Published in the catalog of the exhibition on house by Timmy Aziz, “9 ½: House, Time and Memory,” Dhaka, 2017.
Despite the enormous evolution of its form and nature, and the fact that it is with us from an immemorial time, or as long as we have been “humans,” the house remains both a conundrum and inspiration to contemporary architects. We are still nowhere near in resolving the enigma of the house; it is a phenomenon that has not gone away, a “problem” that has not been resolved, and an issue that does not necessarily take us forward resolutely in the modernist spirit without making us look back. It is still in fact a traction that makes us pause and reflect. No wonder that there is a relation between the words “dwelling” and “delaying.”
In the proliferation of “house” types, in the form of flats, apartments and villas, all of which provide fanciful design fodder for architects in Dhaka, the theme of the house project remains unanswered. Few architects have been able to re-enter the ancient precinct of house and home, in the sense invoked in our times by Martin Heidegger (with that powerful notion of “dwelling”), Gaston Bachelard (with his poetic meditation on the nooks and crannies of the primordial house), and Joseph Rykwert (the house as fundamentally an idea).
Of all the enigmas in architecture, one’s own mother’s house is the most challenging for an architect. If the house project makes us pause and delay, and the mother’s house directs us to secret niches that are both primal and primary, Timmy Aziz was willing to take that on in the design for his mother’s house. Designed in 1991, the house was built as part of an existing ensemble on a plot in Dhanmondi residential area, the first piece being constructed in 1969.
For Timmy Aziz, a double bind persisted in the design of his mother’s house. There was first of all the filial obligation, or rather the matri-filial compulsion nurtured through memory, care, attachment, and recollection. All those create the affective measures of space resonating with the most ancient of human emotionalia – the “mother-infant dyad,” as Aziz quotes the American psychologist Allan Schore.
I recall an article from the New Yorker on an owner-chef of a restaurant in Istanbul who would travel early in the morning to nearby villages to gather fresh ingredients for his kitchen. One day, he walked into a small eatery in a village, and ordered a meal. As he started to eat, he could not stop himself from crying. The meal, the flavor, and the taste, were exactly like the ones his departed mother prepared when he was a child. While it is easy to dismiss this as a subjective narrative (although the chef then planned a new restaurant based on his mother’s recipes), such encounters can become stuff of architecture as the house for Aziz’s mother demonstrates.
Memory is a complex tissue in the fabric of human lives. Activated or dormant, explicit or embedded, memory is the central cue in the design of one’s own mother’s house. At one level, the house in Dhanmondi activates Aziz’s own memory of living with his mother and grandfather in an earlier house in Nilkhet, and at another level, the house also whispers of his mother’s memory from that earlier house. In the true meaning of the word “tradition,” from the Latin tra-da, a gift from one generation to another, such a generational transfer of memory may re-describe a house as a kind of a relay race. It is from that non-verbal palimpsest that one proceeds towards the material construction of the house.
The other part of the double bind has to do with the material stuff, the status of the house in the larger repertory of architecture: the history, typology and morphology of the house produced from the material culture of the place, in short, the architectural culture of Bangladesh.
In writing about Timmy Aziz’s mother’s house some twenty years ago, right after the house was completed, I tried to place it as a contemporary interpretation of the Bangla pavilion. I had then just discovered a miniature painting from Rajasthan titled the “Bangla Ragini” that depicted a yogi seated in a pavilion-like structure that had somewhat of an elaborate roof on four columns but without walls; the setting of the pavilion was clearly in a damp, moist and botanically luxurious landscape as Bengal. Labeling the pavilion as a “machine for dwelling in a hot humid climate,” I described the ambiguous relationship between exterior and interior forming a kind of kinship with the landscape. I argued that the pavilion model, as inscribed in the “Bangla Ragini,” formed a typological ideal for architecture in Bangladesh. When built in actuality, a pure pavilion without walls was not possible. The challenge for all Bengali builders has been to approximate the open quality of the wall-less house with varieties of options: perforated, latticed, or screened walls.
I was drawn to Aziz’s house because of the transformation of a solid load-bearing wall into a perforated screen. Timmy Aziz writes on the wall: “I had begun to explore how perforating external, load-bearing brick walls would allow the movement of light and air into and through the house. First of all, this would allow a vertical 2-3 storey house to acquire an organic openness of inside and outside; a spatial quality that I recalled from the horizontal spaces of Nilkhet.” Two conditions are noticeable: first, the perforations are articulated through ceramic tubes fabricated by Aziz in collaboration with ceramics artist Abu Sayeed Talukdar, and large screens developed from traditional wind ventilators, and second, the perforations allowed for a “constant dialogue with the outside,” a quality that his mother recalled from the earlier house she lived in as a child herself in the Nilkhet area of the city.
“The interior of the Nilkhet house,” Aziz recalls, “was in a constant dialogue with the outside. Sounds from the outside heard deep inside the house, the sounds of people, animals or smell of the weather permeated our rooms, the sensation of material and light, and contrast of rough and smooth surfaces remained in my mind but not the location of where it was felt. Qualities rather than physical properties were the stuff of memories, of affect.” It is in the recollection of that atmosphere and sensation permeating the mother’s house that a larger universe emerges, literally “a Bengali flow of space and time.”