Ashok Mody was a young architect from India on his first international assignment when he arrived in Sharjah in 1975. Over the next five years, he worked on projects that have become enduring landmarks of the emirate such as Al Zahra Hospital, the Oceanic Hotel in Khorfakkan and the biggest public housing development — the 1000 Villas project in Al Ghubaiba. Four decades later, Mody still cherishes his memories of living and working in Sharjah and acknowledges that the experience was invaluable to his career.
He recently shared those memories during a talk in Sharjah hosted by Shaikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, well-known writer and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation at his home, The Citadel, which was also designed by Mody. Sultan is spearheading a major research project that will culminate in a book, Building Sharjah to be published in 2020, which chronicles the modern architecture of Sharjah from the 1960s to the 1980s. As part of this project, he has tracked down architects from around the world who worked on key projects in Sharjah, and Mody is among them.
“Mody is one of the most important Indian architects to have worked here in the 1970s,” said Sultan. “I want to include his work in the book because he designed significant public projects and the buildings are largely still in use. It took me a long time, and some investigative skills, to find him. The only clue we had was the signature of one of his associates on the original building plans for Al Zahra Hospital.
“We traced this associate to the UAE-based company he currently works for and finally got Mody’s contact details from him. When I went through his archive of documents and photographs from that period, I was surprised to discover that he was the architect of the house I grew up in, and it was a pleasure to invite him to talk about his work in the same house,” Sultan said.
Weekend Review caught up with Ashok Mody during his visit to the city. Excerpts:
WEEKEND REVIEW: What was your reaction when Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi contacted you?
ASHOK MODY: I was surprised, excited and overwhelmed. Memories of Sharjah came flooding back and I cannot thank him enough for the opportunity to share them with others. Working in Sharjah exposed me to new materials, technologies, equipment and international practices. I consider the five years I spent in Sharjah to be the most important building block that laid a strong foundation for my career as an architect. I am happy that the buildings I designed are still in use and well maintained. But I never realised that they have become an important part of the architectural history of Sharjah. I am deeply grateful and humbled that my work will be documented in the book.
What brought you to Sharjah in 1975?
The 1970s marked the beginning of a construction boom in the UAE, attracting leading architects, engineers, contractors and suppliers of construction material from around the globe. I was then working for Mumbai-based Karani & Sanghoi Architects and they deputed me to start a company here, Architectural Consultants, in partnership with Abdul Rahman Bukhatir. We began with an office on Al Arouba Road and a staff comprising one architect and one engineer. As the company grew, we moved to a villa with the office on the ground floor and my residence upstairs.
What was it like to live and work in Sharjah in the 1970s?
The city welcomed visitors with a signboard saying, ‘Smile you are in Sharjah’ and that was literally true. Sharjah was a safe, quiet and disciplined city. Most of the expatriates living here were young, enthusiastic and hard-working. Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, flyovers and tunnels were being built to connect remote areas and by the late 1970s, Sharjah already had seven flyovers. There was also a focus on creating the soft infrastructure such as mass housing, schools, hospitals, and hotels so there were many interesting projects to work on. The money and working conditions were good, so despite the hot summers and frequent power outages we enjoyed our work and social life.
I was newly married, and my wife and I made a lot of good friends. We often went to Dubai to dine in the Indian and Pakistani restaurants by the Creek and it cost just one dirham in a shared taxi and another dirham for the abra that took us across the Creek. In fact, I often went to a bakery near the Clock Tower in Dubai in the morning to buy fresh bread and it took me just 15 minutes to get there. We saw western films at Al Hamra Cinema and Hindi films at Sharjah Cinema, but our favourite outings were long drives to places such as Ras Al Khaimah, Khorfakkan and Masafi in borrowed Range Rovers. My wife loved going to the Sharjah souq.
What was your first project?
My first project was Zahra Hotel, located in Zahra Square. Our brief was to design a spacious hotel with 120 rooms and 12 suites. Construction began in 1975, but halfway through the project our clients, Sharjah Real Estate, asked us to add a cinema. So, we broke part of the podium to incorporate the 1,500-seat Concorde Cinema, which became popular as soon as it opened. When the hotel was nearing completion, our clients felt that Sharjah needed a hospital more than a hotel, so they converted the hotel rooms to hospital rooms. We were not involved in this transformation, but I am happy that the city got Al Zahra Hospital that continues to serve residents. I am thrilled to know that most children in Sharjah are born there and I am proud to be associated with this project.
How was your experience of working on large public projects in remote areas?
The first public project I worked on was a housing development envisioned by His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, to upgrade the living standard of the people of Dibba, which is located about 200kms from Sharjah near the Oman border.
It was really inspiring to see how well Shaikh Sultan understood and empathised with the lifestyle of the local people and how involved he was in every detail of the design process.
He wanted every house to have ground plus two storeys and insisted that there must be terraces and open courtyards so that the rural families had plenty of outdoor space, as well as areas to house their domestic animals. He even drew a three-dimensional sketch to explain his ideas to us.
We based our design on his ideas and planned the layout to include a medical centre and a mosque in the cluster of houses.
When construction began in 1975, there were no roads to Dibba and it took us almost half a day to drive through the wadis and get there. Yet, Shaikh Sultan visited the site twice to see the progress for himself and even climbed the stairs to inspect the terraces. By 1978, good roads had been built and it was easier to reach the site.
What was the most challenging project you worked on?
The 1000 Villas project in Al Ghubaiba. As part of the Ruler’s vision of making Sharjah an educational hub for the region, a systematic action plan had been drawn up for constructing educational institutions as well as mass housing for the teachers. We were busy with the project in Dibba when Fowler and Henley, the architectural company appointed for the project, approached us to be the design architects. It was a challenge because the construction of the educational institutions was nearing completion hence the villas had to be ready within a year.
After researching various options, we decided to use a new construction technology known as tunnel shuttering, which involved minimal masonry because the shuttering for the structural walls and roof of the villa came in one piece that was lifted by crane onto the plinth and the entire villa was cast together. This enabled us to complete the project on time.
Tell us about the design and construction of The Citadel.
We were not just architects of mass housing. We did many private projects. For the Citadel, our brief was to create a grand living experience. In our design, we combined elements of Islamic architecture such as onion domes with straight modern grooved pillars, placed at different heights in a symphonic arrangement. A grand staircase in the spacious hall added to the majestic look. The castle-like design inspired our structural consultant to name the villa, The Citadel. It is amazing that 40 years later, I am back in this house sharing my memories of designing it. Looking back, I also wonder how we coordinated and executed these huge projects without computers and modern communication technology.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Sharjah.