City School of Architecture

Enlightenment - a Bengali Chronicle


"The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building"

Archt. Loius Kahn

Environmental factors not only act as constraints; but also as design generators for the form and content of the built environment in any civilization. Tropical light is perhaps one of the most important factors that shaped the buildings we see in many Asian countries today. Journeying through the beautiful nation of Bangladesh, I was indeed enlightened on how the creative manipulation of light breathes life into architecture.

The Rafiq Azam Travel Bursary (RATB) is sponsored by the prestigious Bangladesh architecture firm 'Shatotto - architecture for green living'; run by award winning architect Rafiq Azam. It is presented in many countries, including India and Australia. This is the first time RATB was awarded in Sri Lanka; and CSA - one of the leading universities for architecture - is honoured to have become a part of this global network.

As the winner from Sri Lanka of RATB 2017, I went on an eventful 15 day tour experiencing the heritage, architecture and culture of Bangladesh. Urban residences, community projects, colonial buildings, national monuments and contemporary architecture comprise the portfolio of places I visited. From Sultanate and Mughal monuments like the Lalbagh Fort to Indo-saracenic and colonial influences seen in Ahsan Manzil, Old Dhaka city and Sonargaon; I was taken on a journey through time.

Clearly organized as a Corbusian cubic volume on slender columns complete with ramps and sun-breakers; pristine in colour, the Dhaka University Library by Archt. Mazharul Islam indicates fresh qualities of urbanism and environment. The western wing with its climate control devices such as shell roofs and brick louvres was an original articulation by the architect. It was however the National Institute of Fine Arts which came closer to mediating with conditions of place and program.

Sprawling low building volumes, the garden setting in an urban site, the use of exposed fired brick which has always had a magical resonance with the 'green' of Bengal – together formed the atmosphere of a campus that was ideal for the contemplation and learning of the arts; and more importantly indicated a spatial environment evoking the architectural poetics of the land.

The highlight for me was the National Parliament Complex designed by one of the great legends Archt. Loius Kahn – the masterful crafting of light and shadows against a reflective backdrop left me speechless. Although the planning is informed by Beaux Arts sensibilities, it nonetheless creates a communion with certain aspects of Mughal planning like geometry and use of water; and is even resonant of the monumentality and monolithic nature of monastic complexes like Paharpur. Overall, the force of the ensemble is not merely formal, but emotional too. I was lucky to be able to experience many works designed by Archt. Rafiq Azam. His contemporary Bengali approach involves responding to the soft north and eastern sunlight, whilst placing shading devices on the south and western facades; with vegetation and water for cooling and aesthetic effect. Some of the buildings I visited were Dipu & Shahria Sharmin residence, Babita Residence, Ashraf Kaisar vacation house and multiple urban apartments.

URBANA's Independence Monument and Museum was also on the agenda, with spatial progression ensured through the strategic use of filtered light from above to create climatic moments. The Aga Khan award-winning Bait-a-Rauf Mosque by Archt. Marina Tabassum was simply awe-inspiring; where brick coupled with light – variation of soft and sharp, changing throughout the day - gave an ethereal feeling. On a more hi-tech note, the Grameen Phone Headquarters was a sophisticated example of climate-responsive architecture. To sum it up, colourful rickshaws, street vendors, delicious food, new friends and of course some amazing architecture created a memorable and enlightening experience.