- Location: Bangladesh
- Architect: Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury
- Client: Friendship (NGO)
- Project year: 2011
- Site area: 9,210 sq.; Built-up area: 2,897 sq.m
Burrowed amidst the flat plains of Bangladesh, lies the Friendship Centre situated near the district town of Gaibandha where the social and economic conditions of people are very poor. Friendship is an NGO that works with a number of the poorest within the country; living mainly in riverine islands (chars) with very limited access and opportunities. This NGO uses its facility for training programs and also rents out for meetings, training, conferences, etc. as a means of income generation.
The brief required a centre that could be utilized for their training sessions, classes, and meetings along with residential facilities as training is often conducted over a week or more. Thus the Centre needed to provide spaces for interaction as well as privacy for its residents, avoiding the need for them to leave the complex too often for a ‘breather’. Keeping all these points in mind, the structure is designed such that there is a sufficient variety and layering of spaces, which allows for movement and discovery during someone’s stay in the centre. Along with these activities, Kashef had the idea of creating a sense of togetherness and involving nature and serenity. He says, ‘Simplicity is the intent and monastic is the feel’.
Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury’s Ideology
Since childhood, Kashef had been fascinated by ruins and believed that architecture has roots in history. He fractured form and spaces to make them breathable while still holding on to the visually heavy brick volumes of the remains of the monasteries. Kashef says, ‘If architecture is an art, it is an immovable art. Therefore unlike other art forms, like painting or film, architecture is forever married to the place where it is located: to its climate, its flora, fauna, and its people. In my work, I know of no greater need than to ‘root’ an architecture and let it ‘grow’, or merge and settle in its context’. Consequently, this sunken labyrinth of hope and joy is inspired by archaeological remains of the nearby Vasu Bihara Buddhist temple, built during the third and fourth centuries. The internal spatial quality evokes the image of an ordered village or campus of a Buddhist monastery. It establishes a particular association with neighbouring monastic complexes emulating their quadrilateral organization, exposed brickwork, and above all the enigma of ancient ruins.
Kashef has a studio-based practice named ‘Urbana’ whose works are rooted in history with a strong emphasis on climate, materials, and context – both natural and human. The studio pours extensive time on research to achieve a level of innovation and original expression. Their works range from the conversion of ships and low-cost raised settlements in ‘chars’ to a training centre, mosque, museum, residences, and multi-family housings to corporate head offices. Kashef’s work is notable for its crisp, cubic volumes and meticulous details.
Hence the Friendship centre too appears as crisp cubic volumes with a balanced amalgamation of solids and voids in the form of pavilions, and pools and courtyards respectively.
Planning of Bangladesh Friendship Centre
The planning incorporates a hierarchy of spaces like open, semi-open, closed and public, semi-public, private thus ensuring multifunctional spaces. Split into two parts; Ka block (public space consisting of reception pavilion, offices, library, training areas, classrooms, prayer hall, cha shop) and Kha block (private space consisting of dormitories, staff quarters dining pavilion) are segregated through three archways ensuring privacy to dormitory residents. There are four Classrooms having a total capacity of eighty people. The two adjacent classrooms can be converted into meeting rooms. There are pavilions wherein theatre training is provided on themes like healthcare, women empowerment, child marriage thus spreading a sense of awareness among the community. These semi-open pavilions are connected through open courtyards. The dormitories are in the form of twin-share rooms and individual housing units. The female dorm has an enclosed courtyard whereas the male dorm has an open courtyard. Between dorms lie the dining pavilion supported with kitchen and servant quarters. Persistently maintaining a connection with nature and natural materials bringing in the freshness and greenery, it also accommodates modern amenities required for a comfortable stay within its minimalistic walls. Spaces are socially and psychically proportionate to induce a feeling of cosiness and domesticity.
The material selection is predominantly governed by traditional and historical references, economic constraints, and the intention of employing locally produced bricks made up of earth on site and inspiring local manufacture. The Load-bearing masonry structures on brick foundations rise as exposed brick surfaces merge with brick flat arches and true arches above the paving and flooring on the ground. The exposed local handmade brick’s imperfections give a unique texture with a sense of vernacular and homely touch. However, the project is situated in an earthquake-prone zone and submissively adopts a hybrid structure composed of sparse but vital reinforced concrete elements wherever necessary. The flooring in rooms employs locally sourced mahogany, unpolished and unvarnished, and that in the meeting rooms, offices, dining, and accommodation blocks employs a reasonable but thermally suitable stone. All surfaces including internal walls and ceilings in the complex are left unplastered and unpainted ensuring the cost of periodic maintenance remains low and practical.
Being located in Gaibandha which has a varying climate throughout the year, the structure needed to be climate responsive to all the weather conditions. Relying on cross-ventilation, the entire complex is devoid of artificial air conditioning and employs lighting through LED and energy-efficient lamps. The strategically broken pavilion-like volume allows for natural light and ventilation; and cooling further facilitated by internal courtyards, pools, and earth-covered green roofs. These green roofs act as a thermal mass reducing the solar heat throughout the year. Extending its idea to environmental sensitivity, an extensive network of septic tanks and soak wells ensure that sewage does not mix with the floodwater. The service area consisting of a laundry and pump room is situated beside the pool.
Being in a low-lying area, having heavy rainfall, it is susceptible to flooding. Moreover, low soil bearing leads to the threat of seismic activities. Having such site constraints, an extensive program with a very limited fund was almost impossible because raising the structures above flood level (a height of eight feet) was not an economically feasible option. Thus the final design relied on a surrounding embankment for flood protection while building directly on the existing soil, in load-bearing masonry thus being a cost-effective and sustainable approach. Rainwater and surface run-off are collected in internal pools and the excess is pumped to an excavated pond using a pumping facility. This pond is also used for fishery by the locals.
The Friendship Centre indicates a new point of departure in the architectural discourse of the region as very few architects attempt the challenge of working within the environmentally delicate flood plains. Building an embankment rather than lifting the structure, thus giving birth to an innovative form proved ‘Invention is the mother of necessity in architecture too’.
The centre serves and brings together some of the poorest of the poor in the country, bringing them the hope of growth; joy, and discovery.