Save Neutra’s Pakistani Icon from Destruction
April 13, 2012
After the second world war, in an effort to exert its considerable power and influence and to check those of its rival, the Soviet Union, the United States instituted a broad program of ostentatious embassies to be placed in and around historically turbulent areas and domains newly brought under American sovereignty. Such was the context that presented the country’s foremost modernist architects, including Walter Gropius, Jose Luis Sert, Marcel Breuer, and Richard Neutra, with the task of fashioning civic structures that conveyed both the country’s unprecedented wealth and its much flaunted democratic ideals. What resulted, in the opinion of Neutra, were a succession of “pretty buildings” whose vapid concerns with pageantry overshadowed their functionalist imperative. Instead, Neutra, best known for his expressive Californian villas, designed his embassy in the then-Pakistani capital of Karachi as “stripped for action”. Over time, the work has cultivated the status of an icon, which is currently being assaulted with threats of demolition. Continue.
The building may be stripped of the egregious regional flourishes employed by Gropius (see his designs for Baghdad) and others, yet, like all of Neutra’s work, it is charged with a palpable libidinal force borrowed from glamour and spectacle of mid-century Hollywood’s patented brand of realism. A white office slab is punctured by ribbon windows that have vertical adjustable louvres to mediate the intensity of the subcontinent sun. Directly adjacent is a low-lying structure framing a courtyard and parking and characterized by playful, Niemeyer-like vaults, decorative screens, and brickwork which form a foil to the austerity of the bloc’s blank walls. Neutra situated the complex near a major traffic artery so that the embassy and the ideals it embodied were on full display.
The site’s significance has perpetually lessened since the capital was moved to Islamabad in 1960, when it was reprogrammed as a consulate. Though the buildings were outfitted with the security to ward off fire and theft, its exposure left it extremely vulnerable to terrorists plots and suicide bombings, contemporary realities which did not exist when the structure was completed in the late 1950s. After the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a tall, foot-thick concrete wall was erected to separate the complex from the perceived threats native to the territory that surrounded it. Further security measures have since been implemented, and, like many of its kind, the place has subsequently taken on the look of a defensive bastion. Two bombings followed in 2002 and 2006 after which the consulate was decommissioned, leaving the fate of Neutra’s work up in the air. Its chances for preservation seem slim and its destruction imminent. A charge to reverse the buildings’ fortunes is underway, led by the architect’s son Dion Neutra and the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design. They have sponsored a petition to preserve the site as the first and last vestige of modernist architectural heritage in Pakistan, with the hopes of repurposing it as a cultural institution oriented toward regional and national art. Sign the petition to offer your support behind the project.