A Conversation organized by the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB)
Bengal Gallery, Dhaka.
Dhaka city is undergoing the most rapid and explosive transformation in its entire history. With such changes come crises and challenges. Invited panelists were asked to respond to the following: How can architects, who have always played key roles in the design, visualization and rearrangement of cities, play a proactive and positive part in the new dynamic of Dhaka? With the capacity of architects to forge and orient changes, how can it be channeled towards good city building and better urban life? What can architects and urban designers learn from Dhaka?
Participants: architect Salauddin Ahmed, Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, architect Ehsan Khan, Professor Farida Nilufar, artist Wakilur Rahman, journalist and writer Sajjad Sharif, architect and planner Dr Husain Taufique Utpal, moderated by Kazi Khaleed Ashraf.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf (KA): Architects, artists and writers have gathered here to consider the city from different perspectives. Differences define us and give us identity. It is also one of the key characteristics of a city. This adage holds true for a city like Dhaka where everyone is working on different things and utilizing the city’s resources in different ways with a certain degree of competitiveness. Accommodating and accepting these differences is the foremost function for organizing a city.
Consider Dubai. The city looks like a city because it has buildings, roads and infrastructure. But I don’t regard Dubai to be a city because differences are not recognized there. The built city remains available only to a defined stratum of its dwellers. For example, people who work in building the city (there are many Bangladeshis who work as construction workers) and those who ensure that it runs smoothly are invisible in the public and political landscape of the city. They do not have equal privileges, they do not have citizenship. How can we call Dubai a city then? Yes, Dubai is a city in a crude, superficial sense but a fundamental thing about a city is absent: embracing differences.
While writing about Dhaka, I now avoid one thing: listing off the things that are wrong about it. There is no point in reciting all the things horribly wrong about Dhaka. What we need to get at is how we can overcome these conditions. What are architects thinking and how are they working in the toughest city in the world? Are we ready to bring about positive changes? With the expertise that we have, what can we do to shape its future?
Ehsan Khan (EK): In the last 20 years or so, Dhaka has seen exponential growth beyond what city planners and analysts had predicted in recent years. It was a spontaneous growth at a rapid rate in an unplanned way. The regulating agencies have aided in its development as well as the private sector. Due to the unplanned method of our growth, the rate of urban development has encroached upon the environment creating a concrete jungle of mostly buildings and roads. We have failed to implement any measures to rectify this.
We must consider the basic needs of a citizen and ensure that those needs are being met by the city. At the macro-level, we can look at things like public transport and how accessible they can be. On a more micro-level, open spaces must be utilized effectively through intervention. I would like to talk about urban open spaces. More and better open spaces in the city would be a step towards making our city more livable. There are several types of urban space in Dhaka city. The first of these are green open spaces: playgrounds, parks, lakesides areas, etc. There are also leftover spaces, such as between buildings in apartment compounds, etc. Another type of open space is the circulation corridors, such as roads, canals, walkways, etc.
Useful, accessible, and protected open spaces are essential. Every day, open spaces around Dhaka city are being taken over and turned into community centres, clubs or other builtup conditions. An open space is just that -- an open space, accessible to the community. The adverse effect of a lack of open spaces in a city is that people stay indoors more and more. Their homes become like prisons. My children can’t go out and play, my elderly parents can’t go out on walks, I myself have no space to breathe. In many parts of the city, neighborhoods are being changed beyond recognition, and open spaces are being built over. We won’t be able to restore those places to the way they were, but even now if we can use those spaces that are still left in an optimal way, it will be possible to improve the quality of life in Dhaka city. What architects can do through creative use of open spaces is to generate an inspiring environment where many basic needs can be met.
In accordance with our building bylaws, we are allowed to utilize only 50% space to build homes that leaves 50% open space available. We can provide incentives to the private sector to turn these open spaces into functional spaces with a proper environment. In places like Uttara we still find a few fields and chunks of green area but relative to the overall development of this sector these patches of green are few and far between. In order to increase that number we need to intervene in every street corner and leftover spaces.
In Banani and Motijheel areas, we find that the building of new infrastructure such as flyovers has actually increased pollution and decreased the number of people walking on the streets. An initiative is being taken to develop urban open spaces beneath these flyovers or next to them. If we can intervene like this, but on a much larger scale, we will see improvement in the quality of life in Dhaka.
KKA: Dhaka has a large range of urban spaces, including those that are literally open and those that are hidden or unrecognized. We must first catalogue the various open spaces and identify them so that those who work with this topic have a better idea of how to approach the issue. And there are spaces that are spontaneous and without any designation that are yet to be identified. Architects need to work with the community as well. Creation is not just about detached design, it is also about helping a community to mobilize and organize, and use their open spaces.
Salauddin Ahmed (SA): We hear and we talk again and again about how to manage and make Dhaka a better city. Before I am an architect, I am a citizen. And I am restless as a citizen because we find the city has major complexities. If you pixelate Dhaka city, if you look at it in a small scale, dot for dot, there is a lot of beauty in it. I look at a new possibility as a process of connecting those pixels, those dots, to make a city that we can be proud of.
I think that to understand Dhaka you really have to understand yourself. The more we understand ourselves, the better we can perform. You always have to have those glasses with which you can look through yourself and the city like an X-ray. You need to see the hidden truths and issues that lie beneath the surface. If you turn and twist them you may derive an element from it that can be shared with others.
A city must have a focal point and a sense of place. I find that Dhaka doesn’t have much of a focal point. And Dhaka does not have adequate open spaces, whether public and private. More and more we are not able to define which spaces are commercial, and which are residential. It’s a hodgepodge right now.
I think it is important for all of us to take a moment and try to understand the issues of Dhaka from our own perspective. You see a lot of beauty but you also see a lot of difficulties, there is torment all over the place. I think that the hidden beauty of the city needs to be explored and shared with others. I often move around the city and take photographs. I take straightforward shots of different parts of the city. By doing so, I carve out places for myself in the city that I feel the public would enjoy.
Farida Nilufar (FN): In Dhaka, almost 50% people move on foot but there are very little arrangements for them. [In our design studios at BUET] we identified 3-4 important roads in Dhaka and examined them in order to find out what to do with them. We tried to develop some projects that could be executed within our capacity. We looked at such factors as available open spaces, pedestrian character and land use. We tried to include the overall environment in our studies. One of the areas we looked at closely was Motijheel. We tried to organize new urban areas for which there has been no development before even if a potential exists. We also conducted a study of the BDR area. We prepared a very detailed analysis of available resources and decided to create new open spaces and incorporate the existing infrastructure into our plans. At a glance these plans may seem far-fetched but they also show practically how we can turn Dhaka into a very livable city using our own resources.
We do have a lot of projects in the design studios of our architecture school about the water bodies of Dhaka. Over the past decade we have tried to bring architects to these areas where they can play a key role as urban designers. We had a very detailed analysis of all the canals that have vanished from our city fabric. We tried to give some solutions to preserve these nearly extinguished water bodies. We understand how crucial and positive these water bodies could be to the living situation of the city.
Hossain Taufiq Utpal (HTU): In the discussion so far, we have used a lot of parameters to break down our city in quantifiable terms – open space, circulation corridors, etc. One thing that we have neglected to mention is the human element. We have been talking about urbanization but not urbanism. The people who live in this city are important factors to consider because they are the ones who shape it and influence how it changes or grows.
When we consider micro-level factors I have to switch my perspective from an architect to that of an economist. There is a vast difference in per capita income levels between the Dhaka of decades past and the Dhaka of today. And you don’t need to look at statistics to understand that. Changes are everywhere. We are making new flyovers, new roads, etc. But when we talk about these problems we tend to forget the people involved. Look at the Rana Plaza tragedy. Thousands of people died and it was on the news and in the papers everywhere for a few weeks. And then it was gone.
I believe that we have plenty of potential. We just need to know where to look. Yes, we do need new services but as more and more people come to Dhaka I believe those services will become available. Today we look at Singapore and see the tourist locations but don’t look at the infrastructure supporting these tourist spots or running the city. This is a matter of time and money and I believe that someday these things will be possible in Bangladesh as well. Change is happening.
Sajjad Sharif (SS): I would like to take a very different point of view from the ones my fellow panelists have taken. What I am going to say might sound pessimistic. I believe there is one important issue we have yet to take into consideration. Let me explain that with the story of a famous young man from Sicily by the name of Archimedes, a scientist and mathematician and also involved in the creation of weapons of war. When the Sicilians were in the midst of a conflict with the Roman emperor Marcellus, it was Archimedes who had built weapons for Sicily. So when Marcellus heard about Archimedes he was keen to meet the scientist. He sent one of his soldiers to fetch Archimedes. The soldier found Archimedes sitting by the sea and working on his calculations. The soldier said to him, “The emperor Marcellus has summoned you.” Archimedes continued with his calculations. The soldier pressed further, “The emperor has requested for your presence. We must go.” Archimedes said, “Wait, let me finish.” The soldier lost his temper, took out his sword and slew Archimedes whose blood dripped onto his calculations.
A French politician recently used this anecdote to illustrate a fundamental issue with the way society as a whole functions, that there can be no negotiation between power and creativity. Those who are creative go beyond restrictions imposed upon them by society, while those who are in power become envious of those with creativity. But power is what we need in order to bring such creative pursuits into reality. When we think of today’s Dhaka and of those who are in power, by that I mean the ministers in power and the current administration who plan to improve the city or perhaps under such pretenses go about other illegal activities, what I am asking is are we taking these people into account. We, who have gathered here to talk about planning the city and are looking towards its future, have we accounted for those in power? What can architects do? They can dream and they can show us these dreams.
I cannot speak to the technical aspects of architecture and city planning. I cannot show you a vision for the future. But what I would like to do is tell you where we have come from. I believe that if we don’t know where we have come from we have no way of knowing where we are headed.
The word “nogor” in Bengali means city. Let’s not forget that there is a word that goes hand in hand with the city and that is “citizen.” To remind you, a citizen is not just a resident of the city but a resident of the country as well. In ancient Greece, when the first city states were established, the citizens also joined as members of the state. This city was founded when a group of people had gathered to contribute to the welfare of the state with the promise of one day receiving something in return from it. We in Dhaka city have moved away from those basic tenets of a city. To return to our original point on power and creativity: Those of you who are present here may have heard of Dinocrates, an architect and city planner in the service of Alexander the Great who was said to have designed Alexandria. Now Alexander was a wise man. He was Aristotle’s pupil, and Aristotle was Plato’s pupil, and Plato in turn was Socrates’ pupil. So Alexander was a man who possessed both power and creativity. But in the coming centuries, leaders of this kind faded from history.
If we look at Dhaka, it was never planned as a city. When the Mughal general Islam Khan first entered this region in around 1612, there was not much of a city here to begin with, save for a few buildings and mosques. When we talk about the cities in this region, like say for instance Sonargaon, we are looking back a few hundred years. We did not have much to begin with and our city did not get the chance to be developed or planned in the way other cities did, like Kolkata. It was colonized and infrastructure was laid down there by the English. When they left, Kolkata had what it needed to someday become a successful city on its own. Dhaka did not have that. Dhaka was a small city in East Bengal that became a city in its own way. In years and decades past there have been initiatives to plan and rebuild parts of this city. But with time those initiatives where forgotten when the people who championed those causes retired or passed away. I can’t imagine how frustrating this must have been for architects. Intellectuals and creative people who have laid down plans to better this city have all failed. This was because the people in power, who are greedy and corrupt, would not let them get far. So as long as such people remain in power there can be nothing to expect for Dhaka. It’s a dying city.
People who live in this city want a peaceful life. I was born here and brought up here. I have seen the city, our environment, how our rivers become polluted and ruined. There is no space in our city because too many people come here looking for jobs but can’t find any. There are no opportunities for them here. We are taking land from the poor people, we are polluting their water, all in the name of greed and self-interest. And the city will remain in this condition as long as these people are in power. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic but I do not believe that things will get better for Dhaka in the future.
KKA: In a newspaper article, sometime ago, I deliberately said “Dhaka is not civilized.” I said that as a bit of a provocation. I really wanted to draw attention to the relationship of the word “city” to “civitas.” “Civitas” begets the idea of city as civilization because of the nature of civic engagement that defines the spaces of a city. In an ideal condition of “civitas,” there is an equal opportunity for everyone to engage with society and its civic body.
When we consider Dhaka city, such a civic engagement – a civil quality of life – does not seem to exist. I am not thinking of it in a very complicated or conceptual way. We can see a very simple manifestation. Just look at the sidewalks or footpaths, I have no space to walk freely there. My most fundamental existence as a walking human entity is throttled at every step.
Yes, I make a big fuss about this… I believe that a city without sidewalks is not civilized. When we have to struggle on a sidewalk, if I can’t walk or move freely, how can I call this a city?
To convey the idea of a city or town we now use the terms ‘shohor,’ ‘nogor’ or ‘ganj.” In ancient India, there was a notion known as “janapad.” It’s a wonderful word suggesting “the foothold of the people.” I think we have to plan a city in a scientific way but that is not enough. A city is also a philosophy and if we don’t bring that perspective into our conversation about a city, about Dhaka, then we won’t be able to advance in a deeper way. In agreement with Mr Sajjad Sharif, I would like to say that the modern city involves a slow grade warfare. The city is like a battlefield, a contestation between entrenched powers and the dispossessed. However, I do not agree with the assessment that Dhaka is a dying city. It’s a troubled city but not dying.
Syed Manzoorul Islam (SMI): I would like to echo Mr. Utpal’s optimism as well as Mr. Sharif’s frustrations. We are talking about Dhaka city’s future. If our country proceeds in the way it is going then our discussion is futile. Because no matter what we say here, if those powers that be are not in agreement then nothing will come to fruition. As Ehsan Khan has mentioned, between the play of the micro and macro-level issues, we have managed to tackle issues only at the micro level but not the macro. But if we were to plan and improve Dhaka city then we are more dependent upon macroeconomic factors. I was telling Khaleed Ashraf earlier that no city is created with the intention of being destroyed. But the way Dhaka has been made, it must be remade or unmade, because that is the direction it is moving towards. The issue at hand then becomes, who will remake it? Like Mr. Utpal, I like to have a more positive outlook towards the future. We won’t be here. Our generation won’t be here. The same generation that is developing with disregard to the people or the future of their children may not be here.
I would like to look toward a future that can be made possible by this generation who is more inclined to bring about these positive changes. Professor Nilufar has shown us some great work that her students are conducting and I hope their efforts bear fruit. When we live in this city today, as Khaleed has mentioned, we are continuously at war. One of these battles is with disappearance. Traditions are disappearing. For instance, the simple task of walking back home is disappearing. The romance we have about this city is disappearing. I have a friend who lives in Detroit, a city seen as being in ruins; he writes poems about that city. We have lost that about Dhaka. We are losing our greenery, our water bodies, we can’t hear birds sing anymore. We’re also losing our memories of the city. When I was a student at Dhaka University one of my hobbies was to sketch. I have since lost those sketches but I remember that when I used to draw them I kept thinking about the beauty of the city and how lucky I was to live in it. But that’s gone now.
Mr. Utpal made a distinction between urbanism and urbanization that I think applies here. In the pursuit of urbanization we have lost key things from urbanism that makes our city a true city.
Cities were built for us to live together but cities are also the loneliest. We have lost our sense of community. In order to change Dhaka, we must first take Dhaka out of Dhaka. Why can’t we start a train service like the ones in China or Japan that can take you from here to Comilla in an hour? Then there will be no need to live in Dhaka. Who would be staying here when it’s that simple to move in and out of the city? The regional towns could have more community spaces. We might also create new primary schools in nearby villages or upazillas where we can pay teachers proper salaries and have children participate in extra-curricular activities like singing or debate. A simple village could then grow to be like Dhaka. Why would everyone come to Dhaka when opportunities are available everywhere? Such plans could take the pressure off of Dhaka. That is urbanism. In urbanism every citizen has a responsibility towards his city and it is through education they can learn that.
KKA: If we are to fix Dhaka we need to focus on other smaller cities or towns. If we look closely at these towns we can find that they each have a unique identity and history that is slowly eroding away. We must document and catalog them, their traditions and customs, because we can derive our own principles of urbanism from them and apply that to planning Dhaka city. You also talked about romance, which I feel is important to our conversation. Typically, planners or urban designers are involved in technocratic actions such as infrastructure, housing, health, etc., to deal with the city. But a city is not all about that. The city is about people. And people bring with them imagination, romance and collective memory as well. How do we organize such things and make them part of our urban narratives? How do we integrate these things into our policies? How to bring the field of literature to urbanism? I believe that the role of imagination, and romance as well, should be recognized as part of city planning. It’s not as if planners plan and poets write poetry. They are not separate things necessarily.
SMI: If someone comes up and tells me that there is a kite that’s flying away, and I am chasing it but I fear that my life will end before I can ever catch it. But if I can’t even chase after it then how am I a human being? I am not an object without wants or needs. I was looking at some of the presentations here today and they give me hope for the future. If we could see more civic precincts and open spaces being implemented here in our city then I think we would see real change.
SS: If you look closely at our literary history in the last twenty years, you will see a lot of writings on daily life. There are poetry, paintings, etc. about villages and cities in Bangladesh. Literary or pictorial depictions of those times exist and through it we can also see how the land changed, how people changed, how their psyches changed. We may not be able to recreate those things because the time has passed for that, but we may be able to learn from it.
EK: I believe that those who can trigger change, those creative individuals who have been mentioned today, are slowly disappearing. There is also another segment of the population that isn’t able to navigate through the corruption in Dhaka; they don’t get those opportunities that many of us take for granted. Yet another major part try their best to plan and figure out what to do, how to change things and where our country is going, in order to see a new collective future. Our discussion today is a similar type of discussion, to be able to see the future of our city through the eyes of economists, writers, architects, city planners and intellectuals.
I think that perhaps one of the most important things we can take away from this discussion is the fact that there are multiple ways to look at the problems in our city and many areas where we need expertise. We need to understand, investigate and gain knowledge about these topics in order to figure out how to tackle these issues.
KKA: I think we also have to keep in mind that Dhaka and cities in general are diverse in terms of its population. Yes, there are people who have grown up here in Dhaka but there are also people who have come from other villages or regions. Our collective memory is made up of that diversity. It is complex.
SA: One of the biggest successes of our panel so far has been this dialogue. There are a lot of things out there that people don’t understand, or can’t comprehend. In this day and age, discussions like this are the best way to bring up these issues. One of the things we have talked about here is the essence of a place or sense of a place. How can we record or note these things and how can we share or perceptions of them? Most of the people here are architects. My hope is that in the future we don’t have to sit here and talk from a place of self-righteousness or self-promotion but rather for working towards changing things through dialogue and collective effort.
SMI: I think there is a soft city and a hard city and I think there needs to be a middle ground. We can’t simply plan towards a hard city. There is also a soft city or a city of imagination, memory and dreams, with individuals who have their own desires. The simple fact that there are people here still attentively listening to our discussion is proof that we do have people working towards a brighter future.
Guest 2: You have talked about romance, memory and heritage. If we look at our parents who were born outside of Dhaka and came to settle here, there is a difference with some of us who are second generation in Dhaka and are not going back to our hometowns. My memory is of growing up in Puran Dhaka, fishing in the lakes, etc. I remember Dhanmondi lake was different 30 years ago, it was more beautiful than what it is today.
Guest 3: I recently finished working on a project on children. The children were divided into social income groups: high income, middle income, slum children and street children. I asked them three questions. One was about their dwelling: What did they like about the places they lived in, whether it’s a slum, road, or apartment, and what they disliked or feared about it. Then I also asked them where they dreamed of living. I found that all of the children had the same dreams regardless of how rich or poor they were. They all wanted to live by a lake where they could explore on a boat.
Guest 5: On the streets of Dhaka, the temperature increases manifold. Those who walk on those roads may suffer from heatstrokes. We have also talked about capitalist economic societies and business modules. One of the things that struck me about Dhaka is our transportation system. In terms of affordability, we see people are willing to pay a lot to get to places, from 300 taka CNG fare to 30 taka rickshaw fare. Can’t we create some sort of business module implementing a faster and safer transportation model? Why doesn’t someone take this up by providing these services from the private sector? If you look at the telecommunications industry, the recent innovations in that sector are the result of implementing similar kinds of business modules. So why can’t we do the same for transportation?
KKA: The relationship between the citizen and the city has completely changed because of the introduction of the automobile. As Kenneth Frampton argues, the car is the most apocalyptic invention of humankind. A road is both an open space and a movement corridor although it is the latter that we primarily use. In many cities – I have seen it in Melaka (Malaysia) – where streets are also used as public open spaces alternately. On weekends, the roads are closed off for automobiles and utilized as public spaces. It’s also a matter of perception.
Guest 7: I recently read a feature article on BBC called “The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking,” which I thought was wonderful. The article talked about sculptors, artists, writers like Charles Dickens, who walked in the city or had memories of roaming the countryside. What I found was that they were rarely concentrating on the act of walking but rather would be off in the heads thinking. The action of walking was beneficial to their creative process.
Guest 8: When we are in a positive mindset we hope for good things to come in the future, that the state and the politicians will be just and work towards the betterment of society, that the rich and upper classes will help the poor, but whether its New York or London, these things don’t exist. The difference is that there are people, individuals, like businessman, writers, artists or intellectuals who work towards making significant change. There is no reason to feel that something like that won’t someday happen in Bangladesh. Another thing I have found when visiting my village is that villages are designed with respect to their proximity to water bodies. The village puts crucial emphasis on their dependence on water. The arrangement of villages comes from traditions learnt over thousands of years. Maybe it would be a good thing to take that approach with our cities as well.
Guest 9: We did a studio project [in our architecture school] with the theme “Democratizing Dhaka City.” Students were asked to identify open spaces where they could intervene through design. We found a lot of these open spaces in South Dhaka but when we got to North Dhaka we could not find that many. There were certain places with fields but they were not accessible. The rate of urbanization seems inversely proportional to the availability of open spaces in our city.
HTU: In my 22 years of experience in architecture and planning, I have seen that the time needed for a project to become a reality is roughly ten years. Now, for subsequent projects, it won’t be ten years but much less. Secondly, with regards to open spaces in the south, that is to be expected because that’s how it was planned. But in the North that’s not the case because there is more development there. When we talk about planning in Dhaka, we can see it is uneven. There is a clear division in our city between less-dense places where goods and services are readily and abundantly available and areas with high-density where the infrastructure cannot sustain the areas. This is a very eccentric and concentric city. If we can create some sort of integrated network then, regardless of per capita income and other factors, there will be real change. We have heard that we should go back to the way cities were planned before, or take Dhaka out of Dhaka, or adopt the planning techniques of rural life. The answer might be there and perhaps we can implement those systems here. Of course, we need the support of the government otherwise problems will keep recurring.
Transcribed and translated by Naveed Islam.