The 1958 military coup by Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, Ayub Khan, brought him into power. The ‘Field Marshall’, later President of Pakistan, imposed martial law and within a year the new military government had decided to build a completely new capital called ‘Islamabad’ along the old Grand Trunk Road and just 10 km north of Rawalpindi. This ended any previous attempts to conceptualise the architecture for a national capitol complex at Karachi or Rawalpindi.
When the Pakistani constitution came into force under Ayub Khan’s regime in 1962 it created a National Assembly that would convene alternately in the two wings of Pakistan, separated by over 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Islamabad in the western wing and Dhaka in the eastern wing were selected as the two legislative 'capitals'.
In 1960, the military man was “elected” to a five-year presidency, while the country was still under martial law. Pakistan's new constitution of 1962 warranted that a “democratic” election be held in 1965.
Aware of the political and economic disparity between the two wings of Pakistan and concerned about his own re-election bid, Ayub Khan came up with the political ploy to address the grievance of the Bengalis, already agitated with the language movement and demands for political balance between the two wings of the country.
Thus, the idea of the “Second Capital” was born (Islamabad was the “First Capital”). The military man believed that a grand public building in the capital of East Pakistan would provide the Bangalis with a sense of power and they would repay him with their votes in the forthcoming election. That this building was Ayub Khan's mere political stunt is evidenced by the fact that he doesn't even mention it in his self-congratulatory autobiography, Friends Not Masters (1967).
Adnan Morshed, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC
Dhaka did not have any accommodation which could cater for the national body. This insufficiency prompted the Government of Pakistan to construct a second national enclave about 12km northwest of Chauk and Ramna. Initially called "Ayub Nagar" (Abode of Ayub, after Ayub Khan) before being renamed to Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (after A. K. Fazlul Haq, popularly referred to as 'Sher-e-Bangla', Tiger of Bengal), in 1962 Muzharul Islam was commissioned by the Government to design the National Capital Complex. As one of the seniormost architect in Pakistan, Dhaka-based Muzharul Islam had already shown the influence of modern American architecture in designing the Arts College and Public Library. This approach was in line with the President Ayub’s vision of projecting Pakistan as a ‘modern state’.
Also, by selecting a local Bengali architect to oversee the project in Dhaka, it addressed the difficulties posed to the government by the geographic distance of the two wings.
Muzharul Islam deferred from designing the National Parliament House. He felt that a task of that magnitude deserved a established world-leading architect and was beyond his scope. Thus he recommended bringing in the world's top architects for the project. The three that he recommended were Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and American architect Louis Isadore Kahn.
In 1951 Le Corbuiser drew a plan for Chandigarh, the new capital of the Punjab in India. Before the decade came to a close, Le Corbusier had gained widespread notoriety in the Asian sub-continent for his monumental civic buildings – the Secretariat (1952-56), the High Court (1952-56) and the Assembly (1955-60) – for connecting modern and ancient traditions.
A recipient of Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1957 (and later, in 1963, the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects), Alvar Aalto was famed for treating design as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (a total work of art) whereby he – together with his first wife Aino Aalto – would design not just the building, but give special treatments to the interior surfaces and design furniture, lamps, and furnishings and glassware. By the 1930s Alvar Aalto had achieved world attention in architecture after the completion of the Paimio Sanatorium (1932) and Viipuri Library (1935).
Louis I. Kahn is the youngest of the three eminent architects. His first significant commission and first masterpiece was completed in 1953 – the Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut, USA. He was known for his technical innovations which led to many renowned commissions including Richards Medical Research Laboratories in Pennsylvania in 1957, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, an independent, non-profit, scientific research institute located in California in 1959.
Kahn did not arrive at his distinctive architectural style until he was in his fifties. Initially working in a fairly orthodox version of the International Style, he was vitally influenced by a stay as Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1950, which marked a turning point in his career. After visiting the ruins of ancient buildings in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he adopted a back-to-the-basics approach. He developed his own style as influenced by earlier modern movements, but not limited by their sometimes dogmatic ideologies.
Louis I. Kahn served as a design critic and professor of architecture at Yale School of Architecture (1947 – 1957) when Muzharul Islam was studying for his Masters in Architecture. It was here that Stanley Tigerman, a student of Kahn, introduced the two men for the first time.
You can't have a building without a client. And sometimes you have to have somebody looking after you so that you actually get a job. I think for Louis (I. Kahn) that person was Muzharul Islam. I don't think he would have this [i.e. Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban] commissioned if he didn't work for him.
The story that you know, Muzharul Islam was offered this job at the beginning. And he said no we must have a great master to do this.
Nathaniel Kahn, son of Louis I. Kahn
Kahn became the acknowledged leader of a new way of thinking about architecture that embraced not only the future but also the heretofore taboo past that had been demonised by the European Moderns. He made his indelible mark on the American landscape with several buildings that have become national landmarks. Among them are the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Louis’ greatest triumph, however, was overseas.
Almost simultaneously all three prestigious architects were contacted by the Government of Pakistan. However, Le Corbusier said he was extremely busy to take on such a demanding job and declined to accept the project. Alvar Aalto agreed to take up the project, but, on his way to Pakistan, he became extremely sick and had to go to a clinic in Switzerland. This only left Louis I. Kahn.
Though he was not the first choice for the National Assembly project, 61-year-old Louis jumped at the opportunity to design such a massive project and promptly accepted the commission.
The message was terse: Was he interested in designing the new National Assembly Building in Dhaka, East Pakistan? Kahn readily responded that he was.
... under the recommendation of a Bengali architect named Mazharul lslam, had contacted three architects for the job: Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn. Corbusier, after the difficulties of building Chandigarh, turned them down. Aalto pleaded ill health; and when they called Lou, he pretty much said: “When do we start?”. It was the biggest commission of his life and of the kind he wanted most of all.
So fortunately for us, we were left with Louis Kahn…because Louis Kahn proved to be the right man for the project in more than one sense.
In addition to Louis I. Kahn, the 1960s saw the presence of two other important American architects in Bangladesh: Paul Rudolph and Stanley Tigerman.
Muzharul Islam was highly influential in bringing the “American Trio” to Bangladesh. He enlisted the help of his former teacher at Yale University, Paul Rudolph to design the Agricultural University of Mymensingh and collaborated with “close friend” Stanley Tigerman to design the various Polytechnique Institutes.
Turbulent as this period was politically, the 1960s were significant too in the architectural realm. A development spree (often as part of "foreign aid packages") saw a profusion of building activities. The involvement of the American trio Kahn, Rudolph and Tigerman - was due, to a great degree, to Muzharul Islam who saw a need in the vacuous contemporary situation to provide visual and provocative paradigms in the Bengali landscape.
The intention was not too dissimilar to the still-fresh, high adventure of Le Corbusier at Chandigarh-Nehru's "jolt" to Indians. In the overwhelming atmosphere of national development through primarily Western models then prevalent, the work of these otherwise deeply sensitive architects provides interesting insight into the encounter between architectural morphology basically developed in the West and conditions that are often totally different from the original milieu. The most perceptible zones of this encounter were the architectonic and spatial solutions by which specific climatic conditions were tackled, the intelligent exploring of available materials and technology, and the subsequent abstract sculptural rendering of the artifact in the brilliant, tropical light.
Though Paul Rudolph’s and Stanley Tigerman’s contribution were groundbreaking, Louis I. Kahn’s building in Dhaka was on an entirely epic scale.
The Capital Complex would be the biggest project Kahn ever designed producing a world class masterpiece of great architectural and urban power.
Once he had received the commission to plan the Parliament complex, Louis I. Kahn visited East Pakistan for the first time in early March of 1963. He toured Dhaka to understand the local architectural heritage and began planning.
Finally he came up with a design which would contain his unmistakable monolithic style. The proposed National Assembly would consist of a complex of geometrical proportions featuring certain aspects of the Moghul style. Built in concrete, with inlays of white marble, the building would appear more massive because of its commanding site. Its towering walls would be recessed by geometric shapes such as triangles and squares, all of which would allow large amounts of natural light into the building complex. The building will be surrounded by several artificial lakes framed in geometrical shapes, which is said to symbolise the rivers of Bangladesh.
I think that a nation is measured by the character of its institutions.
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. I am working to develop the element to such an extent that it becomes a poetic entity which has its own beauty outside of its place in the composition. In this way it becomes analogous to the solid column I mentioned above as a giver of light.
It was not belief, not design, not pattern, but the essence from which an institution could emerge...
In his conception of the Assembly complex, Louis Kahn sought to convey the notions of perennity, social order, and human universalism. A research campaign was undertaken to better understand local tradition and architecture, as well as an evaluation of climatic factors.
However, the Dhaka parliament is also influenced by classical antiquity (Roman baths, pantheons, etc) and the overall process of the Beaux-Arts education of the past two centuries (Palladio, Garnier, Boullee, Le Corbusier, etc), as well as Islamic, pre-Mughal and Mughal architecture (Mughal mausoleum of Humayun in Delhi, the Red Fort at Agra, Lalbagh Fort at Baharpur, Baghe Mosque, etc).
The conception of this complex embodies a synthesis and an interpretation of various cultures, and seeks the spirituality of a space that is free from time and fashions, while respecting the customs of the country. It endeavours to be an universal symbol of the intelligence and the order of social structures.
Construction began on 6 October 1964. All the labourers were local with 80% unskilled and only 20% skilled. Steel fabricators were mostly from Noakhali and, besides some carpenters that were Hindus, most of the labourers were Muslim.
The Structural Engineer working alongside Louis I. Kahn were Keast and Hood (1963-66), S. K. Das (1964-71), Bernard Scherastz and Associates (1966-69), and Harry Palmbaum (1969-75). Henry Wilcots was the Co-ordinator of the project throughout its lifecycle.
The new parliament building was supposed to be the premier building of the new city. However, destiny had other ideas.
After over two decades of West Pakistani colonialism, the Bengalis in the eastern wing finally could take no more. The movements seeking greater autonomy and, finally, independence gained ground, and the ensuing repression from Islamabad sparked off greater hostility between the two wings. Matters reached a boiling point in 1971 and the Bangladesh War of Liberation broke out on 26 March 1971 after the Pakistani military began a campaign of mass genocide.
As the war broke out, Louis Kahn's field office in East Pakistan quickly closed and construction work discontinued when only three quarters of the building was completed.
During the Liberation War, an ironic story persisted that Pakistani pilots didn't bomb the building assuming that it was a ruin!
Upon completion in the early 1980s, that “ruin” eventually became an emblem of the country, adorning Tk. 1000 notes, stamps, rickshaw decorations, advertisements, official brochures, and so on.
After 9 months of gallant campaign, Bangladesh finally got its victory on 16 December 1971. The newly formed Government of Bangladesh renamed the National Assembly Building to “Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban” (National Parliament House) and permitted Louis I. Kahn and his team to resume their work that same year (i.e. 1972).
Louis Kahn had visited Bangladesh several times after Bangladesh's independence. He worked tirelessly on the project liaising with the developers and making sure the project was on track. He kept some of the main drawings of the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban to himself and did not hand it over to the Government of Bangladesh. Nor did the government show much interest in the sketches.
Sadly, Louis Kahn passed away in 1974 which further delayed the project. He had spent the last 12 years of his life on the Dhaka project whilst simultaneously designing the Indian Institute of Management (1962-1974), a government-run business school in Ahmedabad, India.
Following his death, projects were distributed among the key architects in Kahn’s firm. David Wisdom, who was one of the associates, took charge of Dhaka project on behalf of the office and was hired by the Government of Bangladesh that same year to continue where Louis Kahn had left off. The firm continued with Kahn’s design principles and oversaw the final stage of the design. David Wisdom and Associates also took over as the structural engineer for the project from 1975 until its completion in 1983.
Work progressed on the national assembly even though Bangladesh was undergoing a chaotic and difficult time post independence. A devastating famine in 1974 was followed by the assassination of the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members the following year. Few months later the political turmoil hit new height as the four leading ministers who oversaw the 1971 Muktijuddho (Liberation War) were killed in cold blood at Dhaka Central Jail. Finally in 1981 President Ziaur Rahman, a gallant Sector Commander during the war and founder of Bangladesh National Party (BNP), was assassinated in Chittagong.
By 1982 the development of the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban were at an advance stage and on 15 February 1982 the building held an assembly session for the first time. The completion of the project took another year.
In 1983, nearly 20 years after it was first begun and 9 years after Kahn had passed away, the complex was finally completed.
Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building looks like a group of huge building blocks and is even more abstract than Le Corbusier’s buildings at Chandigarh. It is made up of boxes and cylinders constructed of concrete and strips of marble. Large triangular, square, and circular openings are cut into the facades. Powerfully monumental, the sprawling complex expresses the primal quality of ancient religious architecture in India.
The enclave as finally realised placed the assembly building and the parade ground/public park fronting it between diagonals of flanking hostel blocks, Secretariat, and office spaces. The assembly building, in concrete with horizontal marble strips inserted between poured sections, created an initially monolithic impression, set off against the brick of the surrounding buildings. Its interior provided a strikingly spacious and variegated pattern of light and the ensemble became one of the great achievements of the late 20th century modernism. By the early 21st century Sher-e-Bangla Nagar had become encompassed within the Dhaka Metropolitan Area that was expanding rapidly as a ‘peri-urban’ sprawl toward the north and northwest.
The Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban has its fair share of critics. Some have criticised it for being grossly expensive and pointed out that money could have been better spent building facilities that are more important for a poor nation like Bangladesh e.g. hospitals, schools, houses, roads, etc. The maintenance cost is also very high as it’s a massive building. Beyond the cost, from an architectural perspective, the complex has also been criticised for its confusing corridors, the dullness of its concrete (interior) surfaces “which is unrelated to the culture of Bengali people and is not attractive to them”, and for the surfaces not reflecting the light and losing its strength when entering the building. It also provides inadequate natural lighting, yet in some areas (e.g. prayer hall) the lighting is too strong.
The "monumentalism and megalomania" of its conception (on the part of both the government and the architect) is also an issue. The vastness of the building means Government officials are practically obliged to use partially different spaces in different periods.
The conception of the National Assembly in 1959 was rather a political decision, so Kahn tried, with this monument, to give satisfaction to government officials. But the trend of doing "great architecture" should be avoided in the future for the welfare of the country and its people.
Amir Hossain, Senior Architect at Public Works Department (PWD) in Bangladesh
If we ask ourselves whether it is relevant to Bangladesh, it is very difficult to see that, but the economic factor must not be considered predominant, because this building has an everlasting effect.
You have to have at least one or two such buildings. Such architectural works with everlasting effects. Something to remain for the posterity.
Maybe it was not completely successful, but it did a lot for us. Maybe Louis Kahn did not make a deep research in the country, but anyhow, in his creation of the Assembly complex, he intuitively generated certain forms that can be identified as ours. See the Mughal architecture of Lahore or Delhi, the Hindu-Islamic patterns, study the use of geometry and water, then you will see why we can "feel" this building.
Iftekharuddin Mohammed Choudhury of Stapati Sangsad (Assembly of Architects), one of the most important firms of architecture in Dhaka
There is no doubt, looking beyond the cost and scale of construction, the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban is a good contribution to the country.
Fusing Islamic and Western architecture, the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban has created an image of its own. It is an original idea. It is more than a regional design and has put Bangladesh firmly on the world architectural map. During the 1960s – and possibly even today – nobody would have thought that such a powerful building could be designed in Bangladesh.
Today, it’s become one of the most photographed and visited landmark of Bangladesh along with the Shaheed Minar and Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho. People from all walk of life, regardless of their social, economic or professional background, take pride in the complex. Everyone loves it – not only the architects but even the poor people.
The building has given the Bengalis a sense of belonging. At night people enjoy the environment and relax in its unique surrounding. It is more than a complex – it has become a national park.
The Parliament complex is studied in not only design schools around the world, but also departments as diverse as government, cultural studies, history, and many others. There are, of course, many other heritage buildings in Bangladesh. But this is the most iconic building that the country presents to the world stage. It draws tourists from all continents of the world.
It is a piece of work which has tremendously influence our architecture. Even outside Bangladesh.
During the British rule we lost everything. This building has revived our sense of cultural identity. The whole complex – the way it deals with the climate, the spirit of the region – has a local connotation for me.
The problem of cost is a nonsense, because firstly you have to see the project in 1962, and secondly you have to examine it in the context of the whole economy of the country in the past 25 years.
I know that we do not have democracy, but you see, the building is there. The aim is there.
Of all the great symbolic buildings of the world – St. Peter’s Basilica, the United States Capitol Building, the Pantheon, the Parthenon, the Sydney Opera House – this building ranks as one of the greatest of the genre. It is striking in the way it is sited, surrounded by a small man-made lake, slightly raised above the surrounding buildings, its axial plan focused not on a boulevard but on a park. This building, unlike the US capitol building with its two legislative chambers, focuses, both symbolically and actually, on one central, all-important parliamentary assembly space encircled by administrative offices.
A few years ago, I led a group of 40 American architects, planners, authors, journalists, and investors who came to Bangladesh to see this building. One of them, an octogenarian gentleman who was part of the design team that worked for Kahn in Philadelphia in the 1960s, broke down in tears after entering the building. That was the first time he experienced the magic of the building that he had worked on from across the world. For him, it was no less a pilgrimage.
You can visit the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban between the hours of 10.00 – 15.00. You’ll need to take with you a photocopy of your passport and the original (just in case) and fill out a form and pay TK 600 entrance fee.
Photography is not permitted inside the building, and if parliament is sitting you may not be able to enter the main chamber.
Faced with an imposing architectural work of extraordinary power, clarity of form and beauty, the jury could not help but question the compatibility of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar with the needs and aspirations of a poor country. Yet, a review of the building’s design and construction plans on site studies reveal that over time it has come to enjoy overwhelming approval, it stands as a symbol of democracy in Bangladesh and has influenced the country in a variety of beneficial ways.
Reaching beyond the architecture of the immediate area, the building has assimilated important archetypes of the region among other ways through the extension of its parks and water pools. The architect has re-interpreted and transformed these ideas through a process that applied concepts of construction technology to conditions specific to the Dhaka locale. The result is a building that while universal in its source of forms, aesthetics and technologies, could be in no other place.
Muzharul Islam and others made efforts to Bring Louis I. Kahn to Bangladesh to plan whole of Dhaka as the capital city of newborn Bangladesh. He was to prepare the master plan for Dhaka city. However, due to the political chaos that engulfed the nation during that period it was not possible to complete this dream.
I had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the then president of the country, who agreed with the idea of involving Kahn with Dhaka's planning. But unfortunately, the concept went in vain following drastic changes in the country's political scenario. Had the idea come true, physical growth of Dhaka would have been in a planned manner instead of today's messy state.