Old but New: New but Old
Editor: Mahbubur Rahman
Distributor: Omni Books
PP 366. Price: Tk 1500/ ISBN 978 984 33 0894 8
Reviewed by Dr. Marzooqi Said Ismail
BUILDINGS and monuments are the products of accumulated wisdom expressed through the language of space and form. They symbolize a particular civilization, a significant development, or a historic incident, and become significant in our cultural and national life. In addition to architectural, aesthetic, historic, and iconic values, they possess emotional value as the symbol of our cultural identity, and hence form the heritage. Architecture is a vivid expression in material form of a society's social, economic, technological and cultural achievements at any point of time in history and in a particular geographic area. In absence of adequate historical sources and writings, it is a common denominator between generations of people, a major means of communication with the tradition and heritage of a nation. A civilized people or society must know about its origin and roots in the local, regional and in world contexts to be able to understand and appreciate his being and to charter his course into the future.
Hence it is the moral obligation of one generation to preserve its rich inheritance, held in trust for the future generations. Preservation of architectural work is, therefore, of immense significance, as a means of cultural heritage preservation, for a society that values its past and cares for the posterity. Even two millenniums back, buildings used to be adapted for reuse, though conservation movement started in Europe in the eighteenth century. The value of architectural heritage is now universally recognized, even in many developing countries.
Historic cores are generally the oldest parts of towns, particularly in the burgeoning cities in the developing countries. These are under huge pressure from competing economic activities, and hence are giving rise to sharp land values. Many such cities or areas therein had originated from flourishing trade and commerce historically, which on many instances had not been relocated in several centuries. Thus older buildings become an easy target for demolition and replacement by denser and taller structures, with higher economic return. However, the long-term environmental and cultural costs have seldom been duly considered.
Heritage resources are destroyed in the process when these surrender to commercial interests, especially as heritage buildings receive no legal protection, financial incentive, or any other option. The government often encourages developments with incentives while discouraging retention of traditional activities and forms. It is very difficult to protect historic buildings in a city where the nature of development is market driven. Survival of a building in its current form and use faces stiff opposition when the site has a higher value and potential. There is hardly any exception to the widespread phenomena of historic buildings giving way to alien uses and modern construction. Thus old is usually replaced by new not for genuine progress, improvement, or welfare, but to yield materialistic profits to the vested groups.
Due to the absence of awareness of heritage value of old historic buildings and apparent justification for their conservation, alternative options (to demolition) are not even considered in most instances. Especially the policy makers/government officials find it more attractive to build afresh by undertaking new projects, rather than repair and reuse the existing buildings. Thus it should be mandatory upon the government agencies to offer alternatives to decision makers and users and incentives to the property owners in order to protect a city's heritage and culture, so that demolition and new construction do not become inevitable destiny.
Historic districts within enormous, modern and expanding cities in the developing world have undergone changes. Patterns of invasion-succession of
migrant populations have been superimposed on the decaying guild and ethnic neighborhoods. The well to do have tended to escape the old historic cores of their cities, often only retaining businesses there. Other than housing new activities like warehousing, large and small old buildings have been subdivided for multiple families, which raised the density. Infrastructure provision in such areas is inadequate and pollution threatens not only the well being of the citizens, but also the architectural and urban heritage that made these places special. Almost universally this heritage is at risk of extinction.
In the above context, the book, Old but New: New but Old, brings forward all the issues pertinent to the protection of architectural heritage in the developing countries. There are 10 chapters, 8 of which are written by the editor himself, while the rest two are by two professors from Saudi Arabia and China. The chapters cover topics such as development and economics, administration, resources, participation, urbanism, heritage, governance, ideas, philosophies, current thinking, approaches and challenges of heritage conservation. This is a very resourceful book using over 300 photographs many of which are rare, and many drawings and maps. Half of the papers make direct reference to Bangladesh, specially the urban areas and Dhaka.
Three papers discuss the master plans, building codes, construction rules, and antiquities law, old and new, followed in Dhaka and other large cities of Bangladesh, and put them into historic perspective putting forward so many unknown but very useful information in one place which make it a must buy for the building professionals. On top of it, two papers on Ahsan Manzil and Painamnagar too give out many unknown facts to the first time readers, and establish that it is not only architectural value or antiquity that can justify the heritage claim of any edifice, it is also socio-economic and historic role can qualify it. Of particular value are the many information, examples and case studies in highlighted boxes, and as annexure with all the papers. Some of the annexure, for example the ones on traditional houses or Dhaka's relation with water, are very rich and thorough. Even the annexure on building code and Antiquities Act are otherwise difficult to get. In fact over 300 references used in the book show just how thoroughly all the topics have been researched upon. The book, Old but New: New but Old, is a befitting response to 400 years of Dhaka, and also epitomizes the efforts at the North South University Architecture School which has been documenting the old traditional buildings in and around Dhaka for the last fours years under the able guidance of the main author who has taught there between 2004-08. The ten essays together embody a response to a common underlying concern the neglect and problems of architectural heritage conservation in the developing countries.
It is to be mentioned that there are only two other books on similar topic published from Dhaka. Yet this one by far is the most resourceful and informative because of the diversity of topics, depth of study and extent of information it provides. An eye-catching cover matches the contents inside. This book is not only for architects, but for any conscious person who loves his/her city and cares for the heritage. It can be an excellent gift for any occasion. We wish this book, available at the Ekushey Boi Mela, a success.
(The reviewer is a professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur)