Published as introduction to the book An Architect in Bangladesh: Conversations with Muzharul Islam (Loka Press, 2014).
Holding a copy of Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia, Muzharul Islam greeted me one day sometime in the early 1990s at his house in Paribag. It was quite significant to see Muzharul Islam with Tafuri’s book. I thought if there was someone who can engage in a dialog with Islam, it had to be the Marxist intellectual and architectural historian Tafuri. In that incisive book, Tafuri analyzes the tragic turn of modern architecture, and how its avant-garde stance has been compromised if not co-opted by capitalist development. Considering Tafuri’s book made me wonder how the Italian Marxist scholar may incite Islam to reflect on the nexus of architecture, politics and society.
Whether Muzharul Islam agreed with Tafuri’s cynicism about the salvationary role of modern architecture is something to ponder upon especially when he continued to believe in its role in the context of Bangladesh far from the European theater. When Islam greeted me on the steps of his house with the book in his hand, I came to appreciate, once again, his razor sharp intellect, his keen understanding of architecture, culture and politics, and their critical intersections. At the same time, I came to realize that despite work in various spheres – architectural profession, design education, cultural activism, political engagement – little is known about the depth of Islam’s thoughts.
As young students of architecture in the late 1970s, we had often wondered: “Who is Muzharul Islam?” It was ironic that the most important architect of the country remained invisible in the mainstream architectural arena in Bangladesh, whether it was in education or in the profession. Detractors kept him at bay from the community of architects and students, weaving uncharitable tales of his being a ‘controversial person.’ Little was written about him and his work at that time, and much less was known about his own views on architecture and culture despite the fact that Muzharul Islam embodied the most progressive side of Bengali modernity.
Knowing Muzharul Islam
Despite his immense influence on the architectural culture in Bangladesh, and close interactions with many prominent artists, writers and intellectuals of the country, few documents are available on Islam’s thoughts and views. Interviews published sporadically in different newspapers and periodicals have remained mostly inaccessible. Other than criticisms of the general condition of architecture and the frustrating political culture in the country, and regular outbursts against unethical practices, and on special occasions, insights into the world of architecture, of stories about Paul Rudolph, Louis Kahn, and other architectural stalwarts, Islam was largely silent about himself. His own philosophy of architecture remained opaque to most people other than emerging in oblique ways during unscheduled conversations. Even though the buildings were always there for us to interpret we needed to hear from the architect who designed them.
Chetana, the architectural research and study group that grew around and was mentored by Muzharul Islam, provided a special access for those willing to know him. Through many dedicated discussions, presentations, events, and informal conversations, Chetana provided a closeness with the architect-teacher beyond formal conditions of the classroom or the office.
An Architect in Bangladesh: Conversations with Muzharul Islam provides a window for a view on modernity in Bangladesh, and the place of architecture there in the views of the foremost architect of the time. Recorded some twenty years ago over a period of one week, the conversations testify to Islam’s deeply felt thoughts on architecture, art, culture and politics.
At the time of recording this conversation in 1992, we were younger and a lot more naïve with our questions to a man who, even if less active as a practicing architect, remained a formidable figure in the world of culture and politics. Who were your influences? Why is your architecture of the 1980s different from the 1950s? Islam entertained these questions with surprising frankness and keenness. But it took us a while to get there, and to ask unhesitant questions, as it was for Islam to take time in opening up from his usual reserve and reach out to us. It seemed he was waiting for that moment, for an extended conversation. To publish this document about twenty years later may seem a bit tardy but in some ways it is more relevant with the passing away of the architect and evolving architectural and political conditions, both globally and locally.
The conversations took place at his renowned house in Paribagh – his residence and office, and a lot of other things. Part of the house served as Islam’s slowed down architectural practice and more as a de facto laboratory for critical thinking. Few times a week, since 1982, members of Chetana met to consider the state of architecture, and come up with renewed principles of action. On other days, strictly distinct from architectural programs, members of his left leaning political circle met to consider the condition of the nation. And, on some other evenings, desks in the drafting section of the office would be cleared or the garden in front organized for a musical soiree. Although the content in this book highlights architecture, there could be separate conversations on politics and culture.
Design shapes the way we live
Conversation with Islam was always an intense and continuous lesson in Bangladesh’s cultural modernity, and its promises and anxieties. If the idea of a Bengali modernity could be transferred into the personality and dynamic output of a person, it unequivocally had to be Muzharul Islam. He also makes us understand that conditions of modernity come with its attendant complexities and challenges that one must take up nonetheless.
At the foreground of Islam’s close analytique is the realization that architectural practice will get intertwined with political thoughts, particularly in a place like Bangladesh where capitalist motivation, economic inequity, and cultural confrontations have swayed ground conditions. In echoing the thoughts of Tafuri, Islam would insist that entering the field of political theory is necessary in order to understand “the precise identification of those tasks which capitalist development has taken away from architecture.” While most architects in the 1970s and 80s preferred to bypass such a realization and its ethical and form-making consequences, Islam increasingly came to see politico-cultural engagement superseding aesthetical motivation for architecture.
The nexus of architecture and politics is best conveyed by Stanley Tigerman’s experience in Bangladesh. Tigerman, the “bad boy” of Chicago architecture, a close friend of Muzharul Islam since their time together at Yale University (1961), and a colleague in the Polytechnic projects designed for the then East Pakistan (1968-71), relates how when he met Louis Kahn at Heathrow Airport in 1974, the latter had one question: “Why did Muzharul Islam leave architecture for politics? I could never do that.” Kahn was on his way from Ahmedabad, India, to Philadelphia, and his tragic death in New York’s Penn Station. To Tigerman, Kahn seemed disheveled and rather disoriented, and was perhaps considering what constitutes the value of an architect. How does one really contribute to society?
Designing and building of the polytechnic projects brought Tigerman to Bangladesh many times, and to a closer contact with Islam and conditions in the country. Describing it as an “extraordinary episode” in his life, Tigerman attributes his own transformation as an architect in Chicago to his experience in Bangladesh and association with Islam. The process involved a move from a kind of functional pragmatism or hermetic aesthetics to a socially and morally responsive practice.
“The polytechnic projects,” admits Tigerman, “had perhaps its greatest effect on me as a consequence of Muzharul Islam’s insisting that I live with the Bengalis and spend as little time as possible with the American community in Dacca [Dhaka]. I ate the Bengalis’ food and drank their water, got dysentery and was cured and became acclimated to the local conditions. Islam also made sure that I approached the problem of designing for his people in a way that would bring lessons of Western logic to the young architects of East Pakistan well beyond those inherent in the buildings themselves. This in turn prompted me to become aware of the needs of my own people and of the way architecture is practiced in America… It was an enormously rewarding experience that even now influences my thinking.” Tigerman would eventually establish Archeworks (1994) as an institute of innovative architectural pedagogy with a social and community focus. The fundamentals of Islam’s thoughts seem to echo in Archeworks’ mission: “Design shapes the way we live. The fewer resources communities and individuals have, the more they need great design solutions to enhance their quality of life.”
When Tigerman was ousted from the country by the Pakistan Army during one of his professional visits in 1971, he protested at a press conference in Kolkata: “I am an architect. I am not a political person.” Clearly, the architect has been imbued with a political urgency. Chastising the Pakistan government for its atrocities, Tigerman concluded the press conference by stating: “I am an architect. I am also a human being.”
How to be a human being comes neither naturally nor effortlessly. All throughout his life, as a professional architect, dedicated teacher, culturally and politically engaged person, as a family man, conducting it without pause or compromise, carrying out the sharpest critique of social, religious and traditional norms, Islam wished for himself and those who came in contact with him, to be just that: a decent human being. No matter how simple it may appear, the nobility of a decent life remained at the forefront of Islam’s thinking.
Our conversation with Muzharul Islam began with a provocation: What is the necessity of architects in Bangladesh? A kind of impatience, brought about by conditions in the 1980s and 90s, when the practice of architecture was undergoing a creative anemia and social purposelessness, produced this question. It was followed by another: If one were to be beholden to a Bengali ethic, what kind of an architect would one be?
To be deeply Bengali and precisely modern constitutes the motto of Muzharul Islam. He would expect the same of others in his circle. An oscillation – between pride in being Bengali, and being an “internationalist” in the socialist sense – also manifested in Islam’s orientation for a Rabindrik ethos and a Marxist ideology, or a conviction for being “established on my own soil” and a belief in a socialist teleology.
Many writers, including myself while introducing an essay on Islam, have noted that he singlehandedly brought architectural modernism to Bangladesh. He was not just a modernist but he was modernism, a single man institution who embodied the norms of a new ideal and production. Since the 1950s, following the world-wide proliferation of the principles of modern architecture, many master architects, from Balkrishna Doshi in India to Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil, were engaged in a similar project of modernist reconstitution. What distinguishes Islam’s position is his attempt for aligning modernism with what one could describe as “Bangaliana,” a deeply abiding sense of Bengali culture and history. This could be observed in such aesthetical practice as Islam’s wearing white cotton kurta, maintaining a Gandhian sparseness in his office, and carrying on close relationships with all the major writers and intellectuals of his time articulating a Bengali cultural nationalism. Islam always noted: “The people who first started here [referring to leaders of Bengali social and political movements] had their source in an incredible love for the country. The basis of the movement was: I am a Bengali, I have a language, I have things to tell my people, I want to build a decent society, everyone in the society has the capability and the right to what is available in it.” He attempted to carry this ethic into his architecture.
Premised on the fundamental fact of cultivating a Bengaliness, his commitment to an ethical practice, equitable social system, and cultural basis for architectural practice never diminished. Anyone who has “interacted” with Muzharul Islam knows the many thresholds that need to be crossed to access the depth of his enigma. It took us many years to reach that point where we could claim we were having a conversation with Islam Saheb, or “sir,” as is the custom to address one who taught without being a teacher in the formal sense.
There were many stages to that induction. One had to be divested of any ambiguity or confusion in one’s dedication to the Bengali cause, and, as an architect, in one’s devotion to the tasks of the profession. What often impeded a frank interaction with Islam was his predictable intolerance of a frigid academism or distrust of professional double-talk. He was never at a loss for pointing out the foibles of these two architectural institutions and he never shifted from – what Aldo Rossi described regarding the work of his fellow Italian architect Ettore Sottsass – “the search for a higher level of recomposition.”
Islam believed a dedication to the Bengali cause must be unequivocal, yet something not quite nationalistic rather hovering somewhere between an unwavering sense of Bengaliness and a creative mission for a “recomposition.” Secondly, architectural aspirations must be realized through an intellectual foundation supported by vigilance about how things behave in the political and economic spectrum of society. One needed to recognize that there is a deeply intertwined relationship between cultural nationalism and forms of architecture, and between politico-economic structure and architectural production. After 1975, the purist that he was, Islam began to notice a cultural devaluation in which many were complicit, and most, it appeared to him, were tainted until proven otherwise. For such reasons, it required a few stages, and evidence of an unfaltering dedication, to get close to him and entertain the possibility of a free discussion. Islam’s purist position must be read against the general ambience of easy compromise and petty accommodation he perceived all around him in that contested time in the history of Bangladesh.
Political analytiques can produce tricky moments in architecture. Despite his invitations to Paul Rudolph, Louis Kahn and Stanley Tigerman to work in Bangladesh, Islam had no patience – only a disdain – for Euro-American paternalism, considering it a subterfuge for a new imperium. His incisive understanding of political events since the 19th century, both in the Indian subcontinent and Europe, and experience of independence movement from the British were too deeply ingrained in his personality. At the same time, Islam had no sympathy with a parochialism that went in the name of tradition. He continued to conduct a vigorous critique of plans of the imperium as well as the pitfalls of parochialism.
Often described as an unapologetic and uncompromising idealist, Islam remains part ideologist, part utopian and part visionary while also devoted to pragmatism and rationality. In his own aspiration in this regard as well as expectation from those around him, he could be obstinate and resolute. He required of those claiming to tread the path of architecture to practice constant vigilance and criticism. His sheer presence would often make one aware of that elevated mission, of the weight of the “winged eye.” As the emblem of the 16th century Renaissance architect and humanist Alberti (such emblems were common to Renaissance intellectuals), the winged eye was also Manfredo Tafuri’s favorite trope. While various meanings are associated with that enigmatic sign, it is mostly understood as indicating a sentient human being who with critical knowledge and alertness is prepared to counter obstacles in order arrive at a higher moral or spiritual ground. If Islam is to be associated with any emblem, I see him sharing Alberti’s winged eye and the associated Latin motto: Quid tum? What now?
If ideology and utopia are fundamental to the thinking of Muzharul Islam through which we may penetrate the enigma of the man, it is precisely these that Tafuri critiqued in Architecture and Utopia. In his analysis of the state of architecture until the 1970s, Tafuri notes how ideology has become useless to capitalist development giving a fatal twist to the nobler goals of modern architecture. Consequently, lack of ideology or critical framing produces a pure but impotent architecture, a “form without utopia, a sublime uselessness,” a scenario very evident in the 1980s and 90s. It is this troubled relationship between intellectual work and capitalist development, in which most architects have abandoned the former to the force-field of the latter that had situated Muzharul Islam in an anachronistic place by the early 1980s. His political alignment did not help either amidst the risen or rising reactionary forces in the country. How an architect of vigilance would have fared now, in the sweep of a liberal economy, to the spectacular architectural drama of “sublime uselessness,” is open to question.
When architects had abrogated their tasks to “the merciless commercialization of the human environment,” Muzharul Islam remained fairly persistent in his call for producing a “decent architecture” and in the making of a “decent society.” In his formulation for architecture and society for Bangladesh, he abhorred symbolic apparatuses and what he described as “flourish,” the convenient tools of contemporary architecture. The topic of symbol was particularly an anathema for him. “Symbol for what?” he would retort sharply at a suggestion for such practices. “Symbol of what? Symbol for whom? You raise the issue of symbols. I feel that human society has been kept in darkness for thousands of years by the use of symbols. I revolt against it. By raising the issue of symbols, in the name of symbols, my perspective has been kept limited.” A subtle and restrained vision for the future, for an ideal Bangladesh that is decent and enlightened (“bhadra samaj”), was a constant refrain with Muzharul Islam.
If the crisis in European architecture in the 19th century led to the task of a continual invention of advanced solutions, as a political process as Tafuri noted, then the architect’s role as idealist became critical. Islam believed it is far more important in a place like Bangladesh with scarce resources and environmental fallibility to be a political visionary (I describe that as “pragmatic utopia”). His idea of an equitable and decent social condition, bhadra samaj, translates into thinking about new types of settlement morphology in which the lopsided differentia between the city and the village would be erased. Islam’s thought on new villages is radical and provisional, but remain a provocation that has not been picked up by the next generation. New thinking on settlements is particularly critical when land and landscape are the crux in the great game of capitalist development, much more so now than what was anticipated in the 1980s.
A ferocious intellect represented in the emblem of the winged eye often creates an ironic predicament making its bearer a kind of a tragic hero. Such vigilance against a relentless and wily opposition that could wear down anyone lends an heroic aura to Muzharul Islam. It also results in a solitary struggle with increasingly few compatriots. Even family members, admits his daughter Dalia Nausheen, found it hard to cope with Islam’s forward-oriented thinking. At the same time, as a kind of redemption, Nausheen writes: “He could comprehend the future beautifully.” The evidence is here in this book.