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Revisit: Louis Kahn's Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Capitol Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, fuses imposing grandeur with disarming simplicity, foreshadowing Postmodernism

Louis Kahn’s Capitol Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is an epic work in the annals of modern architecture that is still shrouded in mystery. Dhaka was a critical site of Kahn’s new overtures in the Modernist cosmos. Located at the geographical and ideological edge of that cosmos, the project literally expanded the horizon of modern architecture, which was stagnating in its own ideological doldrums. In amalgamating a primordial intensity with a modern programme, and resuscitating the eroded civic purpose of architecture, Kahn was able to articulate in Dhaka a kind of mystical Modernism (which some would describe as a precursor to Postmodernism).

The significance of the Capitol Complex is inextricably linked with the national and political movement of the Bengalis. It is this correspondence between architectural form and cultural norms, often working at surreptitious levels, that has not been fully investigated. How much Kahn himself participated in these matters is not clear but it is possible that Kahn’s contemplation on architecture, ‘institution’ and landscape found in Dhaka a coincidental as well as reciprocal meaningfulness.

‘In allowing nature to invade an artefact, erode its envelope, make it porous, and finally repossess it, Kahn made the dynamics of weathering and landscaping visible’

It is also telling that as Kahn was receiving worldwide attention in the ’60s, he found little success in the United States with the kind of architecture he was brewing. The response came from Bangladesh and India. Kahn’s commitment to the projects in the subcontinent was extraordinary; Dhaka was particularly special to him, where he found himself poised for a great alchemical performance. ile fi lming My Architect, his son Nathaniel Kahn remembers the passion his father felt for this commission. ‘I think he found in Dhaka his dream project: designing a centre of government in a new country meant that, if he did it right, if he was able to build his vision, he knew it could change the world’.

Gettyimages 148613024

Gettyimages 148613024

Source: DAVID GREEDY / GETTY IMAGES

The jewel in the Capitol Complex crown is the fairfaced-concrete National Assembly Building

Commissioned in 1963, and which came to be known as Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, or the city of the ‘Tiger of Bengal’, after the honorific title of a Bengali nationalist leader, the project is inextricably linked to the tumultuous 1960s – when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan – especially the political turmoil in Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. While a number of wellknown architects – Paul Rudolph, Stanley Tigerman, Richard Neutra, Constantin Doxiadis, and others – were working in Bangladesh at that time (known as East Pakistan then), mostly for projects under an American development initiative, none was able to go beyond a techno-functional or climatic-constructional imperative. Kahn’s preoccupations with Dhaka cannot be packaged simply within the conventional format of project development.

To bring about the construction of a project of such unprecedented complexity and enormity required the participation of a great number of people who are less known in the saga of the Capitol Complex. The Bengali master architect Muzharul Islam, who was initially invited to mastermind the project, in turn handed the commission over to Kahn; the chief engineer of the Public Works Department, Kafi luddin Ahmed, oversaw the complex construction; and Henry Wilcots, a close colleague of Kahn, was involved from the beginning and oversaw completion after Kahn’s death in 1974.

Louis kahn 01

Louis kahn 01

Source: Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

What made Kahn’s ideas in Dhaka compelling was his near-mystical optimism for the virtues of architecture at a time when modern architecture was subject to an understandable assault. Through his family of forms and poetic thoughts, Kahn resorted to a re-appreciation of history and human institutions. He heralded a breach in what the Italian critic Maria Bottero saw as the closed circuits of Wright’s organicism and European rationalism, the major strands of modern architecture culture at that time. By the time Kahn arrived in Dhaka, he had internalised history and the 20th century almost seamlessly: one could say that if he was Roman in his architectural orientation, he was Mughal too. If he was modern, he was also primordial, and if he was a 20th-century architect, he was also an ancient alchemist. Dhaka was the critical venue of that transformative moment in modern architecture.

Iaa0443 eb

Iaa0443 eb

Sher-e-Bangla Nagar pplan

Most critics have proved somewhat inadequate at narrating Kahn’s performance in Dhaka. ile the architectural historian Vincent Scully described Kahn’s architecture on the Indian subcontinent as ‘eloquent expressions of space and structure which invoke traditional stabilities’, few have articulated how the work espouses those stabilities in radically new ways. For other critics, the particularities of the Dhaka project – Kahn’s enchantment with the archaic – elicited suspicion. The Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri came down with the harshest indictment, saying that Kahn’s architecture is no longer valid in the Euro-American context and can only be exported to ‘third world’ countries. Others made more charitable comments, that the assembly complex is perversely expensive for a poor country like Bangladesh, and the monumental architecture is disconnected from the culture and the context. It does appear now that many of those comments were premature and require a reassessment.

The Capitol Complex is usually described primarily as a monumental tectonic ensemble, leaving three themes understated: the relationship between architecture and landscape, the presence of the sacred in the modern context, and the civic realm in the contemporary city.

030.iv.c.650.2 composite plan at 48 feet eb

030.iv.c.650.2 composite plan at 48 feet eb

National Assembly Building ground floor plan

In forming the overall plan, Kahn conceived the National Assembly Building as the crown of the complex. Kahn narrates in his characteristic mystical way: after three days struggling with the design, he ‘fell out of bed’ and conceived the assembly a transcendental event. More crucially, he had posed for himself another probing question about the nature of the project: ‘How the buildings are to take their place on the land?’ This twofold theme – assembly is of a transcendent nature and the way buildings are to take their place on the land – becomes the genesis for the project. ‘Taking place’ would become an abiding theme for Kahn, generating a new relational ethos between architecture and landscape that would be followed up in later projects.

Tumblr liuu9eoidi1qe0nlvo1 1280

Tumblr liuu9eoidi1qe0nlvo1 1280

Source: Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

This model shows how the perforated drum of the National Assembly Building lavishes the space below with light

The riverine and hydrological landscape of Bangladesh was the point of departure for Kahn when he was struggling with a site rationale for the project. On his first visit to Dhaka in 1963, Kahn made a few sketches on a river cruise that record his impressions of the overwhelming presence of water and seal his understanding of the aquatic landscape. He later observed that in Bangladesh one needs to produce an ‘architecture of the land’, meaning that the fundamental building fact in that delta country is the moulding of the earth to provide both platforms and protoarchitectural shapes. He conceptualised that as the process of ‘dig and mound’, something that involves an excavation of the ground to create an earth mound on which the building is placed; the excavated pit becomes the pond or lake. Kahn made very few sketches for Dhaka, but the ones that he did are about water. On his first boat trip, he records an understanding of a riverine ethos of the place.

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D5oq7qtufjdunfsjpmcuuts3ci

Source: RICHARD S WURMAN COLLECTION, THE ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVES, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA

Henry Wilcots, an African American architect, began working with Kahn in 1963 and ended up completing his magnum opus after Kahn died in 1974, eight years before the project’s completion

Composed as a miniature city, Sher-e-Bangla Nagar is characterised by two aggregations set on a north-south axis separated by gardens and lakes, and ordered by a network of rectilinear and diagonal elements (of buildings, landscape components and pathways). Design for the National Assembly Building’s centralised plan started predictably: within a taut orthogonal geometry, the main assembly chamber occupied the centre ringed by subservient spaces (of offices, meeting rooms, cafeterias, etc). In a progressive development of the design, elements of the outer ring gradually became detached from the main volume and increasingly gained fi gural autonomy providing light and view for the interior. In this process the taut geometry was transformed into a Baroque dynamic of concavity and convexity, with the exterior ‘facade’ undulating back and forth. The central chamber was articulated within the stunning street-like ambulatory space and an encirclement of light and air wells; light-hoods irrupted into the skyline as gigantic perforations positioned towards the city. The physiognomy of the National Assembly Building is characterised by a simultaneous autonomy and integration between the centre and the periphery.

Aaup.250.1.7

Aaup.250.1.7

Source: Henry Wilcots Collection., The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

For the centralised plan of the building, many critics have sought a genetic connection to Renaissance buildings such as St Peter’s, Mughal monuments, as well as Buddhist temple-monasteries in Bangladesh. With a centralised plan, Kahn was clearly trying to imbue the Assembly Building with a sacred and spiritual aura at a time when articulating spirituality in a modern secular world was a tricky proposition, deemed suspect by bothtraditionalists and progressive ideologues. It is this reifi cation of the centre, and interpreted pandering to spiritualising stuff , that made many critics, as Tafuri, uneasy about Kahn’s architecture.

In his intention to tap the spiritual, Kahn was perhaps closer to the Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s claim that art is one of the windows whereby man is in touch with what he called the ‘eternal reality’. Kahn was said to be a member of the Tagore Society in Philadelphia in the 1950s, which means his access to the Bengali worldview was prior to his arrival in Dhaka.

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030.iv.b.650.1.3

Section of the National Assembly Building

In addition to local innovations in concrete construction for the National Assembly Building, Kahn reinvigorated the poetry of brick architecture with its powerful resonance in the region. In Kahn’s new order of a brick architecture, with its geometry of form, deep shadows, earth-hugging physiognomy, and articulation of the arch with the concrete tie, he introduced a new vocabulary in the repertoire of regional modern architecture, and perhaps inaugurated what would be later described as ‘critical regionalism’.

137 ar 11 revisit kahn

137 ar 11 revisit kahn

Source: Henry Wilcots Collection., The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Kahn’s last sketch was an early idea for housing north of the Capitol Complex, where long bridge-like structures span a wetland

‘How the buildings are going to come together’, that is, the arrangement of buildings and spaces, was a major theme for Kahn. ile the waters and parks provided a materiality of the site, the overall arrangement of the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar evokes a number of sources, from the hierarchic and diagonal order of Beaux-Arts planning to Piranesi’s speculative drawing of the Pantheon area in the Campo Marzio. The hydrogeological nature of the delta may be seen in the buildings’ huddling, jostling masses with their raw, stratifi ed surface emerging from the aqueous landscape of the delta like some primeval thing crystallising into a prismatic mass. Kahn’s persistence in conceiving architectural organisms as coagulating out of the ground says something about his unique understanding of the origin of architectural form. Bottero considers this as a mysterious phenomenon in form selection in that instead of descending from Platonic Forms, ‘form rises out of a submerged world’, providing a diff erent reading of Kahn’s work than the usual formal-metaphysical interpretation.

Bdt 50 bangladeshi takas 2

Bdt 50 bangladeshi takas 2

The National Assembly Building was highly regarded and graced Bangladeshi banknotes

With the gigantic perforations in the envelope of the National Assembly Building and the brick buildings, Kahn not only created cavernous spaces of shadows in response to the tropical climate, he surreptitiously ‘landscaped’ the buildings. In allowing nature – the sun, wind and rain of the delta – to ‘invade’ an artefact, erode its envelope, make it porous, and finally repossess it, Kahn made the dynamics of weathering and landscaping visible in the building. Such an engagement of the atmospheric aura is possible in Dhaka because Kahn does not generally use glass and if he does he keeps it to a minimum. ‘Masonry masses and voids. That’s what Kahn wants’, as Scully observes, or ‘an architecture of open forms, integrated with the plein air of the surrounding landscape’, as Bottero concludes.

Although the plan for Sher-e-Bangla Nagar was conceived on an empty plain (a former experimental farm) at a distance from the main city in the 1960s, Kahn’s ensemble did not strike any explicit relationship with it. How much does a classicised order represented by the symbolic centre and a self-referential urban plan relate to the fragmented nature of Dhaka’s current urbanisation?

Kahn, sketch of boats on river, courtesy of henry wilcots and the architectural archives of the university of pennsylvania, 1963 2

Kahn, sketch of boats on river, courtesy of henry wilcots and the architectural archives of the university of pennsylvania, 1963 2

Source: Henry Wilcots Collection., The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Not interested in the thicket of the market economy, or the mélange of the ad hoc habitat, Kahn wishes to distil the institution type to find the irreducible essentials of a city. While evocation of an ‘original’ city may be self-serving, it may be entertained for two reasons: in a Western context, as Kenneth Frampton observes, due to the ‘fatal degeneracy of all civilised institutions in the consumerist city’, and in a non-Western context, due to the amnesia into which vital urbanism has lapsed. The question of whether Sher-e-Bangla Nagar is a city, and whether this spectacular symbolic machine is out of tune in the fractious contemporary city, is perhaps redeemed by the overall landscape plan – the fabric of buildings, lakes and gardens. In the context of the overwrought city that Dhaka has become, the environment of Sher-e Bangla Nagar off ers the image of an imaginary past – as if all Bengali cities were like this – and an imagined future, hinting at a phantasmagoric Bengali city whether Kahn claimed it as that or not.

 All photography of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar by Grischa Rüschendorf / rupho.com, unless otherwise credited

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today