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Brick by Brick

by Benazir Shah

Tapu Javeri for LLF

Nayyar Ali Dada on the making of the Alhamra.

In the summer of 1976, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Shakir Ali recommended Nayyar Ali Dada to the Lahore Arts Council to draw up plans for an arts center. Dada sketched the first blueprint of the Alhamra Art Center with messianic zeal. Even at that time of rising political uncertainty, the young National College of Arts (NCA)-trained architect was sure of one thing: the building planned for the Mall Road would become a fulcrum for the arts in the country’s cultural capital, an island of stability and reassurance amid turbulent times.

Sort-of completed three years later, during the martial law rule of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, the iconic Alhamra did indeed start out as a hub of cultural activity, even during those early days of the dictator’s long dark rule. But nothing would go smoothly.

In the initial construction phase, the military rulers—preoccupied with turning Pakistan into a national-security state—were tight with funds, delaying completion beyond the original target. At one point, they demanded white mausoleum-like marble for the façade. Dada resisted, on purely aesthetic grounds. “If red bricks were good enough for the remarkable structures of Aitchison College and the Lahore High Court, they were good enough for us,” he says he told them. When that tack failed, he was able to convince them that brick would be far cheaper. He managed this by presenting them with a highly inflated bill for the marble. The junta didn’t bring up the matter again.

Despite the rocky road, the Alhamra programming by the Lahore Arts Council, which has always run the place, began almost as well as Dada had always believed it would. It hosted as regulars the poet Faiz, orator and actor Zia Mohyeddin, and composers like Feroz Nizami, with the live sounds from the orchestra pit delighting enraptured audiences. But the politics of the 1980s, with their undue exercise of censorship and other martial maladies, quickly intruded. Alhamra went lowbrow, hosting, among others, Pakistan’s longest running TV prize show, Neelam Ghar.

The space got a fresh start with the return to democracy in 1989, but the bottom fell out of the programming: where once giants had tread, “actresses” offered cheap entertainment for the masses with their risqué shows.

“It was frustrating,” Dada tells Newsweek, “Alhamra’s rich tradition was hijacked by cheap commercialism.” The place fell into utter disrepair. The ersatz entertainment—a far cry from the original ambitions of the purpose-built, four-acre haven—kept them coming, compounding the upkeep problem.

In 1992, Dada was asked to add to the existing structures. That year, Pakistan honored him with the President’s Pride of Performance Award. Six years later, the Alhamra—which fuses the traditional with modern design and takes its name from Spain’s Alhambra (“red castle” in Arabic)—won him the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The jury cited it as “a rare example of flexible spaces that has enabled several additions to be made over time, each of which has in turn enhanced, rather than detracted from, its overall architectural value. This is a very popular and successful public building, projecting its complexities in a simple and powerful manner.” (Dada’s Alhamra Cultural Complex, situated near Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium and which echoes the Alhamra Art Center, was also completed in the 1990s.)

Over the past two years, the Alhamra has undergone two major planned and unplanned maintenance overhauls, supported and funded by the Punjab government. Its three auditoriums, art gallery, and thoughtful spaces for music classes and roving conversations are partially back in public service.

Dada, widely hailed as the country’s foremost architect and conservationist, is upbeat about the Alhamra’s prospects. “You have this huge influx of people coming to the Alhamra again, after a very long time, including people from outside Pakistan,” he says, referring to annual events like the Lahore Literary Festival, which has been hosted there three times.

As the arts make a comeback, they will find no better and more welcoming home than Dada’s red castle.

From our Feb. 25 – March 11, 2017, issue.

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