Here's a little test. Make a list of the five buildings from anywhere in the world that have made the biggest impression on you. Perhaps places whose grace and beauty are universally accepted, such as the Taj Mahal or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or statements of progress and power which excite and inspire, such as the Empire State Building or the space-age towers of Shanghai. Alternatively, you may be drawn towards one-off eccentricities such as the Sydney Opera House or the parliament right here in Dhaka, because of their sheer ability to surprise and challenge conventional expectations. Then try and work out what your choices say about you, your aesthetic tastes, your expectations and your needs: are you drawn towards the harmonious, the comforting, or towards the asymmetrical and challenging?
A cathedral of light.
Whatever your choices, there will be one thing that every building you can summon up has in common. They all began in the mind of one person, sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, a person tasked with the challenge of crafting a space which both expresses, lifts, glorifies and appeals to the human spirit. Or, as F.W. Schelling so hauntingly described architecture, the task of creating “frozen music”
There's no doubt that architecture, whether in terms of individual buildings or whole cityscapes such as Paris, Brasilia or Manhattan, has the power to evoke strong emotions in us. It's an art form as much as it is a science: if painting is art you look at, and sculpture is art you walk around, then architecture is art you walk through, and indeed live in. It's in the subtle interplay between people and buildings, the way you feel in a designed space, that the true gift of architecture lies. The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright went as far as to say that “all fine architectural values are human values”.
At the centre of this process sits the person who has to combine aesthetic vision with expertise on mass, space, volume, texture, materials, light and shadow. It's no small task. But it's rare, even when faced with glorious buildings, that we stop to think consciously about the motivations and challenges of the architects themselves.
To find out a little more I went to visit MK Aaref, a friend who's not only a companionable socialite, but also an established and successful architect here in Dhaka, and whose own house in Gulshan has been featured on TV.
Aaref was initially drawn towards the fine arts, but was aware that in his parents' eyes being an artist would hardly constitute a “respectable” profession, and so chose architecture as a compromise. Like many architects, his most fulfilling project was his own living space. Although it began as an idea for a cottage, over 17 months of gestation the idea grew into the cathedral of light and air that it is today. Glass walls, through which daylight pours, floors which soar upwards, spacious plant-dotted balconies, walkways connecting different parts of the building, numerous nooks and crannies each displaying different styles, from contemporary to classical to colonial, this house certainly appears distinctive when compared with so many of the identikit flats you visit across the city.
Like all his designs, this one began in Aaref's imagination.
Similar to the process of creating a painting or a music composition, the endeavour starts with a concept, a tune, a vision formulated in the mind. It's then in the dialogue between that idea and the physical crafting process, (in this case the drafting on paper), that the reality takes shape.
Designing your own house is one thing, but of course at some stage every architect has to work with clients, and this is where some of the challenges begin to come in. “The best individual clients” Aaref explains, “are those who offer you minimal guidance as to what they want then leave you to get on with the job. You can visit their houses, get a feeling for their tastes, and then work on creating a livable space for them.” Aaref is less impressed with those who turn up with a sketch of a grandiose classical palace taken from the internet and say “I want one of these”. Far less room for manoeuvre, for his own vision and expression.
Running his own small office is preferable to working in a partnership, Aaref explains, “because we're all egomaniacs at heart, with our own artistic visions.” Partnerships only tend to be successful when people have studied together for years and formed a similar outlook, whereas all Aaref's fellow students are still in Houston, where he qualified and lived for 10 years, in Birmingham, England, where he did his Masters, or in Kuwait where he spent three years, enjoying the revival of Arab-influenced architecture with its elegance and flourish.
Even when you work alone, there are always compromises to be made of course, not least with engineers. The art and science of designing buildings are naturally complementary, but that doesn't preclude tension between the vision of the architect and the pragmatic demands of the engineer. “If the architect of the Sydney Opera House had given in to engineers,” Aaref explains by way of example, “We'd have ended up with three cubes of white stone.” So his challenge to engineers who work with him? “Don't tell me 'no'; tell me 'how'.”
Aaref inside his own creation
Then there are the challenges of working with corporate clients. Not least burgeoning demands, often in conflict with shrinking budgets. Aaref smiles at the description by the American wit Ambrose Pierce of an architect as someone who “drafts a plan of your building then plans a draft of your money”. Indeed, he goes further: in a business climate which, let's say, is not always entirely reliable, it's far wiser to get the money first, or at least an advance.
What about architecture on a city-wide level? It seems to me sometimes, (granted that my knowledge of architecture could comfortably be contained within a matchbox), that with the exceptions of the parliament and the historical palaces, courts and university buildings, Dhaka doesn't actually have a lot of architecture to write home about? And what's more, that this goes for the country as a whole? It's not easy, when looking down, say, Mirpur Road, to make much of Le Corbusier's statement that “architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light”.
By and large, Aaref concurs. The main buildings of our capital have long been designed with functionalism in mind, and there's little to distinguish the buildings that line the city centre roads from each other. Representative of many of his generation, for example, Aaref's father, a banker, bypassed architects all together when designing his own house and directly commissioned a contractor.
The good news however, Aaref maintains, is that architecture is thriving these days, not only worldwide in the projects of luminaries such as Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava, but increasingly here in Bangladesh too. For decades there was only one department of architecture at BUET but now there are several universities offering courses. Individual projects are gaining in panache. A number of stylish examples of shopping malls, hospitals, and housing testify to a growing awareness of the difference an architectural aesthetic makes.
Aaref admits, however, that we still lag behind other countries in the subcontinent in this regard. The state of restoration of national heritage treasures, for example, is lamentable. What's more, the obstacles facing the country's architects are increasing. Chief among these is the lack of architecture's sister discipline: urban planning. There is little sense of space in what is now one of the world's top 10 megacities. Buildings pop up everywhere, and even though the rules are fairly stringent on land use and the requirements for architects' approval equally so, they often prove rather elastic in their implementation, with land disappearing at an alarming rate.
Furthermore, there is a dire shortage of parks or gardens, and a total lack of landscape architects. Added to this are the problems of a creaking transport system, and the lack of zoned neighbourhoods which divide off residential from commercial and industrial districts. Tejgaon alone is an example of how the three are often jumbled up.
It would, Aaref suggests, take a wrecking ball, about 15 years, and a visionary planner to sort it out. Finding a wrecking ball is easy enough, but any candidates out there for the role of visionary?
(R) thedailystar.net 2008