Bank Alfalah manages to raise the bar once again
By Nazish K Siddiqui
ahore is blessed with some of the oldest and prettiest buildings in modern history. Along with being home to historical Islamic architecture of the Mughal era (Lahore Fort, Badshahi Masjid etc.), it also owes its beauty to some of the most resilient and majestic colonial era architecture; in these examples of Gothic-Victorian architecture is the pristine Shahdin Manzil, which is now home to Bank Alfalah’s corporate offices. As hard as it is to believe, behind the old world façade of high columns, sweeping arches, and grand verandahs, exists a model of 21st century banking modernity and sophistication that is yet unmatched in the rest of Pakistan.
Valuemag was generously invited to get a better look at the sharp contrast of interior versus exterior, and to speak with the visionary that saw the project take off from the drawing boards to its grand finale. With the talent and fresh perspective of architect Ahmed Mukhtar, the bank’s co-chairman Parvez Shahid was able to realize and bring to fruition a physical symbol of the banks philosophy.
“The concept of our space is not like your usual office. It’s very casual, and you feel good working here. We have sacrificed a lot for the usage space in order to have an open plan.” Tariq Mir, GM of International Business, knew the history of the building well. “The building was originally constructed in 1906, and was purchased by Justice Mian Muhammad Shahdin in 1912, making it only structure on Lahore’s Mall Road to be owned by a Muslim. Shahdin Manzil was purchased by former banking giant BCCI, and was their major branch in Pakistan, as a part of the buyout when the bank closed, Bank Alfalah inherited the property in 1997.”
Mir also was quick to mention that Shahid had personally been involved with the construction of the bank since the very beginning. Shahid remembers those early days of construction vividly, “We always thought of renovating the premises, and at one point in time we had an LDA approved plan for building an additional eight story building on top of the original structure, but keeping in mind the buildings history as well as the beauty of the neighborhood and its colonial influence we decided against it. Instead we renovated it, keeping the interior modern and maintaining its façade.”
True to their word, the design is modern, open and spacious. Without exception, there are no doors and walls on any floor. Cubicles on the bank floor are only two sided, low and done in upholstered and textured shades of peach, keeping away from the suffocating gray boxiness that is synonymous with them. Executive offices and board rooms are encased in glass and held in place with steel rods and cabling, and patches of fogged glass are riveted on top to provide privacy. Leather chairs and glass topped tables dot the floor space and line the atrium windows, creating casual seating all over. Each floor has a cascading water fall against a marble wall. The basement of the bank has its own little café and a dining hall for the bank employees. The main floor is utilized for regular banking needs. All the art work was handpicked and flown in from the Middle East. Bamboos and money plants add color and freshness at every turn.
No single floor plan matches any other floor plan in the building. What is a corner office for a regional manager on the top floor is cubicle space for an entire department on the floor beneath it and is a glass cased boardroom for twelve on the floor beneath that. What could possibly be pegged as a theme for the entire building is fluidity. The walkways, the workspace and even the glass boardrooms don’t block in, or close off, anything. Even the walkway bridging two sides of the building above the ground floor is made of glass, and is supported by steel bars along its length. Even the Chairman’s Liaison Office is barely cordoned off from the rest of the working office by a sheet of glass encasing his private work space. The adjoining boardroom often serves as space for meeting with foreign delegations and top bank officials. An atrium, topped with a beautiful glass dome lets in tremendous amounts of natural light. Standing on the balcony of any floor, the atrium allows for a view of all five floors and of the elevators as they stream silently up and down on one wall, and nest on the basement floor in a handmade mosaic pond.
To make up for space consumed by the atrium Ahmed Mukhtar conceived a plan to lower the lofty 14 foot ceilings down to 9 feet, literally creating an entire floor where one did not exist before. The next challenge thus created itself. Unable to have the standard false ceilings to conceal air conditioning ducts, Mukhtar kept them exposed. The ceilings of the bank on every floor are criss-crossed, silver-gray brushed steel air ducts and polished wooden beams fly overhead creating a unique mixture of warm and cool tones. “Our chairman Sheikh Nahayan played a very vital role, because any other man of ordinary vision would have said it doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on a monument like this,” says Shahid. “We made this branch back in 1999 when Bank Alfalah was very much new to Pakistan and in that respect the budget for this branch was huge. In retrospect, we made the bank then at a third of the cost it would take to make it today.”
Clearly Parvez Shahid is appreciative of every individual’s effort to make Shahdin Manzil the magnificent piece of functionality it is today. Though it may only house 300 employees on 5 floors, it is truly an exemplary display of fine aesthetics without forgetting functionality and reality. ■
This article was originally published in the print edition of “Valuemag”, issue 2, June 2008
Editor’s Note: Here’s a useless bit of trivia for you behind the scenes at Valuemag. I remember I had put Farhad Humayun of Overload and his wife on the cover…all the jobs were complete – I had done the final review with Asif. We were just going to hand over the DVD to the printer when my boss suddenly decided to rain on my parade, he insisted that we needed to change the cover to Bank Alfalah’s office space…as they say the boss is always right so we worked all day trying to fix the cover. The boss helped. He even chose the cover photo and personally supervised the changes. Anyway, it left us no time or energy to work on the inside pages to reflect the change when he left, we called it a day after putting in a long, long day – Looking back, its not one of my finest moments! I wish I had delayed the handover and fixed the inside too. Sigh. Meeting Deadlines vs. higher quality. Always a tough choice. I always tell myself to snap out of the perfectionist mode and just hand it over already, but in retrospect, one more day wouldn’t have made a difference but the quality of issue 2 would have been even better…Hmmm.