accommodate his sister and brother in law. When he was showing me the new additions, I asked him if he was sure. “You’ve always lived alone,” I murmured. “I know what you’re saying,” he nodded slowly, “But life changes and we must change with it. It’s time to share my space now. You’ll see, it will be all right.” And it was.

For so many years now whenever I’ve watched a gripping movie or seen a stunning art show or have been invited to someone’s beautiful home, my first thought has always been to report back to Habib: “You know what I saw today…?” In the three weeks since he passed away, several times I have made a mental note to tell him something and then checked myself. Even as I’m writing his obituary I can’t help but think how tickled he would have been by it. How he would have called me and said in that deep, rich baritone, “Bhai, I read your piece,” as he did every time he particularly enjoyed my column, The Diary of a Social Butterfly. He was my mentor, my friend, my confidant. The world feels dull without him.