CPD’s  International Conference on Day 3 : shaded light on Culture, Art and Architecture of BD

CPD’s  International Conference on Day 3 : shaded light on Culture, Art and Architecture of BD


Dhaka December 8 2021: 


Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) celebrating Fifty Years of Bangladesh with virtual International Conference ‘Fifty Years of Bangladesh: Retrospect and Prospect’ which is happening from 6 – 9 December 2021 in collaboration with South Asia Program of Cornell University.

On Wednesday at DAY 3 , PANEL 6 was on  CULTURE and the session was chaired by Professor Iftikhar Dadi, Director, South Asia Program, Cornell University.

Paper 1 : Shahbagh, Shapla Chottor and Bangladesh’s Meandering, Contending Mindscapes was  presented by Professor Fakrul Alam, Professor & Director, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Research Institute for Peace and Liberty, Dhaka University.

Paper 2 : The Changing Faces of Culture: Notes from a Time of Crisis was presented by Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, Professor, English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh & Former Professor, Dhaka University while discussant was Dr Azfar Hussain, Interim Director, Graduate Program in Social Innovation & Associate Professor, Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies (IRIS) Department, Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Grand Valley State University.

The Paper 3 was on Changes in the Architectural, Urban and Settlement Landscapes of Bangladesh which was Presented by Professor Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, Director General, Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements and discussant was Professor Adnan Z. Morshed, Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America.

Paper 4 : Contemporary Art Movements in Bangladesh: The Rise and Crossover was presented by Tanzim Wahab, Chief Curator, Arts Program, Bengal Foundation.

Summaries of papers presented on Day 3 session six are here:

Paper 1 : Professor Kazi Khaleed Ashraf – Building Bangladesh: From Pavilion-form to Landscape -form.

Bangladesh played a critical role in the history of mid modern architecture of the world, but it is a story that is poorly narrated, and also less known than the high modernist adventures in Chandigarh and Islamabad in the 1950s. Now some seventy years later since then, Bangladesh is face to face with new challenges in the realms of architecture and urbanism.

There is another story that is also poorly known – the making of the “bungalow” as a global paradigm of dwelling. The production and circulation of the bungalow type followed the English adaptation of the bangla, the rural hut of Bengal/Bangladesh, as a climatic paradigm for the tropics. A techno-utilitarian aspect generated from the diminutive bangla hut subsequently informed the content of modern “tropical architecture”, and its metrics of comfort and wellbeing.

Early modern architecture in Bangladesh, in the works of the pioneering modernist architect Muzharul Islam, was framed primarily by meteorological and ecological themes, befitting topics of the tropics, and an utilitarian ethic that was aligned with the post-colonial political agenda of nation-building. Following Muzharul Islam’s seminal projects in the 1950s, examples of a “tropical modernism” were realized in the works of Constantin Doxiadis, Robert Bouighy, Paul Rudolph, Richard Neutra, Stanley Tigerman, and other foreign architects working in then Bangladesh. While all these works established the language of a new architecture, they also heralded an early version of sustainable ethic that combined climate, ecology and functionalism in which an argument for “regionalist” architecture was framed in a climatic logic – angle of the sun, direction of the wind, measures of thermal comfort, and material propriety.

Louis Kahn’s work in Dhaka played a key role in the evolution of modernism towards more humanistic dimensions. His engagement with some of the taboo topics of modernism – landscape and geography, spirituality and sacrality – found inspiration and reciprocal significance in Bangladesh. While the robust geometry of Kahn’s Capital Complex has received greater attention from architects and critics, with some hesitant acknowledgment of architecture’s psycho-spiritual dimensions, it’s urban and landscape themes remain largely unexplored.

I have argued elsewhere that revisiting the pavilion-like hut, the bangla, is central to understanding what constitutes a recurrent architectural type-form in the Bengal Delta. The Bengali hut-type is a primal pavilion, a machine for living in a hot-humid milieu. There are broader implications of the pavilion structure, particularly in the relationship between architecture and “nature.” By turning its walls permeable, the pavilion-form makes the distinction between exterior and interior ambiguous. Unlike the intention of shutting out the elements as in the interiorized courtyard-houses of hot-arid places, and the sealed-off spaces of colder climates, the pavilion is completely with the atmosphere. This creates the centrifugal dynamic of the pavilion house, generating a movement of activity “outward, on to the verandah, and further into the compound.”

While the pavilion-form provided a tool for engagement for architects in rural or open areas, the challenge lay elsewhere: to consider the pavilion-form in the dense and complex matrix of the city. And no narrative of Bangladesh is complete without Dhaka in the story.

Since the 1960s, a new development ethos has prevailed in the organization of cities in this part of the delta. Landfills, embankments, bridges and roadways have supported the technology and ideology of a “dry culture,” pitting the city against the moisture-laden delta. In the light of an economic argument, conventional urban planning has basically become the production of land, or manufacture of dryness. What that means is that water is pushed away, disastrously, through large-scale engineering operations in the form of embankments and landfills in which strategic terms such “land-use” continues to privilege the production of dryness.

From the heart of the present city, Dhaka and the delta appear as two separate entities, antithetical and stranger to each other. Fed on dry ideas, planners and policy-makers remain befuddled about envisioning or even managing a city in such a nuanced terrain; any deliberation begins with an assumption that such a watery behavior is unreliable to the city and must be resisted. In the horizon of the contemporary city, the delta does not even appear in the consciousness until a deluge comes, with clockwork, seasonally and unmistakably. In the schism between dry and wet, dominant planning practices have not only obscured immersive world-views but also enforced a kind of limiting measure on an otherwise prodigious and unruly landscape.

If architects in Bangladesh were to take on a distinctive challenge today, it will have to be around a hydro-geographic theme, which is also deeply connected to future forms of cities and settlements in Bangladesh. The brilliance for urban designers and planners will be to show, in the framework of a “wet ethos,” that growth and development can be addressed by sustaining and enhancing the city’s crucial hydro-geographic system. While many successful practices are able to prove their forte in dealing with new global and urban types, and commercial programs, it is to the persuasive wave of landscaped themed projects that one must turn to for a new phase.

With Bangladesh as a theorem for ecological actions, the architectural agenda needs to go beyond problem solving and form-creation in which the architectural task should extend its sights to the intellectual, ethical and creative issues facing the futures of human habitats. Settlements patterns, architectural types, and socio-economic life-world, that are dynamically inter-connected, also confront new conditions raised by accelerated economic, environmental and social transformations. The question of systemic and integrated “landscapes,” whether as habitats or place-forms, agricultural fabrics, flood plains, or natural wetlands, is already at the center of new investigations and imaginations, and forms the theoretical core of a new design intelligence. The motivation for this new architectural agenda is more about “place-form” rather than spectacular objects.

Paper 2 :Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam – The Changing Faces of Culture: Notes from a Time of Crisis.

If culture is understood to be a network of signification through which “a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored,” as the Marxist culture critic Raymond Williams maintained (Culture, 1981:13) then the new trends in Bangladesh’s culture, especially after it took a visual, and then a virtual turn starting in the late i980s, appear to be at odds with the assumption of both a stable social order and the predictable ways it is communicated or explored. That the idea of order came to be challenged and disjunctions in cultural production and dissemination occurred was due to a number of reasons, such as the disappointment of the youth at the failure of the state to deliver on the promises of the war of liberation, a sharp increase in youth unemployment, the rise of authoritarianism and fundamentalism, the endemic spread of corruption, the subversion of social, political and state organizations by self-serving politicians and other actors, and the emergence of new forms of domination brought on by consumer capitalism in such areas as education and the media which have traditionally been supportive of culture. With the arrival of visual culture and the wide world of web, the image became a contender of oral and written texts as meaning producer and interpreter of everyday life. The power of the visual media, its instant and unpredictable ways of communication and reproduction and its elimination of the distinction between the educated and the illiterate, the privileged and the deprived made it both a creator and disseminator of new cultural forms, habits and lifestyles. With the spread of Internet connectivity and the emergence of social media sites and different video platforms—some of which preach radicalized forms of religious ideologies– significant changes began to take place in such wide-ranging areas as personal autonomy, social relations, crime and substance abuse, sexual behavior and identity politics. The lure of virtual reality and the effects of the ‘junk-tech’ cyber subculture in our time have created a crisis by promoting alternative cultural formulations that are seen to be dismissive of values, mores and norms that one associates with traditional forms of culture. In my discussion, I expect to throw some light on the crisis, why it was inevitable, what it entails, if and how it can be resolved and what awaits us in the years to come. 

Paper 3 : Dr Fakrul Alam – Shahbagh, Shapla Chottor and Bangladesh’s Meandering, Contending Mindscapes.

My discussion will look at sites of ideological affirmation as well as contestations in Bangladesh in the last fifty years. We have witnessed in these years in a thrice-partitioned country, created after a seemingly decisive parting of ways from religion-based nationalism, the desecration of Shaheed Minars and assaults on sites that are in essence raids on the secular and democratic aspects of our nationalism. The Shahbagh Andolon of February 2013 registered what was apparently the climactic secular protest movement against such assaults, but it was to be followed soon after in May that very year by the Hefajat-e-Islam’s countering attention-getting attempt meant at affirming the Islamic identity of Bangladesh as the primal one. In subsequent years, we have witnessed attacks on sculptures, demolitions of Shahid Minars and even an attempt to bring down Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s statue. My discussion will review such events to focus on the fissures in our national identity formation that are problematic and recurring. Do they reflect a perennially schizophrenic national mindset and/or recurring national and international power contestations or both? I would like to see them also as problems to be pondered by all of us reflecting on the past, the present and the future paths to be taken by our now fifty-year old nation in conferences like the present one.