Working in Bangladesh’s liquid landscape, Kashef Chowdhury’s work mines a seam of social responsiveness in a terrain defined by water
Home to the largest river delta on Earth, in Bangladesh water is omnipresent: in the ocean, in the delta’s hundreds of streams and rivers, in the fertility-bringing rain of the monsoon. For centuries it has influenced land cultivation and construction and has become a deeply integral part of the soul and culture of Bangladeshis.
Inhabited by nearly 170 million people, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated regions on Earth. The southern coastal belt accounts for more than 10 per cent of the country’s territory, yet barely rises above sea level. Climate change is most drastically felt here. A continuous rise of the oceans would turn millions of inhabitants into refugees, and there is clear evidence that the frequency and violence of tidal surges and cyclonic storms is increasing.
Kashef projects site plan
When Cyclone Sidr hit the coastal area in November 2007, leaving behind thousands of victims and huge devastation, Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury and his team, who visited the area right after the storm’s landfall, started to work on the design for a prototypical cyclone shelter. After extensive fund-raising eff orts, it was completed in 2018 in Kuakata, a small town on the south-east edge of the delta where it branches into the ocean. As well as a primary school and day clinic, the building doubles up as a municipal cyclone shelter capable of accommodating more than 1,000 people.
During a storm, wind speeds can reach more than 200 kilometres an hour and tidal surges can be several metres high. Classrooms are wrapped in an external spiral ramp, its polygonal form reducing the impact of winds while protecting the interior from swirling debris. The ramp winds up to the roof, enabling those seeking shelter to get their livestock, essential for subsistence, out of danger.
Under normal weather conditions, the ramp shades the naturally ventilated classrooms from excessive sunlight and heat. Light and ventilation wells sit between the cruciform core spaces and the ramp. To withstand cyclonic wind pressure as well as the region’s high salinity, the structure is made from a single material, exposed concrete. The treatment of the concrete mass evokes a sari-like wrapping, which not only performs in a functional way, but also distinguishes the cyclone shelter in the vast landscape, making it a readily identifiable place of safety and protection.
It is architecture as both tool and symbol. During a cyclone, ‘architecture is the only thing that separates villagers from life and death’, says Chowdhury. Yet this prototype is as much about community care and development as it is about saving lives. Contributing to community education, health and safety, it is an important means of revitalising a remote rural area and improving living conditions to reduce rural depopulation. By poetically interweaving tradition and inventiveness, Chowdhury demonstrates that architecture is able to provide relevant responses to urgent societal, economic and ecological questions.
Kuakata cylone shelter
In the delta, water is a blessing and a curse. Essential as the basis of life, water nevertheless represents a constant threat to the fragile deltaic landscape. Following the impact of a major cyclone a few years ago, the Sundarbans (the largest mangrove forests in the world) and surrounding, predominantly rural, areas remain largely underdeveloped.
Situated in the town of Satkhira and completed in 2018, the Friendship Hospital is another building that reveals Chowdhury’s recognition of the needs of society in the fragile coastal environment. As with the cyclone shelter, the hospital was initiated by the Bangladeshi NGO Friendship, active since 2002 in bringing healthcare and education to remote areas of the country. ‘The poor cannot aff ord poor solutions’, says founder and executive director Runa Khan. Clearly, long-term social improvements are not achieved by hastily conceived and executed temporary interventions, but the capacity to withstand devastating climate events can lend a sense of dignity and resilience to those enduring the most basic living conditions.
Satkhira friendship hospital section
Derived from the characteristics of the surrounding watery landscape and traditional settlement patterns, with thatched bungalows forming semi-open courtyards, the Friendship Hospital subtly transforms the past into the present. With its clustered arrangement of functionally diff erentiated wings and carefully balanced building mass, its atmosphere and scale oscillates between the rural and the urban. This is the key to integrating the hospital within a sensitive landscape and context consisting mainly of small-scale buildings. To increase the life span of the compound it is built of local brick rather than ephemeral and high-maintenance materials such as mud or bamboo. Chowdhury also exploits the play of light, shadow and wind. A series of courtyards brings natural ventilation to wards, while more sensitive spaces, such as operating rooms, are placed in wind shadow. Penetration of direct and reflected sunlight into all wards and consulting rooms is subtly balanced, filtered through double-layered arcades. ‘The tropical light introduces us to the landscape of Bengal’, says Chowdhury. ‘I bring this spilled light deep inside my architecture. With the darkness of shadows comes the appreciation of light, of its colour and depth.’
‘In the delta, where boundaries between water and landmasses are blurred, Chowdhury’s buildings reveal an uncompromising permanence based on lucid geometries’
Around the hospital site, as in many areas of the southernmost parts of the delta, the soil and underground water remain unusable due to salinity levels, but water is nonetheless a key element of the design. A shallow canal traversing the site runs through the main courtyard like a vein, discreetly separating inpatient and outpatient departments. The canal brings a natural cooling effect into the compound, collecting rainwater and storing it in two large tanks. Water is also present architectonically in a slender water tower that completes the composition and counterpoints the horizontality of the building wings and the overwhelming flatness of the surrounding landscape.
Satkhira friendship hospital floor plan
Although it is not uncommon for Chowdhury’s architecture to be based on clear and concise typologies, a design never ends abruptly at the building’s edge but always develops a dialogue with its surroundings. This sensitivity is perhaps due to the fact that in Bangladesh, architecture begins with the reclamation and appropriation of the landscape, which in the water-veined delta, traditionally occurs by means of the construction of dams or plinths. Accumulation and erosion or the establishment of passage-forming jetties, ghats or bridges are phenomena that divide and structure the landscape and settlement areas without disturbing the sensitive balance of the water flow.
In the delta, where boundaries between water and landmasses are blurred and where it is often hard to distinguish between land in the water or water on the land, Chowdhury’s buildings reveal an uncompromising permanence based on lucid geometries. They also show that water needs to be spatially thematised just as strongly as the landmasses. Out of these diverging hydrological circumstances and under the infl uence of the tropical climate, Chowdhury has developed an architecture which leaves room for water, but offers protection against it too. As well as land-based structures, he also collaborated with the NGO Friendship to transform the former Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior II into a floating hospital, remodelling its cramped interior to accommodate modern medical facilities. Once a symbol for the protection of the oceans, the boat now assists communities at the perilous edge of the ocean.
‘“For me, a river is not the same again; or rain; or the darkness before a storm in monsoon … I have been forever changed by the spirituality of that land”’
Climate change and global warming have also brought an increasing amount of meltwater to Bangladesh’s northern hinterlands, as the ocean permeates far beyond the country’s coastline. Running down from the Himalayas, when the Brahmaputra River enters Bangladesh it is 10 kilometres wide, but during the monsoon season it floods and turns into an endless ocean of water. In this terrain, Chowdhury started designing a series of island-shaped raised settlements in 2005, followed by the Friendship Centre of Gaibandha (winner of an Aga Khan Award in 2016 and the AR Emerging Architecture awards in 2012). Here, enormous volumes of water take an unpredictable course and break up the silty ground, turning it into a sea with thousands of tiny islands. Every year, this devastates the land, housing and belongings of the poorest sections of the population. As water rises to almost 3 metres, many homes on the river islands called chars are submerged for a three-month period, forcing landless residents to survive on the roofs or temporary platforms.
Instead of trying to elevate individual houses, the Raised Settlement project engages with those affected to create an adjacent raised ‘plinth’ above the highest recorded flood level of that particular area, where the entire village shifts for the duration of the flooding. The design takes its cues from the study of maps and aerial observation of river islands, whose distinctive ‘comet’ shapes are formed by the flow of water and alluvial deposits. In the centre of the teardrop-shaped island, a crater-like pond holds back rainwater and serves as a fishery. Instead of fighting it, people live with the water. The ambition was similarly to design with the flow of the river and to create a settlement through a self-help and interactive-based process that can be replicated in other communities. Since 2011, more than a dozen of this type of raised settlement have been built and more are planned
The raised settlements demonstrate that architecture, settlement construction and the landscape are inseparably intertwined. Chowdhury spent much of his childhood by the sides of the rivers and the respect he has for the environment of his homeland is clear when he states: ‘It is difficult to bring to words my memories of those waters, of the clouds – both above and soaked in reflection’. ‘But it is not merely the impact of those elements. For me, a river is not the same again; or rain; or the darkness before a storm in monsoon. I have been forever changed by the spirituality of that land.’ On the one hand, Chowdhury’s architecture seems to have emerged specifically and directly from the local circumstances of Bangladesh, which is subjected to extreme tropical climate conditions. On the other hand – and this is particularly relevant to the global architectural debate – it extends far beyond a purely local agenda. Rather, it spans across space and time from East to West, from the past into the present, and assumes a kind of universal validity, making it an important model beyond Bangladesh.
Within Bangladesh, the work of Chowdhury and his contemporaries makes for a vibrant architectural scene, which could be summed up as a ‘Bengal Stream’, not only alluding to its geographical context but also because of its dynamic, forwardlooking thinking and acting that extends out across the country and beyond. The issues Bangladeshi architects are facing are gaining new relevance as the rest of the world confronts similar concerns. Heightened droughts, rising ocean levels and the ever-increasing risk of flooding will determine the way we plan and build the human settlements of tomorrow.
‘Architecture must recognise that the future is fluid’, argued critic Kazi Khaleed Ashraf last year in the AR. From the delta to the Himalayas, the endless wetlands in the Bay of Bengal act as both a mirror and a terrain vague, raising fundamental questions about our own actions. They also bring into focus sites, buildings and scenarios that will ultimately affect us all.
Construction friendship hospital satkhira (1)
Architect Kashef Chowdhury / URBANA
Photographs Courtesy of the architect
This piece featured in the AR April issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today