CONTRAPUNTAL MODERNISM: THE ARCHITECTURE OF MUZHARUL ISLAM AND LOUIS KAHN

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage


In this lecture, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf discusses the works of two prominent contemporary architects – Muzharul Islam and Louis Kahn as counterpoints to modernism in the Indian subcontinent. He also speaks about understanding modernity, modernism and the positions either took in the way they practised architecture.

Edited Transcript

In the pursuit of framing and reframing modernism, perhaps we might have to rethink the various ways we described modernism, tropical modernism, we might have to call it – monsoon modernism. Monsoon in the subcontinent is what sank European modernism; that is something to think about. I have been tasked to talk about two architects – Muzharul Islam and Louis Kahn. Muzharul Islam is from Bangladesh. He is what one could describe as the kind of a father figure of modern architecture. That term, ‘father figure’, is how Ranjit Hoskote described Charles Correa. If you replace Charles Correa with Muzharul Islam and other specific details, that is Muzharul Islam in Bangladesh. He was an architect, teacher, activist and most importantly, he was openly engaged in politics. He was a hardcore Marxist, a politically engaged persona. So I think among all the pioneering architects we are discussing here today, this is an interesting moment to think about an architect, who is both – an architect professionally engaged with the larger cultural milieu, and also devotedly engaged in politics. And the other person whom you are more familiar with, especially I am thinking about the younger architects and students. I am not sure how much you are familiar with Muzharul Islam so I will be taking up the task of talking about him in the next fifteen-twenty minutes, but you are surely familiar with the other person, Louis Kahn, who was invited to Bangladesh, and Muzharul Islam was involved in that invitation.

He was invited to do a large project, the Capitol Complex, which includes the National Parliament and a whole set of other buildings, in a major area in Dhaka city. So here are the two architects; I placed the two images here (referring to image 02), not thinking too much about it but here I am, and I think it is quite telling the way the two figures, are positioned and looking at something. Muzharul Islam, horizontally across the landscape, towards the lived and the political life of the country, and here is Louis Kahn looking upwards (terrestrial- celestial, referring to image 02). So already there is a contrapuntal condition operating here. What I will try to do in twelve slides, is describe Muzharul Islam‘s work because what I want to do here is not talk about the projects in specificity or in details, and I will not take on the task of going project by project about Muzharul Islam but I want to place these two architects together and see where I go with the whole notion of understanding modernity and modernism. That is my personal objective.

Here is Muzharul Islam, I find the image on the right very telling. (Referring to image 03). This was a painting, a watercolour by a very well known artist from Bangladesh, named Quamrul Hassan. This hung on the wall of Muzharul Islam and Muzharul Islam was a very spartan man in every possible way; the way he dressed, the way he moved around, the way his office was set up, and I will come to that also, this whole business of being ascetic without being totally inclined towards a specific idea of asceticism, but actually practising a modern way of being spartan and ascetic. But this painting hung there – this watercolour. That is for me telling; why should that painting be there. 

As you can see quite clearly, there is a sort of overlaying of various things. First of all, there is the landscape, there is a trace of buildings, people, peacocks and nothing is quite foregrounded except maybe the two peacocks, you can argue that. There is no figure-ground situation here. There is a simultaneous presence of all these things with equal emphasis, and I find that quite intriguing. This sort of the whole transparency-porosity of things, in the sort of the Bengali milieu is something to think about. Muzharul Islam was trained in Shibpur Engineering College before 1947, then after 1947, he was back in (then) East Pakistan. He went to Portland to study architecture and he returns, and in 1953 he designs two buildings; the art college (Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka University) on the left, and in the middle – the public library and then immediately some housing in an area south of Dhaka. At that time, he was in the Public Works Department like Mr Habib Rehman; he worked for a while in the Public Works Department and he produced these buildings at the time. 

The art college remains a very important building. He was only thirty years old. I call it a ‘tropical gem’. It is a horizontal building, a combination of a few like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Paul Rudolph, a little bit. It represents what I had argued elsewhere as a pavilion model, a pavilion type, just the roof and complete openness or controlled openness on the enveloped area. He did a number of buildings throughout his career; institutions, universities, laboratories, libraries. Again like Kanvinde, this was a whole project of Nation Building, and in this context in Pakistan, and I believe a few hundred residences. This is a kind of a sweeping survey of the architectural party he worked with from the left to the right (referring to image 06). Earlier on a skeletal model, then a planar model and then a massive model. That is sort of a journey. He designed this Jahangirnagar University and this is part of one building that he did, another example of large scale buildings. Again, I am not going to talk right now about the nature of the buildings, coming back to this whole business of the spartan ascetic but I will come to that later. And then a whole array of buildings (referring to image 08), housing (lower right), housing dormitory (up), clinic (and I believe that is a part of the clinic also). And I will show you some drawings; he was very fussy about his drawings. I worked with him for two years; I survived. Then I just had to get out of the country and I went off to the United States. But every year I came back, I used to visit him and then he would ask, “why are you not coming back?”, and that went on for thirty years.

[09:33] I want to show you these drawings (that is really a working drawing, that is a post factor drawing, that is a working drawing, referring to image 09) but there was something very precise and a beauty in those drawings. Whether those the construction drawings, literally translated as buildings, we are not quite sure and there is always a gap; but I want to compare that with the drawings in Bawa‘s office. Here is another sort of group of drawings that are aspiring to be something else. But I think the precision of drawings -that we do not do things like this anymore: hand-drawn, ink or pencil – that is another thing that we have lost. I just wanted to give you a texture of Muzharul Islam’s buildings and drawings (referring to image 10), and something again here at the Jahangirnagar University working on a large scale. What he wanted to do here, was work with the topography but also align the buildings in such a way, across sort of the diagonal grids so that you could have this cross ventilation to the buildings (referring to image 11). 

One project, which is an important one – The Polytechnic Institutes. Five of them were designed and built. For this, he worked with Stanley Tigerman, a close friend of his, who passed away this year. They studied together under Paul Rudolph at Yale, and at that time they agreed that they will work together at some point. Muzharul Islam invited Stanley to come and work in Bangladesh and they did this project together (referring to image 12). But prior to doing the project, they had prepared a very extensive report, on working in the tropics, which is a document that is not at all known actually, not even in Bangladesh. But a component of it was published in the Architecture Record magazine from the United States (which is shown in the middle here, referring to image 12). But again for us at one end, it is about Nation-building; all the institutions that are acquired for whether it is Pakistan or India in 1950s all the way to the 60s, it was about constructing and developing these institutions for new disciplines and new requirements of the country. Maybe it is related, and this is something to think about – in Pakistan, the United States was deeply involved in establishing many of the universities, hospitals and polytechnic institutes. Ford Foundation was deeply involved which I believe was the case in India also. I say that because that led to bringing other architects to Pakistan at that time. This is before 1971 so it was East Pakistan. Architects like Paul Rudolph, Richard Neutra, a whole group of people had arrived in the country, doing projects of this nature, especially institutions. The other thing about Muzharul Islam is that to understand his work is not about understanding him, it is not about the built work, the architecture, the buildings. He was deeply involved in producing what I call an architecture culture. Which immediately was about building up the Architectural Institution, the Institute of Architects but beyond that being in a single-minded way a provocative presence in the larger cultural society. He had a whole group of friends who are writers, painters, intellectuals who would gather in his house and conceive what would be the next action. In the image on the left (referring to image 13), he was a member of the first Aga Khan Jury. Then the image in the middle (referring to image 13) is Islam and Stanley Tigerman in kurtas in front of his house, and Tigerman says quite openly, “I arrive in Bangladesh, (and he had been coming here regularly since 1968 for the project) Islam would make me dress like a Bengali, make me eat like a Bengali, I would have dysentery, I would recover then I would again eat like a Bengali.” 

The image on the right (referring to image 13) is Islam in the 80s. Established an organisation which we call Chetana Architecture Research Society and as a young student, I was a member of that. The primary purpose was again to think of architecture as a part of a larger culture but not quite just saying that, but establishing certain active programmes and how to engage with that idea which led to inviting leading writers and intellectuals to come and talk in regular forums and also it kind of spread beyond Bangladesh. The image on the right (referring to image 13) is a seminar on design and education. You can see Balkrishna Doshi, Anant Raje and Satish Grover. And that happened quite a number of times, and this is important – (I think I am the one who is speaking, coming from Bangladesh) – but I think the idea of Nation, Nation-states and borders is something that we have to work with but we also need to overcome. 

[15:23] This is a manifesto of the Chetana group that was published in 1984. What may be immediate that I want to point out is actually placing Louis Kahn‘s plan and the Paharpur Buddhist Monastery on the right (referring to image 14). By the early 1950s, Muzharul Islam‘s work was derived out of climatic and psychological concerns, and now history becomes an important aspect of reframing architecture. We can see that by placing these two models to these two plan types simultaneously, one can assume a number of things. I was involved in this moment, but I am saying one can assume a number of things such as ‘is there a continuity no matter who did those buildings, from the 8th century AD to 1963?’ Or a correspondence could be achieved by placing these two images – again a contrapuntality here. 

Coming back to this, what was mentioned in the introduction, I had the opportunity of organising an exhibition with my colleague James Belluardo in 1997, and present the work of four architects from the subcontinent. We tried a fifth but somehow did not work but we had four, super glad about that. We had B V Doshi, Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde and Muzharul Islam. This is one of the catalogues. It was not a major exhibition but I would say it is major in the sense that, for the first time contemporary and modern architecture from South Asia was exhibited in New York. Is this important? Something perhaps you can discuss about this, in terms of continuing the discourse of architecture in the subcontinent and engaging with a larger world dialogue. I placed this to mention something, which is – as I looked at the work of each of the architects, I think it is easy to say, ‘Here they are, four architects doing various kinds of things and you can place them under the heading of Modern Architecture in South Asia’. But as I began to look at their work very closely, I realised that it is not that clear. That there are distinctive positions here. Although they may share a number of things, there is a predilection for certain orientations. 

If I may say it very quickly, I discovered three strands; one, there is a sort of pragmatic realism that I noticed. Two, a sacred spiritual strand. And thirdly, a sensuous or sensorial strand. Muzharul Islam, Achyut Kanvinde, Habib Rahman and Joseph Allen Stein (referring to image 16), I realised they remain suspicious of what I would call ‘explicit metaphorisation in architecture’ and focus on what they claim to be the real in architecture: the tectonic and the constructional. They distance themselves from symbols and metaphors. Distancing from those things, their architecture employs tropes of rationalism, of mass and forms assembled in the clear light of reason and necessity. The claim is (it is a materialist claim, not material in sort of the literal sense) that the metaphors are deceptions, that they are construed and not constructed. And second, these metaphors or symbols are not quite saying that explicitly, I argued. They might still embody some old history of repression.

I had asked Muzharul Islam in a number of interviews, “Why there is a downplaying of symbolism in your work?” He would get really agitated, “Whose symbols, for whom?”. I mean he would say that and I am quoting him with some emotion. His materialist ideology finds a definite rationale in the political conditions of South Asia. He consciously distances himself from symbolism of any kind or for that matter any religious evocations, for the simple reason that both are premised and practised on the basis of dividing humanity, that he said quite clearly. Both are implicated in some way in the tragic political events of the subcontinent. In the modern, multicultural, egalitarian definition of society, there is always the possibility of exclusion in re-evoking ancient symbols and science. So this is Muzharul Islam’s position. 

[20.35] In this sense, architecture in the works of Achyut Kanvinde and Muzharul Islam tries to find its significance in itself. Asserting what one might call the autonomy of architecture, the realness of building, the art and mark of construction, the well-built thing on the body of which, if need be, meta-architectural things might gather. The focus is on the tangibility of tectonics and the realness of presence. But and also, what real architecture aspires to is a sort of ascetic condition. This (referring to image 17) is for Riyaaz; a student of mine did this in 2007. This was supposed to be published in a book ‘Made in India’ but did not go. This is another contrapuntal moment.

The real architecture aspires to a sort of ascetic condition where the goal is to gradually filter out everything conditional and extrinsic. This is an aspiration to arrive at an irreducible stratum where there is a simple coincidence of appearance and reality, where nothing needs to be qualified by something else. But at the same time, an ascetic ideology might be valuable in its own right but what would be lacking in the architecture experience is a certain exuberance or even play as this is seen in folk creation. This does not need to be otherworldly at all times but it certainly expands our experience of the real. Here I refer to Charles Correa who remarked that in the context of the sacred, and he had spoken about and written about it quite a bit, what Ranjit was talking about earlier, that ‘reductiveness might actually diminish the experience of life’. I am also drawn to what Ranjit said earlier, ‘the sacred of the everyday’, something to think about.

On the other hand, the dimension of the sensorial and the sense was celebrated in the works of Geoffrey Bawa. This is about the situation of the body in space, in heightening different senses as you move around, as you see the close and the far, the shades and the shadows, all these things are very important in a phenomenological way. So these three strands, the real, the sacred, the sensorial, if you agree with me, is something that also creates another kind of contrapuntal point. This contrapuntal, just to say quickly, is a musical term, European musical term, not quite an Indian classical musical term. Ravi Shankar says it quite clearly somewhere that Indian classical music is based on melody and rhythm, while counterpoint chords modulation is the basis of Western classical music but something that I am thinking, that it could be brought in understanding architecture because contrapuntal or counterpoint is a technique where two or more independent melodies in music, or in this case, architecture strands are played in a parallel way. Each melody or standard would be complete on its own, but together they would offer a new understanding. 

[00:24:25] Having said that, I would return somewhere in the back to the 19th century. I am also drawn very much by this image (referring to image 18), maybe some of you are familiar with William Carey, the printer translator in Calcutta. As the description has it, talking with his “Brahmin Pandit”, I put it under quotes because the Pandit is not named, and this is important. The question is, ‘What is to be a ‘modern’ in India or the subcontinent?’ By India, I mean the larger subcontinent. The question is a complex one but I would make an argument that Architectural Modernism may have started in the late 30s, Golconde, or in the late 1940s, but the roots of modernity are much older. I think this is a project on how to historicise modernity in India and this will require engagement with people beyond architecture. Architectural historians should do that but we have not seen any major scholarship coming out that way. 

When you talk about European modernity, there are debates about when did it start, Renaissance, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Machine Age, it goes on. You could start a discussion from any point. In the context of modernity in India, it is similar. The gentleman on the right is Raja Ram Mohan Roy (referring to image 18). Again, many of you are familiar with him but I am not quite sure about students and younger colleagues. Very important in understanding modernity, if you want to use that word, in the Indian or Bengali context, in a very concerted way and as an intellectual project. The kind of reform that he brought in Calcutta society in the 19th century was a project. That established the norms of the programmes and activities of particularly writers, poets and other intellectuals, and which established what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance, as some people would call it. I am not sure if it is a Renaissance but it is a cultural recreation, which I think was mentioned earlier. Satyajit Ray in cinema may be the most potent example of that. In architecture, we do not see something like that until the 1950s or 1960s, which is why perhaps Humayun Kabir in his address in 1959, was quite curious why architecture is evolving so late, unlike literature or poetry or other fields in arts. So that is a question. But modernity in India, which is clearly an interesting and complex project. By modernity, I mean it is a larger cultural phenomenon. We know that it is intimately tied to the colonial history or the colonial experience, unlike, European modernity. We need to understand that although there is a fundamental difference between colonialism and modernity; colonialism flourished by maintaining a categoric difference between the East and West, while modernism articulated an ideal of blurring boundaries and creating a universal civilisation in history. The galvanising call was the commonality of the human tribes – a single trajectory for humanity but this turned out to be a dichotomy. A scepticism would arrive about flattening all the cultural topographies to arrive at this destiny. There is a further complexity, what I call the East-West conundrum, which has not been fully overcome. We tried not to use that, but still, we are kind of tied with that. And this image explains it best (referring to image 18). Here is the English scholar, writer, translator trying to understand Indian culture from ‘his Pandit’, as it was described. This is a transactional moment; in the transaction between the two, it is not quite clear what transpires, who sees, who lends and who borrows. 

Edmund Husserl was a leading German philosopher. He announced in the late 1930s, the historical inevitability, and I quote “The Europeanisation of all foreign parts of mankind”. That is huge. He was basically stating the general European perception that Europe alone can provide other traditions with the universal framework of meaning and understanding and the context and the categories for the exploration of all traditions of thought. Those other traditions Husserl pronounced will have to Europeanise themselves. Whereas, and I am quoting Husserl again, “We, if we understand ourselves properly will never, for example, Indianise ourselves”. So, is the Europeanisation of the planet, the true destiny of humanity? How do you want to think about that in 2019? 

[30:25] Wilhelm Halbfass was a professor at Penn. I follow him and I had studied with him. He introduces this discussion in his book, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding and thinks that in fact Europe itself has been superseded and left behind by the modern-Westernised world. It is not clear who is the master and the protagonist in the process of Europeanisation anymore. Curiously, European culture has remained restrictive, seeing the world only through its own eyes and denying other possibilities, while the others appear to be in a more dynamic and fluid situation, where seeing the world is not exhausted by European categories (and therefore Ashis Nandy – referring to image 19).

But things have become more problematic now in Europe with the migration and the whole issue of cultures, in this larger context. I follow another writer, philosopher Jarava Lal Mehta, who responded to this notion by Husserl: Europeanisation of the Earth by accepting the challenge of belonging inescapably to this one world, to the global presence of Western science and technology. But he insisted, and I quote, “There is no other way open to us in the East, but to go along with this Europeanisation and to go through it. Only through this voyage into the foreign and the strange, can we win back our own selfhood; here as elsewhere, the way to do what is closest to us is the longest way back”. So the journey to the foreign (and I have tried to argue that is a theme for Indian modernity) and it is another way of thinking about, in a reverse way returning home. You need to sort of get out and then think of going home. This journey into the foreign was inaugurated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, with his understanding of Arab philosophy, Unitarianism as well as Vedic scriptures. Out of that developed a sort of a premise of reason and comparison and over habitual slavishness, etc. And out of that derived his clear idea of what he thought was a humanist worldview and irrational dimension which became the basis of the Bengal Renaissance movement. 

The movement also was a complex dynamic of acceptance and resistance, simultaneously. You can say that is another contrapuntal situation, and for me, this is very important. Indian or Bengali intellectuals at that time resisted both the trauma of colonialism and the tyranny of tradition. This involved the rejection of the alien intruder and dominator who is to be imitated and then surpassed by his own standards. But it also involved a rejection of certain ancestral ways that needed to go, such as Sati and Child marriage, in the case of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Simultaneously, acceptance involved embracing from a global repository anything that assured a new degree of social and intellectual liberation, anything from anywhere in the world, that is modernity. But it also involved an inward journey, a rediscovery of the self, a conscious sort of archaeological excavation of one’s own assumed strata in order to find the mooring and the turmoil generated by colonialism. But this inward journey, this understanding of the self, was not easy. It was a double-edged thing. While it is a moment of self-discovery, it was also a moment of distancing oneself from the familiar and the habitual. It is the Narcissus moment. When Narcissus sees himself in the mirror, he sees himself over there and there is no way to reconcile that myself. So it is how you see tradition. You are already distanced, but you see tradition over there. How do you then recover, how to overcome this gap? Whereas Jarava Lal Mehta was saying that tradition is no longer available unreflectively, and it is out of that condition, this paradox that the question of identity whether it is gender, cultural or National, will arise.

[35: 32] Of course, I have to refer to some of these books or cinematic representations, with these dichotomies or paradoxes are played out so beautifully. Especially in Charulata, which to me is a classic, the three figures, Charu, Bhupathi and you can see (referring to image 22) this is conducted in the way they are dressed; where one, Charu looking outside from the domestic realm and then this radical guy comes along, sort of this free unfettered life outside. While Bhupathi is still sort of in his Western garb but he is engaged in sort of another constricted way. These sort of three figures embody three distinct spatial, psychological and maybe, cultural conditions that are played out against each other. 

I am referring to Ray, not because he is a Bengali film producer – he is a master film producer – but this whole sort of dislocation from the rural to the urban and how to reconstitute the urban is another theme that is played out in early modernity. (Referring to image 26 – I have shown this image before) So this paradox, what to do, what to see, something that troubles architects in the 1950s; perhaps, Apu is an architect quite bewildered about where to go with his projects. But I have to mention a few things if we are to conduct a historical assessment of how modernity, as well as modern architecture, was established; one recalls Stella Kramrisch, her production of the Hindu temple which is yet to be surpassed as a historical scholarly work on restoring: An intellectual restoration of an architectural model, both as a physical object and as a ritual experience and as an interpretation of the object as well as the experience. She, Stella Kramrisch, was the one who and I think Professor Chatterjee mentioned that Tagore had met Gropius in the 1970s. I did not know that. That is incredible. But what is also incredible is that in 1922, there was an exhibition of the Bauhaus in Calcutta. 1922! I understand with original drawings as you can see some of that here (referring to image 28) are Kandinsky and Klee were displayed with Abanindranath Tagore’s work and others of the Bengal school. 

Again a juxtaposition, or simultaneity of European modernism and what Bengali or Indian artists in Calcutta were trying to be modern at that time. But I think historically this is a very important moment. Another person I think should be recalled, I do not believe we have mentioned him yet, Mulk Raj Anand, in again restoring a new intellectual sort of moment in the modern ethos through his writings. Again, Marxist scholarly orientation, and I am quite taken by that; ‘new humanist creativity that is to be sort of acquired under the conditions of free societies released by the urges incipient in Asiatic and African world today’, which is a larger socialist International model. So how were those ideals to be translated into architecture? (Referring to image 30)People tried different means in the 1950s and 60s and I use examples from Bangladesh. It was a combined project which involved foreign architects and in the case of Bangladesh, Bangladeshi architects, especially Muzharul  Islam. And there you are (Referring to image 30), you have Doxiadis, Neutra, Tigerman and Bob Boughey doing various sorts of major institutional buildings. Paul Rudolph; his University. 

[40: 33] Climate was a major way to immediately bring the principles of modernity down to the ground, literally, which was climate and the projection of the bungalow, which happened earlier from the Bangla hut to the Bungalow and I think that is an interesting journey. I have always been curious, why should tropical architecture be established in the United Kingdom and not in the subcontinent, but then there you are – that is another thing to think about. But climate was explored in different ways. In the case of Corbusier, here is his door for the assembly building in Chandigarh (referring to image 33), climate was not just a techno-functional fact to be dealt with, but climate was also a cosmological fact to be worked with; in his mind, the whole sun path diagram is not just a symbol or sign of a daily planetary condition, it was actually reflecting much more sort of the lived life, but in a deeper way, what is most fundamental to us or the search for the fundamental? 

Back to that report that Tigerman and Muzharul Islam produced for the five Polytechnic projects, which has largely what the title says, ‘A New Approach for Tropical Architecture’. It is not a manual really; it is almost like a manifesto, and they worked very carefully on that. But this is a document that has not been explored much, although published in 1968. Here are some of the form diagrams that were produced (referring to image 36). It was a form diagram kind of analysis but working with climate. I have to say something here that in the case of Muzharul Islam, his project remains his embracing of modernity or the Modern programme. To me, I have described that to Muzharul Islam, modernity is a way of returning home. The problematic junction of architecture and Nation-building in a post-colonial situation was what drove him to produce this plan: modernity as a return home. In most cases, modernity in that context is seen as a rupture in the Asiatic and African contexts, as Mulk Raj Anand would say. But I am saying a reverse thing. For Muzharul Islam, modernity was a way of returning home. While yes, modernism is seen as a perpetrator of rupture, Muzharul Islam adopts modernity to overcome what was perceived as a colonialist rupture. It may sound sentimental and Muzharul Islam would not have approved if it is a metaphor, even an exaggerated one, but this is the struggle encountered by the Bengal Renaissance that identity and tradition can no longer be availed uncritically. So here is already a dislocation and then the way to overcome that is not to go towards tradition or to go in the other direction, but to go through the modernist practices, to go into the foreign, as Jarava Lal Mehta was saying, so there is that journey that is involved. 

So in a sense that the return home is a paradoxical thing, but it is by attempting to do that, one could argue with Muzharul Islam, that some kind of return is maybe possible. But it is not a literal return. There is no longer ‘the return’, it is a ‘re-return or a reconstruction’. You cannot have a straightforward construction of the return, it is a reconstruction. In this sense, Muzharul Islam‘s position is dialogical and dialectical. Although it is hinged to a specific place, Bangladesh in this case, and its socio-cultural obligations, his programme does not falter in engaging in a world dialogue and not daunted that such engagement might necessitate a different new way of making. He is not afraid of that. So he is indebted both to Tagore, as all Bengali intellectuals are at that time, and to Marx as all Bengali intellectuals in India. That is an unresolved devotion, right? But Islam wants to operate within that, in that unresolved nexus. To this sort of nexus of cultural particularity and this humanist idea of the world as my village and as he would say, this is how he says that ‘I want to be a Bengali and a World man’. So that is Muzharul Islam – this idea of ‘return home’. So his modernist project was about that, if I want to put it simply, I could have done that in one minute. Muzharul Islam’s modernist project was about ‘Return Home’, but in the sort of reconstructed way. 

[46:19] On the other hand, here is Louis Kahn (Referring to Image 38). I am not going to introduce him but what I would like to say is that Kahn‘s work in Dhaka in Bangladesh, if there was some agendas to him and I am doing this sort of interpretation are these four: reloading history, reviving landscape ethos, invoking the sacred and remaking the city. This is what happens with this project. I will quickly sort of give you a sense of the work itself and let me just point out a few things that are important. This whole business of the landscape: Invited to work in the Delta, the Bengali landscape was very important for Louis Kahn. So this is an image (referring to image 43) if you have not gone to Dhaka, you will see this image and it seems like an isolated, massive alien thing there. But actually if you pull back, you will see that in this sort of situation of water, other buildings, the park and the gardens and the orchards, and it makes much better sense that way.

Two sketches: the first sketch and the last sketch Kahn did for Dhaka. (referring to image 44). One is on his first visit, he was taken on a river cruise and he was drawing boats. There are about twenty-thirty drawings like that. He just drew boats on the river. So I think the water as a grounding was an important theme in Kahn‘s understanding of the landscape. As I have argued in an essay I have written, Kahn‘s understanding of the Bengali landscape led him to rethink architecture’s relationship with landscape. In the Bengali landscape, he said, and this Kahn is saying, ‘you need to be a land architect’, meaning that you can mould land one way or another and derive spaces of habitability and then the rest remains as either dry or wet as the conditions are. That led him to the last sketch (referring to image 44): what you see as fingers emerging from the horizontal line are bridges above wetlands and on top of which, housings and other architectural things might happen. But this is a really a very sketchy sketch, then Kahn passed away and this never kind of got worked out. But what I am saying is that it led Kahn to rethink the whole business of landscape. What is interesting is when you look at Kahn‘s models for Dhaka as elsewhere, the models are all made out of clay – all site models are made of clay. As if the buildings and the buildings can be very pristine, geometric, very sharp and robust. But in the site model, you will see that they emerge out as sculpting the land and then pulling them out. There is that simultaneity of continuity and also distinctiveness of the architecture. 

I like this phrase very much, – ‘You are spent light, the mountains are spent light, the trees are spent light, the atmosphere is spent light, water is spent light. All material is spent light.’ – Louis Kahn. Of course, putting up a quotation by Louis Kahn can seem very trite now, but I am trying to work through this idea that in his case and I did this analysis for Kahn‘s work in Dhaka that maybe there are two themes happening here in terms of landscape strategy: One is grounding, the other is the ambient condition. Kahn was obsessed with grounding, with foundation, referring to Piranesi and all that, which is again kind of history, and you see his sketches of the pyramid (referring to image 48), half the drawing is the ground and the rest is dedicated to that architectural object. So he is very interested and intrigued by how things arise from the ground, as you can see also (referring to image 49) in the Parthenon and then other projects which reveals his interest in this sort of sculpting of the ground for the formation of architecture.

[50: 15] From Dhaka, you see the foundation on the right (referring to image 51), this looks like this could be the building; it not the building, it is basically the foundation becoming the arch on which the podium will rise. If you look at the project in Ahmedabad (referring to image 52), it is very curious. Yes, there is an example of his obsession with foundation. He is really interested in monumentalising the foundation. If you look at the brick tiers, which should be underground, now they are exposed. I have described this as the aestheticisation of the foundation, which has not happened anywhere else and you can see that in other projects also (referring to image 53), sinking into the ground. The other thing is the ambient condition. He opens up the buildings, perforations as if allowing the sun to get through, the spent light. (Referring to image 55) Arcades, arcades and arcades, and in the Exeter Library, there is an arcade at the lower level also by which the landscape in every sense, the ground and the ambient air penetrates.

Then the whole business of the sacred, the centralised model, again another anti-modern plan type. So Kahn really restoring history, working with the landscape, invoking the sacred, the model of the city, those are all anti-modern themes, one way or another, which hardcore modernism stayed away from, for example, Muzharul Islam. But there we are, Louis Kahn going ahead boldly into those topics (referring to image 57).

Lastly, the idea of the city and I will end with that. The implication of the city is another complex issue with Louis Kahn, especially this is not just a Parliament complex by its scale, by its presence in the urban context of Dhaka; it is a mini-city. But it is a self-referential order in a messy city. So there is that paradox also, which is what led Muzharul Islam to rethink his obligation to the city, that the most pressing problem of our time is the city. Perhaps you can read some of that here (referring to image 62), what Islam‘s position on the city is, which is perhaps what I, in my work in the Bengal Institute, have taken on – the challenge is the city.

Here is one last image (referring to image 63), Stanley Tigerman and Muzharul Islam looking across the Lake towards the skyline of Chicago, and it is an interesting story. Stanley Tigerman is a close friend of Islam. He once related, and he did relate it to me so this is not a made-up story. He had written about it and also mentioned this – in 1974, he was heading towards Bangladesh for his project and Kahn was coming back from the Ahmedabad project on his way to New York. They met at Heathrow Airport in London and Kahn was about to go to New York and face his death at the Penn Station. So it was a very intriguing moment and Tigerman thought Kahn looked really dishevelled. ‘He was worried’, Tigerman‘s words, ‘he was thinking’ and he was constantly asking Tigerman, ‘Why did Muzharul Islam leave architecture for politics?’ He could not understand how can an architect do that? But Tigerman thought Kahn was really trying to understand who is really committed, who is really doing the most effective way of performing in society? His manner of doing architecture or Muzharul Islam‘s way of doing architecture and way of doing things beyond architecture?

I will just end with that. I do not think there is an easy answer to this sort of obligation as an artistic persona, like Tagore and Kahn, suspicious of political rhetoric and on the other hand, the impossibility of political aloofness in countries like Bangladesh where no matter who you are, even an architect, the political engagement becomes not only unavoidable but necessary. So in classical performances in the Indian context, you have the Navarasas; abiding by that, I see Muzharul Islam as ‘Veera’, heroic in its worldly engagement, and Kahn as ‘Adbhutam’, or a term favourite to Tagore, ‘Alokik’, in the otherworldly sense. But they are both simultaneous. Thank you.♦


Kazi K Ashraf is an architect, urbanist and architectural historian. He received his Masters from MIT and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently director-general of Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Ashraf has published widely. His publications include: The Hermit’s Hut: Architecture and Asceticism in India (University of Hawaii Press, 2013); Designing Dhaka: A Manifesto for a Better City (LOKA, 2012); An Architect in Bangladesh: Conversations with Muzharul Islam (LOKA, 2014); special issue of Architectural Design “Made in India” (2007) that received the Pierre Vago Journalism Award from the International Committee of Architectural Critics. His articles and essays have appeared in respected publications internationally. 


FRAME is an independent, biennial professional conclave on contemporary architecture in India curated by Matter and organised in partnership with H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society. The intent of the conclave is to provoke thought on issues that are pertinent to pedagogy and practice of architecture in India. The first edition was organised on 16th, 17th and 18th August 2019.

Organisation and Curation: MATTER
Supported by:
H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society

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