Published in Bengal Stream: The Vibrant Architecture Scene of Bangladesh, edited by Niklaus Graber, Andreas Ruby and Viviane Ehrensberger (Christoph Merian Verlag, 2017).
Bangladesh played a critical role in the history of mid modern architecture but it is a story that is poorly narrated and also less known. The building of the new city Chandigarh in India, planned and designed by Le Corbusier, and the parliament complex of Sherebanglanagar in Dhaka, designed by Louis Kahn, had a profound impact on the trajectory of modern architecture in the 1960s as it swayed between corporatization and banality.
Louis Kahn’s work in Dhaka, Bangladesh, played a key role in the evolution of modernism towards more humanistic dimensions. His engagement with some of the taboo topics of modernism – landscape and geography, spirituality and sacrality – found inspiration and reciprocal significance in Bangladesh. While the robust geometry of Kahn’s Capital Complex has received greater attention from architects and critics, with some hesitant acknowledgment of architecture’s psycho-spiritual dimensions, it’s urban and landscape themes remain largely unexplored.
It should also be recalled – another story that is also poorly known – that starting in the eighteenth century, a major architectural idea emerged from Bangladesh (known as Bengal then) that eventually became a global paradigm of dwelling: the bungalow. The production and circulation of the bungalow type followed the English adaptation of the bangla, the rural hut of Bengal, as a climatic paradigm for the tropics. As an intersection of ecology and sociology, there was much to learn from the primal bangla hut. A techno-utilitarian aspect generated from the diminutive bangla hut subsequently informed the content of modern “tropical architecture,” and its metrics of comfort and wellbeing.
Early modern architecture in Bangladesh, in the works of the pioneering modernist architect Muzharul Islam (1923-2012), was framed primarily by meteorological and ecological themes, befitting topics of the tropics, and an utilitarian ethic that coincided with post-colonial nation-building. Following Muzharul Islam’s seminal projects in the 1950s, examples of a “tropical modernism” were realized in the works of Constantine Doxiadis, Robert Bouighy, Paul Rudolph, Richard Neutra, Stanley Tigerman, and other foreign architects working in then Bangladesh. While all these works established the language of a new architecture, they also heralded an early version of sustainable ethic that combined climate, ecology and functionalism in which an argument for “regionalist” architecture was framed in a climatic logic – angle of the sun, direction of the wind, measures of thermal comfort, and material propriety.
The pavilion paradigm
While the pavilion model was central in developing the ideas of “tropical architecture,” and the subsequent discourse of “architectural regionalism,” it also underlined the fact that the pavilion type is not to be considered as an isolated object but rather in its intimate intertwining with its setting and landscape.
In a series of essays written since 1987, I noted that with “the paralysis of a Bengali architectural sensibility in the last hundred years or so, it has become morally imperative and culturally urgent that a significant section of contemporary architecture in Bangladesh be “archaeological,” that is, excavate from the historical layers of contradictory and imposed ideologies [produced in colonial encounters] a more “place-responsive” architecture. An archaeological inquiry was not propositioned in the sense of uncovering fossils, nor as a way of trips to exotica, but rather with the objective of restoring cultural archetypes which still have deep existential significance, and be a beginning for fresh trajectories.”
I also argued that revisiting the pavilion-like hut, the bangla, was central to understanding what constituted a recurrent type-form in the Bengal Delta. The Bengali hut-type is a primal pavilion, a machine for living in a hot-humid milieu. There are broader implications of the pavilion structure, particularly in the relationship between architecture and “nature.” By turning its walls permeable, the pavilion-form makes the distinction between exterior and interior ambiguous. Unlike the intention of shutting out the elements as in the interiorized courtyard-houses of hot-arid places, and the sealed-off spaces of colder climates, the pavilion is completely with the atmosphere. This creates, what Anthony D. King describes, the centrifugal nature of the pavilion house, generating a movement of activity “outward, on to the verandah, and further into the compound.”
To be with the atmosphere translates into a continuum of the external/natural world and the architectural space, and establishing a visual, spatial and sensorial interpenetration of architecture and “nature,” in this case, the deltaic geography. It is for this reason, the Bengali dwelling is always idealized with its setting. The perennial image of the Bengali landscape is that of modest-scaled detached structures amidst foliage and ponds. The pavilion-form need not be considered for only idyllic settings. While it has sustained the idea of dwelling in an agrarian landscape, it can, with analogical translation, be the premise for urban categories (both residential and non-residential), and even whole urban fabrics.
There has been experimentation in recreating the pavilion within a modern and urban vocabulary in the early works of Muzharul Islam. The Art College (1953) and the NIPA Building in Dhaka University (1964) are two distinguished expressions of the pavilion idea, the former as a whole campus and the latter as a building type. An analogical sense of the pavilion can be detected in most notable works of the 1960s, from Stanley Tigerman and Muzharul Islam’s five Polytechique projects to Paul Rudolph’s buildings for the Mymensingh Agricultural University and Robert Bouighy’s Railway Station at Kamlapur. A remarkable report on building in then East Pakistan, produced by Tigerman and Islam, prescribed the constructional, spatial and climatic behavior of buildings in the region.
A later reinterpretation of the pavilion type, resonating with a more compelling regionalist and cultural character, is Bashirul Haq’s village home at Bhatsala in Comilla (1991). The building is a two-storied structure built around an existing courtyard (“uthan”) with older huts. The lower floor of the new building is built in ordinary exposed brick, a heavy mass containing small enclosed rooms. The upper level, on the other hand, is an open skeletal structure forming a partially-canopied airy terrace from where there is a breathtaking view of paddy fields. Even if it employs contemporary methods of construction, the project demonstrates the special sensitivity for working in a rural setting – the existing “uthan” around which the new house is organised, and the village, with its pattern of independent huts, ponds, orchards, pathways, and paddyfields.
The pavilion-form also provides clues to creating complex organization, from simple clusterings to urbanistic fabrics. Clusters could be formed by lining pavilion “units” in a series or grouping around an amorphously interiorized space. A deltaic morphology for rural areas implies the disposition of isolated buildings in a fabric of paddyfields, gardens, orchards, lakes and ponds. Notable projects that thoughtfully tackle the issue of grouping with such a milieu in mind are the SOS Village in Dhaka by Raziul Ahsan (1984), the Herman Gmeiner Centre in Khulna by Uttam Kumar Saha (1986), the BRAC Centre in Faridpur by Saif Ul Haque and Jalal Ahmad (1993), and the “Bacchte Shekha” Centre by Saif Ul Haque (1994).
Saif Ul Haque has been particularly attentive to the placing and grouping of his buildings, designed for and built mostly in a rural context. He has developed a theme for organising his complexes that appears to be an extrapolation of the familiar rambling village homesteads but redefined in a disciplined architectural format. The complexes are formed by a fabric of buildings and spaces in which different independent volumes are arrayed around interlocking courtyards, some of which are enclosed and some semi-enclosed. The new fabric is sometimes intimately engaged with existing ponds and orchards. One can meander from one area to another through a variety of spatial experiences that are further heightened by semi-traditional architectural elements. The deliberately subdued nature of the elements, the intimate texture of materials, and the modulation of light and shadow also give a sense of belongingness, a feeling of “having been there.”
Dhaka as a theorem
While the pavilion-form provided a tool for engagement for architects in rural or open areas, the challenge lay elsewhere. What would be a greater issue, something that has not yet been taken up substantially, is to consider the pavilion-form in the dense and complex matrix of the city. And no narrative of Bangladesh is complete without Dhaka in the story.
Dhaka is a deltaic city where water forms a delicate nexus. Symptomatic of most cities located in powerful hydrological milieux but undergoing furious urbanization, planning practices have succumbed to the regime of a dry ideology. Since the 1960s, a new development ethos has prevailed in the organization of cities in that part of the delta. Landfills, embankments, bridges and roadways have supported the technology and ideology of a dry culture, pitting the city against the moisture-laden delta. Conventional urban planning has basically become the production of land, or manufacture of dryness. Much of the current crises of Dhaka, especially the perception of lack of land, stems from the inability to incorporate the processes of a dynamic aquatic landscape into planning thinking and action. In the meantime, water is pushed away, disastrously, through large-scale engineering operations in the form of embankments and landfills in which strategic terms such “land-use” continues to privilege the production of dryness.
From the heart of the present city, Dhaka and the delta appear as two separate entities, antithetical and stranger to each other. Fed on dry ideas, planners and policy-makers remain befuddled about envisioning or even managing a city in such a nuanced terrain; any deliberation begins with an assumption that such a watery behavior is unreliable to the city and must be resisted. In the horizon of the contemporary city, the delta does not even appear in the consciousness until a deluge comes, with clockwork, seasonally and unmistakably. In the schism between dry and wet, dominant planning practices have not only obscured immersive world-views but also enforced a kind of limiting measure on an otherwise prodigious and unruly landscape that a delta represents, whether it be the Gangetic, the Mekong or the Mississippi. How to find a contemporary relevance for such a fluid dynamic? That is the challenge for architects in Bangladesh.
A deltaic geography is an immense force of nature. Borne out of the hydrological chemistry of rivers, land in the delta is formed primarily by silt deposits, that is constantly shaped and reshaped by the rivers and their distributaries, which themselves are perpetually shifting and changing. This dynamic gives the land an amorphous nature, and characterizes the region’s climate, topography, ecology, and sociology. Floods and overflow impart to this landscape a corrugation of flat plains, ponds, muddy enclaves and “lowlands,” all of which constitute a topography of habitation and occupation. In a great alchemy that is both mystical and cosmogonic, land-forms rise in an annual rhythm in unexpected waters, and inaugurates a new micro universe. In such an excruciatingly flat terrain, a few centimeters matter in defining what is wet and what is dry, as the ‘delta urbanist’ Kelly Shannon observes, and often the ground is water.
In the delta, the householder knows how to build a house on a mound next to a pond, or how to tether the house to a slope, a farmer knows when to plant his crop of mustard or eggplant, what variety of rice paddy at the onset of the monsoon or during, the farmer knows how to become a fisherman when the water does not recede, and the villager knows “the river is now an empty vessel, and they cannot cast their nets.” Such a water ethos structures the social and territorial landscape from the delta of Bangladesh to the Chao Praya in Thailand and the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Water cascading down from upland mountains brings pulverized remains to the flat flood-plains in the form of sand, silt and mud, depositing them in an unpredictable geometry of land-forms and waterways. In this complex choreography of land and water, delicate chars – land formation induced by the dynamics of soil-shifts and water flows appear one year to disappear the next, while more or less stabilized ones become sites of settlement. A char is thus a reminder of an earlier turn of a river and deposition of silt to form the new land-mass, demonstrating a geo-hydrological process in action. The char eventually offers a rich, arable land upon which grows a spontaneous settlement integrating habitation and occupation. It’s a landscape in motion that thwarts conventional parameters of city building and architecture, in which site is hardly given or is reliable, and the architectural foundation is literally shaken or melted. Borne out of a fluid dynamic, in which the place-form is more important than object-forms, chars pose a conceptual challenge to the imagination of landscape norms, and to the relation between architecture and landscape.
Embracing water and wetness is a natural consequence of the deltaic milieu. From folk culture to modern literature, chars, lowlands and riverbanks continue to circulate as geographic sites of reference in the vastly “rural” Bengali imagination. But what of the city? In its positioning as a bastion of dryness, the contemporary city has not cooperated with the delta. Can the phenomenon of chars be instructive for a wet city?
Present Dhaka is being built from the fluid fabric of its surrounds. In Dhaka’s inexorable expansion from its relatively higher grounds into the precious region of floodplains, wetlands and “lowlands,” vast aquatic areas are being furiously filled up by a powerful coterie of developers in an unprecedented scale of urbanistic intervention. Every hour, as part of the operation, barges on various rivers and rivulets girdling Dhaka carry sand and soil from one location to deposit on another – typically, on a “lowland” that is marked for dry development with landfills eventually parceled off as building lots. In another method, an array of steel pipes, sometimes miles long, pump sand and silt from a river location onto a landfill site. This is the human version of landscape in motion.
And, it is precisely at this juncture, the edge, where the expansion of the city meets an aquatic matrix, a new kind of city-think is needed. What should be the perimeter of the city in such a nexus? How will the two sides of this fluid edge be planned? Dhaka cannot grow infinitely in every other direction, swallowing up wetlands and agricultural land with mind-numbing speed, and throwing off balance a precious ecological and hydrological system. If not, then, how will be the population growth and the appetite for urban land solved? The brilliance for urban designers and planners will be to show, in the framework of a wet urbanism, that growth can be addressed by sustaining and enhancing the city’s crucial hydro-geographic system.
Building with the Land
If architects in Bangladesh were to take on a distinctive challenge today, it will have to be around a (hydro-)geographic theme, which is also deeply connected to future forms of cities and settlements in Bangladesh. While many successful practices are able to prove their forte in dealing with new global and urban types, and complex programs, it is to the persuasive wave of landscaped themed projects that one must turn to for a new phase.
A perennial image of the Bengali landscape is that of modest-scaled detached structures tucked among foliage and ponds, in the larger background of rivers and ricefields. Such a scenario seems apt for a theoretical understanding of architecture as part of an environmental continuum. Going beyond the picturesque relationship between building and landscape, a new design intelligence is needed to address contentious and critical issues of the deltaic landscape: climate change, flood and flux, agricultural milieu, and social imbalance generated by the flux.
Responding to the alluvial land, Kahn had earlier intuited that in Bangladesh one is required to be a “land architect.” While Kahn did not work out the idea systematically, he did indicate an architecture whose language will be conditioned by the physics of the delta – the mutuality of land and water, the malleability of earth, and precariousness of dwelling.
Bangladesh’s hydro-geographical terrain changed Kahn’s own attitude towards the relationship between architecture and landscape. It’s a lesson Kahn adopted in his inimitable way and then abstracted as a broader philosophical principle that traveled to his other works. It is to Kahn’s meditation on “how the buildings are to take their place” on the wetlands of Dhaka that one may locate the origin of the new wave of geography-responsive architecture.
Working in Bangladesh in the 1960s, Kahn intuited that in Bangladesh one is required to be a “land architect,” by far the most insightful understanding of doing architecture in the delta. While Kahn did not work out the idea systematically, except to note that the perennial building principle has been to dig-and-mound, what is hinted here is a thought for an architecture whose siting and forming are both conditioned by the physics of the delta – the mutuality of land and water, the malleability of earth, and the tentativeness of dwelling.
In the delta, the most elemental but profound act of building is the “bhita,” the raising or moulding of the ground to prepare a stage for dwelling, a solid earth platform on which the house rises. The SOS Village in Bogra is a most thoughtful and poetic elaboration of the “bhita.” Raziul Ahsan’s SOS Children’s Village in Bogra (1994), a remarkable essay on placing and siting, where buildings sit effortlessly with the land without having to cry out “Look, I am architecture...,” and yet offer a rich variety of compelling experiences. The architect, Raziul Ahsan, was working, in his random methods, on some of the most poignant themes of our architecture.
The Bogra complex consists of a school and houses for orphaned children, along with residences for staff. The first significant thing about the complex is that the huts, conceived of as simple brick structures with CI sheet roofing, are laid out on the site in a deliberate irregular manner. The overall arrangement is determined by the idea that architecture operates beyond a building, in this case, by the visual logic and kinesthetic dynamics of moving in and around the site. Moreover, the whole land of the site – the “bhita” – is reshaped into a completely new landscape of terraces, platforms, mounds, embankments, steps, and ramps. Passages and walkways are woven onto that created landscape. As Ahsan himself described, it is a “fantastic” landscape intended to take the inhabitants, the little children of the Village, into imaginative and wondrous journeys. The irregular layout of the buildings and the undulated land-form give a new expression to the concern for a land ethics. When many are quite happy treating a site simply as a flat base, Raziul Ahsan, while keeping the buildings rather straightforward, concentrated on the land-form, converting it into a complex and reconstructed topography. What was also evident in Ahsan’s project was a new attitude of archaeological humility and geological impulse.
In a more recent project, Kashef Mahbub Chowdhury’s Friendship Center in Gaibandha suggests land modulation as an architectural strategy in which a matted building complex with pavilions and courtyards is enframed by an “embankment” to keep the flood water out. Built on a flood-plain as a training center for people living in vulnerable areas, the project speaks of a new landscape-form even if it presents with the embankment a subdued opposition to the surrounding flood-plains.
Various projects, from social engagements to architectural and quasi-architectural creations, indicate new, innovative responses to the aquatic terrain. Bypassing the conventions of city generated forms, these projects are “soft” by their nature and comportment, and suggest a new language of quietude and commitment to social well-being.
A correspondence between boats and buildings seems to be an obvious answer to the diluvial delta. For his much featured educational and social program with floating schools, Mohammed Rezwan converted boats into classrooms that ply to where the students live if they are unable to come to school. Solar powered electricity and computer based education support the arrangement. Yves Marre and Runa Khan, of Friendship, have contributed considerably to restoring the disappearing culture and technology of boat building. In an economic environment in which developmental programs are dictated by the norms of a “dry” culture, a renewed attention to boats goes a long way. Springing from the deep riverine culture of the delta, in which boats have played a key part, restoring and reintroducing some of those beautiful boats may bring about a new ethic and appreciation of water-based practices.
For a special school on a flood-plain outside Dhaka, Saif Ul Haque has created a floating but anchored platform on which simple bamboo woven walls and roofs form a series of classrooms. Unfazed by volumetric flamboyance, the architectural language is one of restraint and adaptation. For a modest arrangement, the school is an important experiment on how to deal with the flux of water and not push it away, and how to carry on life when the water arrives.
Khondaker Hasibul Kabir has been carefully crafting a language of landscape arrangement in which ecology is the fundament of an aesthetic operation. In his “getaway” outside Dhaka, called “Jolo-Jongol,” Kabir has composed a cooperative landscape in which all elements participate in a delicate symphony, with none overwhelming the other. Buildings – more like lean-tos – become deliberately non-descript and unassuming as if they had been either always there or on the verge of dissolution; they straddle the edge of a wetland in precarious poise. In his now demolished “bamboo platform” in a slum in Dhaka city, Kabir arranged a similar situation in which an almost invisible architecture, garden, and community assembly sent a quiet challenge to the city’s rowdy building culture.
At a more speculative and projective level, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf and his team at Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements are engaged in large-scale operations with water as a structural and organizational presence in the delta. Involved with urbanscape plans for Dhaka as well various small towns, Bengal Institute is defining the scope of the urban task as well as reassigning new significance to small towns.
With its aquatic-geological formation – in flux – and projected consequences of environmental changes, the organization of land, water and settlements takes on an urgency that is unique to Bangladesh. Settlements patterns, architectural types, and socio-economic life-world, that are dynamically inter-connected, also confront new conditions raised by accelerated economic, environmental and social transformations. It is frequently heard that: “Dhaka is the toughest city in the world.” “Bangladesh is symptomatic of the gravest environmental challenges.” It is in the neighborhood of such pronouncements that the Bengal Institute team finds necessary to rethink the scope of environmental design, and its pedagogy and practices.
With Bangladesh as a theorem for ecological actions, Bengal Institute thinks that the architectural agenda needs to go beyond problem solving and form creation in which the architectural task should extend its sights to the intellectual, ethical and creative issues facing the futures of human habitats. The question of systemic and integrated “landscapes,” whether as habitats or place-forms, agricultural fabrics, flood plains, or natural wetlands, is at the center of new investigations and imaginations at the Institute, and form the theoretical core of a new design intelligence.
Motivations for this new architectural agenda are more about “place-form” rather than spectacular objects. It also becomes evident that developing this design intelligence requires a new kind of knowledge base, training and orientation that will uncover the original intimacy between architecture, habitation and landscape. In a sense, this new approach considered at Bengal Institute reveals a deeper coupling of the pavilion-form and landscape-form conflating the conventional boundary between architecture and landscape.