An Architect's Dhaka
Dr. Mahbubur Rahman
PRESERVATION of cultural artefacts is part of a process to retain local heritage on the face of modernisation often perceived to denude cultural identity. This often manifests in vernacular revivalism as a style or in the efforts towards architectural conservation as a cultural agenda that invigorates collective memory of cultural history. What often erodes the historic and traditional character of any city is modern methods and approaches to architecture and building design. It has been made necessary to preserve historic buildings and neighbourhoods as relics of the cultural past on the face of the fact that modernisation, as well as time borne natural decay, tends to wipe them off the face of the city's cultural landscape.
The aims of modernisation and architectural conservation are thus seen to conflict, the causes of which are deeply embedded within the socio-political institutions. City authorities are deterred from cultural preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings or areas because the patterns of land ownership, re-housing, fixed rents and political ramifications among the people are often daunting. Building professionals on the other hand do not help with the process as because they are not trained to improve upon older built environments, but only to build on pristine sites. The society too is predominantly against conservation because affluence or real estate investment drives the owners of old buildings not only to remodel or transform the original settings to suit modern day aesthetic(?) and commercial preferences but sometimes there is impetus to demolish old neighbourhoods to pave the way for modern construction.
Against such odds, it is necessary for the major initiatives towards architectural heritage conservation to be undertaken as organisational activities. In Bangladesh the Archaeology Department under the Cultural Ministry is the official custodian of building heritage. The government has enacted laws to protect older buildings and entrusted institution(s) with the task of protecting and conserving heritage buildings. The municipalities have also been mandated by Pourashava Ordinance 1977 to undertake conservation activities. Besides, the Department of Architecture and Rajdhani Unnayan Kattripakkhya (RajUK), both under the Public Works Ministry have in the past undertaken conservation work. In fact the Public Works Department (PWD) and such other government organisations in smaller scale have undertaken routine repair, renovation, and remodelling work. The Railway Department allowed Grameen Phone's initiative to refurbish/renovate the Chittagong Railway Station. Many of the nationalised bank's branches, specially of the Sonali Bank, are accommodated in many ornate colonial period large mansions, like in Mymensingh, Rangpur, etc. Many government colleges or other institutions are too occupying many of the zamindaarbaris, for example in Muktagacha, Puthia, Saturia and Muraripara.
International events and organisations such as the 1957 Hague Conference, the 1972 UNESCO convention in passing resolution for the protection of world patrimony, the endorsement of tourism by the UN General Assembly proposing preservation of historic sites and monuments as tools and subsequently the indirect influence of various UN bodies such as the UNDP, FAO and international organisations such as the World Bank, the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Centre for Restoration and Conservation of Monuments (ICCROM), the Aga Khan Award for Architecture introduced in 1976 and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 1988, the Ford Foundation, and the Getty Trust, all have considerably helped to grow awareness and the emergence of conservation activities in Bangladesh.
Awareness towards conservation or value of architectural heritage is not very old among the architects in Bangladesh. In early 1980s when we were in our final year(s) of education at BUET which for another decade was the only school of architecture in Bangladesh, few were looking to develop a better understanding of cultural heritage and architecture both in the West and in the region, which I have written about earlier, including about the study circle that they formed which brought together not only young architects and students but gradually artists, sculptors, historians, literary personalities, journalists and even few engineers. They propagated the idea that we have to look into vernacular, culture, climate and materials in order to generate form and space that is Bengali.
It was a time when an unpopular government, and the nouveau riche elite who were in fact the product of the system, formed the main clientele. They touted cheap Islamic clichés and a distorted view of both modem and traditional architecture in order to identify with the Islamic sentiments, profiteer from it, gain foreign support and consolidate their hold.
It was the time when the General asked all boundary walls on important city streets to use arch. Ironically it was this same dictator's personal interest that saw some of the major architectural conservation works being undertaken by the government. It was also the time when we were doing our thesis project besides rallying on the streets against the military dictator and his newly announced Shikkya Neeti, as in charge of the Engineering University Central Students Union (EUCSU) which he allowed to continue despite suspending the Constitution. We fought with the government forces between the Curzon Hall and old High Court building, took shelter for sometime at the Mughal mosques, and gathered again in the afternoon at Battala, but the from very next morning had to go in hiding for about a month. Gen. Rahman, the Zonal Martial Law Administrator and Gen. Rahman, the DG DGFI, occupied some colonial period buildings opposite the National Museum which had just opened, to detain and torture the so called 'anti-state' elements, and takeover a historic part of the city permanently.
Coming back to the thesis, one of our friends selected a topic to develop the riverfront in old Dhaka and connect it with the new city through an area that also included the Ahsan Manjil. He prepared a scaled model in wooden blocks of that entire part of the city of narrow winding lanes and bylanes, encircled by the Dholai khal. He also drew the facades of some of the building on the blocks that we had not till then heard the names of, such as Ruplal House, Ali Mia's Gole Talab, and Shankhanidhi Lodge. He was talking about in his proposal creating axis, widening vista, connecting pockets and doing infills. That the issues of urban design and heritage conservation were connected was just evident. He was passionately describing way of life and familial spaces, history of a place and spatial essence, many things that appeared Greek to us then.
But things were so romanticised and I was so mesmerised that few years later when I received Commonwealth Scholarship for higher studies in the UK I chose to study urban design. And these ideas of area conservation, not just preserving an isolated building, had such an imprint in my mind that when I participated in a European Urban Design Competition titled 'Regenerating a Degraded Urban Area', held at Seville in 1987, the proposal which saw me being short listed as UK-finalist, was about taking some historic buildings in the Roman town of Stamford, and convert them for various uses related to a university so that 'the town and the gown' were integrated. That is also when I learned about university planning and campus design, and how a private university, as there was only Buckingham University in the UK, could be sustained.
It was exciting time too! Efforts to create an architecture sensitive to the needs of the country received a forth from the Aga Khan's Regional Seminar held in Dhaka in December 1985 in association with the Institute of Architects Bangladesh of which we had just become a member, and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology where I had started my teaching career.
The triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture had been instituted, and already completed two cycles. The award aimed to reward concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies in contemporary design, social housing, community development and improvement, restoration, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design and environmental improvement projects. It brought to our attention such projects as Ali Qapu, Chehel Sutun and Hasht Behesht (I had a chance to see all three projects in Isfahan), Kampung Improvement, Rüstem Pasa Caravanserai, Hafsia Quarter and Sidi Bou Saïd (Tunis), Darb Qirmiz Quarter (Cairo), Mali Medical Centre and Great Mosque, Nianing Agricultural Training Centre, Šerefudin's White Mosque (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Shah Rukn-i-'Alam Mazaar (Multan), Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre (Giza), Tanjong Jara Beach Hotel and Rantau Abang Visitors' Centre (Malaysia), and many traditional houses in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, etc., which were often ordinary and yet unique.
The event was the greatest ever constellation of world architectural luminaries; it took another 18 years before we could do something close to it while organising ArcAsia Congress in the same venue. Coincidentally I worked as the Repertoire at both the events; in the first one as the junior-most academic since nobody else would take the (boring) responsibility, and in the other one as a fresh returnee teaching few years abroad, unemployed finding no other profitable engagement, and as nobody else could do it. During the 1985 event, we were literally brushing our shoulders with such world renowned architects as Bawa, Correa, Doshi and Rudolph, Uttam Jain, Raj Rewal, Khambatta and Khosla, Habib Ali and Kamil Mumtaz, journalist and critic as Mulk Raj Anand, WJR Curtis and Mildred Schmertz, academic and thinker as Arkoun, Frampton and Grabar. It gave an opportunity for the region's architects to interact and debate on pertinent issues, and come across recent works of leading architects addressing the respective tradition, culture and environment. The presence of such international personalities exposed the architects of Bangladesh to debates contemporary elsewhere.
Just to sustain the enthusiasm that was generated by the above seminar, the same group of organisers three years later came together to hold a workshop on architectural and urban conservation in the Islamic world, that brought in leading conservationists like Ronald Lewcock, Sherban Cantacuzzino, Brigitte Dessau, Corneille Jest, Ammar Khammash, Michael Sorkin and Reza Ali. The participants were various building professionals, mainly architects, from both government, academic and private practice, who were split into four groups to study as an exercise in conservation plan preparation on three sites in Dhaka and Painamnagaar. Because of some complications of my study in the UK, I couldn't come and participate in the largely successful workshop.
However though expected but it couldn't leave a lasting impact on the participants except few. One of them who studied architecture with me, with the help of others who were with him in the study circle mentioned earlier, undertook a mammoth endeavour to document heritage buildings of Bangladesh over several years, held a measured drawing exhibition on 50 some buildings, and record them in a book named 'Pundranagar to Sher-e-Bangla Nagar'.
Little later at BUET architecture department another study underwent financed by the Ford Foundation that aimed to prepare a baseline data of the historic structures in old Dhaka, document resources with heritage value, provide listing and criteria for selection to the Government, and promote awareness among professionals and students of related subjects, and laymen. I was lucky to be part of the project with few other senior colleagues of mine, and learned a lot. I organised a students' Measured Drawing Competition; conducted Walking Tours in old Dhaka, made few publications, gave lectures, attended international and national seminars, and organised an International Seminar. Yet I am not sure about the actual outcome as nothing substantial has been published, and I myself cannot retrieve any drawing of buildings, even of those that were prepared under my supervision!
In the 1990s there were few other studies undertaken with small budgets often under personal initiative, for example at the Khulna University which had opened an architecture discipline then. A great scope arrived with the re-organisation of the BUET curricula in 1991-93 to introduce semester system based on credit hour. A course on architectural conservation was integrated though as an elective for the first time; however as there was little expertise in relevant area available it couldn't be offered till the late 1990s. As many of the private universities to have introduced architecture programs since 1995 were following the BUET curricula they too kept a course, though were not regular in offering it. Yet this is a beginning. Architecture students are more often undertaking exercises within historic setting that entails decisions regarding old historic buildings or examples of traditional architecture; they are making conscious and informed choices (to retain our historic patrimony, preserve something which were given to us to pass on to our future generation).
Two of the distinguished and unusual buildings I documented for the study at BUET. 1704 Kartalab Kha Mosque at Begumbazaar, recently defaced by the Archaeology Department, and ornately decorated 1912 Kashaituli Mosque.