In 1947, following the formation of Pakistan after Partition of British India, Muzharul Islam began his career along with 6 or 7 other people as an Assistant Engineer under the Ministry of Communication, Building and Irrigation (CB & I) of the Government of East Pakistan. He worked in Dhaka but after a while was sent to Chittagong and then to Noakhali as the Sub Divisional Officer (SDO).
Following the completion of his degree in Oregon, USA, Muzharul Islam returned to East Pakistan and worked under the then Chief Architect of Pakistan Raymond McConnell, a British architect, at the Communication and Building Directorate in Dhaka. This department was responsible for most of the public civil works in Dhaka. McConnell had informed him that the government had many long pending projects which were outstanding for the last 3-4 years. Amongst these were the College of Arts and Crafts at Dhaka University and a Public Library building.
Post Partition, as the eastern wing of newly formed Pakistan, Bangladesh (then known as East Bengal and later East Pakistan) dreamt of …ideal world… free from religious, cultural, and economic suffocation//subjugation that they had experienced as minorities in British India. However, their dream started becoming a nightmare as the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan government based in the western wing...
The cultural subjugation culminated in an attempt by these elites to force Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan when Bangla was the majority language. This gave rise to the ‘Bhasha Andolon’ (Language Movement) where the Bengali student population, and later the Bengali people, protested against the injustice. Sadly, their peaceful protest turned violent and resulted in the deaths of many poor and innocent Bengalis on Ekushey February and the next day after extreme and heavy handed approach from local police officers.
This period of cultural instability manifested itself into politics where the Bengalis found themselves regularly replaced from prominent roles by their West Pakistani counterparts.
It was within this difficult times of the 1950s that young Muzharul Islam attempted to pioneer a modern “Bengali identity” in East Pakistan.
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.
From the beginning of the last century almost all aspects of societal existence in Bengal, particularly stimulated by movements in political and literary fields, have been informed by a duality of specifically Bengali cultural identity and of appropriating things from a global repository. There continues to reign a complex situation of acceptance and resistance – a resistance to both the traumatizing aspects of colonialism and the repressive "traditional" conditions, and an acceptance albeit critical of trans-cultural techniques and norms that promised new avenues for exploration. While Rabindranath Tagore the poet, through his varied intellectual pursuits, had been the most heroic figure in taming this duality, others were less successful in areas like painting and especially architecture, where a Euro-centric sensibility held sway. The problem was compounded because of the amnesia into which architectural culture had lased during the colonial period and the vacuum in thinking that prevailed in this realm.
Muzharul Islam, the leading figure in architecture of the region, began his lonely yet committed struggle under these conditions, by designing two building in Dhaka in 1953, which, it might be said, initiated a "renaissance" in contemporary architecture for East Pakistan.
In 1950 the Government of Pakistan decided to establish a College of Arts and Crafts with 5 departments (Painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphics and commercial art) within Dhaka University campus. However, as with many other developments, the project stalled. It was not until 1953 that the project was revived when Raymond McConnell asked Muzharul Islam to design the college complex. Muzharul Islam wasted no time and within 6 months almost single-handedly prepared all the designs and drawings required for the academic, administrative and common facilities of the college.
I worked alone for 6 months on the Art College and the Library, without letting anyone intervene. Once the designs were all complete, only then did I hand it over to the drafting section.
From the first moment...
Before putting the pencil on the drawing board, Muzharul Islam sought inspiration from his local surroundings. Dhaka and its surrounding areas at the time was packed with examples of Mughal and British Colonial design such as Lalbag fort, Bara and Chota Katra, Curzon Hall, Old High Court, Bardhawan House, S. M. Hall, etc. However, Muzharul Islam found these "rigid buildings not only as a means to hamper growth but also as a collection of restrictions for his creative exercise". In order to “liberate” the landscape of these traditional and predictable design, Muzharul Islam turned to European modernism as the means to achieve freedom of expression.
So instead of surrendering to the static and permanent looking buildings of the colonial past he opted for the "liberal" as the theme for his post-colonial spirit and accepted the European modernism as the means to achieve freedom of expression. He also understood modernity as a mode of social life in which the establishment of the new was a driving force to attain the fruits of progress and innovation.
It is understandable that in Oregon Islam learned how Aalto used to ground his buildings in the configuration of a specific topography and how he created the fine grained texture of the local materials. Islam was also inspired by the openness and transparency of Le Corbusier's “Plan Libre”, his pilotis and flat concrete slab. He found these adaptable and suitable to satisfy his social and political responsibility in evoking a nationalist, secular, realistic and liberal regional architecture accessible to the people at large.
In 1955, two years after it was designed, the Art College Building in Dhaka University was finally constructed. The groundbreaking building introduced many new concepts to the architecture of Pakistan and is now generally considered to be the first modern building in Bangladesh.
By incorporating ethnic elements into western architectural style, Muzharul Islam made sure that he remained faithful to his Bengali roots but still introduced ‘modern architecture’ and ‘architects’ at a time when these were unfamiliar concepts to the masses. He introduced a holistic approach to architecture and took into consideration culture, tradition, topography and climate of the land whilst designing. Further examples of this unique approach is evident throughout his prolific career, making Muzharul Islam, arguably, the pioneer of modern architecture in Bangladesh.
The status of the Art College Building has since been upgraded and the building has been renamed to the ‘Faculty of Fine Arts Building’ of Dhaka University.
An important aspect of the Art College was its relationship with the landscape. Rather than being compact, it assembled several scattered structures, in line with the weather and culture of Bangladesh. There was even a pond behind it.
But everything was done in an abstract way. He worked with the abstraction of modernism. By modernism I don't mean independent of the context, neither referring to any particular time.
Muzharul Islam prepared himself for the task and was able to create a unique piece of architecture that is at modern and was at the same time rooted to its land, a parallel is yet to be found anywhere in South Asia.
Islam studied the character of the site which was surrounded by open spaces and lush green trees and divided the college in three building blocks and connected them with a linear corridor along east-west direction. The two storey front block of the College is open in the ground floor without walls and articulates the threshold between large open to sky spaces and enclosed class rooms. The central teaching block contains class rooms with provision for cross ventilation and light. A curvilinear teaching block redefines the existing circular shape of the pond. The openness of the buildings, walkways, garden spaces and the sensorial ambiance of the whole created a campus ideal for contemplation of the learning of the arts. The college, immediately on completion, achieved an iconic status in Dhaka as a fine work of modernism inflected by time and place.
The openness at the ground floor of the Front Block close to the approach road on the west under the flat roof slab supported by circular columns has created the unhindered entry to the building without any door. This door-less entry along with free flow of circulation area without any barrier with the exterior woody landscape created a sense of cheer and freshness. As a result, day and night, sunsets, seasons, rain, starry skies of the autumn, the colour of flowers in the spring, music of birds, all penetrate the building. This metaphor naturally demands technical application not only in matters of climate control but also problems of security. Islam provided ample light and cross ventilation with lockable doors to each of the rooms leaving the corridor and lobby spaces as transition between the interior and the exterior and fulfilled his desire for light, transparency and openness without creating any security problem. After all the matter of security is a moral and cultural issue. Islam obviously had faith in people. Record shows that in last 60 years of existence, the college never faced any security threat.
Islam had deference towards local material, craft work and subtleties of local sub-tropical light, a deference which is sustained without falling into the sentimentality of excluding rational form and modern technique. He used burnt brick in walls without plaster to provide a non-mechanical look of the form, used perforated walls/screens, teak wood for brise-soleil and a sculptural curvilinear stair case to accentuate the tactile and tectonic quality of his architecture and as well to create a potential place-form. To him modernism demands a respect for inherent qualities of building materials.
The site that was given for the purpose of the institute was dotted with beautiful trees with a large circular depression at the end of the site. Muzharul Islam decided to come up with a design scheme that will retain all the trees on the site (as some of them were large beautiful trees that would have require many years to grow).
His scheme was also climate responsive and had large continuous verandahs shading the inner walls and windows of the classrooms and studios. The design echoes the out house and inner house scheme of rural Bangladesh. It also transforms ‘Jalees’ (lattices) and ‘beras’ (perforated screens) into wonderful screens that separates and creates thresholds. One enters into the front pavilion, a wonderful structure that houses galleries on the ground floor and teachers and common rooms etc on the first. A wonderful sculptural stairs connects the two levels around a wonderful internal courtyard. Past the pavilion are the classrooms and studios and in the far end encircling the round depression are the print studios. A lotus pond and sitting area becomes the open heart of the whole institute. The ground on the south both is a relief and a place to gather. This ground and the whole structure itself transforms to host many activities namely the Bengali New Year ‘Pohela Boishakh’ and numerous art classes and competitions for children. Bricks of the project were also custom designed by Muzharul Islam as so are the terracotta screens. Marvelous shading devices and pergola type details brick our driving rain and allows one to wonder at the wrath and beauty of our monsoon. The trees are filled with the play of birds. Their varied foliages and shades of greens at different seasons continue to provoke the minds of young artists.
The true success of this institute lies in the fact that it teaches art to an artist, without the need of the presence of any instructor. It provokes, inspires in countless ways, it allows the inhabitants, numerous vistas from where one charm at the kaleidoscope of nature’s ragas throughout the different seasons.
As Kazi Khalid Ashraf writes: "The pavilion-like openness of the buildings, pathways through varieties of enclosures, garden spaces, and a natural as well as sensorial ambience, create a campus ideal for the contemplation and learning".
This masterpiece is a wonderful display of a harmonious integration of architecture and landscape. Sensitive response to climate not just ‘climate in negative role’ but to provide the scope to charm at its different nuances. It is a proud statement of our rich building heritage in brick and terracotta. In its lines and forms it is a true reflection of a ‘Bengali Modernism’.
In 1958 Muzharul Islam was appointed as the Senior Architect to the Government of East Pakistan. However, he left the government service in 1964 and started his own private practices as a professional architect.
The pressure that was on me was consequently moved onto my family. My wife and children suffered too. I faced a hard time working (in the government) till 1964.
I returned from Yale University towards the end of 1961. I worked under a lot of hardship during 1962-63. At one point I could not bear it anymore so I resigned (from my job) and started a private practice.
Muzharul Islam was always concerned with the complex relationship of architecture and politics. His continued commitment and affiliation with the left rationalist and materialist philosophy led to his serious antipathy to the manipulation of architecture and culture within a politicised religious situation. His whole personality was expressed in the balancing of the two. His involvement in the promotion of cultural activities and resistance to all forces against Bengali nationalism is well known.
He established ‘Vastukalabid’, an architectural consulting firm, in partnership with civil engineer S. M. Shahidullah. No longer handcuffed by red tape and procedures, Muzharul Islam was free to express his artistic creativity and stamp his own authority on architecture. Vastukalabid soon became the largest and the busiest consulting firm in the then East Pakistan. It created a number of world-class architecture between the years of 1964 and 1971 for which Muzharul Islam received international awards and recognitions. Some of the projects of Vastukalabid include Islam's own house, National Institute of Public Administration (NIPA) Building, Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation (BADC) Head Quarters Building, Eastern Federal Union (EFU) Building, Five Polytechnic Institutes and two university's campuses at Chittagong and Jahangirnagar.
As teacher, mentor, and visionary, Mazharul Islam influenced the development of many architectural activities. His office, "Vastukalabid", was a springboard for passionate movements by committed young architects. The most notable was the founding of Chetana Architectural Research Society in 1983 that has since then carried out ground-breaking research on architectural history of the region.
As a student I worked in his office and also helped him draft the Architect's Registration Act which is now in vogue in Pakistan. It was basically the concept which was developed in his office in Paribagh (in Dhaka).
From 1962-64 Muzharul Islam was selected as a member of the Academic Council of East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology (EPUET) and continued to work as a Jury Member for many final year projects even following Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 when the university was renamed to Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
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