The National Capital Complex in Dhaka, designed by Louis Kahn, is an epic work in the annals of modern architecture. Even after sixty years of its conception, Kahn's complex remains a wondrous phenomenon that is continuously renewing the purposes of architecture.
Dhaka was a critical site of Kahn's new overtures in the modernist cosmos. Located at the geographical and ideological edge of that cosmos, the project literally expanded the horizon of modern architecture that was stagnating in its own ideological doldrums in the 1950s. In amalgamating an ancient intensity with a modern programme, and resuscitating the eroded civic purpose of architecture, Kahn was able to articulate in Dhaka a kind of spiritual modernism.
What made Kahn's ideas compelling was the near-mystical optimism in the virtues of architecture. Through his family of forms and poetic thoughts, Kahn resorted to a re-appreciation of history and human institutions. By the time Kahn arrived in Dhaka, he had internalised history and twentieth century almost seamlessly. One could say that if he was Roman in his architectural orientation, he was Mughal too. If he was modern, he was also primordial, and if he was a twentieth century architect, he was also an ancient alchemist. Dhaka was the critical venue of that transformative moment in modern architecture.
Kahn's preoccupations with Dhaka cannot be packaged simply within the conventional format of project developments. The significance of the Capital Complex is inextricably linked with the national and political struggle of the Bengalis. It is this correspondence between architectural form and cultural norms, often working at surreptitious levels, that has not been fully investigated.
Most critics are still unable to give a fuller assessment of the complexity of the project. While the architectural historian Vincent Scully noted Kahn's architecture in the subcontinent as "eloquent expressions of space and structure that invoke traditional stabilities," few have articulated how the work establishes those stabilities in innovative ways.
Organised as a miniature city, Sher-e-Bangla Nagar is characterised by two aggregations on a north-south axis separated by gardens and lakes, and ordered by a network of rectilinear and diagonal elements (of buildings, landscape components and pathways, set in both hierarchic and serial composition). In the overall plan, Kahn conceived the Assembly Building as the crown of the Complex. The southern group – the so-called Citadel of Assembly – took on a concentric pyramidal formation, with the concrete Assembly Building flanked by the attending lower brick structures (originally residences for parliamentarians and government officials).
I have argued elsewhere that Sher-e-Bangla Nagar is more than a building; it's a landscape ensemble. And there is much to learn from that. Bangladesh's hydrological landscape was the point of departure for Kahn's thinking that became evident on his very first trip to Bangladesh in February 1963. He made a few sketches on a river cruise that record his impressions of the presence of water in the terrain. Kahn noted: "The two elements of nature most pervasive in the landscape of East Pakistan [Bangladesh] are water and vegetation. They almost assert their presence." Kahn observed that in Bangladesh one needs to produce an "architecture of the land," meaning that the fundamental building fact in that delta country is the molding of the earth to provide both platforms and proto-architectural shapes. He conceptualised that as the process of "dig and mound," something that involves an excavation of the ground to create an earth mound on which the building is placed; the excavated pit becomes the pond.
Regarding the Assembly, many critics have sought a genetic connection of its centralised plan to Renaissance buildings such as St. Peter's, Mughal monuments as well as Buddhist temple-monasteries in Bangladesh. With a centralised plan, Kahn was clearly trying to imbue the Assembly with a sacred and spiritual aura at a time when articulating spirituality in a modern secular world was a tricky proposition.
In his intention to tap the spiritual, Kahn was perhaps closer to the Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore's claim that art is one of the windows whereby man is in touch with what he called the "eternal reality." Kahn was known to be a member of the Tagore Society in Philadelphia in the 1950s, which makes Kahn's access to the Bengali realm prior to his arrival in Dhaka.
The Assembly Building attains a sacred character because of the womb-like disposition of the central Assembly Hall within rings created by the ambulatory space, the seven-storey high interior "street," and outer structures. Light of different shades and tones, constantly changing and materialising from unseen sources, animates the ambulatory space, while stairs, ramps, and walkways wrap around the womb-like chamber in a chiaroscuro.
In addition to local innovations in concrete construction for the Assembly Building, Kahn reinvigorated the poetry of brick architecture with its powerful resonance in the region. In Kahn's new order of a brick architecture, with its geometry of form, deep shadows, earth-hugging physiognomy, and articulation of the arch with the concrete tie introduced a new vocabulary in the repertoire of regional modern architecture, and perhaps inaugurated what would be later described as "critical regionalism."
The question whether Sher-e-Bangla Nagar is a city, and whether this spectacular symbolic machine is out of tune in the fractiousness of contemporary society, is finally redeemed by the overall landscape plan – the fabric of buildings, lakes, and gardens, and their disposition in the landscape. It is this quasi-city that is more responsive to the features of the delta than realised or discussed.
In the context of the raucous city that Dhaka has become, the environment of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar offers the image of an imaginary past – as if all Bengali cities were like this – and an imagined future, that a city could be like this. It is this fabric that I have labelled as the "Bengali city," whether Kahn claimed it as that or not.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is an architect, urbanist and architectural historian, and directs the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements.