An Interview with Architect Muzharul Islam

As one of the leading architects of Bangladesh, Muzharul Islam has been active for almost half a century in defining the scope and form of a Bengali modern architectural culture. In the 1950s, he produced Dhaka's first iconic modern buildings, which represented optimism and a new vision for the city. Since then he has been an outspoken critic of Dhaka city's complete lack of proper planning strategies. The following excerpts are from an interview with Mr. Islam that was published in Bangladesh Today in 1983. Mr. Islam's observations are particularly poignant in light of how little the planning culture of Dhaka has changed in the past twenty years.

As one of the top architects of the country, what do you think of the present physical condition of Dhaka?

Muzharul Islam: To any person with a minimum of civic sense and visual sensibilities, Dhaka city is an uncontrolled and unplanned urban sprawl, totally chaotic, inefficient and in most places visually ugly. Excepting a few main arteries of transportation and some small areas, the city is actually a vast unplanned growth, consisting of slum conditions, detrimental to the healthy growth of the society.

How did the situation arise?

Dhaka was a district town up to 1947 and a provincial capital up to 1971. Very little, and if at all, effective effort went into the planned growth of the metropolis. No proper law exists for the planning and control of the development of the city. The Municipal Act and other regulations for control of buildings were more conspicuous by their violation than their implementation. Control mechanism is so ineffective that it is possible to put up buildings indiscriminately for the benefit of individuals at the expense of the community. These conditions have brought about the present chaotic state of the city.

As far as planned land use is concerned, how appropriate do you consider the Gulshan-Banani Dhanmandi models? [Ed: The Gulshan-Dhanmandi model indicates the planning of residential areas involving parceling out of land largely to an upper middle-class citizenry.]

Whenever there is no comprehensively planned development of a city and all the development is controlled by speculative motives, examples like Gulshan-Banani-Dhanmandi are bound to be created to cater the demands of a small minority who control the socio economic mechanism. It is obvious that the present lopsidedness of land use reflects the inequality of the existing socio economic structures. These conditions are doubly highlighted when we see a vast number of city dwellers are living in slums and hovels, multistoried or otherwise, within the city limits.

Even under the present situation is it possible to make Dhaka a beautiful city?

If properly planned, even now, Dhaka can be transformed into a very decent, livable city. We can take advantage of the river, the khals (canals), the lowlands, and the richness of the soil for the growth of trees and plants. But this presupposes that there should be a pride in our capital city, within the people participating consciously in the growth process.

What then should be the mechanism to make Dhaka beautiful in the future?

The future of Dhaka will depend on a comprehensive master plan, detail plans worked out by competent professionals who are capable of thinking creatively in terms of three-dimensional design.

Shakhari Bazar, street in old Dhaka Renovated building in old city

Hybrid city