Lahore’s master builders

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar reflects on the work, style and legacy of Tanveer Hussein, Nayyar Ali Dada and Javed Najam

Lahore’s master builders
Architecture is among the most romanticised professions be it in real life, movies (The Lake House or Indecent Proposal) or books (Fountain Head). Tell someone that you are an architect and in most cases you hear a sigh because that’s what they had once wanted to be. There was a time when thaikadaars (building contractors) dominated the design and construction market. Most people were not willing to pay extra for professional design or site supervision from a trained architect who typically gets a degree after five years of education, followed, at least, by a few years of slogging away with an architectural firm. Several generations of architects have worked hard to establish the profession and to have its importance publicly recognised as essential. Nayyar Ali Dada, Tanveer Hussein, and Javed Najam are among the senior-most architects in Lahore – and I had the fortune to connect with the three early on.

Tanveer Hussein and Nayyar Ali Dada, along with Iqbal Hassan, were the first graduates of NCA’s Architecture Department and started teaching there immediately upon their graduation in 1962-63. Meanwhile, Javed Najam graduated from the Architectural Association London. He practiced in Lahore and taught at NCA.
Big modern spaces with a lot of light: such was Tanveer Hussein's style

Nayyar Ali Dada is probably the most famous Pakistani architect and someone whose name is synonymous with the profession for the public. His work and personal efforts have vastly contributed to promoting art and architecture. His architectural language is simple yet modern. It easily connects us with the vernacular and communicates easily with the viewer or user of his buildings. Through Nairang Art Gallery in Lahore, Dada has, for many years, before the advent of literary festivals, tried to provide a space for public discourse and display of artwork. His studio has been in Muslim Town Flats, which he had designed. We often visited the Nairang Gallery close to Liberty Market, which moved to various locations, and is now in the Habitat Flats, which is commonly known as Cricket House, on Jail road. Designed by Dada, Habitat Flats take the form of a small double-storey residential complex: modern and easy to maintain – a relatively new concept when they were built.

Alhamra Arts Centre’s mega slanted brick-clad structure by Dada on the Mall is now a Lahore landmark. It won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Constructed in the early 1980s, from the very beginning it aroused general curiosity and interest. The red gravel octagon grid floor pattern of the under-construction complex attracted our attention. At that time we were constructing our home in Gulberg and Dada advised my father on the design and ingredients used – and created a smaller floor pattern at the entrance of our home.

Nayyar Ali Dada

Architect Tanveer Hussein’s studio was the first that I saw – big drafting tables, T-shaped scale sliding on big boards, stencils and pens of different sizes, opaque sheets, photos and sketches of different projects: some built and some unrealised. The team consisted of a few young architects and older draftsmen stretched on their boards preparing architectural design and drawings. The basement studio was in a building on the Mall in Hafeez Chambers across Ferozsons in the 1970s and 80s, before Hussein moved to the typical model followed by architects: that of a studio adjacent to their residence.

Tanveer Hussein was among the longest serving Heads of the Architecture Department at NCA and retired in 1998. He is a man of few words and of quiet demeanour, but full of details on paper. His mastery over construction details resulted in many builders consulting him when they were stuck with complicated construction details. Hussein designed several residences, buildings, parts of Lahore Zoo and the current Architecture Department building of NCA, which he designed with his friend and fellow faculty member Iqbal Hassan. The building carries features of older ceramic blocks on top of which the Architecture Department was built. From the outside the building has two blocks, separating the lecture rooms from the bigger studio spaces. The multistory building is stuck in a tight space but recedes backwards as it climbs in the sky, giving a sense of space and relief.

Javed Najam

Tanveer Hussein was designing our home in Gulberg in 1979-80. A lot of planning and dreams went into the design of that budget home for a writer and a vagabond. The request to the architect was to provide a simple design that should last long enough. And it was duly and successfully delivered. An interesting space was the spacious main lounge with curved walls – a fluid space that served us well for more than three decades. He had a similar design for the Elephant Shelter of Lahore Zoo – this was revealed to us when the masons brought from the village visited the Zoo on their city tour and discovered similarities between the design they were building and what they saw in the Zoo! Big modern spaces with a lot of light: such was Tanveer Hussein’s style. His own residence had a big two-storey glazed arch front facing the North – it seemed like a resort as one drove into the lush green lawn.

Javed Najam taught architectural and environment design at NCA. Designing an environmentally sound building is a challenge for all socially conscious architects. His studio was in the basement of the front lawn of a house on Gulberg’s Main Boulevard. The studio received beautiful natural light, enabling him to work in the basement. A well planted garden with old trees and an artificial pond created an environment that was less dependent on electricity and utilized the forces of nature. The pond, with colourful fish and plants, was a delight to be around especially on a hot summer day – a sort of Zen space! It became a favourite spot for us to stop by in summer, en route to our under home which was under construction. Javed Najam helped construct a small pond at our home with an intricate and yet low-tech water system. It remained a means of quenching thirst for birds and stray cats, and a cool space for them to gather at our home in summers.

Nayyar Ali Dada’s studio continues to enrich the country’s contemporary architectural vocabulary. Tanveer Hussein and Javed Najam have retired. However, the three have in their trajectories nourished the profession of architecture, through their teaching and practice.

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