Building the city building by building
All cities change, and better cities—those that are not at the lowest rung of "most liveable cities"—change through careful planning and crafting of its assets. Dhaka is changing through radical norms, in a fury of demolition and building.
It appears that the architectural and engineering authorities of the state are working full speed in taking down the old walk-up buildings in Azimpur Housing Estate in order to replace them with tall towers. Being one of the earliest designed housing projects in Dhaka, Azimpur has been etched in the memory of the city, as well as in generations of government officials and their families who lived a precious part of their life there (including the present writer from his birth to about five years old). Considering the historical value of Azimpur as an urban fabric, and that it is a prime site of about 50 acres in a premier part of the city, we are looking forward to an exemplary solution to the challenge of renewal and renovation of a well-known neighbourhood of the city.
Those who are seriously committed to the design of housing know that the most critical thing is NOT the production of housing units but the making of a community, and organising of the social life of the place. There are really scant examples of good housing in Dhaka, old or recent. What Dhaka has now is only an additive process with only one residential type: the apartment building producing a homogenous urban fabric. While Azimpur may seem now to be straightforward in its arrangement of buildings and spaces, it is, with its community spaces and open grounds, one of the earliest examples of group housing in Dhaka.
Built mostly in the 1950s, Azimpur has a diverse collection of buildings that also includes some early innovative work by the master architect Muzharul Islam (when he worked at the then Communications and Building Department, the precursor of PWD, and also lived in Azimpur). His buildings in Azimpur are brilliant examples of early modern housing, outpacing in innovation and design quality the more bland buildings in the campus by his English boss Raymond McConnell. Poorly maintained and badly transformed, Islam's buildings may now seem shabby, but if renovated, they can still demonstrate to the younger generation how smart and thoughtful they were.
It is ironic that people who laud the architectural guru Muzharul Islam as a "pothikreet" have no problem in taking down the buildings that are evidence of his being a path-blazer in Bangladesh's architecture. In a few years, after all older buildings are demolished, how shall we know what made Muzharul Islam the most brilliant architect of his time and later times? We need to retain and preserve some select buildings as instructive monuments for posterity.
How then to transform such an area as Azimpur with its poignant history and rich memory? By wanton demolishing or careful crafting?
We keep hearing so many stories of the simplistic solution of demolition-and-building: elegant hundred-year-old building in Farmgate destroyed to put up a new structure, New Market being destroyed to create a multi-story building, buildings on Bailey Road taken down for tall towers… this is a worrisome trend! If this continues, buildings built now will be taken down in a few years at the slightest justification: either they have run out of their efficiency or they are aesthetically inelegant. If unthoughtful demolition-and-building were the planning policy for cities, London would have looked like Bashundhara. London is still an excellent example of ensembling the old and new in a seamless tapestry of buildings and spaces.
Demolition-and-building has now become a signature for a larger social phenomenon: How we are keen to destroy our heritage in order to forge ahead towards some undefined, foggy future! Take Dhanmondi Residential Area for example. The original condition of a two-storey bungalow in a lawn was erased for the six-storey apartment-style buildings, which in no time gave way to 12-storey towers. Density increased (as well as the coffers of the property owners) as did the pressure on roads and services with little facilitation of community development.
We praise the efforts by the government in providing more accommodation for its officials in Azimpur, and if tall buildings are one way to resolve that, we are with it. But when the construction of new buildings involves wanton destruction of older buildings, including those that have heritage, memorial or educative value, we are concerned. We are also worried when the initiative involves only buildings, and not much thought to a master plan integrating landscape and community. We cannot remain fixated only on individual buildings without insight for establishing housing as a community matrix and social fabric. We are also concerned when tall buildings are located with no particular vision in mind. With the same new building types, driven by a homogenising FAR (floor area ratio), all parts of the city are beginning to look alike, mostly bland and uninspiring. The few tall buildings that have popped up in Azimpur are neither good examples of aesthetical elegance nor of virtuous residential living. They are just tall boxes, floors stacked upon floors, with no thoughtful relationship to the ground and surroundings. A site and condition as Azimpur require the highest level of sensitive, knowledgeable and mature architectural response. It would have been ideal to arrange a national competition as the government did for the old Dhaka Jail area.
It appears we have no clue—no science or philosophy—about how to work with the old. Instead of brutally demolishing all buildings, there are other possibilities. A far richer environment can be created by an ensemble of renovating selective older buildings and innovative tall buildings, in a creative co-existence of the past and the upcoming. Only that way we will have arrived in the twentieth-century with intelligence and pride, and a richer urban experience.
In the meantime, we will benefit if authorities and architects transforming Azimpur explain to the larger public what they are planning on this critical site. Such provision of information should be a requirement for any major public land undergoing large-scale change. All of us who are in one way or another involved in the betterment of our environments, and reflect on critical issues that affect the future of the city, are keen to see that one of the most important housing sites in Bangladesh, and a historic neighbourhood in the city, is transformed to a superior example of "housing as community" and not housing as numbers.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is an architect and urbanist, and director-general of Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements.