is not about turning back the clock. It is about reclaiming
heritage. It also is a way to align the past and present to
make way for responsible urban living with an improved future
in view. A seminar on colonial architecture throws light on
how cities around Bangladesh are losing heritage sites of
both colonial and pre-colonial eras.
idea of conservation is almost an anomaly in Bangladesh. Things
of historical significance are nothing if not disposable.
History has little room in a society that thrives on myopia.
Even in the political and cultural spheres, historical context
is often overlooked. Preserving history has little significance
in a socio-political culture that has been too busy defacing
it to lend strength to beneficiaries of power.
the idea of progress does not sit easy with the conservation
of history, or historically significant buildings for that
matter. Old buildings are connected to history, and they receive
little attention. However, there are cities around the world
where its citizens have stood up and fought for the preservation
of history that continue to stand in the shape of old buildings.
They have claimed the structures as their own and mobilised
opinions against their removal. They have lobbied with the
relevant authorities forcing them to opt for renovation. And
by doing so they have saved chosen heritage sites that connect
them to their forbears and their history.
this region, Kolkata has set an example in keeping the casualties
at a minimum. Even within Bangladesh, in Chittagong, the civil
bodies have had a resounding success in mobilising opinion
to save an important heritage site, namely the Court building,
which had earlier been earmarked for demolition.
more and more buildings being effaced from the urban landscape
to make way for the newer, at times uglier, structures, it
is time for the city dwellers across Bangladesh to stand up
and reclaim them as part of their history. A seminar jointly
organised by Saif ul Haque Sthapati and the Goethe-Institut,
Dhaka, shed light on the disappearing urban past and brought
to the fore the need for conservation of buildings that are
of Heritage Buildings with Reference to Colonial Heritage,"
the seminar "provided a platform to facilitate dialogue,"
as Manish Chakraborti, an architect, activist and photographer
based in Kolkata, terms it. He came all the way from Kolkata
to share the successes they had in consolidating the efforts
of the civil bodies and drumming up the funds to restore some
of the most beautiful colonial-era buildings. His brilliant
presentation on the second session of the first day of the
seminar gave proof of the triumph of the people to save a
city centre teeming with colonial buildings.
was the effort by Action Research in Conservation of Heritage
(ARCH), a Kolkata based civil body, that helped save a whole
area from dilapidation. Their work has paid off. Although
Manish and his group are still pressing for incorporation
of more buildings into the endangered list, they have managed
to get The Dalhousie Square, the colonial era enclave among
the 100 endangered cultural sites declared by the World Monument
are two sides to colonial architecture. Firstly, it symbolises
the knowledge and power of the victor. People who were being
ruled had neither the knowledge nor the need to build on the
scale that colonial structures were built. Secondly colonial
architecture includes exquisitely built structures that were
once symbols of oppression but now can be seen, setting aside
the political context, as architectural achievements both
in terms of style and engineering. "We are not happy
about the colonial rule, but these buildings were built with
our money. And they reveal certain types of design and construction
method. In order to build effectively today, we need to know
the knowledge of the past," says Saiful Haque, an architect
who has taken the initiative to facilitate this dialogue.
architecture is a repository of knowledge. These buildings
are not only mere valuable evidence of the colonial period,
they offer to architects of today the knowledge of setting
a structure against an environment," Haque points out.
He agrees that colonial structures were built in keeping with
the climactic characteristic of the region.
also adds that colonial architects and engineers designed
later-era buildings, with native masons and craft people.
Bengal PWD (public works department) planned and executed
the construction. Most of the colonial architecture that remains
erect till this day is concentrated around the Ramna enclave.
The buildings that are within the campus lie in the aegis
of the Dhaka University authorities and the rest are the concern
of the PWD. Haque believes that this is one of the reasons
that they are still standing. The paper that Haque presented
focused on Ramna and the urgency of its conservation.
garden city has a long history. Muntasir Mamun, a scholar
on history of Dhaka, says the name Ramna is of Moghul origin.
According to his book "Dhaka: The City of Remembrance",
its history goes back to 1610. In the book, there is a testimony
of someone named Taifur who was a witness to a Moghul structure,
a grand gateway to the garden, which was still there in 1903.
After the partition of Bengal in 1905, when development works
kick-started in the newly established provincial capital,
Dhaka, many pre-colonial structures were erased. The grand
gateway was among the casualties.
ul Haque is in favour of keeping the signs of yesteryears
for posterity. He says, "Dhaka as a city has accumulated
a lot of history. This city cannot look the same all over.
Areas that carry the pre-colonial sites, or the areas of colonial
times must retain their characteristics." His appeal
is for development that does not transgress past heritage
areas like Ramna are declared heritage sites and information
boards containing maps of the routes alongside the signs that
will announce particulars of each important building are put
up, it will be a start. The citizens need to become aware
of the history the structures represent," believes Haque.
read at the seminar were mostly in line with the idea that
the city dwellers need to come forward to lay claim to the
heritage buildings. In one of the question and answer sessions,
a member of the audience shared an intriguing thought. He
said that unless as a people we relate to the buildings in
a historical way, the chances of saving them is dim. When
he discovered that Curzon Hall once housed Dhaka College,
of which he was once a student, it made him feel a special
affinity towards the structure. It too has now become a part
of him. This is something that each and everyone will have
to feel towards a historical building. This personal connection
with an institution and its history triggers sympathy towards
the buildings that subsequently housed it. The discussants
concluded that it was this sense of belonging that needed
to be tapped into.
same sense of belonging may save the residential structures
of Halishahor, Chittagong. Shamsul Hossain, Deputy Curator
of the Chittagong University Museum, says that he himself
lives in a house at Halihahor that goes back more than a hundred
years. "In a newspaper report, my house was among more
than a hundred houses mentioned as prone to the immediate
danger in case of earthquake. The report said it was 105 yeas
old, but it is much older as it was built by my grand father,"
feels that these houses of the malooms need to be
saved. These are the last remaining houses of the malooms,
the sail-ship builders of olden times. "And the houses
encapsulate this history," he says emphatically. He bemoans
the fact that while the residences of top government officials,
often colonial era structures, are regularly maintained the
residences of general people, however historically important,
lie in neglect.
the seminar concluded on a positive note stating the urgency
of making a list of buildings that must be preserved, it also
brought into focus the lack of awareness that exists in Bangladesh.
"General awareness does not exist, it is because of this
that we need to resort to media campaigns and involve the
civil bodies to this end," says Kashef Chowdhury, a practicing
architect. The broader the platform, the more chance it will
have towards accomplishing the goals --- this was the predominant
response from the Dhaka cognoscenti.
the initial battle for conservation by saving the Chittagong
Court building from demolition certainly rejuvenated hope
among the participants of the seminar. Presented on March
9, in the first session of the first day of the two-day-long
event, Zarina Hossain's "Citizens' Campaign to Save a
Historic Landmark" told a story of success. It also brought
into salience the determination and efforts that the civil
bodies had to put in to save the structure built by the British
on Peerer Pahar, it is the largest hill-top structure in undivided
Bengal. Though its well-designed surroundings have long been
tampered with, people still come to visit this place. It originally
had a garden surrounding it," says Syeda Zarina, a Chittagong
based architect and planner.
the PWD's "project concept paper" termed the building
as a structure "that cannot be preserved." Their
suggestion was unambiguous, "it needs to be demolished
for additional accommodation."
presentation charted the struggle to save the building. It
also exposed the mindset of the people at the decision making
positions in top government offices. "Old buildings are
like old clothes, you discard them when they are no longer
usable," she quoted the comments of a high government
in the end, the five-year-long "sustained and vigorous"
campaign launched in 1999 managed to overturn the decision
to demolish the High Court building. It was a shining example
of people's triumph, not to mention, a definite blow to the
attitude that the unfeeling officer had towards old buildings.
was the work of the Citizens' Campaign Against Demolition.
It is a forum of professional civic groups that brings together
everyone from architects to concerned citizens, a non-government
body like the Forum for Planned Chittagong (FPC), under one
roof. The District Bar Association and BLAST (Bangladesh Legal
Services Trust) joined in as co-warriors.
of media campaign and awareness building had its desired effect.
But in the end the success seems like a point that had been
conceded by the authority as it had to balk under pressure.
The old Court building still awaits funds for its repair jobs,
while the construction of a new building has been on since
2004 right next to it.
the campaign, the FPC, on behalf of the Joint Conservation
Committee, had their technical team do a survey and produced
a "technical report" on the building. "We appealed
to the government saying that we are arranging for sponsorship
for the repair works, to which the response was only -- silence,"
of Archeology, the government bureau responsible for heritage
sites has its own constraints. Even the legislation to consider
a structure fit to be called a heritage site requires the
building to be more than 100 years old. Saiful Haque believes
that conservation is beyond their task. "We need to have
a broader platform, a heritage trust comprising of
civil bodies where peoples' representatives will also re-enforce
the effort to save the past heritage," he adds.
Chittagong Court building, legal implications were few in
its favour. A hectic search was on to find out a legal way
to save the structure. "Under the Building Construction
Law we had not much in our favour. We needed to look into
the Master Plan of the city, where we detected the mention
of this Prestige Project," says Zarina. This prestige
factor has to do with historical background and social aspect.
"It is akin to having a monument," she explains.
The conclusion of the forum she was a part of was plain and
simple --- "the building was a landmark worthy of civic
battle was as eventful as the battle in the public frontier
to garner support. On July 2001, an injunction order was obtained
from the District Court against vacating of premises and demolition
of the building. On October 2001, a writ petition was submitted
to the High Court Division, and that led to the imposition
of rule nisi on the government against the demolition. "Barrister
Dr. Kamal and Tanjib ul Alam fought the battle for the citizens,"
Zarina acknowledges their invaluable contribution.
presentation has generated hope. Yet in the context of what
goes on around Bangladesh and even in the mega city -- Dhaka,
it seems that anything associated with the word "old"
is expendable in the hectic and unplanned surge of development.
The wave of development that currently sweeps the country
is mostly centred on the cities -- namely Dhaka and Chittagong
with little trickle-down effect much to the chagrin of the
people of the rural areas. The urban condition, too, has been
vexed to the extreme, so as to make the mega city something
of a puzzle grown out of all kinds of excesses.
urbanisation seems like a curse that curtails normal healthy
living. Dis-proportionate building activities regardless of
the capacity of an area, has turned it into a dense concrete
jungle. With this as the backdrop, relevant authorities have
shown little capability in setting the priorities. The beautification
drive is a proof of DCC taking up a plan that has little bearing
on the issues of responsible urban living let alone wholesome
growth. There is hardly any effort on their part to save the
last remaining water bodies and open spaces. Encroachment
in Dhaka as well as many other cities is often a politically
sponsored exercise. Sometimes it is social, as in the case
of the Ramna Park. The encroachment by the National Tennis
Federation and the Dhaka Club have markedly reduced the Park's
nursery. In the surrounding areas there have been development
activities that have little sympathy towards the character
Suhrawardy Udyan that lies in the middle of the Ramna area
too has been lying in neglect since the new government came
to power. During the drive of Dhaka's beautification, it remained
untouched. "Beautification was seen from an erroneous
point of view. A well-planned and well-maintained city itself
is beautiful, we don't need to add any cosmetics," explains
Manish has brought fresh knowledge from Kolkata of corporate
giants being party to the efforts of conservation, in Dhaka
the very idea of getting them interested in such projects
is still a dream.
private insurance company demolished an old, ornate building
on Topkhana Road to make way for a multi-story building. Even
an old ornate building in Bogra that goes back to the colonial
era, one that housed a government bank, was scrapped. Though
there were efforts by Mahbubur Rahman, an architect and head
of the Department of Architecture at the North South University,
to draw up a plan with the help of his former students to
incorporate at least the front part of the old building with
the new one, the working engineer had no time to waste. He
had no thought to spare for an old building; it had to go.
is always too much noise in the political sphere to preserve
the sanctity of democracy, too much emphasis on lawful obedience
to rule. There is even more hoopla about keeping the image
of the country unblemished so that national pride remains
inflated. There is little effort, as usual, to point out the
reason for the quick-paced deterioration of social or political
culture. With the pride factor tied up with history, it is
the very history with which the Bangladeshis are most flippant.
This certainly has consequences on the total scenario. Apathy
towards conservation of heritage is just a part of it.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005