Evolved over centuries of culture, social-political change and religious influence in the country of the Bengal region, Bangladesh‘s architecture has a much longer and more complicated history. A culmination of the lifestyle, tradition, culture, and social structure of Bangladeshi people, it includes relics and monuments that can be traced back thousands of years. Yet, formal Architectural education in Bangladesh was initiated merely fifty years ago, with the establishment of the Department of Architecture in 1962 in Dhaka headed by Professor Vrooman, which marks the formal initiation of Architecture in Bangladesh and invalidating it as a respectable profession.
Bangladesh faced an unprecedented change in architecture between 1950 and 1960 when some of the finest practitioners of Modern Architecture worked in Bangladesh. This undoubtedly sowed the seeds for a unique architectural language to develop in Bengali society. Most of these works were an authentic response to the physical, socio-cultural and political environment of the then Bangladesh rather than to a particular architectural style prevalent during that time which resulted in the development of unique architectural expression in Bangladesh. This was also a time of great national emancipation, where the design and construction of some of the nation’s most revered works of architecture took place.
In 1955, Muzharul Islam commenced his solitary journey as one of the leading figures in architecture in the region with the design of two buildings in Dhaka, under the Public Works Department, the College of Arts and Crafts and Dhaka Public Library, which is now Dhaka University Library that mark the beginning of Contemporary Architecture in the region. With an air of urbanism and a fresh environment, Dhaka Public Library is an expression in Corbusian mode, with Purist White Cubes on stilts, with sun-breakers, brick louvred openings, and shell roofs for climate responsiveness. The College of Arts used exposed fire bricks that resonated well with the Bengali landscape and created an ideal stop for education and rumination.
1960 was a decade of chaos but proliferation, a golden age for architectural development, where many buildings were designed and built as a result of a development spree. Formal architectural education was established, and in 1968, the Conference of the Institute of Architects Pakistan was held. Some of the most renowned Western architects like Louis I. Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Constantin Doxiadis, Richard Neutra, Daniel Dunham, Robert Bouighy, and Stanley Tigerman worked here, who, despite the lack of adequately trained personnel and vested interest in the profession, offered the best they had to offer. Akin to bringing Le Corbusier to Chandigarh by Nehru, Muzharul Islam contributed to bringing Kahn, Rudolph, and Tigerman into reimagining the Bengali landscape. An invitation to Louis Kahn to design the Capital Complex at Shere Bangla Nagar in Dhaka, where he worked until he died in 1973, was the most moving step of all. A timeless work of architecture, it is a philosophical statement by the architect and an expression of Bangladesh’s national struggle that inspires reverence and inexplicable emotions today.
Doxiadis, the Greek architect and planner, designed the Teacher-Student Center (TSC) in the early 1960s, and multiple other institutional complexes sponsored by the Ford Foundation like the Bangladeshi Academy for Rural Development, College of Home Economics, and the Institute of Education and Research in the University of Dhaka, where the architect practised his theories of ekistics. The decades following were exciting and full of optimism for Bengali architecture, which reached an interesting climax with an Avant-garde architectural study group, “China“, in the 1980s that aimed at including critical thinking into architectural practice and establishment the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977 that wished to promote regional, culture sensitive and socially responsible architectural impetuses in Islamic societies Its flagship magazine “Mimar: Architecture in Development” was first published in 1981. Its direct influence was observed in Bangladeshi architects and students who were led to think beyond Western Modernism and the associated aesthetic convictions.
From the late 1980s, Bangladesh faced rapid urbanisation, resulting in the rise of flourishing architectural patronage associated with new architectural aspirations. Alongside, the population of Dhaka sky-rocketed due to in-migration for better life and opportunities where unsustainable demand fell on land and housing markets evolved, playing a key role in replacing traditional houses with vertically stacked apartment complexes. There has been an intense battle of architectural ideas in Bangladesh, where the earlier attitudes to orthodox modernism or regionalism in architecture have moved onto a landscape of aesthetic abstraction. There was an emergence of the urban rich who employed architects, causing the rise of architectural firms by the mid-1990s. Ever since, the architectural profession has been on the rise. The liberalisation of the market has resulted in the emergence of a strong private sector. Rapid urbanisation has made it imperative to come up with never typologies and architectural vocabulary. The rising inequality is begging for intervention from social architectural modules.
The big picture
Architecture in Bengal society had remained in a state of duality, contributing to the articulation and alignment with Bengal cultural identity and appropriation of perspectives from a global repository during the 1950s. Attributing to a dark colonial past that resulted in a complex situation of resistance and acceptance and in the realisation of the repressive nature of Bengal’s traditional society, modernism and globalisation provided an exploratory horizon to the architectural arena, as much as to other fields of art, science, and literature. It allowed for emancipation not just from colonisation but also from the repressive societal condition, along with acceptance of and assimilation of the values and philosophies of both parties.
Today Bengali architecture has evolved into a bold, unique and self-sustaining architectural vocabulary. It is endeavouring to address the newer concerns of the era, with cutthroat consumerism, rapid globalisation, and futurism brought by unprecedented technological advancement in building technology and an increase in social inequality. In today’s Bengali society, architecture is a social tool that concerns issues of housing the millions of urban poor and tackling the pressing issue of climate change. It has taken many architects, designers and planners, and even more works of architecture to definitively mark the existence of Bengali expression in the Global architectural arena, with many institutions, books, and journals dedicated to educating young Bengali minds and propagating this process of creation. For this alone, it is worth celebrating the fifty years of architecture in Bangladesh.
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