Remembering Neutra’s Embassy

Published: February 28, 2011

The writer is a practising architect and teaches architectural design at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. He has an interest in urban and environmental issues. arif.belgaumi@tribune.com.pk

Last month, in a modest ceremony attended largely by the consulate staff, US Consul General William J Martin officially decommissioned the US Consulate Building on Abdullah Haroon Road. Thus ended the less-than-illustrious career of a 1950s modern building designed by renowned Austrian-American architect Richard Joseph Neutra.

The US Consulate Building in Karachi was originally conceived as the US Embassy in Pakistan at a time when Karachi was the capital. The embassy was part of an extensive programme of construction of diplomatic facilities by the US State Department, which started immediately after the Second World War. Diplomatic missions throughout the war-ravaged parts of Europe needed to be rebuilt. With the decline of colonial powers, numerous new nations came into being. In fact, between 1947 and 1964, nearly 50 new nations joined the world community. In the increasingly contentious environment of the Cold War, the embassy building was seen as an important way for the United States to counterbalance Soviet influence in the Third World. As one of the ring of countries that encircled the Soviet Union, Pakistan was considered to be particularly important.

The new embassy also replaced grossly inadequate facilities occupied by the US Mission in Karachi. In 1947, the US Embassy occupied “a rundown office located a flight of steps above a garage and an automobile shop.” In 1954, US Representative Prince H Preston Jr, on an investigative tour of Pakistan, was so appalled by the conditions of the existing US Embassy that he called for a new purpose-built facility.

In 1955, the US State Department commissioned Richard J Neutra to design a new embassy in Karachi. Neutra’s appointment was part of an ambitious programme of architectural commissions to renowned architects, which included embassies by Walter Gropius in Athens, Edward Durrell Stone in New Delhi, Marcel Breuer in The Hague, Josep Lluis Sert in Baghdad and Eero Saarinen in London. Referring to these other designs as “just pretty building”, Neutra characterised his own scheme as “stripped for action.” Neutra’s proposal for the US Embassy in Karachi consisted of a long unadorned, subtly curved, rectangular slab raised on columns with an open glazed ground floor. Unequally dividing the façade was an oversized, cantilevered porte cochere that served as a welcoming entrance to the embassy. Set relatively close to the road and separated only by a steel picket fence, the embassy was designed as a civic and public presence on Abdullah Haroon Road. The stark, slab building, reflective of 1950s International Style architecture, nevertheless responded to the hot Karachi climate in the design and detailing of the narrow horizontal, strip windows, the use of vertical adjustable louvres and the use of water in the landscaping. The new embassy building was designed to provide security against theft and fire, but terrorist attacks and suicide bombing were unheard of at the time and were not addressed in the design. According to former US ambassador David D Newsom, the watchmen at the embassy in Karachi routinely slept through the night, awakening themselves periodically “to rise up or cough at intervals so possible intruders knew of their presence.”

In 1960, the capital moved to Islamabad and the embassy was downgraded to a consulate. Many Karachiites who grew up in the 70s and 80s favourably remember the US Consulate and the many events and facilities hosted there. The American Center Library was a favourite haunt of readers and researchers, while the art exhibitions and film screenings were equally popular among local residents.

The substantive change in the security status of the US Consulate, and for that matter all US diplomatic facilities, came after the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The first physical manifestation of the response to these attacks in Karachi was the encasing of the steel fence boundary in a foot thick concrete wall. Unfortunately, car bombings in front of the consulate in 2002 and 2006 proved that the enhanced security measures had been presciently considered and justifiably applied. Nevertheless, the net result of these precautions was that the public face of the United States retreated behind reinforced fortifications and security barriers. Instead of presenting a welcoming face promoting friendship and dialogue, most embassies today resemble fortified outposts in hostile lands. The new approach to the design of US diplomatic facilities reflects this thinking. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of the insecure world we live in. The new US Consulate in Karachi presents a similar security-first approach and has the ambience of a fortified power station.

The decommissioning of the old US Consulate raises questions about the future of this modern masterpiece and perhaps presents opportunities for promoting US-Pakistan relations. The building is one of the few public buildings by Richard J Neutra, an accomplished master of the late Modern Movement. As a fine example of the 1950s International Style, it is representative of the ferment and debate current at the time about the nature of architecture. The building is a part of world architectural heritage and particularly that of the United States and Pakistan. And as such must be preserved. Naturally, preservation of any unused building is difficult, unless some alternative use for it is identified. The old US Consulate presents many opportunities to be converted into a civic institution promoting art and culture. It could readily be adapted to serve as a museum or art gallery. It was designed and sited to be a public institution; it might finally be able to achieve that in its new role. The US government should consider gifting this important piece of architectural heritage to the citizens of Karachi and help to convert it to a function that will help strengthen the long and friendly ties between United States and Pakistan.

Perhaps it is fortunate that current US Consul General William J Martin is a native of California and would appreciate the legacy of Richard J Neutra, who lived and practiced in Los Angeles for over 50 years.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2011.

Reader Comments (17)

  • Mujahid Sadiq
    Feb 28, 2011 - 2:23PM

    I do have fond memories of this masterpiece conceived by Richard J Neutra and never thought it will ever close its doors to the people of Karachi who use to frequent the library,the gallery and the auditorium,but global events of the last decade forced the US Consulate to prevent access to the general public to the building.

    Now that the consulate has moved to the new premises,I agree with the author that the old building should be given by the US, as gift to the city of Karachi and should be used as a hub for creative and intellectual discourse.Recommend

  • Adeel
    Feb 28, 2011 - 6:05PM

    how about opening the head office of Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan in the building…i am sure they would know this building very well courtesy of their frequent visits to the place in 80sRecommend

  • Aliya Khan
    Feb 28, 2011 - 6:10PM

    What memories you have brought back Arif! I remember all too many films watched there as a child, standing in line to get my first student visa, passing it on the way home from Saddar everyday – and ofcourse the desire to see “more” once I became a student of architecture.
    Whatever it becomes next – I do hope it is more embracing of the city of Karachi. People need to enjoy that ground floor entry and then views out of the “open” building you describe.

    Thank you for the memories. I hope your article helps an awakening regarding the future of this building and helps explore meaningful opportunities of where it might go next. Recommend

  • Hammad Husain
    Feb 28, 2011 - 6:55PM

    Very well written Arif. I didnt know Richard Neutra had designed a building in Pakistan. I agree with your suggestion that the US Consul General should consider gifting the building to the people of Karachi. Maybe even to the Institute of Architects Pakistan :)Recommend

  • Kishwar
    Feb 28, 2011 - 8:18PM

    Great piece, Arif. I agree the building should be gifted to the people of Karachi, but as a library and cultural institution with a mandate to promote understanding and mutual respect. i remember the library at the US Consulate was one of the most vibrant places in the city and hope that it will be returned to that important function. I am sure we could all come together to find resources to donate books and other resources. Recommend

  • kulsum
    Feb 28, 2011 - 8:41PM

    I remember watching musicals and visiting the library of the old consulate before it became a restricted zone. I think gifting the building to the citizens of Karachi is a wonderful idea and maybe it can once again open its doors as a cultural centre. Looking forward to driving down Abdullah Haroon rd. and admiring Neutras creation instead of looking at a fortress with extremely high walls!Recommend

  • Farhan
    Feb 28, 2011 - 10:55PM

    Wonderful article, Mr. Belgaumi! Recommend

  • Naheed Ali
    Feb 28, 2011 - 10:55PM

    Fantastic piece Arif!

    Until it was mentioned by someone a few years back, even I was not aware that Richard Neutra had designed a building in Pakistan. Both the article as well as the comments, now make me want to experience the ground floor and the views out towards the landscape for myself. I agree that the building should be gifted to the city of Karachi, to become a literary & cultural institution.

    It is not only the architecture that we aim to preserve, but what that design represented – a bridge between the cultural relations of the two countries, with the glazed ground floor and the “oversized, cantilevered porte cochere that served as a welcoming entrance to the embassy“. Recommend

  • Feb 28, 2011 - 11:03PM

    Arif,

    I remember you always felt that this building should stay and if US Government agrees should be converted into a library or Art Gallery etc.
    Good article.
    The Karachi Chapter of the Institute of Architects, Pakistan is meeting to discuss ways and means to lobby for adaptive reuse of this beautiful building which is timeless.
    ShahabRecommend

  • Hussain Tawawalla
    Feb 28, 2011 - 11:20PM

    Let the building live again! Let it stand proud again! Put it to good use! Considering the obsession with all things US, convert the building into a testament of us Pakistanis – survive all people.Recommend

  • Ali Khurshid
    Mar 1, 2011 - 1:21AM

    Sir this was a wonderful article and I am sure it was only word limit that has stopped you from going into the details of what it must have felt like to be around in the 70′s when this entire area was buzzing with activity.
    I believe this piece of land should be gifted to Pakistan and the building removed to make way for a park, because I fear if the form remains it might still be a symbol of the havoc wreaked on us by the USA in the last few years.
    And thus still be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
    Open areas are yet safer and will provide a much needed breathing ground in saddar even though the Frere garden is right opposite it, another park will not do much harm at all.Recommend

  • MuslimBoy
    Mar 1, 2011 - 3:34AM

    It must be converted into a mosque and relisgious madressah. Tenders must be floated amongst all sects to decide which one will foricibily occupy the buildingRecommend

  • Anis Siddiqi
    Mar 1, 2011 - 8:59PM

    Arif,
    It is a great write up and well timed. Apart from some hillareous comments, I think most of us woul agree the idea of the building being gifted to the citizens of Pakistan (that includes Karachites, of course) and it will go a long way in redressing the straining relations between US and Pakistan. This will be a small price and the dividends shall be very large and shall perpetuate the goodwill between the two friends.

    For some who commented that they did not know Richard Neutra designed a building in Pakistan, there is beautiful house design by the famous architect in Lahore on the canalbelonging to one of the Saigols and it stll feels fresh, if one cares to visit it. This house is testimony to the permanance of the International Style that has survived even though Charles Jenks wrote the obituary of the ‘Modern architecture’ dating back to 1973.

    I shall fully support the idea put forward here of turning the decommissioned embassy into some sort of a public project especially in the domain of art and literature even though i live and teach in Lahore. Karachi is as close to meand all of us in Pakistan as any city.

    Keep up the good work, Arif.

    Anis SiddiqiRecommend

  • Ramiz Baig
    Mar 1, 2011 - 10:35PM

    My first interaction with the building was during architecture school where we weren’t aloud to photograph it and a friend almost had a camera confiscated! so its been amazing reading up on these stories about how wonderful the place was as a source of healthy activity in Karachi.

    I would love an opportunity to actually visit it and experience the spaces. for most of my life it has been a ‘no go’ area.Recommend

  • Dabeer
    Mar 3, 2011 - 1:53AM

    Surely, this piece of architecture can be a haven for all art students but also can be vital in image building for the US itself. Maybe reopen the much talked about library even. A very well written article indeed.Recommend

  • Arif Belgaumi
    Mar 3, 2011 - 10:53PM

    @Anis Siddiqi:
    Dear Mr Siddiqi,

    Thank you for your kind words. I would love to learn more about the Neutra house in Lahore. I remember being told that Neutra had designed a house in the GOR in Bath Island for Sikander Mirza or someone but I have never been able to confirm this. These houses need to be documented before they ‘disappear’.Recommend

  • Hussain Tawawalla
    Mar 4, 2011 - 11:29AM

    Arif

    I remember reading this bit a while back. It helps add to your list of buildings Neutra built in Pakistan. HAPPY HUNTING Bro!

    “My thesis has been an incredible journey. Though I am far from the required page count or the cohesion that my thesis adviser expects, I am making some new discoveries, some of them completely unrelated to my topic. One such tangent led me from Jeff Kipnis to Sylvia Lavin, and in her book I found out this: Richard Neutra, one of Modernism’s greatest architects, built at least two buildings in Pakistan! They are the West Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore (with support from UNESCO) and the U.S Embassy in Karachi (1963.) — Posted by Waqas Jawaid at 3:53 AM ” source: http://homesweetprinceton.blogspot.com/2010/03/richard-neutra-built-in-pakistan.htmlRecommend

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