MANY DHAKAS

READINGS

A PHILADELPHIA ARCHITECT IN DHAKA

The following are excerpts from a conversation between Nathaniel Kahn and Kazi Ashraf. Nathaniel Kahn, an emerging filmmaker from New York, has just completed and released a film, "My Architect: A Son's Journey," on his father, the celebrated architect Louis I. Kahn. The Capital Complex in Dhaka, designed by Kahn, plays a prominent role in the film.

This conversation, taped in Philadelphia in August 2003, occurred in the light of recent and unwarranted building interventions in Kahn's Complex.

Kazi Ashraf (KA): How did you as a film-maker come to realize the importance of this group of buildings in Dhaka?

Nathaniel Kahn (NK): There are a few things that come to mind. One is the importance of Lou [Kahn] and his work to the world of architecture, and also the importance of this project in the process of his work, and also thirdly, my perception of what Lou did with the government of Bangladesh. My first access to it is because I've been traveling around the world seeing the places that my father built. I saved Dhaka for last because I remember as a little boy the passion he had for this project, and as a little boy in his office seeing the way he worked on this project for years and years, even when the war [of 1971] was on. Lou was somebody who believed in the ability of architecture to transform the world and to create a better society. We would consider him here an idealistic person. But I think he found in Dhaka a commission to design a center of government, really his dream project because it was a new country and he knew if he did it right and if he was able to get his vision done it could change the world.

KA: Let me ask you this way, because other people will raise it, so why should we now be concerned about this man coming to Dhaka from Philadelphia with his dream project?

NK: Well I think that's a good question. There are several answers. One, I found in the people of Bangladesh tremendous respect for what someone has given, more respect there than we have here. This is about a man who really gave his life for this project. And I think that so many times people have given their lives for something and maybe it hasn't turned out that well. What amazed me is how wonderfully this project turned out not only as a national treasure but an international treasure. This isn't just my father's dream project, it's also an example for the worldŠ It's an amazing place. I didn't know how wonderful it was until I went there. The first day I was in Dhaka my architect guide Nurur Rahman Khan blindfolded me, and we drove through the streets, and as you know Dhaka is very noisy. The sound of the baby taxis, the sound of the trucks, the constant honking and yelling and shouting and rickshaws and everything, it's very exciting but it's also very, very loud. . . . So we pulled up front and I got out from the taxi and suddenly there was soft ground under my feet. And we started walking up, I was being led blindfolded into this area. I didn't know what it was yet. And it was soft ground under my feet and sounds of the city started to recede and Nurur Khan said, "Are you ready to see this building?" And I said "I'm not ready yet, not ready I just want to stand here for a moment and feel this place." I have to say that standing on that lawn you could feel the building, you could feel the space around the building. It was as if something was breathing there, it was air around it, it was space. It's really being in the presence of something spiritual. It's like being in the presence of a great temple. You feel it. You can feel a great monument by the silence around it and my father talked about the silence...

KA: You need a silence like that in the city.

NK: Absolutely, a city must have silence. And of course you can call it a park, you can call it whatever you want to call it but a city must have silence somewhere in the core because that is a place of calm from which action comes. You can't have action if it's all just nervousness and energy. You have to have a calm space. So there I stood in the calm space, breath deeply, and I said, okay, I'm ready and he took off the blindfold and there was the south lawn in front of me, the south plaza and the building rising above it with the flag, the Bangladesh flag, and I burst into tears. I actually burst into tears and it is the only building of my father's that has ever made me cry because I felt this was worth everything he gave, giving up obligations to family, giving up worldly goods that he could have had, money he could have had, all kinds of things he gave up for this. It was worth it because this building is a timeless work of great spiritual power. My immediate impression was, I didn't see anything else around it but this building, this form. There was nothing encroaching upon it. It was a pure, very pure view, and that view also talks about how a government has to act with great clarity and definition and be a symbol for its people. That's something that deserves space around it. You can't just shove that in the middle of buildings in a cityŠ

KA: Yes, one has to realize that architecture is not just buildings, the material physical objects. The space around it, that's architecture too. People should realize that you need those spaces. A city is a matrix of buildings and spaces.

NK: Absolutely, and the Parliament Building is the centerpiece of that matrix, no matter what happens in the rest of Dhaka City. Let them build elsewhere. Progress is good but it is not progress if you squeeze the Parliament by building all around it.

KA: I like that.

NEXT -->

Residences in Kahn's Complex


The Assembly Building and a rally