By Kazi K. Ashraf
(excerpted from the essay originally published in MIMAR 31, 1989)
From the beginning of the last century almost all aspects of societal existence in Bengal, particularly stimulated by movements in political and literary fields, have been informed by a duality of specifically Bengali cultural identity and of appropriating things from a global repository. There continues to reign a complex situation of acceptance and resistance—a resistance to both the traumatizing aspects of colonialism and the repressive "traditional" conditions, and an acceptance albeit critical of trans-cultural techniques and norms that promised new avenues for exploration. While Rabindranath Tagore the poet, through his varied intellectual pursuits, had been the most heroic figure in taming this duality, others were less successful in areas like painting and especially architecture, where a Euro-centric sensibility held sway. The problem was compounded because of the amnesia into which architectural culture had lased during the colonial period and the vacuum in thinking that prevailed in this realm.
Muzharul Islam, the leading figure in architecture of the region, began his lonely yet committed struggle under these conditions, by designing two building in Dhaka in 1953, which, it might be said, initiated a "renaissance" in contemporary architecture for East Pakistan. Having trained first as an engineer, Muzharul Islam opted for further study in architecture and went to the University of Oregon in the United States and to Yale University where he received a Masters degree under the supervision of Paul Rudolph. It was upon his return to East Pakistan, and as part of his responsibilities within the ubiquitous Public Works Department (as no private architectural firms existed at the time) that he designed two edifices which are landmark in terms of the recent history of the profession locally: Dhaka, Public Library (now Dhaka University Library) and the College of Arts and Crafts. The former was clearly organized in a Corbusian mode—a cubic volume on stilts, complete with ramps, sun-breakers and pristine while color—but it indicated for Dhaka then fresh qualities of urbanism and environment. The western wing of the project, with its climate control devices such as shell roofs and brick louvers for the openings, was an original articulation by the architect. It was, however, the College for Arts and Crafts, which came closer to mediating with the conditions of the place and programme. Sprawling, low building volumes, the use of exposed fired brick which always has such a magical resonance with the "green" of Bengal, the natural garden setting on an urban site, all went to from the atmosphere of a campus that was ideal for the contemplation and learning of the arts, and, more importantly, indicated a spatial environment evoking the architectural poetics of the land.
The Eventful 1960s
In the political area the 1950s registered the first tremor of a rift between the two wings of Pakistan. The dominant political consciousness in East Pakistan, particularly in the 1960s, motivated by the issue of economic disparities between the two wings, and fuelled by the manipulative use of religion by the central government, would polarize most Bengali intellectual towards secular, socialist thinking.
Turbulent as this period was politically, the 1960s were significant too in the architectural realm. A development spree (often as part of "foreign aid packages") saw a profusion of building activities. The involvement of the American trioKahn, Rudolph and Tigerman—was due, to a great degree, to Muzharul Islam who saw a need in the vacuous contemporary situation to provide visual and provocative paradigms in the Bengali landscape. The intention was not too dissimilar to the still-fresh, high adventure of Le Corbusier at Chandigarh-Nehru's "jolt" to Indians. In the overwhelming atmosphere of national development through primarily Western models then prevalent, the work of these otherwise deeply sensitive architects provides interesting insight into the encounter between architectural morphology basically developed in the West and conditions that are often totally different from the original milieu. The most perceptible zones of this encounter were the architectonic and spatial solutions by which specific climatic conditions were tackled, the intelligent exploring of available materials and technology, and the subsequent abstract sculptural rendering of the artifact in the brilliant, tropical light.
However, the most poignant event would be to invite Louis Kahn to design the capital complex at Shere Bangla Nagar in Dhaka. Kahn's involvement at Dhaka is of epic proportions in itself. The Shere Bangla Nagar project eludes categorical statements of economic and cultural impropriety often made by some critics; the project continues to provoke an inspirational dialogue on the very fundamental nature of architecture and of human institutions. The force of Kahn's ensemble is not merely formal, but emotional too; its genesis has become inextricable linked with the recent national struggle of the Bengalis. And this is what many people outside the Bengali domain would fail to comprehend. Of course, Kahn never intended this consciously, and whether the work of any other architect would have performed the same role is an open question, yet it is possible that Kahn's special philosophical speculation about universal qualities in architecture to mediate between global and specific culture, "ancestral voice" and contemporaneity, found in the Dhaka project a coincidental significance.
Although the planning of Shere Bangla Nagar is informed by Beaux Arts sensibilities and much of the architectonic character by a Roman aura, it nonetheless creates a communion with certain aspects of Mughal planning and even the architectural order in such monastic complexes as Nalanda (in Bihar, India) and Paharpur (in North Bangladesh). This gives meaning to a still open search for archetypal dimensions in human enterprises. In spite of the debatable issue of economy and those abrupt circular cut-outs, Kahn's work for a long time will stir and elucidate, as well as inspire generations of architects, in Bangladesh and India, to take up architecture as a serious, spiritual mission—unlike the short-lived visual titillation in which so many architects today are engrossed in.
Monumental Muzharul Islam
It is Muzharul Islam's work, which, in addition to Kahn's capital buildings, has dominated the early architectural scene in Bangladesh. His practice has been discontinuous in time, with periods of greater or lesser intensity of production, but it has always been multisided from the late 1950s and onwards. Muzharul Islam created the nascent architectural culture of Bangladesh, carrying out a struggle against government bureaucracy, against political domination by engineers, and against academic sterility.