Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Viewing Dhaka, Again

April, 2004

The Architectural League of New York is the pre-eminent architectural organization of New York City that organizes exhibitions, symposiums, publications and other events to discuss the state of architecture and urbanity in the United States and elsewhere.  Recently, the League launched a web page dedicated to profiling various cities of the world, starting with Caracas.  The next web profile will be on Dhaka that will be launched on May 15.  Saif Ul Haque, architect in Dhaka, and I created the report for Dhaka city.  Following is a part of a conversation with us and the editor of the web page, Alex Kliment.


Kliment: A prominent theme in your report is a focus on the historical failure of Dhaka city to develop any coherent urban planning strategies. In your estimation, how can Dhaka's planning institutions be made more efficient and effective, and what planning models would you suggest going forward?


Haque: Dhaka has too many authorities and there is very little coordination among them. The Capital Development Authority (RajUK) has become a real estate developing agency instead of a city planning organization, and whatever planning work they do is for facilitating the works of real estate.  The city is governed by the City Corporation, whose broader responsibility is collecting garbage, providing street light and maintaining city roads, but most of the time they are busy constructing markets in vacant urban lots and at times in playgrounds and parks. The water supply and sewage disposal authorities, the electricity authority, the telephone people, all make their own plans without any coordination. This list could go on.  The only way out of this is to create a supreme planning authority with all the agencies involved in providing various utility and other urban services work according to the plans prepared by this authority. The plan should be a well-detailed one taking into account all the growth projections and existing conditions. A time frame for preparing this plan should be worked out and the authority should be staffed with adequate planners, architects, engineers and other professionals. The authority can invite world-renowned architects and city planners to advise on the preparation of the plan.  Dhaka can evolve its own planning strategy but other dense cities especially those located in the tropics can be studied.


Ashraf:  To bring changes to a city like Dhaka with its near apocalyptic future, you need a political will, bold imagination, and a serious commitment to carry that out.  The planning of Dhaka needs imagination more than technocracy, and lots of it. Dhaka needs more imaginative prowess than, say, New York City.  The planning is not going anywhere because of two inter-related issues.  There is no real political will to deal with Dhaka in an effective way, and the existing institutions are completely unequipped technically, intellectually and legalistically.  In fact, planning and administrative institutions themselves are the key sources for many of Dhaka’s problems.  They should be completely overhauled as Saif suggests… that should be the first task.  People who understand the designing of cities should be brought into the helms and not bureaucrats and seemingly intelligent technocrats.  Of course anything like that needs political and community backing.

Kliment: Mr. Ashraf, you point out that meaningful change in Dhaka planning is currently constrained by a lack of political will. Would it be fair to assume that political will to make changes is related to the degree and clarity of popular will to see changes? If so, what kinds of actions, grass-roots or otherwise, can galvanize the public at large to demand real change in the policies and politics of Dhaka’s planning culture?


Ashraf: I think that’s a very good question.  Although there are lots of activism centering around human rights issue, women’s issue, and some around environmental issues... I don’t think there is any organized activity around the future of the city, to imagine changes, and to demand such changes at a popular or community level.  One thing that can happen, through newspaper writings, through grass-root programs, through initiatives by architectural and other institutes, is to constantly inform people of the need for a meaningful change, and consequently demand from the major political parties to outline in their various manifestos a vision for Dhaka.


Kliment: Mr. Haque, could you describe the process through which you envision the establishment of such a supreme planning authority. How difficult would it be to get other urban institutions and municipal bodies to listen to it?


Haque: The process can begin with an initiative from the architects and planners working in the city. They are capable of comprehending the magnitude of the problem and at the same time visualizing the solution. This initiative can be in the form of preparing a proposal for the government and having a public presentation of that proposal. It should highlight the various problems confronting the city and illustrate their possible solutions. The objective of this should be to create a public pressure on the government to act without delay. The existing town planning rules need to be amended for enforcing the plans of the supreme planning authority. It should be legally binding on all individuals and organizations living and working in the city to comply with the plans.

Kliment: Water is, as you report, the defining natural feature of Dhaka city.  How can Dhaka's hydrological resources be harnessed and incorporated into coherent planning strategies?


Ashraf: You know, I have said that in many ways that Dhaka is a deltaic city, or was one before the arrival of “development.”  Water in the form of rivers, canals, waterways, ponds and flood plains formed the matrix of Dhaka.  It is not just an image of a picturesque landscape, it implies communication, drainage, economic life, festivity, and a certain way of being.  That’s what made the city unique, which required a different strategy for urban development and planning.  But since the 1950s all that has been destroyed, either systematically or as the fall-out of one misplaced decision after another.  And now even Buriganga, the mother river of Dhaka, has become the target of destruction.  Can a river be destroyed?  You know, in Dhaka it can be, that’s the tragedy.  You ask, ‘Can the hydrological resources be harnessed?’  Of course they can be, even with whatever is left, but do we realize that there are such resources to harness?


Haque: It is very unfortunate that much of Dhaka’s water resources have vanished and those that still exist are in the process of vanishing. I also believe there is still some hope to save whatever is left. Dhaka could make itself a prime example for deltaic tropical city. Even Louis Kahn, the architect of the capital complex at Dhaka, indicated a possibility of land-water living solution in his last sketches. Water could provide inexpensive transport solution for the city, it could serve as reservoirs for containing monsoon rains, it could provide for valuable protein for the city dwellers by fish farming, and it could help in keeping the underground water table stable by way of percolation. This land-water planning could give Dhaka a very unique feature distinguishing it from the other cities of the world.

Kliment: To what extent is Bangladeshi architectural theory and practice distinct from broader South Asian trends, and what theoretical and practical directions do you anticipate that architecture will take in Bangladesh?


Haque: Historically, architecture in Bangladesh has always been distinctive within the broader framework of South Asia.  The recent years show a different trend.  There is now a tendency to appear more global than local by way of, say, using imported materials even if the relevance of their use is questionable.  The architects in Bangladesh are faced with many issues: the collapse of the existing urban fabric and order due to the pressures of rapid urbanization; the challenge of housing a rapidly growing population that lives in substandard conditions; finding cost effective solutions to building needs; and evolving sustainable models of development. I think architects in Bangladesh work under very extreme professional conditions where the law of the land is yet to recognize the profession. Architects are very small in number compared to the need, and architects have an important role to play in the development of the country.


Ashraf: I don’t know if theory/practice in the region is fundamentally different but it sure can be, and should be, for Dhaka is no Jaipur, and Dhaka is no Lahore.  Dhaka is a city in the delta. No matter how much you globalize, no matter if you build with titanium or platinum, the building paradigm in the delta is still the pavilion—what I call a “machine for living” in a hot-humid milieu—and the theoretical impulse should be to conceive a whole city out of that basic architectural paradigm.  Unfortunately, much of the practice is like in most other places in South Asia, it’s primarily market driven… and theory as a condition for practice, reflection, and much less resistance hardly exists.

Kliment:  Following the release of Nathaniel Kahn's recent film about his father, there has been great and renewed interest in Louis Kahn's capital complex at Dhaka. How do you assess the project's impact on the planning and the culture of Dhaka city twenty years after its completion?


Ashraf: Good question! I would say nothing and a lot.  The city fathers do not care much about the profound significance of the project.  But at the same time, thank god for Kahn’s complex, it is still one of the few redeeming urban spaces in the city.  I don’t mean the architecture particularly, but the matrix of buildings and spaces.  The complex has an intrinsic presence in the life and structure of the city.  It anchors the urbanity of Dhaka in the modern period, and still provides the most compelling model of what I call a Bengali city, how water, trees, buildings and plazas form an urban ensemble.  It’s ironic how a space designed by a Philadelphia architect holds up as the last stronghold of a civic and green space—an urban oasis in a city of relentless greed and wantonness.


Haque: In the summer of 2002, Kazi K. Ashraf and I organized an exhibition at the National Museum on the making of Kahn’s capital complex at Dhaka. The overwhelming response received from both the press and the general public was totally an unexpected thing for us. Well, it’s known that the Parliament is a popular place in Dhaka, but we were not sure that people would take so much interest in knowing the history, particularly the design history.  The commissioning of Louis Kahn to design the capital complex is one of the most important events in the history of modern Dhaka.  The construction of the capital complex coincided with the movement of the Bangalee nation for self-determination. As the parliament building rose from the ground, the Bangalee nation also united in a mass uprising to see an end to military autocracy.  The construction of the complex might have formed a very abstract picture of nation building and the struggle for democracy in the minds of the Bangalees, and it attained a symbolic value.  The government after independence took great interest in seeing to the continuity of Kahn’s work in Dhaka, and the preparation of plans for an additional 2000 acres of land for the expansion of the city was also entrusted to Kahn. Kahn’s death in 1974, and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, brought an end to this heroic attempt at developing Dhaka as a modern metropolis. Since then, Dhaka has floundered with piecemeal and short term planning exercises, and as a city has continued to slide into anarchy. Even areas within Louis Kahn’s master plan were not spared wanton construction activity, not to mention the areas around it. But the good thing is that there is now a greater interest from the people in the complex, and there is a demand for declaring Louis Kahn’s work a national heritage site.