Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


The National Capital Complex: Louis I. Kahn’s Architecture in Dhaka

May, 1994

Text in Louis Kahn: National Capital in Bangladesh, edited and photographed by Yukio Futagawa, GA 73 (Tokyo, 1994). An earlier version of the essay was presented at a paper at the conference “Shere-E-Bangla Nagar: Dhaka Capital Complex,” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1991.



Louis Kahn’s Capital Complex at Dhaka is an epic work. Next to Chandigarh it is the most important landmark to influence the architectural destiny of the region. In the Assembly Building of the Complex, major architectural streams, Roman, Renaissance, Mughal and Modern, seem to have converged – not in a synthesis but as a palimpsest – in one single architectural event. Well beyond its immediate architectonics, but primarily through it, and long before its programmatic purpose, the Assembly Building took on a haunting presence in the natural and cultural landscape of Bangladesh. Recalling both celestial and terrestrial energies in its architectural organism, and tapping the depth of Bengali dreams and mythologies, the Assembly emerged from land and water as a kind of cosmic phenomenon. Like an epic, which is no longer of its time, but of a cosmic time, and time and time again, it spoke of essential things, things around which life coheres and seeks meaning.


Eluding categorical statements of economic and cultural impropriety often made by some critics, the Complex continues to provoke an inspirational dialogue on the fundamental nature of architecture and human institutions. The significance of the Capital Complex has become inextricably linked with the national and political struggle of the Bengalis. Long before its functional occupation as a political “citadel,” the Assembly Building became inscribed in the collective mind, paradoxically through its ‘ruinous’ image, as an emblem of things to come. This is often not comprehensible outside the Bengali domain, and whether Kahn participated in this is open to question, yet it is possible that Kahn’s contemplations on architecture, especially the idea of Assembly as an Institution arising out of the fundamental desires of man, and consequently meeting as the origin of the city, found in Dhaka a coincidental meaningfulness. Between Kahn’s ensemble and the Bengali collectivity, there arose an unforeseeable empathy.


Known as Sherebanglanagar, the Capital Complex is situated on an 1000-acre site, originally a farmland to the northern outskirts of the old city of Dhaka but now engulfed by a burgeoning metropolis. The Complex is constituted by the Assembly group in the south, the unbuilt Secretariat in the north, the hospital group in the northwest, and government housing around the Secretariat site – it is the Assembly group that forms the focus of the Complex. Set in the midst of brick buildings, public spaces, lakes, gardens and park, the Assembly building crowns the group by the gravity of its presence and its sculptural architectonics; it faces a public Plaza to the south and the more formal Presidential Square to the north. This southern group, earlier called the Citadel of Assembly, was set up at the end of a north-south axis, the other end formed by the Citadel of Institutions that included programs for “well-being,” like a stadium, a museum, recreational buildings and markets. After the independence of Bangladesh, the northern Citadel was replaced in the master plan by the Secretariat, conceived as a 2100-feet long brick building as the center of bureaucracy of a national government.


Kahn received the commission for the project in 1962, and continued design until his death in 1974. Construction continued slowly, often with interruptions, but was substantially finished, at least as far as the Assembly group goes, by 1982. The project was initiated in a way by the improbable status of Pakistan, a nation divided both physically and culturally into two regions. The decision to make a ‘second’ capital at Dhaka in the eastern region (East Pakistan), and to install the National Parliament there, was taken in 1959 not out of a reverence for democratic institutions but as a bid to placate the growing discontent among the Bengalis against the hegemonic motives of western Pakistan. This would eventually lead in 1971 to the bloody onslaught on Bengalis by western Pakistan and the subsequent independence of the eastern province as Bangladesh.


By the early 1960s Kahn’s complex architectural inheritances seem well-known. Genealogical analyses point to the Beaux-Arts foundation, the Roman and Egyptian inspiration, a Piranesian fascination and the French connection, but often overlooking other major and minor tracts, for example, an affinity for Baroque plasticity, the architecture of Persia and Central Asia, and forms of castles and fortifications. At Dhaka, Kahn can no longer be contained within a single stream, and neither can his architectural form be explained only by historical linkages. If he is Roman, he is Mughal too. If he is modern, he is also primordial, and if he is a twentieth century architect, he is also an esoteric alchemist. Kahn’s work at that stage bypasses straightforward criticisms of the tyranny of its geometry and the misconnections with the here and now. Vincent Scully notes that “his later buildings have normally remained eloquent expressions of space and structure that invoke traditional stabilities and are unconcerned with any symbolism of the immediate present or with the technology or the ambiguities of contemporary life.” Kahn proposed his own ambiguous dimension, the significance of which lies in the difficult co-existence of past and present, synchronous and diachronic, measurable and immeasurable, and by which, as Mario Bottero argues, Kahn managed to open a breach in the closed circuits of Wright’s organicism and European rationalism. By the early 60s, Kahn was poised for his great alchemical performance; he was ready to stir the depths of silence.


During the same time, Kahn found little success in the United States with the kind of architecture he was developing. The response that was not forthcoming in the United States came from Bangladesh and India. In Dhaka and Ahmedabad, “he found ambitions that were large enough and support that was deep enough to build on a scale nearly equal to his vision, despite the limited resources of his clients.” Kahn’s commitment to the projects in the subcontinent in turn was extraordinary; Dhaka was particularly special to him. What Charles Correa had to say about Le Corbusier in India is equally true for Kahn: Bangladesh was lucky to receive Kahn as Kahn was to receive Bangladesh.



The natural and cultural landscape of Bengal complements the understanding of the Capital Complex. There is a degree of connection, often surreptitious and subliminal, between Kahn and Bangladesh (Bengal in the larger cultural sense) which is very much unexplored.


Bengal is located, geo-culturally, at the edge of two worlds. On the one hand, it has always been considered within the orbit of the larger Indian culture extending as far back as Sanskritic India. The orbit has also moved towards Persia, Arabia, and ultimately Europe, creating a western connection seen in most areas of explicit culture: language, liturgies, institutions, and the laws. On the other hand, at a level that can be termed variously as archaic, primordial or foundational, there is an irreducible stratum that delinks Bengal from its western appendage and thrust it towards the east, towards the matrix of “rice culture.”


This matrix suggests a specific way of being-in-the-world, to be precise, being-in-the-delta. The Bengal delta is a pure chemistry of land and water, an excruciatingly flat terrain formed by one of the most dynamic river systems of the world. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra while pouring into the plains weave the incredible land-water mesh that has formed not only the life-providing richness of the soil (and its terror) but also the spiritual milieu to which one is still bound. In this milieu, the cultivation of rice is an existential occupation: the production of rice becomes the production of a world-view. This implies a special relationship with the cycles of nature, with the rivers, the rain, the overwhelming presence of water, with silt, with day, and the dense vegetation. All life-orienting rituals, folk stories and devotional creations echo this experience.


The entrenchment of Kahn’s ideas in the modern Bengali domain is not something strange: it was anticipated in the intellectual climate created by the 19th century movement called the “Bengal Renaissance.” Rabindranath Tagore, as the most important figure of the movement, articulated the dilemmas of the face-to-faceness of modernity and tradition, of East and West, of India and Europe, and of the local and the universal. Kahn, being a member of the Tagore Society in Philadelphia in the 1950s, probably knew Tagore's work. There is, in any case, a great correspondence between Kahn and Tagore, particularly in the idea of what constitutes the human and where the creative personality of humanity lies. Tagore was to say that “men must find and feel and represent in all their creative works Man the eternal, the creator. Their civilization is a continual discovery of the transcendental humanity.” For Tagore, art is humanity: it is that biological surplus, emanating as “luminous imagination,” that characterizes the humanity of man, as for Kahn “art is man’s only real language since it strives to communicate in a way that reveals the ‘human,’ and that the ‘will to be’ in a man is really the ‘will to be to express.’ ”


If the task of rational and philosophic thinking is to dispel mystery, the purpose of mythic thinking is to deepen its depth. As poetic personalities, both Tagore and Kahn tapped the mythological consciousness to arrive at the gate of mystery, at the nexus of Silence and Light, of the measurable and the immeasurable. The mythic also crosses path with the poetic; for, the poetic image, as Gaston Bachelard writes, “stirs the depth before it scratches the surface.” From the standpoint of Indian aesthetics, this is experientially a fleeting discontinuity in the existence in profane time whereby an irruption of the extraordinary (alaukika) occurs. Kahn would claim this as wonder “which brought about the desire to learn, the profundity of which lay at the threshold of where the unmeasurable and the measurable met,” for “it is from the sense of the incredible that all man’s desire to make and establish comes.”


In the intensely spiritual atmosphere of Bengal, a spirituality that cannot be approached by official religions alone, the creative experience of the extraordinary has been homologized with the ecstasy of quasi-sacred experiences leading to what has been called “the deification of aesthetics.” This phenomenon persists in most twentieth century creative productions, including Tagore's, maintaining for art a highly spiritual significance.



The beginning of the project has a biblical undertone. In narrating his struggle with the design, Kahn mentions that on the third day of dwelling on it, he fell out of bed and conceived the idea that assembly is of a transcendent nature. More intriguing ontologically is the question he had posed earlier: “How the buildings are to take their place on the land?” This two-fold theme – the transcendent nature of assembly and the way buildings are to take their place on the land – becomes Kahn’s primary reflection on the project and the basis for the architecture. The first part stems from Kahn's contemplation on the nature of architecture, especially the understanding of architectural form as an aspect of immeasurable “Form” considered autonomous from the vagaries of circumstances. This sense of Form may seem to correspond with Platonic Idea, on the one hand, and archetype in a Jungian sense, on the other hand. If Form involves Kahn’s quest for the significance of architecture beyond local specificities, the second part, a much less talked about aspect, is more about establishing, abstracting and revealing the particularities of a specific locale, and intensifying the experience of its landscape and natural milieu. The scope of the artifact to reveal the landscape is the breach in the closed circuits of Wrightian harmony and Rationalist contrast between building and nature that begins with Salk Institute and the Atlantic, and is continued up to Kimbell and Texas, but finds its most cogent expression at Sherebanglanagar.


During his very first trip to Bangladesh in 1963, Kahn recognized certain qualities of the land and of building. He made few sketches on a river cruise that record his impressions of the overwhelming presence of water in the land; he was to say that in Bengal one does “architecture of the land.” Kahn also conceptualized building in the delta as a “dig and build” process that results in an earth mound on which the building is placed; the excavated pit becomes a pond. Besides observing “the religious way of life of the people,” Kahn noted, “The two elements of nature most pervasive in the landscape of East Pakistan are water and vegetation. They almost assert their presence. The examples of intelligent cooperation with these pervasive elements of water and vegetation in some of the best examples of Mughal Garden Architecture has been a great inspiration to me.”


The overall plan was conceived as two aggregations set on a north-south axis separated by gardens and lakes and ordered by a diagonally of architectural figures and roadways, within which varieties of changes and alternatives were studied. The configuration of the southern group – the Citadel of Assembly – took a centralized volume flanked by smaller attending forms, and the northern group a vast courtyard-like space around which smaller groups of buildings were arranged (a plan that shaped the Ahmedabad project). On the flat plain, the Citadel of Assembly assumed a mountainous topography with the Assembly Building as the highest peak consonant with Kahn’s conceit of an originating marker and an axis mundi. Kahn was to note: “The simple structures of shelter seem like the markers only of a dominating desire to establish a claim out of the vastness of the land, a place from where to dream of anticipated enterprise full of the promise of a kingdom where the house or the castle yet is not in the mind.”


Although Kahn began with the idea that “the house of legislation is a religious place,” his early sketches show a triangular relationship of the assembly, the mosque and the supreme court: a diagonally placed cubic assembly aligned with the supreme court with a free-standing pyramid-shaped mosque between the two. But, primarily it was the juxtaposition of the assembly hall and the mosque that gave meaning to the Assembly: it became the locus for the articulation of the sacred and the religious.


Their relationship – from separate equipoised status to the subordination of the mosque as a skewed prayer hall to the assembly whose iconography oscillates between fortification towers and the quatrefoil form of Sultanate mosques – is more than architectonics. Metaphorically, it is a dialectic between the sacred and the religious, between the mythic and the historical. This has acute relevance in Bangladeshi social dynamics as attested by the continuing tension between autochthonous spirituality and Islamic religiosity.


From the very beginning, the form-diagram of the assembly proceeded with the theme of centrality and concentricity. The centralized plan started predictably – within a taut orthogonal geometry, the main assembly chamber occupied the center ringed by smaller subservient spaces of various offices, meeting rooms, cafeterias, etc. In a progressive development as the plan also took a mandalic formation, elements of the outer ring gradually became detached from the main volume and gained figural autonomy; that is, the taut geometry was transformed into a Baroque play of concavity and convexity. The central volume was also increasingly articulated within the rings of an ambulatory apace and “hollow columns;” it irrupted into the skyline peering through gigantic perforations towards the city and the horizon. This simultaneous attraction and repulsion between the center and the periphery, and the autonomy and integration of the figures became the ordering principle. In its planimetric and sectional iconography, as has been claimed, an immediate genetic connection can be made with centralized Mughal monuments, as can be made with various Renaissance structures, and a number of Bengali temples. Imperial and Piranesian Rome served as the precedent for the connective system between various forms, and for the inspiration of the forms themselves, particularly the Baths of Caracalla, as Kahn himself points to, and the Domus Aurea, among others.


Kahn's own pre-history anticipates to a considerable degree the architecture of the Complex; it appears as if all of Kahn's earlier works were directed towards a conclusive moment at Dhaka. For example, the Unitarian Church at Rochester (the early version) strongly suggests the form-diagram of the Assembly. The double wall in the outer ring of the Assembly and in the brick buildings was explored earlier in two ways, as a climatic screen for the U.S. Consulate in Luanda, and as a second enveloping geometry at the Salk meeting house. The hollow “columns” of light – as a triangular shaft girdling the assembly chamber and the ambulatory, and as corner turrets of the prayer hall – has a more complicated history; it began as Kahn's reflection on Greek columns and as the expression of “servant” space at the Bath House in Trenton, but ultimately connected to Kahn's life-long preoccupation to integrate light, space and structure.


There are however moments specific to Dhaka. The horizontal and vertical band of marble, stratifying the wall of the Assembly and monumentalizing the seam between two poured concrete walls, is a human inscription; it both shows and exploits the scope of local construction techniques. The fabrication also resembles the white marble inlays of Mughal monuments, and to some, the lithified form of bamboo-framed walls. Besides the dimensional control of distance and access, the architecture of water confirms a thematic use in many Bengali honorific buildings, from mosques and temples to feudal palaces.


Brick construction is an ancient tradition of the region, the terra-cotta color brick building amidst a deep-green foliage and neighbored by a dank tank of water provides a perennial image of the Bengali landscape. Kahn tapped this to new heights. He remarked: “I changed the buildings from their original design in concrete to that of brick, honoring thereby the advice that brick would prove to be more economical. Though I first resisted this change, I have now discovered, in the development of the design, some beautiful shapes that are true to the order of brickwork.” All structures other than the assembly building were constructed in brick. The order of this brick architecture – the geometry of the form, the architectonics of shadows, the earth-hugging ambiance, but particularly the “invention” of the arch with the concrete tie – introduced a completely new vocabulary in the repertoire of modern architecture.



If Kahn saw the house of legislation as a “religious” place, he considered centrality as the architecture of sacredness. Centrality however is a tricky condition; it verges, on the one hand, too closely to being the instrument of tyranny, and on the other hand, to being the vehicle of sacrality. Sacrality too is an uneasy theme. Is there a sacrality in secular existence? Is them an “other divinity” in modem life? Kahn’s persistent evocation of another sacredness – the sense of the sacred outside liturgies but within modern existence, the sacred as something wondrous, extraordinary, alaukika in a Tagorean sense – is suspect from two opposed ranks: the secular intellectuals, who might consider this reactionary and regressive, and the religious guardians, who might perceive this as a threat to their entrenched position.


The Assembly Building attains its specific character within the genre of centrality because of the ambulatory space, a seven-story high interior “street” between the assembly chamber and the outer offices. Here, light – dark light, gray light and passing sun-light – materializing from mysterious sources fill the space, while stairs, ramps, walkways and various openings wrap around it as in a Carceri drawing. Programatically it is only a circulation ring, and compositionally a mediator between the inner form and various geometric figures in the outer ring, but experientially it is a device. As a primary orienting (often disorienting) envelop before entering the inner sanctum, recalling the experience of pradakshina (circumambulation), it is a sacralizing device as ancient as the Buddhist stupa.


But, what makes this architectural organism take its place on the land? It is not the planimetric geometry alone, the purely architectural correspondence with Buddhist or Mughal complexes, or with vernacular idioms, but the situational manner of the assembly: how it irrupts in and gathers all the paradigmatic elements of the Bengali landscape – the horizontal terrain, the terra-cotta ground, the deep-green foliage. the dark dank water, the brilliant sky – into one indivisible experience. This may be considered through two intertwined issues: the manner of grouping and the idea of the city.


Kahn’s conception of grouping in the Citadel of Assembly may be linked to a number of sources, particularly to the hierarchic and diagonal order of Beaux-Arts planning, but it is possible that it was inspired by Piranesi’s speculative drawing which shows the Pantheon as a fulcrum within a setting of supportive buildings, public spaces, gardens and lake. But, the Bengal delta also may help in understanding further the formation of the Citadel. It can be seen firstly in the appearance of the huddling, jostling masses of the assembly, with its raw, stratified surface appearing out of the earth/water like some crystallizing primeval thing, evoking further an Indian aquatic symbology of the beginning of things from a primordial fluid. Kahn’s persistence in three-dimensional representation of architectural organisms coagulating out of the earthly plain says something about his conceptualizing methods on the origin and formation of architectural material. Mario Bottero sees this as a mysterious phenomenon in form selection in that instead of sort of descending from Platonic Forms “form rises out of a submerged world.”


Besides the aggregation evoking the assemblage on mounds, the delta appears in a second way. In the envelope of the assembly and the brick buildings, when Kahn makes those gigantic perforations, when he makes those cavernous spaces of shadow, he is surreptitiously “landscaping” the buildings. This is landscaping not in a botanical but in a phenomenal sense in how nature – the sun, the wind, the air – invades a man-made artifact, erodes its envelope, makes it porous, and finally repossesses it. Only then the sun (and the wind) realizes how wonderful it is.


Of course, the invasion of the atmospheric aura in architecture is possible because Kahn does not use glass. When he does use it, as in most American projects, or in modifications at Dhaka, the box is immediately formed, creating a sharp disjunction with the elements. “Masonry masses and voids. That’s what Kahn wants,” that is, “an architecture of open forms, integrated with the plein air of the surrounding landscape.” In the elementalism of dwelling in nature in India and Bangladesh, Kahn's architecture finds a home.


The issue of grouping also leads to the problematic and paradigmatic case of Kahn’s architecture of the city. It may seem problematic to construct a homogeneous self-referential urban order when the city is characterized by fragmentation and disjunctiveness at all levels, a result no doubt of the collapse of the pre-colonial singular world-view and the legitimate rise of various ideologies and group-interests. How much then does a centralized and self-absorbed urban institution relate to a dispersive nature of current urbanization? Is circumstantiality an adulteration of Order, or is there an order to circumstantialities itself? Moreover, the archaic symbolism of the center is anathema to progressive and pluralist ideologues who see in it only the representation of power and tyranny. Critics like Manfredo Tafuri consider this outmoded in the European discourse; it can now only be exported to “underdeveloped” nations.


Kahn arrives at the city through other routes, not through the thicket of the market economy nor through the melange of the ad hoc habitat. His thinking involves the distillation of institution-types to find the irreducible essentials of a city, a sort of backstepping to the “original” moment of assembly that is both the essence and source of the city; and, the disposition of institutions not only spatially and sociologically but as paradigmatic elements of the landscape. While Kahn’s evocation of an “original” city is self-serving, it may be entertained by two conditions: in a western context, as Kenneth Frampton mentions, due to “the fatal degeneracy of all civilized institutions in the consumerist city,” and in a non-western context, due to the amnesia in which vital culture has lapsed into.


The image of the city at Sherebanglanagar may not coincide morphologically with the currently existing city nor with “the city of the figure-ground” derived from the urbanism of north India. If there is a correspondence it is with the city of the “rice culture” matrix, or what may be called “the city of figure-nature,” in which the traditional city-country opposition is not abrasive, and where the idea of urbanism is not in building densification alone but in the special disposition of buildings, as pavilion types, their relation with each other and with other urban materials: ponds, waterways, trees, gardens and orchards. This was reflected in Dhaka, specially Mughal Dhaka, a city of gardens and canals with pavilion-like dwellings, before it was ransacked by ‘development’ planning.


At Sherebanglanagar, there is something abstract, and yet intensely immediate, about the “iconography of the landscape,” in the configuration of the coagulating mass in the flat, aquatic landscape, as in the assemblage of dwellings on mounds signifying the family. It is here when the “buildings make the landscape speak” that one can think about a sense of place. At the Capital Complex, one can sense the silhouette of the phantasmal Bengali city, the utopic and at the same time primordial. Dhaka and Sherebanglanagar, through a mythic veil, glimpse each other.


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