“We cannot believe that as architects we do stunning buildings and the city can go to hell,” says Kazi Khaleed Ashraf. Director of the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscape and Settlements, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Ashraf was in India for the Frame Conclave held in Goa recently. In a free-wheeling conversation, Ashraf, 60, shares his insights on urbanism and its challenges and the giants — Louis Khan and Muzharul Islam — who influenced architecture in Bangladesh. Excerpts:
How did the city become the focus of your attention?
I was part of Muzharul Islam’s group, Chetana, which was initiated to foster an enquiry into the profession and the city. I began to envision what a city should be, trying to understand the structure of places and their networks. My book Designing Dhaka (2012) was written as a manifesto to better Dhaka. My books on the making of modern South Asian architecture and Louis Kahn, and essays on architecture in India and the subcontinent, made the city my lab.
What are the challenges facing the cities in Bangladesh?
The city itself is a challenge. We use words like urbanisation which brings with it connotations of violence, traffic, pollution, and we have this imagination of the rural as an idyllic setting. I believe a city is not a problem to be solved, it’s a destination to arrive at. In Bangladesh, we have to deal with water, mud and clay. We never have a clear site, because every June the water comes in. In cities you push the water away, and make embankments. And if you don’t map the water flow, it floods the next village. So things do get out of control. Like in India, the real estate gang calls the shots. They fill up massive flood plains and agricultural land to plot housing and build roads. We need to find alternative models of building. We need to have ecological plans and new ways to allow water to flow.
The National Assembly Building by Louis Kahn emerges from the water. How did Kahn and Muzharul Islam come to influence modern architecture?
Kahn was a keen observer and he saw in rural Bangladesh that people built homes on the principle of dig and mound. You scoop up earth and build your house on the mound and the pit then becomes a pond where you can fish and the rest of the land is where you can farm. So conceptually, the Assembly Building comes from that idea. For him landscape was important. He would often say in Bangladesh that you need to be a land architect, you need to sculpt the earth and modulate the land.
Muzharul Islam on the other hand was rational. His thinking was largely influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and Karl Marx. Around the time that Muzharul was practising from the mid-’50s to late ’60s, Bangladesh was trying to shake off the dominance of Pakistan. Chetana was born from that need to articulate an identity and demonstrate through architecture what is contemporary and Bengali. Many of the current lot of architects who are winning international awards have been influenced by him. In fact, currently, we have an international travelling exhibition called ‘Bengal Stream’ (it recently showed in Basel and Frankfurt) that shows works of established and young architectural practices which was done in collaboration with the Bengal Institute.
Tell us about the role of the Bengal Institute.
At the institute we train professionals in an integrated way, there are architects, geologists, planners and geographers. We believe that small towns are where the future lies. We also have research projects in Dhaka, and our job is to take new ideas to the public. It’s to mobilise people’s imagination. That’s what urbanism is about, imagining futures.