The Art of the Environment
AS I step outdoors and walk up to the end of my lane to fix the fare of a rickshaw to school, I look forward to the ride. The slow, bumpy journey gives me just enough time to think and absorb all that is around me; the passing traffic, the blur of green, the chaotic bits of conversation and in one, everything that builds up the environment. I notice the changing skyline, the shape of buildings against the backdrop of a sky. I breathe in the polluted air, notice the dust settling on leaves of trees as I try to hold on to the seat of the vehicle.
Being a student of architecture, I have been taught to appreciate nature as it is. Everything is part of a composition; the solid complements the void as white negotiates with black. Likewise form, supplements space and so on. But everything is within an environment. Perhaps it can be thought of as a canvas for art. In that case, the environment can be looked upon as a canvas that underwent and is undergoing layers and transformations. Perhaps the creation of the built environment can be denoted as an artistic activity by itself where the shapers or creators are the artists and are working together to produce the piece of art that we ourselves are a part of.
This was the topic of discussion for ANGAN, the forum for Co-curricular activities of the Department of Architecture, BRAC University, one evening last summer. Apart from the subject itself, what caught my interest was the list of panelists. Prof. Perween Hasan Department of Islamic History and Culture, University of Dhaka, Motafa Monowar Artist and Puppeteer, Mustafa Khalid Architect, Nahas Khalil Architect and Prof. Dwijen Sarma Environmental Scientist. These were five renowned individuals from different backgrounds. What would they have to say in common in this open discussion? We did not have to wonder too long as the Moderator Prof. Fuad H Mallick Department of Architecture, BRAC University, calmly stepped on to the dais to introduce each of the speakers in turn and commence the event.
Prof. Mallick briefed the topic. He explained that the environment (in this case the built environment) is a result over time of the layering of built forms, open spaces, water bodies, greenery, transportation routes, commerce, politics and various other events (historical or otherwise). To present this activity of layering as art, it can be taken to another dimension. It can give meaning beyond what it seems and as a result turn out to have more appeal in its creation, understanding and enjoyment. The built environment has been an inspiration for artistic interpretation (e.g. the paintings of Mondrian). A city plan can be the artistic activity of a city planner. Art adds value to a city and gives the dwellers a vision. The art object lets the person view the city through a different lens.
The built environment with the changes it has been undergoing can therefore be denoted as a piece of artwork where a continuous process of layering and painting takes place. Since we are the artists, it must be considered about the impact we are having on it, whether we are choosing the right shades of paint or how we can beautify the canvas further with measured strokes. Mostafa Monowar, being an artist, explained how art has been an inbuilt nature amongst our society and culture. The traditional katha or anchal of a saree reflects the unspoken words of the designer in an artistic way. In terms of the environment, he explained how built forms and empty spaces enhance each other. A combination of both is required to achieve harmony. Art of the environment lies in the unity of both. Somethings exist without an apparent purpose for within them lies the art needed to enhance the environment.
The first step can be taking lessons from history, appreciating our culture to decide on forms of art and whether the built environment can be a container for this art. Architect Nahas Khalil feels that we have a rich culture and an inbuilt aesthetic sense. The aesthetic sense can be a lesson from home. Training can come from education and culture. Appreciation of art can be started off from the house of a city. And yet, we seem to overlook the fact that we are the players of the game of beautifying the environment.
Nature is an integral part of the environment. Perween Hasan feels that we have gradually destroyed our environment by mistreating nature and are destroying the landscape little by little, bit by bit. She emotionally explained that we need a space to express ourselves. An investment in architecture is a must to achieve this space. We need to understand art to enhance the environment in the right manner. The renowned environmentalist Dwijen Swarma agreed with this point and nostalgically described how nothing remains of Dhaka of the past. Dhaka has evolved gradually through generations. The views in which it has been seen have changed from generation to generation. The number of parks and open spaces need to be increased in today's Dhaka. We should remember the value and not destroy what we have. The ecosystem is an integral part of the environment. We must love the ecosystem in order to love the environment. We must remember the importance of green which has always been considered to be essential for the environment not only in terms of beautification but also for giving us the relief to breathe.
Dhaka is undoubtedly a chaotic city. Whether it has always been chaotic or whether it being this way now is good or bad is not the question. Our concern lies in the fact that we have to look for art in chaos. We are capable of producing art forms, for example the sculptures on and around various parts of the city. But can they all be referred to as art? We have produced beautiful sculptures in the recent past, what has become of the modern sculptures then? Mustafa Khalid stirred our minds with such questions and took us through a slide show to illustrate his points. He expressed his disapproval at the increasing number of billboards lining the cityscape in recent times and questioned the increase in number of the brightly coloured footbridges on the city's roads. Do the citizens approve of all these “art objects” in the “environment” of their city? If not then why are they still being built?
The discussion session ended with individual thoughts lingering in our minds, regarding the art of the environment. The questions come back to me as I continued my rickshaw ride home and absorb my surroundings. We, the future architects, are meant to be artists of the environment. In order to be successful artists, we need to know, learn, understand and appreciate art in the first place. We need to figure out what forms can be defined as art, and what cannot. By clarifying our own concepts, perhaps we can work to enhance the environment. Change is inevitable. To make the change come to a better outcome is our task. It is up to us to find the silver lining amidst the dark cloud. Can we do it?
(The writer is a student of BRAC University)