Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 38 | March 18, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Straight Talk
   Food for Thought
   In Retrospect
   Slice of Life
   Time Out
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   Write to Mita
   New Flicks

   SWM Home

Cover Story

Conserving Heritage

Conservation is not about turning back the clock. It is about reclaiming heritage. It also is a way to align the past and present to make way for responsible urban living with an improved future in view. A seminar on colonial architecture throws light on how cities around Bangladesh are losing heritage sites of both colonial and pre-colonial eras.

Mustafa Zaman

The idea of conservation is almost an anomaly in Bangladesh. Things of historical significance are nothing if not disposable. History has little room in a society that thrives on myopia. Even in the political and cultural spheres, historical context is often overlooked. Preserving history has little significance in a socio-political culture that has been too busy defacing it to lend strength to beneficiaries of power.

In Bangladesh the idea of progress does not sit easy with the conservation of history, or historically significant buildings for that matter. Old buildings are connected to history, and they receive little attention. However, there are cities around the world where its citizens have stood up and fought for the preservation of history that continue to stand in the shape of old buildings. They have claimed the structures as their own and mobilised opinions against their removal. They have lobbied with the relevant authorities forcing them to opt for renovation. And by doing so they have saved chosen heritage sites that connect them to their forbears and their history.

In this region, Kolkata has set an example in keeping the casualties at a minimum. Even within Bangladesh, in Chittagong, the civil bodies have had a resounding success in mobilising opinion to save an important heritage site, namely the Court building, which had earlier been earmarked for demolition.

With more and more buildings being effaced from the urban landscape to make way for the newer, at times uglier, structures, it is time for the city dwellers across Bangladesh to stand up and reclaim them as part of their history. A seminar jointly organised by Saif ul Haque Sthapati and the Goethe-Institut, Dhaka, shed light on the disappearing urban past and brought to the fore the need for conservation of buildings that are still standing.

"Conservation of Heritage Buildings with Reference to Colonial Heritage," the seminar "provided a platform to facilitate dialogue," as Manish Chakraborti, an architect, activist and photographer based in Kolkata, terms it. He came all the way from Kolkata to share the successes they had in consolidating the efforts of the civil bodies and drumming up the funds to restore some of the most beautiful colonial-era buildings. His brilliant presentation on the second session of the first day of the seminar gave proof of the triumph of the people to save a city centre teeming with colonial buildings.

It was the effort by Action Research in Conservation of Heritage (ARCH), a Kolkata based civil body, that helped save a whole area from dilapidation. Their work has paid off. Although Manish and his group are still pressing for incorporation of more buildings into the endangered list, they have managed to get The Dalhousie Square, the colonial era enclave among the 100 endangered cultural sites declared by the World Monument Fund.

There are two sides to colonial architecture. Firstly, it symbolises the knowledge and power of the victor. People who were being ruled had neither the knowledge nor the need to build on the scale that colonial structures were built. Secondly colonial architecture includes exquisitely built structures that were once symbols of oppression but now can be seen, setting aside the political context, as architectural achievements both in terms of style and engineering. "We are not happy about the colonial rule, but these buildings were built with our money. And they reveal certain types of design and construction method. In order to build effectively today, we need to know the knowledge of the past," says Saiful Haque, an architect who has taken the initiative to facilitate this dialogue.

"Colonial architecture is a repository of knowledge. These buildings are not only mere valuable evidence of the colonial period, they offer to architects of today the knowledge of setting a structure against an environment," Haque points out. He agrees that colonial structures were built in keeping with the climactic characteristic of the region.

Haque also adds that colonial architects and engineers designed later-era buildings, with native masons and craft people. Bengal PWD (public works department) planned and executed the construction. Most of the colonial architecture that remains erect till this day is concentrated around the Ramna enclave. The buildings that are within the campus lie in the aegis of the Dhaka University authorities and the rest are the concern of the PWD. Haque believes that this is one of the reasons that they are still standing. The paper that Haque presented focused on Ramna and the urgency of its conservation.

This garden city has a long history. Muntasir Mamun, a scholar on history of Dhaka, says the name Ramna is of Moghul origin. According to his book "Dhaka: The City of Remembrance", its history goes back to 1610. In the book, there is a testimony of someone named Taifur who was a witness to a Moghul structure, a grand gateway to the garden, which was still there in 1903. After the partition of Bengal in 1905, when development works kick-started in the newly established provincial capital, Dhaka, many pre-colonial structures were erased. The grand gateway was among the casualties.

Saif ul Haque is in favour of keeping the signs of yesteryears for posterity. He says, "Dhaka as a city has accumulated a lot of history. This city cannot look the same all over. Areas that carry the pre-colonial sites, or the areas of colonial times must retain their characteristics." His appeal is for development that does not transgress past heritage sites.

"If areas like Ramna are declared heritage sites and information boards containing maps of the routes alongside the signs that will announce particulars of each important building are put up, it will be a start. The citizens need to become aware of the history the structures represent," believes Haque.

The papers read at the seminar were mostly in line with the idea that the city dwellers need to come forward to lay claim to the heritage buildings. In one of the question and answer sessions, a member of the audience shared an intriguing thought. He said that unless as a people we relate to the buildings in a historical way, the chances of saving them is dim. When he discovered that Curzon Hall once housed Dhaka College, of which he was once a student, it made him feel a special affinity towards the structure. It too has now become a part of him. This is something that each and everyone will have to feel towards a historical building. This personal connection with an institution and its history triggers sympathy towards the buildings that subsequently housed it. The discussants concluded that it was this sense of belonging that needed to be tapped into.

The same sense of belonging may save the residential structures of Halishahor, Chittagong. Shamsul Hossain, Deputy Curator of the Chittagong University Museum, says that he himself lives in a house at Halihahor that goes back more than a hundred years. "In a newspaper report, my house was among more than a hundred houses mentioned as prone to the immediate danger in case of earthquake. The report said it was 105 yeas old, but it is much older as it was built by my grand father," he observes.

Hossain feels that these houses of the malooms need to be saved. These are the last remaining houses of the malooms, the sail-ship builders of olden times. "And the houses encapsulate this history," he says emphatically. He bemoans the fact that while the residences of top government officials, often colonial era structures, are regularly maintained the residences of general people, however historically important, lie in neglect.

While the seminar concluded on a positive note stating the urgency of making a list of buildings that must be preserved, it also brought into focus the lack of awareness that exists in Bangladesh. "General awareness does not exist, it is because of this that we need to resort to media campaigns and involve the civil bodies to this end," says Kashef Chowdhury, a practicing architect. The broader the platform, the more chance it will have towards accomplishing the goals --- this was the predominant response from the Dhaka cognoscenti.

Winning the initial battle for conservation by saving the Chittagong Court building from demolition certainly rejuvenated hope among the participants of the seminar. Presented on March 9, in the first session of the first day of the two-day-long event, Zarina Hossain's "Citizens' Campaign to Save a Historic Landmark" told a story of success. It also brought into salience the determination and efforts that the civil bodies had to put in to save the structure built by the British within 1892-98.

"Perched on Peerer Pahar, it is the largest hill-top structure in undivided Bengal. Though its well-designed surroundings have long been tampered with, people still come to visit this place. It originally had a garden surrounding it," says Syeda Zarina, a Chittagong based architect and planner.

In 1985, the PWD's "project concept paper" termed the building as a structure "that cannot be preserved." Their suggestion was unambiguous, "it needs to be demolished for additional accommodation."

Zarina's presentation charted the struggle to save the building. It also exposed the mindset of the people at the decision making positions in top government offices. "Old buildings are like old clothes, you discard them when they are no longer usable," she quoted the comments of a high government official.

Fortunately in the end, the five-year-long "sustained and vigorous" campaign launched in 1999 managed to overturn the decision to demolish the High Court building. It was a shining example of people's triumph, not to mention, a definite blow to the attitude that the unfeeling officer had towards old buildings.

The triumph was the work of the Citizens' Campaign Against Demolition. It is a forum of professional civic groups that brings together everyone from architects to concerned citizens, a non-government body like the Forum for Planned Chittagong (FPC), under one roof. The District Bar Association and BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Services Trust) joined in as co-warriors.

Years of media campaign and awareness building had its desired effect. But in the end the success seems like a point that had been conceded by the authority as it had to balk under pressure. The old Court building still awaits funds for its repair jobs, while the construction of a new building has been on since 2004 right next to it.

During the campaign, the FPC, on behalf of the Joint Conservation Committee, had their technical team do a survey and produced a "technical report" on the building. "We appealed to the government saying that we are arranging for sponsorship for the repair works, to which the response was only -- silence," Zarina discloses.

The Department of Archeology, the government bureau responsible for heritage sites has its own constraints. Even the legislation to consider a structure fit to be called a heritage site requires the building to be more than 100 years old. Saiful Haque believes that conservation is beyond their task. "We need to have a broader platform, a heritage trust comprising of civil bodies where peoples' representatives will also re-enforce the effort to save the past heritage," he adds.

With the Chittagong Court building, legal implications were few in its favour. A hectic search was on to find out a legal way to save the structure. "Under the Building Construction Law we had not much in our favour. We needed to look into the Master Plan of the city, where we detected the mention of this Prestige Project," says Zarina. This prestige factor has to do with historical background and social aspect. "It is akin to having a monument," she explains. The conclusion of the forum she was a part of was plain and simple --- "the building was a landmark worthy of civic pride."

The legal battle was as eventful as the battle in the public frontier to garner support. On July 2001, an injunction order was obtained from the District Court against vacating of premises and demolition of the building. On October 2001, a writ petition was submitted to the High Court Division, and that led to the imposition of rule nisi on the government against the demolition. "Barrister Dr. Kamal and Tanjib ul Alam fought the battle for the citizens," Zarina acknowledges their invaluable contribution.

Zarina's presentation has generated hope. Yet in the context of what goes on around Bangladesh and even in the mega city -- Dhaka, it seems that anything associated with the word "old" is expendable in the hectic and unplanned surge of development. The wave of development that currently sweeps the country is mostly centred on the cities -- namely Dhaka and Chittagong with little trickle-down effect much to the chagrin of the people of the rural areas. The urban condition, too, has been vexed to the extreme, so as to make the mega city something of a puzzle grown out of all kinds of excesses.

In Dhaka urbanisation seems like a curse that curtails normal healthy living. Dis-proportionate building activities regardless of the capacity of an area, has turned it into a dense concrete jungle. With this as the backdrop, relevant authorities have shown little capability in setting the priorities. The beautification drive is a proof of DCC taking up a plan that has little bearing on the issues of responsible urban living let alone wholesome growth. There is hardly any effort on their part to save the last remaining water bodies and open spaces. Encroachment in Dhaka as well as many other cities is often a politically sponsored exercise. Sometimes it is social, as in the case of the Ramna Park. The encroachment by the National Tennis Federation and the Dhaka Club have markedly reduced the Park's nursery. In the surrounding areas there have been development activities that have little sympathy towards the character of Ramna.

The Suhrawardy Udyan that lies in the middle of the Ramna area too has been lying in neglect since the new government came to power. During the drive of Dhaka's beautification, it remained untouched. "Beautification was seen from an erroneous point of view. A well-planned and well-maintained city itself is beautiful, we don't need to add any cosmetics," explains Saiful Haque.

While Manish has brought fresh knowledge from Kolkata of corporate giants being party to the efforts of conservation, in Dhaka the very idea of getting them interested in such projects is still a dream.

A major private insurance company demolished an old, ornate building on Topkhana Road to make way for a multi-story building. Even an old ornate building in Bogra that goes back to the colonial era, one that housed a government bank, was scrapped. Though there were efforts by Mahbubur Rahman, an architect and head of the Department of Architecture at the North South University, to draw up a plan with the help of his former students to incorporate at least the front part of the old building with the new one, the working engineer had no time to waste. He had no thought to spare for an old building; it had to go.

There is always too much noise in the political sphere to preserve the sanctity of democracy, too much emphasis on lawful obedience to rule. There is even more hoopla about keeping the image of the country unblemished so that national pride remains inflated. There is little effort, as usual, to point out the reason for the quick-paced deterioration of social or political culture. With the pride factor tied up with history, it is the very history with which the Bangladeshis are most flippant. This certainly has consequences on the total scenario. Apathy towards conservation of heritage is just a part of it.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005