Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Water as Ground

October, 2014

Published in Design in the Terrain of Water, edited by Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha (Applied Research + Design Publishing, 2014).


Once upon a place and time, the city of Dhaka emerged delicately from an irascible landscape called the Bengal Delta. Powerful rivers churn through this landscape constituted by rainfalls, cyclones, floods, silting and land-shifting of monumental proportions. In this fluctuating hydrological world, cities and settlements continue to be structured by an impromptu organization into a dynamic matrix of rivers, canals, wetlands, floodplains, agricultural fields, chars (silted landforms) and human habitation.


Yet Dhaka and the delta appear increasingly as two separate entities, antithetical and stranger to each other. Since the 1960s, a different development ethos was introduced and encouraged. As part of that practice, landfills, embankments and roadways supported the technology of a dry culture, pitting the city against the delta. Much of the current crises of Dhaka – lack of land, lack of housing, lack of civic spaces – stem from this opposition, at the center of which is the inability to incorporate the language of a dynamic aquatic landscape into planning mechanisms and policies. Planners and policy-makers glorify land, while water is exiled to the domain of poets and vagrants, and pitiful margins of the city. Indeed, what is wet is seen as a sign of backwardness and archaic practices.


Measures of Water

In one of the stories in Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes how one’s perception of a city will depend on how one arrives there, whether by land or sea. It is an imperative now that a new design discourse consider a “water ethos” where water is the measure and instrument of spatial and social organization. A water ethos indicates a fundamental immersion in water with anthropological and sociological significance. A measure of water will have to consider the following:


Water creates a paradox, water is a paradox. There is, often in deltaic places, too much water, and there is often too little water. Again, water purifies, water needs to be purified. Once water was needed to purify everything, and now, Ivan Illich observes, water needs to be purified before doing anything with it.


Water disorients and reorients. Water is an agent of transformation, of fluctuations and inversions, and as a consequence, generator of ambiguities. The entry of water in the everyday dry domain can disrupt normativity, and produce new social and political realities.


Water assures neither terra nor firma. The reversibility induced by water disrupts the privilege enjoyed by terra firma as being the basis of the life-world. Water challenges the taking for granted that land is ground. In a new constitution of water/ground, where land coordinates or the firma of terra has been unsettled, we will have to develop new terms of references, such as the following:


Immersion. Buoyancy. Drift. Level. Depth. Fluidity. Flotation. Ebb. Tide. Rhythm.


The Matrix of the Delta

The singular emblem of the Bengal delta is the char, land formation induced by the dynamics of soil-shifts and water flows. 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. Here, delicate chars appear one year to disappear in the next, while the more or less stabilized ones among them – it is always more or less – become sites of settlement and habitation.


Borne out of a fluid dynamic, chars pose a conceptual challenge to design imagination. They bear unsettling questions on what is site, what is fixity, and therefore what is architecture. Chars provoke a new thinking in the relation between architecture and landscape, even urging a re-thinking of the copula: between. Chars shift the thinking from object to situation, from form to matrix. While there are villages focused towards (dry) towns and cities, a vast part of the delta is structured by the char and consequently by shifting and emergent rivers and riverbanks.


Advaita Malla Barman, in his epic and autobiographical tale of life in the delta, A River called Titash, imagines the origin of the river Titash: “Once upon a time the restless Meghna, dancing along her way, slipped into a careless moment – her left bank strained and broke. Her current and waves flowed into that breach. The inflow there created its own course, finding and molding soft alluvium, cutting and twisting through hard ground. After making a broad sweep that held hundreds of villages along the two sides of its course and touched the edges of many forests and flatlands, this pride of the Meghna returned to the lap of the Meghna.”


There are then hundreds of stories for hundreds of rivers and their hundreds of twists and turns. Their floods and emergent courses impart to the delta a corrugation of flat plains, ponds, muddy enclaves and lowlands. Architecture here does not prescribe an enclosed and delineated center, but a string of responses based on dig-and-mound, ghats (riverbank hubs) and elevated machas (impromptu platforms). These – an assortment of spatial typology – then become methods and practices of inhabiting the delta, often as a set of linked systems but quite often as isolated phenomena.


Liquid Urbanism

Chars, lowlands and riverbanks continue to populate popular narratives, from folk culture to modern literature. The vast matrix of the delta, typically “rural,” has adopted techniques and practices for dwelling in that landscape. But what of the city? In its positioning as a bastion of dryness, the city has not cooperated with the delta. Can char-thinking offer another kind of urbanism for the delta?

People who dwell in the core of Dhaka city, walk its streets and live its urban doldrums may not be cognizant of it, but current urban development practices are based, literally, on liquid matter. Present Dhaka is being built, without a pause, 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 interventions. Every hour, as part of the operation, barges on various rivers and rivulets ringing and networking Dhaka carry sand and soil from one location to deposit on another – typically, to a “lowland” that is marked for dry development where landfills are 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. It is precisely at this juncture, where the expansion of the city meets an aquatic matrix, a new kind of city-think is needed: liquid urbanism.


Liquid urbanism entails an epistemic shift. The norm in thinking about Dhaka has been to privilege a core. Liquid urbanism suggests that this thinking begin instead from its wet edge, ushering a conception of a city that is integrated with the delta. Here fluid dynamics structures the city and its infrastructure and hydrological issues serve as starting points and frameworks for future urban planning and design interventions.


A provisional manifesto for such an urbanism may yield the following approaches:


A platform in the delta. The production of platforms will remain a fundamental existential and functional objective in an aquatic terrain. This is poignantly evident during flooding, especially in monumental and turbulent deluges in Bangladesh. The design challenge will be to work with water and not against it. Innovations in the ideas of dig-and-mound, ghats and machas can be points of departure for a revised construction of platform architecture.


Fluid dynamic. Form does follow flow in the dynamic of the floodplain where horizontal and vertical movements of water organizes and directs architectural and landscape formations. Porosity and perforation thus become standard condition in the topography. An organized matrix of mounds and canals may create a new topographical and urban formation as an alternative to the troublesome practice of wide scale landfilling.


An embankment ecology. Following a series of devastating floods in the 1980s, Dhaka is now defined by embankments, a circular barrier and transport infrastructure that physically defines wet and dry. The norms of embankment mean cutting off wetlands and agricultural lands from conventionally prescribed developments, and posing unresolved questions for urban expansion. Instead of a sharp delineation, the embankment may be conceived as a fractured formation. It can be undulating or porous, multi-leveled or layered. The critical thing is to allow the passage of water. What that means is a redefinition of the embankment as an edge. It can be, instead of a barrier, developed into an integral landscape with boulevards, terraces, drainage systems and water reservoirs. Controlled fractures and openings may allow flow of water from both sides in response to wetlands, reservoirs, retention ponds, and agricultural parks.


Embankment is a barrier, how to deconstruct it? The given embankment can be reconfigured from a ribbon into a matrix. Instead of a single Bund along the river or other waterscape, a series of small embankments can be created to develop a matrix of spaces and functions throughout a certain area. The idea behind the size, direction and location of such mini-embankments is to intertwine the built and natural environments, as well as to control and retain water for agriculture, water table recharge, and everyday human needs. The embankments can also act as circulation paths. Producing these embankments will also help to restore the natural dynamics of the river and create recreational landscapes and gardens. On a more ambitious level, the embankment may be conceived as the basis for a linear city.


Elevated System. With the intention of bringing “the city into the flood-plain and the flood-plain into the city,” a network of cautious and careful development – streets, walkways, housing and public places – that are mostly elevated either on stilts or non-continuous earth mound over agricultural fields, gardens and parks, each at different elevations and responding to different levels of flooding may be proposed. The porosity at the lower level will assure an unimpeded flow of water at different seasons.


Where there is water, floatation is not far away. In a terrain of constant water, floating decks and buildings are a natural response. People in the delta have developed responses through boat-houses, floating markets, floating vegetable gardens and other buoyant devices. Islam Khan, the Mughal governor of Dhaka in the 17th century, is known to have lived on a barge. Floating gardens and markets still continue in practice. Floating schools and hospitals are becoming known as part of various NGO operations. There are many areas in and around Dhaka that still retain a watery landscape, a vestige of an earlier wetland or agricultural condition as leftovers from the embankment intervention. Certain selected areas could be developed as “demonstration villages” to show how a community could live more effectively on water, utilizing its ecological resources and potentials. The settlement could be designed as floating or partially floating on water through innovative vernacular architecture amidst purposeful and productive bamboo groves, orchards and fish farms. A large segment of adjoining riverbanks could be planned for agriculture (rice-fields) in which the people of the settlement could be engaged. The reason to build such a community in and around the city itself is to make a strong rhetorical and visual example: that paddy-fields can be both an economic enterprise and a civic, public space, and part of the city’s landscape. Water becomes a common denominator for agricultural urbanism.