Harvard was preceded by many what-ifs, possible paths that may have led me elsewhere. First, there was OMA. I would have started in the Rotterdam office in September 2010 on a six-month contract. If they liked me in those six months, I might get to work there for another year. Rotterdam to me has a poetic value. It is like being in Peter Berhens's atelier in the early 20th century (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe both worked there...) or even in Bramante's studio in 15th century Rome or Florence. Next year I would reapply to graduate schools and would have a better chance of getting back into Princeton. I might have returned to that academic wonderland and might have been seduced by its poisonous fruit, staying on for a PhD, serving as resident grad student, writing a book, perhaps. Or I might have considered the AA, or stayed on at OMA, never needing a Masters degree. Or I might have been back in Karachi after my six-month internship.
Then there was my "internship" in Karachi. For two months that summer, I worked at one of the most prominent architecture firms of the country, Arshad Shahid Abdulla Architects. In Pakistani elite circles they are celebrities. I knew it would be tough and it was. It was a dream and it was a nightmare: here I was in my country serving the mission of the arts, giving physical form to my country's identity and culture, to fight off all that was bad and imperfect with thought-provoking, inspiring, uplifting work. Shahid sahab, the head architect of the firm asked me to join him for prayers one Friday. How could I say no to that? I know how to pray and we prayed among a big crowd out on the hot street because the mosque was full and the rows had spilled out, orderly, all facing the kaaba in Mecca. My mind wandered. Later he called me to his office and said I should stay at ASA instead of enrolling at Harvard. He said I did not need a Masters degree to build in Pakistan, and that I would be wasting my time and some of the most intense years of my life training for something that is best learned in the field. You will never regain the energy you have right now, he told me. He told me to reject Harvard's offer and that he would make me an architect at his firm. Architecture at ASA's world of gritty reality was rudimentary compared to the sophisticated software and building techniques I was familiar with. There were more material catalogs here and less conversation. People were getting the job done, building rich people's homes, all exquisite work, but it all looked the same. The same interior courtyard, the same water pond, the same ostentatious materials. They were doing only half of what I consider architecture is capable of doing. I look young and so people did not take me seriously. I needed to get out and return with my Masters degree.... Had I stayed I might have worked my way up the ladder at ASA over several years, working on real projects and seeing real buildings being built. It would always hurt me to know that the real buildings will never attain the perfection of the concept, the idea, but I would be achieving something spectacular. I would have ended the preparation phase of my life and started the serving phase. Yet I decided to stay in school. I decided to start at Harvard in Fall 2010.