Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 6, Issue 04, Tuesday, January 25, 2011

 

 

ARCHITECTURE

Of the people, for the people

Can one imagine Dhaka without its majestic, towering edifice of democracy? It is a strange reality that as Bangladeshis -- residents of an impoverished land -- we have an almost subliminal familiarity with this grandest of buildings. It draws us in, and in many ways has become the centre of our subconscious as city residents. From rooftops far away, we draw our bearings as we spy with great pride, our Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, its vast aura nestled in trees, gardens and lakes.

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed and Nurur Rahman Khan

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In 1959, the government of Pakistan, in the uniquely divided land that was pre-1971 Pakistan, decided to establish two seats of government; the executive wing in West Pakistan, and the legislative wing in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Architect Mazharul Islam was chosen to design the headquarters for the legislative arm of government in East Pakistan. He in turn brought in one of the master architects of the time, Louis I Kahn, who set about creating a masterpiece that reflects the traditions, culture and architecture of the land it adorns.

It must now be a source of mirth for us that the authorities in West Pakistan rejected Kahn's plans because they were not 'Islamic' enough, but he found the more moderate people of East Pakistan amenable to his ideas.

“Kahn, in designing the parliament building, drew inspiration from the essence of our country; water, trees, and land,” says architect Nurur Rahman Khan of Tanya Karim, N.R Khan and Associates. “Also, he paid heed to our culture, and realised that our perception of monumentality is different from the Western perception, which is touched by feudalism. The people of our region saw monuments as part of their own being.”

Speaking on the aspects of the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, which have been drawn from traditional Dhaka architecture, Khan said, “If you have noticed, there is a common trait among all of Dhaka's important buildings. Be it Curzon Hall, the Art College or even the houses at Minto Road, all were baganbaris, houses in gardens. The Sangsad Bhaban is exactly that, a house surrounded by a garden. It is not a walled compound. In these aspects, you can see how much the Sangsad Bhaban has been inspired by Dhaka's architecture and traditions. It is related to the country, its people's mindsets.

“These are the most powerful aspects of the building. The city dwellers have validated this building. People may be forcibly disallowed from entering its premises, but they still gather as close to it as they are allowed. Landmark events like the felicitation of Professor Yunus after his Nobel Prize, and more recently the launching of the World Cup countdown, have been staged with Sangsad Bhaban as the backdrop. “

He went on: “It is ours, as much as Louis Kahn can be proud of his masterpiece, we can be equally proud, because we influenced him to do this, and don't forget, we also allowed him to do it. He went to West Pakistan where the authorities did not buy into his vision, asking for domes and arches in the classical Islamic form. Our mindset is different, and our perception of Islam is more open.

“He himself noticed that the people of our country were religious-minded, and so this is the only parliament building that you have to enter by walking under a mosque. The mosque is the entry of the parliament building, and it is slightly turned in the direction of Qiblah, making it slightly asymmetric. This asymmetry was intentional, highlighting the fact that the slight skewing of the entrance is important. From this, you can see that Kahn took into account the feelings and religious sensibilities of the people he was creating this masterpiece for.”

Khan provided another example of Kahn's depth of consideration of Dhaka's unique features that are manifest in the design. “Kahn noticed the vibrancy of life on the street, especially in places like Puran Dhaka where narrow streets are flanked by buildings on either side. The street is a place of activity; it is a gathering place in Dhaka. The ambulatory inside Sangsad Bhaban, the main circulation feels like a street and is inspired by the streets of Dhaka. The tall structure on both sides with the 'street' in the middle is an abstraction of the streets of Dhaka.”

Another wondrous element of the Parliament building is the innovative use of natural light to illuminate its interior. “This has been done in different ways in different spaces. In the mosque, there are no windows looking out. But light comes in through round cylindrical structures that draw light from above into the mosque. In the central chamber, natural daylight is reflected into it. It connects the occupants to the larger world. You are in a space where light reaches you in an almost spiritual way, persuading the occupants to treat the chamber and their duties as sacrosanct. These are things that were done in religious structures, so Kahn has imparted that type of sanctity to the central chamber and mosque,” Khan explained.

“The corridors admit streaks of light through openings in the walls, and as the day goes on the light increases and decreases, creating a constant drama and further connecting occupants to life on the streets of Dhaka,“ Khan added.

Our parliament building is a source of pride for us, and contrary to what we might think of it as an otherworldly presence, it is in fact, in each brick and each shape, Bangladeshi. We must also take pride in the fact that we were the inspiration and the impetus behind the magnum opus of one of the greatest architects of all time. More is the pity that we are not allowed into our own building.

It is the defining artefact of our sovereignty, to which it gives legitimacy through its grandeur. We may feel lucky to have it in our midst, we may see it as a gift to a fledgling nation; perhaps that is why the general public have now, for some time, been denied access to its inner sanctity. In truth, it is an injustice that we are not allowed, because our sense of familiarity with this work of genius is not misplaced. The genius who built this, Louis I Kahn, drew inspiration from us, our architecture and our geography; so it is inexorably ours, and we the people must not feel shy in claiming ownership of it.

By STS
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
and Nurur Rahman Khan

 

 

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