The Architect and the Activist Mubasshar Hussian is an architect who hardly needs an introduction. A three time President of the Institute of Architecture Bangladesh and currently a member of the City Development Committee he is also known as a an activist in various fields. He led the battle to preserve the original design of Louis I Kahn's National Assembly Complex and eventually won. Recently he was awarded the American Institute of Architects Presidential Medal and thus became the first Bangladeshi to be honoured by the association. This week he spoke to The Star about his most recent achievement, his ambitions for the Parliament building and the future of architecture in Bangladesh.
Can you tell us about winning the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Presidential Medal
Well to be honest it came as quite a big surprise for me. I was pleased to be the first Bangladeshi to win the award as well as the first Bangladeshi to be granted an honourary membership to the AIA. When I went to San Francisco to receive the award it really filled me with pride to see Bangladesh's flag on stage, the prestige of representing my country is something I cannot put into words. Interestingly while I was the first person to receive the award and the president of Canadian Institute of Architects was the last, we made an interesting couple onstage, because amazingly we were both Bangali, as he hails from West Bengal. When on stage he looked at me and said, "Dada, have you seen how powerful we Bangalies are?" All in all it was unbelievable experience.
You have often spoken passionately on the topic of our Parliament building, what is it about the building that interests you so much?
The truth of the matter is that the Parliament building in Bangladesh is nothing short of an architectural and historical landmark. When the previous government tried to change the master plan and started fiddling by building a house for the speaker that was when I decided to act on the issue. I took the issue to the high court and won, because such a building should not be changed or altered. To this day I receive requests to open up the building to the public. I have been told if I can do that, then a full plane of people will be sent from Japan to Bangladesh every single month because people from that country are desperate to see and visit our parliament building. It is funny, in our own country people have come to accept it as ordinary, but abroad it is still viewed as a great piece of architecture, I guess we don't know a good thing when we see it.
I have tried to convince numerous people within civil society and most importantly the government that the parliament building is a landmark of our country and we should open it up to the public, but no one seems to listen or care about the issue. In Germany, just like as in Australia their parliament buildings are open to the public. There is a simple ticketing system and people go there to take in the atmosphere and the architecture. The same could be done here, but no one bothers or cares. I personally don't know which one is worse.
You have also had an unpleasant experience at our parliament building during one of your tours. Could you explain that for us.
Well it happened some time ago when a group of foreigners had come to Bangladesh and wanted to visit the building. Along with them came the Italian Ambassador and after we got the relevant permission we went for the tour. Now it is not known to many people but the parliament has a beautiful little mosque inside it and the group was particularly interested in seeing it. As we approached the entrance of the mosque a security guard stopped us, he said that foreigners were not allowed inside. Without trying to make a scene there I told him that what he said was unbelievable and that the foreigners had every right to go inside. He said those were his orders, no foreigners. I then laughingly said that the whole complex was built by a Jew, would that stop them (the guards) from praying there? There was no answer to that, eventually I made up some excuse to my guests and took the tour elsewhere. This is the sort of behaviour we must fight in this country, it is insulting to our guests and our intelligence. If we are to make something out of this grand building then we cannot have embarrassing situations like this cropping up.
Do you think it is feasible for the parliament to function as the home of our government and as a major tourist and architectural attraction?
The simple answer is yes. As I have said before, this has been done around the world and can easily be achieved here in Bangladesh. I have even gone so far as to say that we (Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB), will take care of everything and the government will not have to spend a single Taka on this venture. But seemingly no one is interested to showcase our country.
The parliament aside, what is the state of architecture in Bangladesh? Is there a good young crop of architects coming up?
Let me say this, the architecture students in Bangladesh are much better than the ones abroad. Your next question maybe, then why are they not succeeding in comparison to their foreign counterparts? The problem is that those extraordinary students are joining small architectural firms as there is no better job for them. When they are at those firms invariably they are not given the proper opportunities and this new trend of wanting to hire a foreign architect has also affected them. In developed countries average and below average students pass out of university with a degree in architecture and then join large firms, which give them good exposure. And that is where their vision grows, that is where they become great architects. While the talented Bangladeshis are stuck in small firms and do not grow properly professionally, average foreign architects go on to do great things. You'll see whenever a Bangladeshi has joined a large architectural firm abroad he has gone on to do great things. Basically our architects are great, it's just the lack of opportunities and work experience that hurts them.
Recipient of AIA Award from 8 Countries at Sun Francisco.
What can be done to address this problem?
Well that is a very difficult question, but I can relate what I do to try and help the situation. I've realised that our architects need to see the world outside Bangladesh, they need to come into contact with different people and cultures to expand their horizons. So whenever possible I take a batch of students along to a conference, so that they gain an international perspective to architecture. Once I took a delegation to Delhi for a competition. I took 33 students along for the trip and finally out of the 20 awards that were given Bangladeshi students amazingly won 18! A government official was so pleased with our performance that he gave us a cash award as well. These are the students we have, they are of the highest calibre and all they need is opportunity to shine and in my small way I do as much as I can for them. They are the future and need to be nurtured as such.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009