U.S. Consulate, Karachi, Pakistan
Application for listing as a “Heritage Building” by a group of concerns citizens and architects affiliated with the IPA, Institute of Pakistani Architects, and others is underway. It was submitted in June 2012 to the Chief Secretary, Government of Sindh/ex-officio Chairman of the Heritage Advisory Committee.
The Pakistan embassy followed the FBO design brief for embassies/consulates that was both a delicate and daunting task: The new outposts were to be legibly American and convey strength, yet not be too assertive or flamboyant; the design should be Modern, excellent, and worthy of peer acclaim, but not too radical, befitting a dignified American presence; and it should be secure and robust, but not too costly let it alarm the American tax payer (Loeffler 45). Programmatically, the embassies were “much like the headquarters for a small corporation.” They included extensive, flexible office space for consular needs; staff and executive/ambassadorial offices; special facilities open to the public on occasion or for related government agencies such as the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the United States Information Service (USIS)(Arts and Architecture 31). Other requirements specific to Pakistan included a controlled service yard and parking area; a substantial water storage tank; an electrical generator; and “extensive warehouses to harbor American Governmental employees from neighboring countries and possibly their families and belongings in case of emergency” (South Africa Architectural Record).
More subtle aspects of the brief encouraged a “sympathetic, regional expression of our own architectural thinking” (Architectural Record 187) in designs that to some degree acknowledged the host country’s architectural traditions, climate, and culture. Neutra, who consistently argued that buildings could be very Modern but yet accomplish such a sympathetic response, integrated features specific to lslamic worship practices, discussed below in the description and significance portions of this fiche.
The complex is an L-shape in footprint. It occupies an eccentrically shaped site bounded by Brunton Road on the south and Abdullah Haroon Road (also known as Victoria Road in some locations) on the east. The roughly diagonal north property line intersects Abdullah Haroon Road to form a “prow” defined by this intersection, helping to establish strategies for building footprints and orientation. The complex comprises a long, sleek, four-story main building that is rectangular in massing. This main building stands in front of and is connected to a large one-story warehouse by an interstitial two-story building between the two, originally housing the cafeteria, a reproduction and distribution space and a small “motion picture room.” According to the site plan, the total square footage for the property is 116,288 square feet, including the 91,108 square-foot office building; the 16,000-square-foot warehouse; the 4,180-square-foot interstitial building; and the 4,000-square-foot secured service yard and covered garage bays, occupying the southwest quadrant of the lot. The larger setting was characterized by a broad lawn and extensive landscaping along the northern and eastern sides of the property, as well as an area between the vehicular service court and the main building on the property’s south side.
The east-facing principal entrance is located at the point the east property line angles away from Abdullah Haroon Road; the point at which the building is asymmetrically divided into a larger volume, devoted to office and administrative staff, and a smaller volume serving ambassadorial and executive functions. The entrance was accessed by a broad C-shaped driveway carved out from the northeast corner of the site, curving around an eccentrically shaped reflecting pool aligned with the road. Aligned with that major civic artery, this larger volume also contained the offices for the USIA and pressroom, which featured a full-height translucent glass wall topped with operable clerestories. In the angled plan, the main lobby dividing forms an acute angle, wider on the east, permitting the rectangular, smaller executive wing to the north to be orthogonally oriented to Club (formerly Collector) Road.
Elevated one story, this wing cantilevers north, supported by a long central pier aligned north-south. The pier is flanked on either side by a one-story perpendicular wall composed of a sandwich of poured concrete between perforated concrete block masonry. This wall screens a private, densely planted area; a large angled reflecting pool; and a patio below the elevated cantilever, a portion of which extends beyond the north-facing perforated wall. The water of the pool overflows into a channel that continues under the broad terrazzo steps to emerge beyond the steps into a tile-lined channel parallel to a landscaped planter running along the glass wall of the main interior lobby. The water channel terminates at the northern flank of the broad steps leading to the principal entrance, in turn separated by the driveway by the eccentrically shaped pool along Abdullah Haroon Road noted earlier. Thus, the various bodies and channels of water appear to percolate through the complex, and helping to unify the overall composition as well as introducing a microclimate and acoustical tempering.
The dramatic entrance features an elongated porte-cochere of seven large gold anodized aluminum beams with a thin metal roof, supported by seven steel cables aligned with seven gold anodized aluminum vertical ribs dividing six full-height sections of glass windows. The western, narrower end of this angled lobby led to areas for general public functions such as such as the library and later, the “American Center,” devoted to public diplomacy programs. A short run of terrazzo steps leads down to the terrazzo patio and reflecting pool, where it joins a covered walkway leading to the warehouse area. Of note in this area is a signature Neutra trademark: this is an exterior light strip flush to a walkway ceiling and located at the far edge of the soffit. This asymmetric placement not only illuminated the path of travel, but also afforded a greater expanse of viewing radius at night for inhabitants inside a glass wall of a building, exemplifying Neutra’s concept of “bio-realistic” architecture responding to primal human needs of “flight or fight.”
The fenestration of the main building accentuates the structure’s strong horizontality and monumental presence. Both east and west elevations are characterized by a series of three continuous lengths of windows running the entire façade, with a fourth, at ground floor level, terminating at the entrance. The windows are fronted by operable metal louvers with insect screens.
A two-story interstitial building links the primary building to the low, earth-toned warehouse. The north-facing primary façade of this intermediate structure appears to be characterized by three bays of floor-to-ceiling glass window walls, sheltered by a broad, thin-shelled concrete roof that extends beyond the building envelope. A single strip of louvered windows, aligned with the ground floor windows on the rear (west) elevation is present on the rear (south) elevation of this smaller structure.
The warehouse roof echoes the building’s division into nine bays. Configured as a rectangle in plan, it is aligned with Abdullah Haroon Road. In contrast, its angled northern wall is parallel to the north property line. The roof comprises nine thin-shell concrete roofs; each vault steps back sequentially on the north moving from east to west. The foot of the eastern most roof vault curves into the largish reflecting pool terminating the angled main lobby, symbolically integrating the warehouse to the larger composition. The water element, seen in various pools and channels that percolate through the public area, also serves as important symbolic gesture, beginning with the curved reflecting pool originally located at the angled northeast “prow” of the property.
Behind and south of the warehouse, the large service yard and court, protected by a seven-foot-tall concrete block wall running the entire west side of the property, is accessed through a sentry station from Brunton Road. The service yard was characterized by a gasoline pump station in the center of the yard, covered garages, and a loading dock.
It is likely that Neutra designed the landscaped setting and gardens, given the careful hierarchy of plantings and his telltale drawing of landscaping on the site plan. Tall, dark shrubs located in front of the warehouse opened out to an “American” lawn, a long swath of grass-like ground cover in front of the warehouse labeled “Embassy Park.” The area was dotted with a few palm trees and mid-height plantings at the originally low perimeter wall on the north and a similar treatment was accorded for the primary elevation.
Main office building: reinforced concrete; warehouse barrel vault roofs: thin-shell concrete; warehouse walls, concrete block. Hollow clay tile, ceramic tile, terrazzo, glass, steel window mullions; gold-anodized aluminum ribs at porte-cochere, operable metal louvers with metal insect screens. Masonry materials mixed, formed, or poured on-site. Interior: plaster walls.
The budgeted cost was $1,000,000, comparable with other embassies. Much of expenditure was not from an outlay of American dollars but foreign postwar credits owed to the U.S, allowing the U.S. Treasury to obtain equipment, materials, and labor in exchange for the debts of a particular country. To Robert Alexander’s consternation, foreign currency, which tended to fluctuate erratically was also used to pay architectural fees for American firms working abroad.
The formerly empty lot eccentrically shaped and 1.10 hectares in size, is bounded on the east by the north-south Abdullah Haroon Road (formerly Victoria Road) and Brunton Road on the south. The lot is located in downtown Karachi in a prestigious area developed by the British in the 19th century. Now considered a financial hub, the area is populated today with government buildings, financial institutions, foreign consulates, and the famous Sind Club, founded in 1871 as an elite European gentleman’s club and designed in the Indo-Italianate style popular throughout the British Empire in the mid 19th century). Set back from Abdullah Haroon Road about 60 feet, the former Embassy stands across the road from the expansive Frere Park and Frere Hall, the town hall designed in the High Victorian Gothic style and erected in 1865 during the British Raj period (1858 – 1947, the year of Pakistan’s independence. The Hall was reopened in 2011 after a bomb attack on the Consulate in June 2002, the first of others that culminated in 2006 with a bombing that killed Pakistani and American diplomatic staff.
The property embodies the FBO’s directive for embassies abroad, to assert American standards of design and technology while acknowledging local traditions. The primary and interstitial buildings of reinforced concrete reflect methodology standard for large-scale buildings engineered in the U.S. at the time of construction. Parker, Zehnder and Associates was a well-respected and published engineering practice and the “go-to” firm for Neutra and Alexander; the engineers were simultaneously working on the firm’s much more daring steel design for the Cyclorama Building at the Gettysburg National Military Park, completed in 1962 (American Steel Construction). White in appearance, it is not known whether the (peeling) white paint seen on the primary structure in recent photographs is original or if the building’s concrete employed lighter tones integral to the mix. In contrast to the engineering of the primary and intermediate glass-and-concrete buildings, the warehouse was low-tech, with walls of an earthen-coloured concrete block with hollow clay tile infill used for the open arches. The block, tile, and terrazzo were locally procured and mixed on site. As Annabel Jane Wharton remarked in Building the Cold War, “Making the Modern abroad was, after all, not so easy. Indeed, the effort required in the realization of a monumental Modernity where none had previously existed was nothing short of heroic. Basic building materials were difficult to obtain in Europe after World War II; they were completely lacking in the Middle East” (Wharton 7) Co-architect Robert Alexander “complained loudly to the FBO that the concrete mix at Karachi was being watered down by the local contractor. He even warned of a possible building collapse (which fortunately never occurred), but he could do nothing to correct the problem because his firm had no contract to provide supervision and his complaints were dismissed.” (Loeffler 145) Thus, within the period of significance based on its completion in 1961, the Embassy represents the attempt of the State Department to insert and to some extent integrate an American construction paradigm into the local Pakistan building and craft culture.
While visiting Karachi, Alexander discovered the “ready availability of cylindrical [metal] molds for casting concrete vault forms, and was determined to utilize such forms in an effort to counter what he believed to be Neutra’s overly stark design of the main administration wing” (Hines 245). Indeed, at first glance the composition suffers somewhat from how these disparate pieces of the complex are integrated, although its overall disposition is one of a fairly subtle weaving together of elements and functions. In any case, the conflicting ideas and goals of the two architects, each individually well established, proved insurmountable. Founded in 1949 and confined to large-scale projects, the partnership ended at about the time the Embassy and Cyclorama were completed.
Postwar American embassies were intended to embody American values in a Modern presence that demonstrated technical, rationalized prowess. While large-plate glass was long used for American and European building exteriors for a variety of reasons (not least the desire to establish cutting-edge corporate identity), glass was often employed in embassies to support the transmission of idealistic values, especially the transparent democratic process of a young nation unfettered by autocratic historicism or older colonizing regimes. At the primary entrance, glass is deployed with a largesse atypical for the surrounding urban fabric. At night, it performed as a “shining beacon of light.” (Glass, usually in far higher quantities, was also used for Hilton International Hotels. These “little Americas abroad” were also monumental expressions of Modernism designed by prominent architects. However, with far fewer security concerns, solidity and mass could be suppressed in favor of space, lightness, and openness, facilitating the promotion of capitalism, consumerism, and sophistication along with democracy.)(Wharton)
Embassies were also to respect local cultures. This paralleled Neutra’s conviction that Modernism, especially his Modernism, could accomplish this through sensitive responses to the needs of all the users involved with a building. For example, he “conceived of the outdoor area [below the cantilevered portion of the executive wing] as a prayer floor for the large number of Moslemic [stet] employees of the embassy, with an ablution pond and a fountain … Mr. Neutra felt it necessary to demonstrate visibly in his design the courtesy of his country to the staff of the Moslem faith and took it upon himself to discuss religious details with the Bar Mulvi, the highest church dignitary of West Pakistan.” (South Africa Architectural Record) Neutra employed a similar approach with regard to user needs at the university laboratories and library at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh, East Pakistan, 1963.
The concern for establishing an American identity abroad while respecting a host culture is virtually unchanged today. The following is a quote from the eleven Guiding Principles for “Constructive Diplomacy: The US Department of State's Overseas Building Program,” published May 2011 under Adam E. Namm, Acting Director, Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, United States Department of State.
A portion of the “Design” principle reads: “Buildings are to be welcoming while representing dignity, stability, innovation, humanity and openness. Ostentation is not appropriate. Designs will be cost effective, employing an economy of means and methods. The design will be responsive to its context, to include the site, its surroundings, and the local culture and climate. The design will make use of contextually appropriate and durable materials."(Namm 2011)
The emerging concern for the larger setting, whether contemporary or historic, is reflected in the Principles as well: The grounds and landscaping will be as important as the architecture and together are to be conceived as an integrated whole. The grounds will be viewed as functional and representational space, and will be sustainable, include indigenous plantings and incorporate existing site resources, such as mature trees.
Like many of the overseas buildings commissioned in an ambitious postwar program by the Bureau of Foreign Building Operations (FBO), predecessor of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO), Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was intended to “represent American architecture abroad and to adapt itself so deftly that is welcomed, not criticized, by its hosts”(Architectural Record). With Modernism as its aesthetic medium, the new complexes communicated American global status, democratic values, and strength through its engineering, architectural, and construction prowess. The FBO created an Architectural Advisory Board consisting of leading figures in architecture to select architects for these prestigious commissions, including Ralph Rapson and John Van Der Meulen; Harrison and Abramovitz; Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill; and Edward Durrell Stone. While Modern architecture, especially the International Style (in contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright’s approach to modernity) was rooted in European social, communitarian and egalitarian ideals, nonetheless, Modernism was perceived to be “recognized as an American asset abroad, especially since expressions of grandiosity were out of place and “modern architecture was, by definition, less solid than spatial, and less massive than planar” (Loeffler 121). Like the main administration building in Karachi, many American embassies and consulates abroad were raised on stilts above glazed open spaces. Appearing to float, they embodied élan and a political identity that was decidedly forward looking. Even better, these subtle instruments of propaganda proffered a sharp contrast to what the Soviet Republic was doing: “At a time when the USSR was housing itself abroad in classically detailed masonry buildings that looked to the distant past for inspiration, the United States offered a striking contrast—radically modern buildings of steel and glass” (100). The former U.S. Embassy, Karachi, Pakistan, is one member of this distinguished group of postwar embassies. While each piece of the composition is not flawlessly integrated with the whole, the very disparity of the pieces underscores the attempt to seriously address a host of conflicting concerns under difficult circumstances. Additionally, the contours of the lot itself; water as a functional and symbolic feature that specifically responds to the host country’s cultural and religious values; and thoughtful landscaping all serve to unify the composition on a larger scale. Like its colleagues, tectonic Cold War ambassadors all, the Karachi complex embodies an optimism, an openness, and a frankness of purpose. These qualities are intimately associated with mid-century America. They were tectonically rendered in ways no contemporary embassy by any government would dare to express today. These projects thus represent an important period of significance in American and world history.
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