MANY DHAKAS

READINGS

DHAKA IS AN ISLAND

and who would know it?

All cities are alike, and each city is different. While Dhaka may show signs of a "globalized" city and symptoms of "third world" urbanization—the 2003 World Gazeteer lists it as the world's tenth most populous city—it cannot turn its back on a more fundamental reality, its location amidst the most dynamic hydrological system in the world. Dhaka cannot forget that it is a progeny of water.

As late as the 1950s, with its ample green spaces, majestic trees, crisscrossing canals, and boats plying through the heart of the city, Dhaka promised to be a true garden-city on the water. Now, after forty years of relentless greed, nonchalance, and ineptitude, Dhaka is in an environmental crisis. The blatant and illegal occupation of land is destroying open spaces, waterways, and wetlands, and mercilessly choking the river Buriganga, all of which guarantees the citizens of Dhaka an ecological cataclysm within the next twenty years.

A ten-minute ride outside Dhaka shows the aquatic reality of the land-flood plains and canals completely girdle the city. The whole of the Bengal delta, in fact, is an amazing chemistry of land and water, where mighty rivers churn through a landscape characterized by rainfalls, cyclones, floods, and silting of monumental proportions. Dhaka experiences nearly eighty inches of rainfall per year; sometimes over five inches of rain will fall in a single day, turning the city into an unscheduled Venice. The fertile alluvial soils that are deposited each year, are a prime reason that population has flourished for millennia in this region.

Can one talk about a particularly "Bengali" city, a city that responds to the unique geological and environmental condition of the delta? It seems that cities in delta regions, or what may be called the "rice-culture" matrix which extends from Bengal to Burma and further on to Vietnam, have unique urban morphologies that are distinct from the interiorized, tightly-clustered cities of hot, dry cultures. The morphology desired here is that of open pavilion-like buildings in a matrix of gardens and water.

Louis Kahn's Complex at Sherebanglanagar, with the buildings in a setting of lakes, gardens, orchards, and parks, is perhaps the most modern vision of a "Bengali" city. While the Parliament Building poses a monumental architectural presence, Kahn gave extensive thought to how grouping the various buildings in a setting of water and vegetation could evoke imagery from the Bengali landscape. One preponderant reflection for him was "how the buildings are to take their place on the land." Kahn wanted to heighten the idea that buildings also come together in a particular way in the delta, and that the age-old deltaic practice of "dig-and-mound" could generate a modern interpretation of hydrological architecture.

In 1973, the Bangladesh government offered Kahn an additional 2000 acres of land to the north of the Capital Complex, asking him to think of "a community of houses, bazaar, recreational facilities, civic buildings" Kahn was intrigued by the low-lying flood-prone areas that were vulnerable to the dynamics of water, and imagined ways of inhabiting them. Kahn expressed his idea "to develop a water architecture of bridges and crossovers which contain housing units and shops." He also spoke of canals and means of irrigation during the dry season as well as being part of the architecture of the land in conjunction with buildings. Some preliminary sketches showed bridge-like structures rising above the water-level that could also act as platforms for new buildings responding to the variations of dry and monsoon seasons. While much of Kahn's Capital Complex was eventually built, his ideas for a city of "water architecture" were, unfortunately, interrupted by his sudden death in 1974.

Buriganga River The river and the city

The Assembly Building by Louis Kahn