Interview of Muzharul Islam taken by professor Shamsul Wares
Modernity in architecture of Bangladesh saw it's beginning through the remarkable single-handed efforts of one man. When the Fine Arts Institute and Central Public Library, designed by architect Muzharul Islam, came into being during the fifties – every learned eye turned around – such nice blend of the universal modern principles with a nation's own temperament was worth a long look. Next came the extraordinary university campus buildings of Chittagong and Jahangirnagar along with a string of brilliantly designed residences. This master architect with far-sighted social and political consciousness turned eighty recently. Here he talks with architect Shamsul Wares (who himself is arguably the most notable teacher of Architecture in this country) about his lifelong devotion to architecture and society. The interview was taken in two parts – during October of 2003 and May of 2004. This interview first appeared in Bangla the literary magazine Kali o Kalom. About half of the full interview is given here in a translated form – the rest of the text will be added soon.
Shamsul Wares: Bangladeshi modern architecture was pioneered by you and you worked initially during the difficult times of the fifties – how at the end was it all possible?
Muzharul Islam: When I came back from abroad, after completing my architectural education, in 1952, the language movement had just happened. The people's minds were teeming with aspirations of resistance against domination, and also the hope of nation building – and it was quite natural at that time, as the colonial powers also had just left. My past experience as a student leader in Calcutta also provided me with this desire to do something for my country. Besides, there was this belief in architecture as a tool for doing good to society. I started, with whatever opportunity I had as a government service holder, to work for the creation of a sensible architecture. The Fine Arts Institute and the Public library Complex both are among my very first projects. Dhaka had no existing modern examples at that time – so I had to start almost from the scratch.
At that time Shilpacharaya Zainul Abedin had founded the Fine Arts Institute and Dr. Kudrat-e-Khuda had just established the Science Laboratory. So, I felt this urge to put together an Architecture institute. With the assistance of Ford Foundation and in association with the Pennsylvania Architecture School a lot of real work was progressed in this direction. Simultaneously, an architectural design of the Dhaka University campus was also being done. However, eventually these efforts did not materialize.
Shamsul Wares: At that point in time, considering the social, cultural and geographical conditions of Bangladesh , what kind of architecture did you think was appropriate?
Muzharul Islam: While I was still a student abroad, I had this deep belief that every country should have its own architectural character. The architecture of a place depends on its geography, climate and the manifestations of its own culture. The warm humid monsoon climate and the local construction materials and the methods were the primary issues around which I organized my architectural thoughts. The sun and rain, the play of shade and shadow and ventilation – these were the points to work on. While arriving at my solutions, my intention was not to take direct reference from tradition – rather it was more vital to allow a modernist logic work its own way. Decoration was one thing to be avoided – and the theme was to keep the materials own character, make intelligent use of geometry, proportion and achieve overall simple efficiency. While keeping in tune with the contemporary aesthetic trends of the world, the goal was also to stay faithful to the country's culture and climate. Honest work done according to these lines of thoughts produced the Fine Arts Institute and the Public Library.
Shamsul Wares: How can art be put into practice in the profession of architecture?
Muzharul Islam: Architecture is, no doubt, an excellent form of art. In the developed world, it is regarded as the foundation of all visual arts. While architecture starts with specific practical day-to-day necessities, it has to, at the same time, transcend to the level of art. Architecture must inspire the people, for whom it is built, by creating spaces that incite the finer, more gracious aspects of the mind. An architect, being a creative person, tries to fulfill the aesthetic yarning.
Shamsul Wares: You are the founder and first president of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh . You later served in the same post a few more times – in the light of this experience, would you like to say a few words?
Muzharul Islam: I was also the president of the Pakistan Institute of Architects at one time. I always wanted the Bangladeshi architects to carry out their professional duties, under the guidance of the institute, in a controlled and organized manner. The profession should not be seen as only a commercial venture to meet financial ends – rather, the architects should be encouraged to see it as a mission for the good of the nation through enhancing its culture. The institute can contribute significantly to the improvement of the environment and subsequently of the society by guiding the government through suitable legislations, which ensures the orderly growth of the profession and architectural education. Keeping these in mind, I initiated many steps from the platform of the institute. However, in most cases it was not a success story.
Shamsul Wares: How did the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation influence the possibilities of advancement and development of the profession?
Muzharul Islam: Independence brings in the greatest opportunity for a nation to express its thoughts, talent and energy. By enhancing the characters of the collective mind, it creates the utmost possibility to consolidate society economy and culture. Independence has no alternative. The liberation war of 1971 has created such a great opportunity and possibility. It provided the necessary prerequisite to make a unique contemporary architecture, which would be able to speak truly of its own land, nature and climate. Now, we the architects, can construct the right and distinct kind of architecture for an independent people.
Shamsul Wares: Share your views about the contemporary architecture of our country.
Muzharul Islam: this tiny nation of ours is actually a very beautiful place – with people who can generally be described as wonderful. The goal of the profession is to mediate between the aspirations of the people and the environmental context. In this respect the existing building codes are inadequate for achieving a good balance. The laws need to be overhauled to make them more environment-conscious as well as environment-friendly. Architecture as a whole is now being produced in a disorderly manner. It must be organized as a part of a greater master scheme of physical environment. Once this precondition is met, our architecture will, surely, acquire its own spirited and unique character.
Shamsul Wares: Tell us about your childhood and your family.
Muzharul Islam: I was born on the 25 th of December 1923. Our family household is in Kuepara village of Chittagong. My father was a professor of mathematics who worked throughout his career in different government colleges – due to which my childhood and school life was mostly spent in Rajshahi, Chittagong and Krishnonagar. My mother's original home was in Sundarpur village of Murshidabad. An important part of my childhood memory is centered around the Jamindarbari of my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandfather was a sub-registrar during the last part of the ninetieth century. My father and all of his brothers were educated persons, many of whom worked in Dhaka and Calcutta. Our family owned a vast amount of land in the village which was a main source of income. Overall, it can be said that, my greater family belonged to a financially solvent, educated Bengali elite class.
Shamsul Wares: You believed in socialism as the tool for the proper development of the nation and the society – in this context it would be interesting to know if you find the quality of the architecture of the Soviet era to be satisfactory?
Muzharul Islam: Socialism is a political system, which can ensure the socio-economic equality of the people. Architecture is an activity, which involves sensitivity and creativity. No political system can, all by itself, address, control and enhance such creative issues. A good architecture comes from creative architects and correct education. I saw many buildings in Soviet Russia which look quite the same as American buildings. However, I think, the soviets put more stress on practical issues and aesthetics took a back seat. The volume of Soviet housing construction was far more than that of all of Western Europe. By 1952, the Soviets were able to make enough housing for all of its citizens. After that, they concentrated on the betterment of quality. They had a superior quality town and city planning and they even built some brand new cities. Care was taken to keep the environmental balance. Historical structures were also brought under conservation schemes.
Shamsul Wares: It is said that your architectural and planning ideas are too idealistic and utopian and are implausible for real application – what is your opinion?
Muzharul Islam: Long term and comprehensive planning is needed to build a nation in a systematic manner. To improve the standard of living of the masses and to keep the environmental balance, this comprehensive physical master plan should include a long list of components, such as the cities, villages, ports, roads and highways, rivers and water-bodies, forests and lakes, mountains and hills, agricultural lands, flood and storms and many other things. Piecemeal solutions can bring temporary results – but in the long run it results into chaos. For this reason I always advocated for long term planning. For this one has to sacrifice narrow personal interest and take a brave people oriented stance. At present our political and social circumstance is not in a position to take such a standpoint. Therefore, government after government has shown reluctance toward comprehensive planning. Many individuals, due to their limitation of knowledge and moral strength, find it more comfortable to brand this comprehensive thinking as impractical. It is a question of vision, honesty and patriotism. Besides, for a long time our collective psyche has grown quite habituated to quick fix fragmented solutions. These all resulted in a situation where any idealistic thought is seen as utopian and unrealistic.
Shamsul Wares: What is your advice for the young and future generation of architects?
Muzharul Islam: The artistic qualities are essence of architecture. The practical aspects of architecture are measurable – such as, the practical requirements, climatic judgments, the advantages and limitations of the site etc. – but the humanistic aspects are not measurable. This depends on the talent, sensitivity and creativity of the architect. Only some bookish knowledge is not a sufficient tool in this regard. One has to be creative. One has to love his own land, its people and its culture and think profoundly about these. The love of ones own land is the eternal source of creative power, which in turn, makes a proper architect.
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