Khan, master builder of bridges between cultures
Khan authored 7 books, focuses study on mosques
By MEERA RAJAGOPALAN
LEXINGTON, Mass. — Hasan-Uddin Khan believes in building bridges. This fall, he wanted his students to envision rebuilding a bridge in war-torn Bosnia, this one with brick and mortar.
“The notion of crossing boundaries is very important to me,” says Khan, distinguished professor of architecture and historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., who specializes in the study of Third World architecture, with a special emphasis on Islamic architecture.
Architect and professor Hasan-Uddin Khan has researched different styles of Islamic architecture (shown above) through books (below, left) and research papers. He is also involved with designing a mansion in the Caribbean (project aerial view below.)
And he has crossed many of those boundaries in his earlier years as an architect, as part of the Aga Khan Foundation’s various activities relating to architecture.
As a convener for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and later as the head of architectural activities of the secretariat of the Aga Khan and then as the director of special projects and outreach for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Khan says he has seen more than his fair share of buildings and architecture. Khan has authored and edited seven books on architecture, mostly on Asian architecture and architects, and Islamic architecture.
From bringing his experience to the third world, Khan is now passionate about bringing the architecture of developing countries into his classroom.
His design studio classes include real-world projects such as the one in Bosnia, in order to “bring the outside world into the classroom.” While previous classes of his have dealt with projects as diverse as designing a recreation center for the university to designing housing for the poor in Chandigarh, India, his current batch is involved in designing a museum for the history of Palestine, itself a controversial project.
Khan now finds time to undertake projects on a part-time basis, and is currently involved with designing a mansion for a client on an island in the Caribbean. The client is looking for architecture similar to the Alhambra in Spain, a castle nestled in beautiful surroundings, says Khan, adding that he hardly finds time to build these days.
Khan is also involved with the Nano City project in Chandigarh, the brainchild of millionaire Sabeer Bhatia along with Nazar AlSayyad, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Sayyad, who has known Khan for over 20 years, says Khan is one of the very few scholars who are very engaged with the Third World, while also being involved with the present. “Normally, people do either this or that, but Hasan is very much involved in heritage and contemporary work,” he says.
As founder of Mimar, an architectural magazine, Khan also strived to put the architecture of the Third World on the map. When the idea for the magazine came about in 1979, Khan says he consciously decided to go in for a glossy look, to ensure that the magazine was “as beautiful as the best of the west.” Mimar, which means master builder, was the Bible of many young graduate students in countries from Tanzania to India, says Khan, adding, “Even today, when I go to colleges in India, older students still remember Mimar.”
Connecting nations and their buildings has been Khan’s passion, and his current research deals with the change in the architectural landscape in the developing world after the 1960s – a time of change not just in the world of architecture, but also in Khan’s life.
Working with Islamic architecture was furthest from his mind when, as a graduate of the Architectural Association in London in 1972, Khan worked in London for Boston-based Payette Associates’ London office, and later with London-based Gerald Shenstone and Partners.
Khan then decided to return to Karachi in 1974, starting his own architecture firm Unit 4 Architects and Planners, along with a friend.
After working in Karachi for two years, and designing large projects like the Karachi International Airlines Squash Complex, Khan and a few of his friends became politically active — something that found them under scrutiny. Khan left the country once again, this time bound for the United States. Khan had, by then, met a U.S. diplomat in Islamabad, Susan Longeteig, who he later married in the United States.
In the United States, a colleague from the University of Pennsylvania, Renata Holod, referred him to a position within the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which was envisioned as a $500,000 award to encourage contemporary architecture in the Islamic world.
“I never thought I would be doing something related to Islam,” says Khan, who says he doesn’t consider himself religious. “When I looked at architecture, it was, in some way, related to the Muslim world, and when I came in contact with the field, there seemed to be a whole part I had missed out on.”
Then began a whirlwind journey of self-discovery, philanthropy, scholarship, and long periods away from his wife and two daughters Ayesha and Zehra.
After a few years with the award, Khan joined the secretariat of the Aga Khan as the head of architectural activities in France, where he oversaw the Aga Khan’s development projects as well as projects to revitalize ancient regions like Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania and Pakistan.
The experience piqued Khan’s interest and shaped his research in years to come. “I had extraordinary access and got to know a lot about architecture and the politics of architecture,” he says.
Then followed three years in Geneva as head of special projects for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, during which Khan was involved in the restoration of several historic cities like Karimabad in Pakistan and Zanzibar in Tanzania. After 16 years in various capacities related to the Aga Khan, Khan wanted to do something different, and new.
“I love to start new things, I don’t think I’m very good at running things,” admits Khan, adding that his time with the foundation had him bursting with a passion to research architecture around the world. “I wanted to do more writing, and I had seen so much contemporary work, that I wanted to write about them,” he says. “Working at a university was my fantasy then.”
After nine years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Khan was offered a position to help start a six-year master’s degree program in architecture at Roger Williams University, and Khan accepted.
AlSayyad says Khan’s legacy is very interesting. “It is capable of answering some of the basic questions we might have about the use of tradition in modern architecture,” he says.
Khan, for now, says he is happy where he is. “People like me are at home everywhere, and belong nowhere,” he says. “But I see myself staying here for the foreseeable future.”