This winner of the ar+d Awards for Emerging Architecture crafts a collection of pavilions with a timeless Piranesian quality on an environmentally delicate site in the Brahmaputra delta region
In an irascible terrain that alternates between emerald green rice paddies and swirling, churning flood waters, a new project called the Friendship Centre seems like a woven terracotta raft that has been swept out from a remote village in a distant time, and now lies stranded on the flood plains that surround the small town of Gaibandha in the north of Bangladesh.
With 50 per cent of the population of the area engaged in agriculture, the town is encircled by fields and mounds with homesteads, a perennial image of rural Bangladesh. The region is also not far from many well-known Buddhist brick monasteries dating to the eighth century and earlier.
A few miles east of Gaibandha and the project site flows the mighty river Brahmaputra-Jamuna, which streams down from Tibet carrying and depositing silts and sands as it braids the Bangladesh delta with intertwined channels and that delicate land-form, the char, created by fresh silt deposits. People in that region have always lived with the Janus-faced river, receiving at the same time the blessings of the alluvial soil and brunt of the seasonal deluges.
Despite being a precarious land-form, chars − with their rich soil and abundant fish − have drawn people, mostly the poorest in the country, for farming and fishing. Social conditions and economic opportunities, however, remain limited in those remote island-like chars. Designed by the Dhaka-based architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, the Friendship Centre was created as a training centre for an NGO working with people inhabiting the nearby chars. The centre trains people, and also rents out the facilities for meetings, training and conferences.
The site for the centre is a low-lying area outside Gaibandha, a predominantly agricultural land susceptible to flooding if the embankment for the town is breached. Prohibitive costs for landfill, as well as seismic activity and the low weight bearing capacity of the silty soil, discouraged adopting the usual response of raising the whole site above the high flood level (8 feet); limited funds for the project were directed towards the extensive programme of the centre.
With topographical modulation in mind, Kashef Chowdhury decided to create a mini embankment around the site and to construct the buildings inside that enclosure at the existing ground level in load-bearing, exposed brick. Rainwater and surface run-offs are collected in internal pools, and excess water is pumped off to an excavated pond, also used as a fishery.
The complex is laid out as a mat of pavilion-like buildings, open courts, pools and walkways. Buildings house offices, a library, meeting rooms and pavilions, a prayer space, and a tearoom. A separate area contains dormitories and spaces for private functions. There is no air-conditioning in the complex; fractured and pavilion-like building volumes allow for natural ventilation and cooling, also facilitated by courtyards and pools, and earth-covered green roofs. The environmental sensitivity of the project also extends to the creation of an extensive network of septic tanks and soak wells, so that sewage does not mix with flood water.
The work of Kashef Chowdhury is recognisable by its unambiguous Modernist stance marked by crisp, cubic volumes and scrupulous details. The bold, monolithic Liberation War Museum in Dhaka (1997-), designed with Marina Tabassum, was mediated only by a dramatic choreography of light and shade (although the stark concrete surfaces of the complex were partly submerged in the ground). The mosque in Chandgaon, Chittagong (2007), short-listed for the 2010 Aga Khan Award, is an unabashed Modernist piece where the white volume is dramatically juxtaposed with the surrounding landscape of green paddies and dark ponds.
In distinction to the above projects, the Friendship Centre indicates a new point of departure for Chowdhury, and architectural discourse in the deltaic region. Architects in Bangladesh, operating mostly from the capital city Dhaka, are complacently producing the kind of flamboyant buildings demanded by an increasingly energetic economy. Very few have taken up the challenge of working either in the vast rural hinterland or the environmentally delicate flood plains.
Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag’s much publicised school, also located in the Rangpur-Gaibandha region, is an inspiring example of working with a rural and community ethos. However, the bigger challenge of working with the hydro-geography of the delta and its environmental consequences remains largely bypassed by the architectural community.
While the relationship between architecture and landscape was deliberately dualistic in the Chandgaon Mosque, it is much more chiasmic at the Friendship Centre. In fact, it is conceived not as a building, but as a reorganisation of the ground surface, involving excavation, mounding and berming.
Also, where Chandgaon and other previous projects were conceived as sculptural, monolithic volumes, the Friendship Centre is organised as a mat of interwoven volumes and spaces. The spatial quality of the mat invokes the image of an ordered village or the campus of a Buddhist monastery, as well as the horizontal matrix of a Mughal fort-palace. With its embanked periphery and terracotta-red ambience, the matrix of the complex is not unlike that of a small, fortified city such as Fathepur Sikri.
Expanding the idea of a topographical architecture, Chowdhury claims a particular kinship with older Buddhist monastic complexes with their quadrilateral organisation, stark and bare disposition, exposed brickwork, and, above all, the enigma of the ruin, all of which describe the architecture of the Friendship Centre.
The ruin as a generative idea harks back to a rich genealogy, from Piranesi’s architectural imagination to John Soane’s constructed remains, but most pertinently in this instance to Louis Kahn’s obsession with the subterranean or topographical datum, represented vividly in Kahn’s aestheticisation of the building foundation (as in the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, and the Assembly Complex in Dhaka).
Kahn was also emphatic that the landscape of Bangladesh demands an ‘architecture of the landʼ. Although buildings at the Friendship Centre are actually above ground, the architect’s fascination with construction photos showing the earth dig and foundational work reveals a similar topographic inclination. In the face of impending effects of climate change and persisting cycles of extreme flooding, the biggest challenge for architects in Bangladesh is to configure building propositions for a aquatic landscape.
With flooding as a life-world condition in the region that is increasingly taking on a cataclysmic quality due to environmental changes, the Gaibandha Friendship Centre opens up a dialogue on the scope of architecture, asking: how to configure building formations in an aquatic landscape? How to extend the idea of architecture as a manipulation of the topographic continuum?