Vol. 4 Num 277 Tue. March 09, 2004  

The Asian University for Women
Catalyst for a Chittagong renaissance?

When on January 13, 2004 the news broke that Chittagong would host the Asian University for Women (AUW), I was elated for two interrelated reasons: the project will be built in my hometown with the participation of my alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as design consultant. Why should it not be a moment of double delight? The exciting expectation is that AUW will reinvigorate the national as well as local economy, bolster the country's job market, and make 21st-century education accessible to women of Asia. In addition the prestigious project could be a catalyst for raising the awareness of Chittagong's cultural and built heritage as well as its spectacular natural setting around land, water, and hills. That the AUW leadership has culled Chittagong from other possible locations in Asia as the site for the anticipated Asian citadel of women's education is itself an homage to the Port City's natural grandeur.

As an alumnus I am delighted to have direct access to the MIT planning team, thereby able to see the development of the project's master plan. Recently I talked with Professors Stanford Anderson and Ann Pendleton-Jullian, MIT Architecture's head and the AUW project coordinator, respectively, about the future University's approach to campus design and the crucial task of contextualising it within the larger cityscape. But before I delve into these issues, let us look briefly at AUW as an institution of learning.

The University, slated for inauguration in 2006, was conceptualised as an inter-Asian institute of higher learning, "committed to serving women in Asia from all religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with a particular focus on women from marginalised and underserved communities." It aims at providing "unparalleled opportunities for women to become leaders in emerging fields including: Information Technology, Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Development, Management, Education and Public Policy." One of the key leaders of the project is Mary Robinson, President of the World Council of Women Leaders, Chancellor of Dublin University, and former President of Ireland. Robinson poignantly articulated the AUW mission: "The plight of Afghan women and girls is a reminder of the fundamental role education plays both as a human right in itself and as an indispensable means of realising other rights. Increased access to higher education will help empower Asian women to take an active part in the elimination of gender discrimination…Bangladesh has been making great efforts to eliminate discrimination against women, so it is only fitting that the University will be established there."

Kamal Ahmad, an indefatigable Bangladeshi-born corporate lawyer currently with the Asian Development Bank, has been instrumental in conceiving the idea of AUW. The project's leadership and supporters represent a global spectrum: Madame Lone Dybkjaer, Member of the European Parliament, former First Lady and Minister of Environment of Denmark; Jacques Attali, former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and National Security Advisor to President Francois Mitterand of France; Sang Chang, Former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea; Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; Mamphela Ramphele, Managing Director at the World Bank and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa; and George Soros, President and Chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC and the Chairman of the Open Society Institute. Financial support has been committed by, among others, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Open Society Institute, Citigroup Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The cornerstone of AUW's pedagogy will be an innovative five-year joint undergraduate/graduate programme combining a liberal arts and science foundation with professional training. The Imperial College in London and Aalborg University in Denmark are collaborating in developing AUW's curricula. Although the peak student population will be in the vicinity of 2500 (25% from Bangladesh), the focus will be not on numbers, but on the quality of education. Given the scope of the project and the global support that mobilises it, the projected University is without a doubt going to send strong ripples through the country's political, economic, and socio-cultural landscape.

The Government of Bangladesh has made a prudent decision in allotting free of cost a 125-acre stretch of hilly, picturesque, and lush green landscape near Pahartali, Chittagong, for setting up an autonomous enclave where AUW can function as an independent institution. The Government has unequivocally approved a charter that guarantees its total institutional autonomy, an independent status traditionally enjoyed by the United Nations agencies. The selection of Bangladesh as the host country for AUW was preceded by careful consideration of a number of factors: an area where the presence of the University promises to make the most positive impact, geographic accessibility, a pleasant and livable physical environment, and a location that would facilitate the University to function autonomously. The country's political situation might have been a thorny issue during many deliberations in Europe and the United States (Wellesley College in Massachusetts hosted an international conference on AUW in November 2002). But in the end Bangladesh emerged triumphantly as the host country for AUW, with Chittagong the chosen site.

I grew up in this coastal city, knew this shahor's hilly rhythm firsthand, and, more specifically, spent six boyhood years at Faujdarhat Cadet College, not far from AUW's projected site. I could not help but secretly entertain myself with a sweetly tendentious loyalty to my hometown. It was welcome news, I confess. But what I would like to suggest here is that this triumphant moment should not be left locked away like a sacred gift, wrapped in self-referential conceit. In other words, the significance of this selection should not just be limited to a collective sigh of self-satisfaction on the part of the people from the banks of Karnafuli, the river that animates Chittagong's romantic folklore. Quite the contrary. The moment should be an occasion for rediscovering the city and for critically reflecting on the factors -- historical, social, cultural, and geographical -- that once made this city a desirable place to live, a place for thriving commerce, and a coveted destination to visit. In short, if AUW's establishment in Chittagong is a watershed moment for the city's legacy, then it should be exploited as nothing less than an occasion to inspire a Chittagong Renaissance, buttressed and directed not by narrow regionalist aspirations, but by a national consortium of experts from all fields. Lest we forget, AUW will reposition Chittagong on the world map along the global coordinates of education, finance, and politics. Hence the Port City must brace for the prospects of international attention through a concerted effort of self-rediscovery and redevelopment.

MIT's involvement with the AUW project is, as of now, primarily academic. Third-Year Master's students of the Institute's Architecture Department, along with the graduate students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), have undertaken the AUW master plan as their pre-thesis project. During the course of their project development, crucial aspects of the actual planning process will be explored, debated, and tested. These students have visited Chittagong recently with a view to experiencing firsthand the site condition in Pahartali. The contoured site offers both an asset and a challenge. It is an asset, because the site's topography promises the possibility of rich spatial experience enabled by architecture on various levels and hillsides as well as by expansive vistas from the heights. The challenge is the requirement for careful and constant calibration between built forms and the slope.

An engaged and effective planning process requires the understanding of both the functionality and symbolism of historical examples that have withstood the test of time. Some of the exemplary models of campus planning the students have analysed represent a wide array of historical contexts and moments: Fatehpur Sikri, built at the behest of the Mughal emperor Akbar in the second half of the 16th century; Ahmedabad's Indian Institute of Management designed by Louis Kahn, the architect of our Parliament building; Wellesley College, the prestigious all-women's college in Massachusetts (alumnae include Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright); and Chittagong University.

I have seen these planning marvels, which fuse topography and architecture into a harmonious visual and spatial experience. It is to be seen how the lessons drawn from these great examples inform and enrich the design efforts of the young minds at MIT and RISD. The challenge of designing the project lies in the need to make it functional, while ensuring its institutional autonomy; livable for an international community; secured, yet accessible; topography-friendly and responsive to local history and material, yet suggestive of a timeless environment of learning. It has to be conceived of not as a self-engrossed utopia (then it would only produce an elitist subculture), but rather as an inspirational place both for future women leaders in their bid to reach out to their communities as well as (even if indirectly) for the people entrusted with preserving and showcasing the built and natural heritage of Chittagong. I expect the latter to be an important corollary of AUW's coming to the Port City.

The environmental carnage wrought on Chittagong has been an ongoing process for over a decade. The rows of panoramic hills that wrap this coastal city have been systematically leveled, often with official licence and with the absurd misconception that hilly landscape is unsuitable for strong buildings! Entire hills were carted off to fill up water bodies or reclaim new lands or to meet the burgeoning building industry's demand for sand. Chittagong's topography is unique in the country, and its myth is deeply entwined with a fabled hill: Cheragi Pahar at the intersection of Momin Road and Jamal Khan Road. Legend has it that more than six hundred years ago Hazrat Badar Aawlia arrived in this city from the seas and chose Cheragi Pahar as his vantage point to spread the message of Islam among the locals. It was at the apex of this hill that the pious messenger lit a "chati" (lamp) and called out (ajaan) for people to join him in saying prayer to God. Chittagong's etymology can then be traced unmistakably back to "chati." And the hills are at the core of Chittagong's mythology.

The Port City's unique geography has long been subjected to misguided strategies of so-called development and urban sprawl. One glaring example of what could be called "wilful urban devastation" is found at the very heart of the city: the gently-sloping green field in front of the Circuit House -- an open prairie that had allowed the historical building a magnificent and expansive foreground -- has been gobbled up to cram a "shishu park" for reasons that defy common sense. Are not green, open spaces like the city's lungs -- vital urban organisms that allow people to breathe fresh air and escape, even if momentarily, the infernal city life? During my last visit to Chitttagong, I was thunderstruck to see that an entire hill near the Chittagong Medical College Student's Hostel had vanished along with the beautiful colonial-era houses perched at its summit and sides. One of Chittagong's commercial hubs, Andorkilla, a historic district with over four hundred years of continuous development, is in a desperate need of preservation. The city boasts many colonial-era masterpieces, including the Central Railway Building that withstood the 1971 aerial bombing but sadly not, it seems, accelerated aging due to the lack of maintenance and a proper preservation policy.

But this lack, more generally, is symptomatic of Chittagong. The marriage of a sensible master plan for the city and a historically sound preservationist approach is the least we could implement in Chittagong. The projected arrival of AUW to Chittagong should be the impetus for this urgent task because, among other reasons, as a host city to a world-class institution it must become a modern city fitted with adequate infrastructure and other essential urban amenities, and perhaps most of all should pave the way for a long overdue Chittagong renaissance.

Dr. Adnan Morshed, Architect, Researcher at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. is a former Lecturer of BUET.