Marina Tabassum, a seasoned architect who won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Jameel Prize for designing the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, talks to The Daily Star's Naznin Tithi about the future of housing in flood-prone and coastal regions as well as the importance of local knowledge for a sustainable solution to housing.
Climate change is now very much real in Bangladesh as we have been witnessing increasing incidents of natural disasters such as cyclones and floods. This year's flood has inundated more than one-third of the country and it is feared that around 75 lakh people would be affected. Millions of people could also become climate refugees, losing their homes because of the projected sea level rise due to climate change. Given the situation, what kind of housing is needed or would be sustainable in the flood-prone and coastal areas?
One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that floods in northern Bangladesh are not always directly connected to climate change. Quite often, the cause is misregulating the natural flow by our neighbouring country. That doesn't, however, mean that we're not vulnerable to climate change. Also, housing cannot be viewed as a singular action. We need a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to the crisis anticipated due to climate change.
The first step to address the climate crisis would be to accept water as an integral part of our future. As such, we need to learn to use and manage it to our advantage and learn to live with it. Ours is a waterscape and any line we drew to define water's boundary has failed miserably for decades. We are located on the Ganges estuary and two-thirds of our land mass is created by progradation into the sea. So, what we consider land was historically part of the sea. In addition, we are climatically in the subtropical region where monsoon is predominant. So, our perception of a land-based country must go through a process of reorientation. There is no example in the world for us to follow. We have to create our own examples.
With sea level rise, we can anticipate unfamiliar occurrences and changes. As such, our investigations need to focus on living with water. The positive side of our story is that we are resilient as a nation and we can adapt and appropriate. As such, our research must focus on amphibious structure, mobile structure for both living and farming.
You have recently exhibited, at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, lightweight houses made from locally sourced materials that perch on stilts and can be moved when the waters rise. Tell us more about your research on such houses. Also, as these houses are easy to assemble and disassemble, can these be built at an affordable price for the coastal communities?
For the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, we were commissioned to research the rights of future generations in the dynamic landscape of the tide-dominated Ganges Delta. We focused on Haimchar in the lower Meghna where the delta is active. Our multidisciplinary team included architects, geographer, landscape architect and historian, and the objective was to have a holistic understanding of the phenomena of erosion and accretion. Our investigation also looked into Bengal Tenancy Act imposed by the British colonial rule on a dynamic riverine delta in order to collect revenue from the local inhabitants through a cadastral subdivision known as the CS map. This saw an imposition of a practice of dry culture on the wet culture of the Bengal Delta. We talked to local inhabitants and documented their stories, some of whom left Haimchar as landless migrants to Dhaka. We will see many such climate migrants moving to cities for opportunity in the years to come.
The houses that people built in these belts that follow the Brahmaputra trajectory originally followed a knock-down system. You can find houses that have moved seven times in the last 60 years and are handed down from one generation to the next. It's not something we invented but we highlighted and suggested a few simplified solutions to enable quick disassembly and assembly. The houses have frame structures with knockdown façades. The cost can vary according to the choice of materials.
In recent years, large furniture makers like IKEA came up with a flat pack system of houses that can be moved to different locations, which became news in architecture journals and magazines. Our vernacular architecture addressed mobility for over hundreds of years out of necessity of movement. This was also an underlying message to the world of architecture to look into local wisdom of building.
Tell us about your low-cost housing project in the char areas…
Part of Haimchar resurfaced as a char some years ago. It is not yet ready to be inhabited by the landowners. Generally, they wait for four years for the char to settle. As it is a multidisciplinary holistic research project and we believe in minimal intervention, our investigation and study continue. We are looking into sociocultural aspects, the culture of building, the affordability and economy of the inhabitants.
How can local knowledge and materials help in building sustainable houses?
From years of engagement with rural communities, my understanding is that sustainable solutions come from local knowledge of building. As architects we can help with intelligent design solutions that can enable the communities with better living. It needs to be a collaborative process where one is enriched by the knowledge of the other and the outcome is generally a sustainable solution of housing.
I believe architects must opt for bottom-up processes rather than taking a presumptuous top-down process that quite often fails to relate to the needs of people. As such, the prevalent construction technique, availability of material and resource, basic requirements and aspirations of the people must be kept in focus.
What is your view on the flood-resistant floating house built by a team of Brac University students for the flood-prone areas?
Any initiative that is trying to provide solution to natural phenomena such as flood and cyclone is positive thinking towards resilient housing. We must acknowledge that ours is a waterscape instead of landscape. We must focus on how we can build up a symbiotic living relationship with water, and floating houses can be a viable solution for the future in flood-prone areas.
I see many young architects in our country focusing on community-based projects not only in the flood-prone areas but all over Bangladesh, which is very positive. The pioneer of such projects in Bangladesh, in my opinion, is architect Hasibul Kabir who is based in Jhenaidah. He has taken up many community-led projects in that area which are inspirational. He teaches at BRAC University too and has been instrumental in creating a generation of dedicated community architects. Any project that suggests a paradigm shift must include the communities in the design process. Only then can it have wider acceptance and a long-lasting effect. Kabir's approach of co-creation in that regard appropriates local needs and empowers local communities by engaging them in the process.