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     Volume 2 Issue 101 | January 11, 2009|


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45 BKDas Lane House


An Architect's Dhaka

Dr. Mahbubur Rahman

Part Nineteen
Vague, ambiguous, rigid and inflexible rules, planning without citizens' input, and uncoordinated activities of different agencies rendered Dhaka non-functional. Violation of rules and non-compliance with the plan was a norm rather than an exception. Rapid urbanisation and economic pressure continued to degrade environment. Destruction of historical and heritage structures was rampant. In such a backdrop the Dhaka Metropolitan Area Building Construction Rules were first gazetted in April 2006; its enforcement was hindered by vested quarters. It came into force in January 2007 after a six-month transition from the old rules. Meanwhile it underwent a revision to clear ambiguities, detail some provisions for clarity, and remove conflicts with prevailing rules/acts especially with the Building Code. The revision was published in August 2007 as the Dhaka Metropolitan Area Building Construction Rules 2007.

No Rule in the past covered heritage conservation; nobody sought permission for demolishing building. Otherwise Rajuk could detect demolition of heritage buildings. Absence of conservation initiatives, awareness on heritage and maintenance has resulted in buildings of aesthetic and architectural value, cultural or archaeological significance deteriorating, collapsing or falling victim to real estate developers. Many such incidents have been highlighted in the media through the effort of Urban Study Group led by two architects. Further demolition of 45 BK Das lane was deferred as the prospect of saving the rest of it applying the FAR rule brightened. As the duo talked to the Tantibazaar Jagannath Temple committee to suspend its planned demolition so that they could raise the fund for its repair that could stop the destruction, it obliged, but not for long.

We noted Prasanna Babu's house in Farashganj first in 1992. A narrow long house with three distinct courtyards, two unusual colonnades around the front court, an ornate pediment and curvilinear balcony, and elaborate capital and foliage would attract anybody passing by. The partly three storied building had terraces at several levels, and also a semi basement at the rear end. Monkeys would roam around all over the building. Many tenements shared the house, to be entered through a double storey gatehouse; some would be suspicious of visitors, others would be curious. Few years later I had a student doing her thesis that included this house as one of the case studies; she prepared a measured drawing and we analysed the spaces. But documents got misplaced due to our movement through various countries. I did send another group of students two years back; they could document the house before demolition started.

It has now become a joke as there have been a dozen buildings in last one decade that I had documented and then they got demolished! That reminds me of one of my favourite movies 'Road to Perdition' where Judd Law playing a killer could take photographs of dying persons!

Although there was an attempt to update and prepare a comprehensive list of heritage structures that merit protection under the BCR 2007, progress has not been satisfactory. The DOA has a rudimentary and incomplete list that is rarely updated. It excludes many buildings and sites with merits. Part of the problem is in the definition of 'heritage' which DOA follows. For it age is the only yardstick for a structure to qualify as 'heritage'. Furthermore, it does not have adequate and skilled manpower, fund and above all vision for conservation of heritage. The IAB asked for fund to survey the existing building stock and recommend structures and sites for inclusion in the heritage list. Its heritage Cell once mobilised architecture students to identify and do preliminary documentation of heritage structures in Dhaka. Meanwhile the urban development committee formed a sub-committee to develop such a list whose progress is doubtful.

The rules have provisions on conservation of heritage buildings and sites. These include restrictions, special requirements and the mandatory special permission to build within 500 meters of any heritage structure. An annexure to the rules makes special provisions for three categories. These are enlisted buildings, restricted/ preserved areas and areas especially nominated or demarcated. According to the BCR 2007 the Rajuk shall prepare and/or update and maintain a list of heritage buildings, special structures and areas matching the above categories. The basis of the list could be identification by Rajuk, listing from DOA, suggestions from IAB, and/or from recognised professionals and experts on the subject. Unfortunately the BCR 2008 supposedly an improved version cut down many requirements in terms of preserving the heritage without the notice of experts that prepared it in 2006.

Until the early 1990's Bangladesh had no building code to ensure health, safety and hygiene for its citizens. Following recurrent fires in Ready Made Garment factories, collapse of buildings and loss of lives, for example death of construction workers as the roof of under-construction Mita Textile factory gave away (1984); death of students from collapse of a roof under repair in the Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University (1986); or death of workers in stampede and suffocation in a fire at the Beauty Garments in Mirpur (1989), demand for having our own building code was raised mainly by the architects. The government tried unsuccessfully to formulate this with the help of BUET experts. In 1993 it engaged a consulting firm to formulate the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC). I was lucky to be in the selected group who actually wrote the various parts of the 1400 page document in a record time.

The urge to follow the code in good faith did not succeed, except that some provisions were integrated into the 1996 Building Construction Rules making compliance must for approval of building plans. It was not until the 15th November 2006 that the Code became mandatory following an amendment of the 1952 Building Construction Act. Violation of the Code is an offence now punishable by a maximum of 7 years imprisonment and/or fine of Tk 50,000 (approx. US $ 700).

The BNBC ensures public safety, health and general welfare in so far as they are affected by design, construction, alteration, repair, removal, demolition, use or occupancy of buildings, structures or premises through structural strength, stability, means of egress, safety from fire and hazards, sanitation, light and ventilation. It has special provisions for preservation, restoration of historic, cultural and architecturally significant buildings as decided by a standing committee to be constituted under BNBC.

There are issues to be resolved before the code can be a part of general practice. Since the adoption of the BCR 2007, Rajuk has been insisting on full compliance to the Code. Many practicing architects and allied professionals are not yet fully conversant to follow the code in its entirety. To complicate matters further, there are ambiguities and contradictions and some provisions have become obsolete with time and access to new information, knowledge and technology.

For example, as the reach of fire ladder in Dhaka was up to the seventh floor height in 1993, the code asked for all higher buildings to have fire escape. Though fire ladder can now reach to at least 11 floors, the fire department is reluctant to make the Rule realistic. Although the code mandates 5-yearly review and revision, it has not seen any change since 1993. A national steering committee of which I am a member is now working on revising the code. There is no agency to enforce the code or any official to oversee and monitor its compliance.

The BNBC has special provisions for preservation and restoration of historic and architecturally valuable buildings. Accordingly it provides for a standing committee, which can frame additional/new provisions as and when necessary. Despite the suggestion of the code there is no standing committee on heritage conservation. As it does not have any mechanism for enforcement, historically important and architecturally valuable buildings have no protection and are under a constant threat of demolition.

More often than not, occupants or owners deface, modify or extend facades of architecturally valuable buildings without any consideration to aesthetic quality, form, value and compatibility. The recent extension of the Dhaka University Library Building is a visual affront to the work of a Bangladeshi master architect. Built in 1953, it is an early modern building in Bangladesh designed by Muzharul Islam. The authority recently started to build a mobile phone tower on the roof of the building. It became an eye sore amidst the serene tranquillity and the natural ambience of the university campus. Though protest from the architects and an apprehension of bad publicity made the authority stop the construction; but it has now proposed to demolish the building and construct three high-rise towers with Korean assistance.

The extension to the Mosque in Kawran Bazaar is a clear example of good intentions paving the road to hell. The architect who worked on the extension had the good sense to respect the old mosque; yet the sensitivity, knowledge of history and principles of conservation are lacking. The mosque sits uncomfortably next to the unwieldy extension and development around it. So is the case of the historic old mosque, which the outer stadium almost shrouds from view; the designer or the builder did not bother to recognise its existence.

Many such changes and demolition of architecturally valuable buildings go unnoticed either by professionals, citizens or the media. From an economic perspective commercial interests perceive heritage structures as unproductive, useless or even inconvenient. Some even term them risky, vulnerable and uneconomic to justify change or demolition for a new beginning.

(The writer is a Professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia)

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