In 2005 architect and noted filmmaker Enamul Karim Nirjhar created a documentary titled “Tini” (Him) on the life and works of Muzharul Islam. The documentary featured vast range of his work including Nipa Bhaban at the Dhaka University campus, Jibon Bima Corporation Building, Jaipurhat Limestone and Cement Project, National Archives and Library, Jahangirnagar University, Chittagong University and Charukala Building. The film also included comments on Muzharul Islam's designs by noted Bangladeshi and internationally reputed architects.
The 46-minute long documentary was produced Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) and was screened at the Shaheed Zia Milnaiton in Bangladesh Jatiyo Jadughar (Shaheed Zia Auditorium in National Museum) on 10 August 2005. Amongst the special guests who attended the event, Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, acclaimed artist Qayyum Chowdhury, and president of IAB Mobassher Hossain delivered speeches to the large audience.
I still remember those days when Dhaka was in the process of urbanisation and the buildings in old Dhaka looked pretty much the same. I was mesmerised when I saw the Charukala (Fine Arts Institute) Building. It looked nothing like the other buildings of its time. Mazharul Islam's work has never ceased to amaze me. I still remember being obsessed with the ramp at the public library as it was the first one I've seen.
We were fortunate that Mazharul Islam designed the building of Charukala. Not only artists, any one with an aesthetic sense would agree that the building is unique in its composition.
‘Tini’ was released on the occasion of Muzharul Islam’s 82nd birthday.
In 2006 'Tini' represented Bangladesh at the non-competitive 'Five Nations Fair' held in Seoul, South Korea. The fair showcases documentaries from five Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan. Around 100 creative and innovative documentaries were shown for 15 hours a day on South Korea’s public television EBS-TV during the festival week. The theme of 2006’s festival was "Prospering Asia, Reconciliation and Coexistence".
Besides broadcast on EBS-TV during the festival and screened at EBS' 'Space Art Hall', there was a special day to present Bangladeshi culture in the festival.
In 2012 the "Muzharul Islam, Architect" book was published by Brac University Press on the major projects of Bangladesh’s first modern architect.
The 188 page book consists of colour photographs, reproductions of the original drawings and a commentary on each of the architect's important projects covering four decades. The book also contains a translation of the public lecture delivered by Muzharul Islam at BRAC University.
The book is edited by Fuad H. Mallick and Zainab Faruqui Ali, professors at the Department of Architecture at Brac University. The foreword is by Stanley Tigerman.
Muzharul Islam is the single most dominant influence on modern architecture in Bangladesh. Fifty eight years since he started his practice the influence continues. Other than the odd article here and there and references to his projects in others, there has been no major publication of his works.
Muzharul Islam gave the first public lecture on his work at BRAC University in May 2002 at the age of 78, when he had almost stopped designing. It was soon after his lecture that a book on his work was conceived. This was not an easy task since nowhere was his work documented. The history of the projects was related mostly by him and some information could be gathered from the people who had worked with him. Fortunately the drawings of the projects were stored in his office, but quite a lot were missing. This is a well-deserved homage to Bangladesh's master architect. While it may lack the quality expected of the quality of work it displays, there has been no shortage of dedication and care. This book is a gift to Muzharul Islam from all the architects of Bangladesh.
Muzharul Islam, Architect, edited by Zainab F. Ali and Fuad H. Mallick, both professors in the Department of Architecture at Brac University and published by Brac University Press, is a welcome contribution to the meager literature on modern architecture in Bangladesh. Produced beautifully, the book itself is a fine commentary on the current state of the Bangladeshi publishing industry. It presents 14 selected buildings, constructed between 1953 and 1984. Each building is introduced with a pithy experiential description and complemented by wonderfully reproduced photographs and original architectural drawings.
A number of buildings deserve special mention for their photographic representation: Institute of Fine Arts (1953), Dhaka University Library (1953), Chittagong University (1965), Jahangirnagar University (1967), Joypurhat Limestone Mining and Cement Works Project (1974), and National Archives and Library (1976). These buildings collectively represent Islam's poignant aesthetic sensibilities, his site consciousness and love for local materials, and, most important, his introspective interpretation of the cultural context in which his buildings are situated.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book, however, is the inclusion of some of Muzharul Islam's academic works at Yale University from which he received a master's degree in 1961. These rarely seen student projects offer a glimpse into how South Asian architects were influenced by the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier's then-recently completed buildings in Chandigarh, the capital of the northern Indian state of Punjab. A rare essay by the maestro himself (transcript of a verbal presentation that Islam made at Brac University in 2002) shines a spotlight on Islam's committed advocacy for an architectural education that is grounded both in the humanist ethos of Bengal and Bauhaus-type collaboration that would inspire the architect, in Islam's words, “to interact with other creative subjects such as literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, cinema, theatre, etc".
In his foreword, Stanley Tigerman reminisces about his lifelong friendship and collaborative practice with Muzharul Islam, presenting clues to how his iconoclastic friend remained underappreciated in Bangladesh, presumably, as a result of an engineering-dominated architectural education system. The University of Hawaii professor Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, who has researched Islam's architectural work, contributes an essay situating the architect's work in its broader sociocultural context. It is a richly ambivalent and lyrical exploration of Islam's social-reformer persona that straddles the ethical responsibility to find what constitutes the basics of a culture and an unrelenting rejection of all fixed definitions of nationhood and cultural chauvinism. This is why, Ashraf reasons, Islam's architecture yearns to return, in a Rabindrik vein, to its Bengali home, while at the same time denying that there remains an unchanging and unchangeable home to return to. Thus, for Islam, a conflicted protagonist of modernity, the architecture of Bengal is simultaneously local and global. The Institute of Fine Arts, then, could be seen as a concomitant architectural attempt to contemplate what is Bengali in place-making and what makes a building an existential experience that knows no cultural boundary, in the same way Tagore's narration of a local experience “would make a W. B. Yeats quiver on a London omnibus, or a Victoria Ocampo weep in distant Argentina".
The editors, Ali and Mallick, have done a commendable job in Muzharul Islam, Architect. Not only is the book likely to jumpstart serious scholarship on the pioneering work of Muzharul Islam and, more broadly, modern architecture in Bangladesh, it also reminds us that an archival culture to preserve the architectural drawings and historic photographs of heritage buildings must be a cultural policy priority.
The book, however, is not without problems. The building descriptions, even though they provide useful historical tidbits, do not forcefully attempt to analyze and historicize Islam's buildings. How and why does the Institute of Fine Arts seem to have a universal appeal? Muzharul Islam designed the Institute immediately after returning from the USA where he received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Oregon in 1952. What kind of intellectual influence did he bring with him from abroad? The entrance of the Fine Arts building, lifted over pilotis, is reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Parisian masterpiece Villa Savoye (1929), as much as it recalls the open pavilions of Mughal architecture. One important question that remains unanswered is how did Muzharul Islam evolve in his aesthetic worldview? The formal transparency and free-plan approach of his earlier work were steadily replaced by his later work's formal solidity and a kind of Bengali Romanesque, as exemplified by the National Archives and Library.
Sometimes the building descriptions employ flippant remarks; such as, in the case of Jahangirnagar University, “The façade has strong angularity and therefore very modern.” The book, overall, needs the hawkish eyes of a proofreader. It is sometimes “Jahangirnagar” and sometimes “Jahangir Nagar.” Typos remain here and there. A timeline of Muzharul Islam's career at the beginning would have been useful for both the architectural and general readership. In addition to the main description at the beginning of each building, brief notes on each drawing and photograph would have facilitated a better understanding of the projects. The plans of the buildings are almost always without the customary north sign that helps readers to understand the orientation of the building.
These remediable problems should, however, not overshadow the enormity of the book's contribution to the design culture of Bangladesh. The book will certainly familiarize Muzharul Islam not just as a pivotal figure of Bangladeshi architecture, but also as an icon of transnational modern architecture whose work deserves to be included in canonical history books of world architecture, such as those by Spiro Kostof, Kenneth Frampton, and William Curtis. Some of the stock concerns of contemporary architectural practiceranging from the pursuit of what the Norwegian architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz has called genius loci or the spirit of place to the energy efficiency of climate-adaptive sustainable buildingshave already been presciently examined in Muzharul Islam's work during the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps, the global availability of Muzharul Islam, Architect on Amazon.com (locally distributed by the University Press Limited) is a sign that the octogenarian architect is now ready for a global audience.
Adnan Morshed, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning,, Catholic University of America (Washington DC, USA)
© Londoni Worldwide Limited