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Yes, Pakistan's new National Art Gallery has nudes

There is something of a modern-day bard in Pakistani architect Naeem Pasha, but it's not just because he writes poetry – it's more an expression of what he wants his buildings to be.

"It's not that I am concentrating on purely architectural expression," said Pasha, 64, his brown-rimmed glasses perfectly offsetting a head of thick snow-white hair and neat goatee. "All those sketches would have a lot of couplets, the beginning of a poem might be there," he said smiling.

I was intrigued.

VIDEO: Tour Pakistan's National Art Gallery with the architect

Pasha led me on a tour of the spectacular new National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. It's the first national gallery in the country – and Pasha's crowning achievement.  

There is no barrier between architecture, poetry or painting, he explained.

"They understand each other – we might not know their language of understanding, but all these expressions understand each other," he said.

I had never thought of a building in quite that way before.

Contemporary and edgy

The austere, red-brick "fortress-like" exterior grabs one immediately. But the real attention-getter is just off to the side of the main entrance – a "sentry" of six 10-feet tall burqa clad women made out of black fiberglass.

Carol Grisanti / NBC News
Sculptures of burqa clad women welcome visitors to Pakistan's new National Art Gallery.

The message from the sculptor, Jamil Baloch, seemed to be that though westerners may view the burqa as a form of incarceration for women, in eastern cultures – regardless of how they dress – women are strong and play a larger-than-life role in society.

And that role is certainly evident at the National Art Gallery. Sixty percent of the artists on exhibit are women.

"Pakistan's art world is overwhelmingly female-dominated," said Pasha.

"Parents didn't send their sons to art school; they sent their daughters," he told me. "Art school was considered a sissy thing to do."

But the art inside is far from sissy. It is contemporary and edgy and defies Pakistan's image as a deeply conservative country of religious extremists.

The white painted exhibit halls are light and airy. A combination of interconnecting architectural spaces is accessible from a spiraling light brick ramp walkway. Every gallery looks into each other and, according to Pasha, communicates with each other.

"We are in Gallery Six – the landscapes," he pointed out. "Gallery Six looks down on Gallery One – which is all about love – so love is communicating with landscape."

It was all beginning to make sense – until we reached the nudes in gallery 10. No one seemed to be communicating with them.

Here was an entire room devoted to a raw display of the human form – quite rare in an Islamic country. But just in case someone might be offended, they were all discreetly "tucked away" in one of the top-floor galleries.

We walked past the guard propped up against the ornate wooden double doors. I thought I detected a sort of censorious glance. He looked at me and then at my camera.

"No pictures," he said.

Other spaces, like the sculpture gallery, are two stories high and can be viewed from overhanging balconies offering different perspectives on the works below.


Carol Grisanti / NBC News
Inside the sculpture gallery in Pakistan's new National Art Gallery.

"The idea is that you should go through the whole building in a circular pattern without having missed a single object," Pasha explained. "If you are not successful in doing that, you have failed. Even if you miss one single object you have failed," he said.

Ready for the next project

Light flows through windows of all shapes and sizes, and the glass covered rooftop atrium streams skylight into the spaces below. Large aluminum "scoops" collect and feed indirect light into 14 galleries spread over 91,000 square feet of space. "Scoops" are an architectural gimmick used to bring in lateral light from the roof and redirect it where natural light is not available.

Pasha studied architecture at Penn State. As a student he looked up to and was inspired by Louis Kahn, the man regarded as the "mystic of architecture" and a proponent of brick buildings.

"Brick has humility," said Pasha. "With all its limitations and limited resourcefulness, it is still the most beautiful material."

No surprise then that Pasha built his gallery from brick. Most of the interior accents are also made from exposed red and yellow brick.

"And what will you create next?" I asked.

"I am bidding on the national museum project," he said. "We don't have a museum in Islamabad that chronicles our 5,000 years of sub-continent civilization."

I wondered aloud how long that would take to complete – when the National Art Gallery finally opened last month, it was 17 years after Pasha originally won the design competition for the building. The gallery project had been a saga of "stops and starts" due to national political upheavals and lack of funding.

But even a repeat of that wouldn't be enough to dampen Pasha's passion for the potential new project.

"The creative process is a fever," he said poetically. "It's like falling in love and when you are newly in love your temperature is always very high."