Quivering Yeats and weeping Ocampo | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 03, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 03, 2012

Quivering Yeats and weeping Ocampo

Adnan Morshed pays tribute to an artist


It is now consensus history that in the 1950s Muzharul Islam pioneered a Bengali Modernism in architecture. His Institute of Fine Arts (1953) at Shahbagh, for instance, exemplifies the beginning of a climate-responsive and site-sensitive modern architectural language in the then East Pakistan. However, what is not widely known is that Islam's work also provides an intriguing cultural foil against which his architectural experiments with modernist aesthetics could also be explored as part of a broader form of Bengali nationalism, rooted in the enlightenment of Raja Rammohun Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. The Chicago-based architect Stanley Tigerman, Islam's Yale University colleague who collaborated with him in the creation of five polytechnic institutes during the 1960s, views Islam's architecture as part of the same search for a Bangali identity that helped define the ideological foundation on which the new nation of Bangladesh was eventually built.
Islam has been variously called a renaissance man, a sage, a trailblazer, a renegade who took on the establishment to advance an art-centric and non-technocratic view of architecture. He has been prolific in producing epoch-making architectural ensembles, visionary in inviting some of the Western architectural stalwarts to work in this country (including Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph), and astute in advocating an architectural pedagogy conscious of the country's cultural milieu. But, unfortunately, despite his immense significance in the annals of Bangladesh's architectural heritage, Islam's buildings have been neither systematically catalogued, nor analyzed for critical learning. It is, then, befitting that the focus of a new monographic study would be none other than Muzharul Islam.
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 is Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning,, Catholic University of America, Washington DC.

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