Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Tropical Trysts: An American Architect in the Bengal Delta

January, 2017

Published in Reassessing Rudolph, edited by Timothy Rohan (Yale University Press, 2017).


In 1965, Paul Rudolph was commissioned to make a campus plan for the East Pakistan Agricultural University outside the small town of Mymensingh in the northern part of Bangladesh. Over the next five years he produced a master plan and designs for key buildings on the campus, which in 1971 was renamed Bangladesh Agricultural University. The project is little known and little spoken about when considering Rudolph’s work; even the architect himself had little to say about it. He visited the site only a few times, and never went to see it after its completion. One of the associates on the project, William Grindereng, has commented on Rudolph’s strange ambivalence about the project, the commission for which may have coincided with a particularly busy professional time for Rudolph. I, too, mentioned the project only in passing when writing about architecture in Bangladesh, but I realize now that it is neither minor nor without significance in the narrative of a cultural encounter.


First, the project in Mymensingh is significant for its scale and scope. It involved the master plan of a new agricultural university and designs for most of its key buildings, including academic buildings, dormitories, faculty housing, an auditorium, a gymnasium, and a stadium – that is, all of the critical facilities required for a full-fledged residential university. The scope and complexity of a university is like that of a micro-city with all its institutions, groupings of buildings, and range of social constituencies and their interactions. Notably, the university at Mymensingh came on the heels of a similar project with similar prospects: Rudolph’s plan for the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, formerly Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute (1963–1966).


The Mymensingh project also raised issues about the development of an educational institution in a country that was beginning to organize its national priorities, having achieved political independence after nearly two hundred years of British rule. Located in the eastern province of the new state of Pakistan, which was carved out of India following the British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the university would continue to be critical after the formation of the independent nation of Bangladesh following the brutal liberation war from Pakistan in 1971.


The project is thus deeply imbricated with the developmental history of Pakistan and with the United States’ involvement in the political and economic life of that nation. The development initiatives included modernizing the sectors that were identified as part of the economic backbone of Pakistan, of which agriculture was the most significant in both provinces of the country. It became imperative to organize the agricultural sector into a modern and more productive institution, for which foreign, and especially American, aid was sought. The USAID, through Texas A & M University, sponsored the establishment of an agricultural university in each province of Pakistan, Mymensingh in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Lyallpur in West Pakistan (now Pakistan).


If the founding of an agricultural university provided a national narrative of modernization and Westernization, and furthermore, an encounter between a new global power and an abiding Asian nation, the place of the project in Rudolph’s own architectural itinerary provided another story of encounter. The university in Mymensingh represented Rudolph’s first tropical adventure outside the US (besides his unbuilt proposal for the US Embassy in a “less tropical” Amman, Jordan, in 1955). From a climatic sense, Mymensingh was as remote as could be from New Haven, where Rudolph was living in 1965, but the climatic conditions and the architectural responses they elicited in Mymensingh were not alien to him. The successful innovations of modern buildings in Sarasota, Florida, had already attuned Rudolph to the specific architectural demands of the tropics.


Is there an arc between Sarasota and Mymensingh – Sarasota as the site of Rudolph’s brilliant articulation of a modern tropical typology, and Mymensingh as a location of its exotic other? Or, is there a difference that Rudolph never reconciled, or perhaps even recognized? With the geographical shift from Florida to Mymensingh, does Rudolph veer towards a Kiplingesque quandary in the shadow of a post- (or neo?) colonial darkness, where the twain failed to meet? These were Rudolph’s tropical trysts, which distinguished him more than any other architect of his generation – the group that came out of the cold, so to speak, from the hallways in Cambridge or Chicago, to test the métier of modernism under the mesmerizing sun and furious rain of the tropics, and in the cultural politics of the “other.” For Rudolph, Mymensingh was both familiar and different.


Even if Rudolph appeared to be an accidental tourist in 1960s Asia, unlike some of the architects who were already exploring the question of a tropical modernism, his work remains important in the related discourse of tropical modernism and regionalism in architecture. There is a distinction to be made between the exigencies of a tropical architecture as a kind of localized, or emplaced, modernism, and the emerging discourse of regionalism in architecture which sought alternatives to modernism and not merely its inflection. From Otto Koenigsberger to Maxwell Fry, by way of Le Corbusier, the notion of a tropical modern architecture was already embedded in the Asian context, but Rudolph’s work brought an American twist to the discourse. I say American because Rudolph’s innovations in tropical Florida had found little recognition in the discourse of tropical architecture that some European architects had taken on a lead and expanded that in various continents.



The 1960s was both a dynamic and volatile time in the emergence of Bangladesh, as well as a rather ebullient moment of American presence in Pakistan. Considered a critical geo-political location in the theater of the Cold War, an economically impoverished Pakistan was seen as a strategic partner by the United States, and was propped up as a bulwark against the Soviet presence in Asia. This was carried out through huge supplies of aid, mostly in the form of defense, but also in social programs such as food, education, health, and institution building for that developing nation. Many of the technical institutions that were vital to the development of a modern Pakistan were created by American financial and logistical support through the agencies of USAID, the Ford Foundation, and the World Bank. Part of the package involved establishing, and training people for a series of engineering and agricultural universities, which also included planning the universities and producing their facilities. The agricultural university at Mymensingh was one such venture.


That is how Rudolph found himself in the Bengal delta at the height of a nation-building program under considerable US patronage.  He was not, however, the only traveling architect in the 1960s working in the mission of social and national development in then East Pakistan. The first foreigner to receive major commissions in then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was the prolific Greek architect and planner Constantine Doxiadis, who by the late 1950s had already evolved an idiom suited to the tropics. The Austria-born California architect Richard Neutra was invited to design a number of educational buildings throughout Pakistan beginning in 1963, which also included the first building for the agricultural university at Mymensingh. When Rudolph arrived there, he made a master plan that ambivalently engaged the set of administrative and academic buildings that Neutra had designed. It appears that even in a remote corner of Asia, Rudolph found himself face-to-face with a European modernist. With Neutra’s planar architecture and Rudolph’s skeletal expressionism, it was a kind of encounter between a California modernism and a Florida tropicalism.


In the wake of the American development initiatives, three American architects were invited to Bangladesh through the intervention of the Bengali architect Muzharul Islam. The lives of the three architects intersected both in the US, and in their independent itineraries in Bangladesh. Following Rudolph’s 1965 commission, Stanley Tigerman teamed up with his Yale colleague Muzharul Islam in 1966 to design five polytechnic institutes. Earlier, in 1962, Louis Kahn, once a visiting professor at Yale but by that time working and teaching in Philadelphia, had been invited to design the National Capital Complex, which turned out to be an epic venture, a narrative that is much better known.


Through the work of these architects, Bangladesh became a rather fertile zone for architectural investigations. As Tigerman has commented, “Bangladesh was loaded with poignancy for Kahn and Rudolph,” meaning that the encounter is meant to bring a new alchemy or acuity to their own work rather than a progression of the same (which was far more actual as far as Tigerman’s work was concerned). In the rapid and even overwhelming presence of Western models of development then prevalent the world over, the work of these leading figures in architectural thought and culturally perceptive productions provides fresh insights into the encounter between architectural ideologies basically developed in the West and conditions that are often totally different from their original milieu.


It is important to note here Muzharul Islam’s discerning leadership in bringing the American trio to Bangladesh. Islam had been a student of Rudolph in the Yale master’s program in 1961. Tigerman was a classmate with whom he established a life-long friendship and architectural camaraderie. As students, Tigerman and Islam resolved to work together someday, a vow that materialized in the polytechnic projects. While at Yale, Islam came to know Kahn’s work and heard him speak on several occasions. After returning from the US in 1962 with a master’s degree in architecture, Islam became a key architect in the Public Works Department of the Pakistan Government. At the age of 30, he was entrusted with the design of a number of significant institutional and civic buildings that came to be recognized as inaugurating a Bengali modernism in architecture. His engagement of the American architects, as well as his own involvement, was triggered by a need to create both a principled practice and modernist paradigms for what was then seen as a vacuous architectural landscape. Islam was seeking a better option than what was presented in the US foreign-aid package, which sometimes brought in expertise from lesser-known technical institutions in the US. Islam’s intent was not dissimilar from the still-vivid high adventure of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, which was seen as a jolt to Indians, as Nehru himself declared, made to wake them from the turgidity of tradition and move towards the liberating potentials of modernity.


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