Friday, October 15, 2010

An Intriguing Architect & the National Assembly Building (Dhaka)

It was a welcome experience riding into the National Assembly in Dhaka. The area is Sher-e-Bangla Nagar where the streets are wider. At some point from Old Dhaka, rickshaws were blocked entry, thus we had to take the auto-rickshaw, also called baby taxis (“metered” motorized rides with seats at the back of the driver). Buildings around the area looked newer and better maintained, and the air smelled fresher.

The Bengali name is Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban – the National Assembly Building, which is one of the largest legislative complexes in the world.

The National Assembly Building comes off like a set of concrete rectangular blocks and cylinders, with circular and triangular apertures instead of windows. If you were air-borne on a plane or helicopter, it would look like a pre-arranged set of Lego blocks spread on a green carpet. The concrete wall is divided into marble-partitioned rectangles.


Like most visionaries with a considerable amount of talent, fame or notoriety, Louis Kahn was an interesting fella. The world-renowned American architect was of Estonian Jewish origin based in Philadelphia. As a child in Estonia, he grew up poor. His face was riddled with strictures from a burn accident when he was younger. As he got older, his family’s economic situation did not improve. He couldn’t even afford to buy pencils. He would use burnt twigs to indulge in his drawings, which he’d peddle to earn money. Aside from his art, he would play piano to accompany silent movies. His father deliberately moved their family to the U.S. in order to escape military draft for the Russo-Japanese War.


In 1963, Kahn was commissioned by the Pakistani government (this was prior to the independence of Bangladesh) to design a regional capital for East Pakistan. Due to the ensuing war and liberation movement, construction dragged on for years, and was completed 19 years later – in 1982. By then, Kahn had been dead for 8 years. He succumbed to heart attack at a toilet in a New York station. In fact, he just returned from a work-related trip to Bangladesh. His body was unidentified for 3 days because he suspiciously crossed out the home address written in his passport. How come? He was involved with 3 women, one of whom was his legal wife. And despite his international acclaim, Kahn was heavily in debt.


As an architect, he adopted a back-to-basics approach, an insight he gained after visiting ruins of ancient buildings in Italy, Greece and Egypt. Kahn’s style gravitated to the monumental and monolithic; his buildings do not hide their weight, material or manner of assembly. The National Assembly in Dhaka would be among Kahn’s crowning glories, and it’s clear why. In this work, he gives in to the concept of light and space. In his own words, he offered: In the assembly I have introduced a light-giving element to the interior of the plan. If you see a series of columns you can say that the choice of columns is a choice in light. The columns as solids frame the spaces of light. Now think of it just in reverse and think that the columns are hollow and much bigger and that their walls can themselves give light, then the voids are rooms, and the column is the maker of light and can take on complex shapes and be the supporter of spaces and give light to spaces.” Don’t you just love it when artists explain their works? Pablo Picasso should’ve tried explaining his.

His fascinating life is documented in an Oscar-nominated documentary, “My Father, The Architect”, a title I have in my collection, but haven’t seen yet.


The National Assembly is bound by 4 streets: Lake Road to the north, Rokeya Sarani to the east, Manik Mia Avenue to the south (facing the Mausoleum Park of Zia), and Mirpur Road to the west. Most times, tourists are not allowed inside the Main Building, although Lonely Planet mentions a way of getting “seats” inside, which may take time, and is largely dependent on chance. However, the Jatiyo Sangshad Complex is open to visitors. The easiest access is through Manic Mia Avenue and Lake Road. If you aren’t that lucky, just head to the south and take a stroll at the beautiful garden grounds of Zia Mausoleum.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Back of the National Assembly in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar.

Louis Kahn suffered from burns at a young age. He was a critic and an architecture professor in Yale and other universities.

Some of Kahn's works. Notice the interplay of space, monolithic structures, rectangles and triangles.

Immaculate grounds of the National Assembly Building. This one is facing Lake Road.

Auto-rickshaw or "baby taxi"


Carol said...

Nice post! He's got a great mind and a positive outlook in life. It's amazing how life's challenges could bring out the best in people. His work is amazing!

eye in the sky said...

@ Carol:

Louis Kahn is one of the best in his field and it is easy to see why he is regarded as an innovator.

The National Assembly in Dhaka is such a spellbinding sight, you just can't help but stare when you are right in front of it.