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View From Dhaka

The political unrest that recently engulfed Dhaka highlights some of the cultural tensions discussed at this year’s CAA conference

Earlier this year Dhaka hosted the triennial gathering of the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA). Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened the conference, speaking passionately about the need for architects to address the problems of rapid and unplanned urbanisation. Dhaka’s unofficial population is 22 million, generating pressure on housing and infrastructure. She urged the profession to widen its remit beyond the design of buildings in the pursuit of creating more environmentally-friendly and better-planned cities.

Though the CAA attracts international superstars, Bangladeshi architects were also well represented. Dhaka-based speakers included Shamsul Wares, Nahas Ahmed Khalil and Kashef Chowdhury, winner of the AR’s Emerging Architecture Award last year.

Wares introduced overseas delegates to the architecture of Muzharul Islam, Bangladesh’s pioneer Modernist architect, who began his career in the 1950s. His Faculty of Fine Art building at Dhaka University (1956) is claimed to be the first modern building in Bangladesh. Its simple formal arrangement and honest expression shaped by programmatic, cultural and climatic concerns have an enduring resonance. Still in use, keeping alive Bangladeshi arts and craftwork, the building has become a national cultural centre for Bengalis and remains an enduring master-class in climate-responsive architecture.

Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai and Kerry Hill from Singapore spoke of rooting architecture in context as well. Jain’s local knowledge and craft skills invoked Soane, with his outdoor studio of full-scale assemblies, while Hill uses private house designs as a test bed for ideas.

From New Zealand, David Sheppard related a story of advocacy by local architects in post-earthquake Christchurch. Keen to be involved at an early stage with the city’s future and faced with resistant business and political interests, they collaborated to prepare a strategy document, ‘Visions of Opportunity’. Yet despite attracting the attention of national government, architects are still not part of the official rebuilding process.

Sophia van Greunen from Namibia discussed the challenges of developing a sustainable plan for Windhoek, capital of one of Africa’s newest independent states (and one of the most arid). ‘We have to get involved at a political level to change the context in which we create buildings’, she exhorted.

Paul Pholeros argued for the need to rethink the traditional client base and redefine the scope of architecture to include health and well-being. He reminded the audience that ‘poor people have no choices and need our best designs’. Such is the transferable relevance of his work improving the living conditions of native Australian communities that this has led to consultations further afield, including with the office of the Mayor of New York.

The conference overlapped with Bangladesh’s International Mother Language Day on 21 February. This annual national holiday is held in remembrance of those killed in 1952 fighting the imposition of Urdu as the national language. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, many making their way to lay flowers and wreaths at Central Shaheed Minar.

It was a privilege to be part of such a unifying national event and to witness a passionate celebration of culture. Yet passion also generates friction and, as the CAA left Dhaka, rallies triggered by the outcome of the trials for war crimes committed during the 1971 War of Liberation became violent. With elections due at the latest in January 2014, this is also a time of political change.

The conference was made possible by an organising committee of architects from the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB), aided by student volunteers. Meeting this committed and intellectual group gives hope for the future of  architecture and the country.

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