Old Karachi US consulate sold for Rs1.5b

Architects won case to get modern master Richard Neutra’s design protected heritage status.

Faisal Hussain/mahim Maher July 28, 2014

KARACHI: Architecture is a symbol of power. The British knew this best. That is why the heart of Karachi is studded with their epic mansions, churches, halls and government offices, which survive 200 years on as sandstone testaments to the Raj’s wealth and cultural insistence.

On old Victoria Road is one building, however, that the British did not make but which also announces the presence of a superpower—although from another century. It is the American Embassy, built in a post-Cold War splurge dedicated to conveying a new kind of diplomatic message: this is what democracy looks like. And for a cool 1.5 billion rupees it is now the property of the Hashoo group that bought the 13,000 square yard complex this June.

Hashoo CEO Mustansir Zakir and Jerome Fields, the acting management officer of the Consulate General of Karachi, signed the Sindh Board of Revenue challan on June 11, a copy of which The Express Tribune acquired. The city’s District Municipal Corporation (South) also benefited from the deal and came away with Rs14 million or 1% of the transfer as the building is located in its jurisdiction.
The sale was confirmed by the newly appointed spokesperson for the US consulate in Karachi, Brian Asmus, although without naming the buyer: “In a private transaction, the U.S. Consulate Karachi sold the old consulate building on June 12, 2014,” was the one-line response to questions over email from The Express Tribune.

Similarly, an Islamabad-based senior officer at Hashoo, who did not want to be quoted, confirmed the deal. He was less forthcoming about the company’s plans for the prime real estate. The truth is that because it was declared a protected heritage site, its new owners can’t even change the colour of its paint.

The battle for the building

When the city’s top architects found out in 2011 that the US consulate* had been decommissioned and was up for sale, word spread among the members of the Institute of Architects of Pakistan (IAP). A few of them started to worry that it could be demolished. This would be a tragedy in their eyes as the complex was designed by none other than Richard J. Neutra, one of the world’s most influential modern architects, and his partner Robert E. Alexander. A group from the IAP, including architects Arif Belgaumi, Akeel Bilgrami and Shahid Abdulla, joined hands with award-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to lobby for two years to save the complex.

“This building came up when I was young,” Abdulla told The Express Tribune. “And I was very conscious that a modern master had designed it.” Indeed, Neutra’s embassy is unique as it is the only one in South Asia designed by him. But more than that, it was created at a unique historic turning point for unique reasons.

The diplomacy of architecture

At the end of World War II, a large number of countries came into existence. “The new nations, eager to attract financial and technical assistance for their development became fertile ground for the ideological competition between Cold War rivals,” writes architect Belgaumi in Legacy of the Cold War: Richard Neutra in Pakistan’, an essay that appeared in Int|Ar, the journal for the department of Interior Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. “One of the many ways in which influence was exerted in these developing countries was through the construction of new embassies.” The US rolled out plans for embassy construction in Pakistan, Greece, Germany, Turkey, Iran and India and, “as the leading nation in the modern movement” its architects came to be associated with the “idea of freedom”.

As a world authority on Neutra, Barbara Lamprecht, puts it, “Neutra and Alexander’s effort was one of many embassy commissions, all reflecting the decision to rapidly populate the globe with a dignified but powerful—but not too obviously powerful—American presence after its World War II triumph and emergence as the world power.”

Neutra understood this all too well. He created a sleek L-shaped four-story building. Architect Shahid Abdulla explained that this Modern aesthetic of elegant clean lines had emerged as a rebellion to the Classical style. Architects like Neutra had begun to question why buildings needed to be festooned with curlicues and corniches which had no value, or “fazooliat” as Abdulla described them.

The main building was connected to a warehouse via a smaller one that originally housed a cafeteria and small motion picture room. Up until at least the 1980s the American Centre was used by the public and thus, as Obaid-Chinoy puts it, the building had a lot of nostalgic connections for the city. “People used to come here to use the library, there were jazz concerts, films were screened,” she said. “This is a place with historical cultural roots.”

But it was with its dramatic entrance that Neutra gave the embassy its strongest feature symbolizing freedom and democracy. Still somewhat visible from the road is the top of the elongated porte-cochere or portico with its seven gold-anodized aluminum beams supported by seven steel cables aligned with seven gold anodized aluminum ribs dividing six full-height sections of glass windows (see photo). As Lamprecht puts it, glass was usually used in embassies “to support the transmission of idealistic values, especially the transparent democratic process of a young nation.” At night, when the lobby was lit, a “beacon of light” would shine forth from the consulate.

A proposal

The architects and Obaid-Chinoy had initially hoped that the Americans would consider donating the complex to the people of Karachi. The then president of the IAP, Shahab Ghani, wrote to the American Institute of Architects, with their proposal that the building be saved as a ‘Neutra Cultural Centre’. This was backed by the IAP, the Foundation for Museum of Modern Art, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, Vasl, the All Pakistan Music Conference, Hunar Foundation and the American Business Council. The plan included a Museum of Modern Art, The Living History Museum of Pakistan, Museum of Contemporary Architecture and spaces to host musical concerts and literary events. In response, the American Institute of Architects wrote a strongly supportive letter to the US State Department. But given that a ‘donation’ would have likely needed an act of Congress, this suggestion was not viable.

“We wanted to preserve it and convert it into a museum, theatre for the performing arts, have music, arts, food,” explained Obaid-Chinoy. A commercial space could have been created at the back and if they removed the boundary wall and bomb proofing, it would have really opened up the space. “You used to be able to drive right up to the building,” she added.

For two years the group worked to get feasibility reports. “We looked at how the site could be maintained and spoke to non-profits,” she said. “We lobbied the US embassy and [a diplomat]. We were not opposed to it being sold.” They just wanted it to be used in a particular way that did justice to its history.

When it became clear that the building would have to be bought, the group came up with the idea of having it heritage listed, which they thought would help possibly bring its price down. They even found a local company and a philanthropic foundation that were willing to put up $5 million to acquire the property and allow it to be used as a cultural centre.

It was a bit of a struggle to get the building heritage listed as the rules generally applied to buildings from the British period and not beyond it. “Mrs [Yasmeen] Lari really supported the application,” says Belgaumi. In order for a building to be declared heritage protected, technical experts have to review the case. In this instance it was Dr Anila Naeem, a professor and co-chairperson of the department of Architecture and Planning at NED University. She was in touch with Barbara Lamprecht, the authority on Neutra’s work. And in December 2012 the notification was issued, making this building the first of its kind to be heritage listed in Karachi. Belgaumi said he was particularly grateful to a diplomat who was a coordinator for non-military aid to Pakistan with the rank of ambassador for holding off the sale long enough for them to get it heritage listed.

The Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994, stipulates that now the new owners cannot make many changes to the structure. They cannot “destroy, remove, alter or deface the property”. This much is mentioned in the sale document but Belgaumi and Abdulla still feel that there is plenty of room to think creatively. “If I were to develop it, I’d use the road in the middle as an entrance, make the consulate’s main block a hotel and demolish the old hotel,” said Belgaumi. “There is still room to preserve and repurpose it for commercially viable function.” He feels that the Hashoo group are still the best possible people to have acquired the consulate.

Abdulla added that there is land at the back where the Hashoo group can even put up a tower even if they can’t alter the actual structure. “He should be proud that he now owns a landmark of Karachi,” he said, referring to Sadruddin Hashwani, the chairman of the group.

Obaid-Chinoy was, however, more fearful that the building won’t survive and she was fairly disappointed with the sale given their work over two years to have it turned into a cultural centre. “Karachi is a city of 18 million people but the cultural organisations never win,” she said. “The commercial interests always win.” This hopefully will not turn into another one of those losses.

* The embassy complex was regraded to consulate status in 1966, when the staff left for Islamabad that had been declared the new capital.

The legend of the curse

In her research on Neutra’s creation, expert Barbara Lamprecht came across an undated and unnamed story by a UPI reporter detailing the curse of a 19th century fakir which seems to have affected the new US embassy on Victoria Road. Lamprecht quotes from the unpublished piece: “[The fakir] claimed the plot contained the tomb of a holy man and warned against construction of any kind. To illustrate his point, he toppled over dead.” The Parsi owner of the plot went ahead and built his mansion, ignoring the curse. But true to the fakir’s words, the merchant, his son and three labourers and an English couple all met their deaths. The house became later known as Sudden Death Lodge. “The house was torn down in 1925 and the plot given over to a garbage dump until chosen as a site for the new American embassy. Construction began in Sept. 1957. To date, there has only been one death – that of an electrician. But the curse lingers on in more subtle ways.”

For more pictures of the consulate please see Arif Belgaumi’s Facebook page.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2014.