Having grown up in Dhaka in the early 1950s, I am aghast at the way we are erasing our architectural heritage. The buildings of Gulistan and Naz cinemas which had deep imprints on public memory has been replaced by an ugly monstrosity of a shopping mall. Our national mosque Baitul Mokarram, one of the first examples of modern architecture in Dhaka and representing modern Dhaka, has been extended by stylistically incongruous gates and minarets besides being surrounded by shops degrading its serenity and visibility. Shahbagh roundabout fountain, an iconic landmark of Dhaka, was replaced with an ugly mass. The Agriculture Laboratory building, a fine colonial structure in Farmgate along the metro line, has already been demolished.
According to newspaper reports, the Teachers Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University, a nostalgic place for DU students and Dhaka's citizens, is going to be replaced by a multi-storied building. It has been reported that Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) building, a colonial era building built to house East Bengal-Assam provincial Secretariat, is also going to be demolished to make place for a modern high-rise hospital. All these amounts to erasing Dhaka's memory and identity.
Architectural heritage is directly affected by insensitive urban planning and design, which in turn results in cultural discontinuity and identity crisis. Numerous water bodies in Dhaka also provided it with a unique character and identity different from other cities of the world, but they are continuously being destroyed. Loss of identity, urban blight, hazards, pollution, traffic and water congestions, etc. may be attributed to lack of awareness regarding the contribution of natural and man-made heritage of a place in the development and urban design/planning. I have travelled widely and have seen that in the cities of the developed world, landmarks and heritage, both natural and man-made, are being carefully preserved for the posterity. Tourists visit a place to see the identifying objects of a place, both tangible and intangible. Architectural heritage definitely represent the history and society of a place.
In the developed world, the planning process starts with what must be retained and the landmark artefacts (including the heritage buildings) are carefully highlighted. But in Dhaka there is a tendency to erase our identity and our past. Dhaka, once known as a city of mosques or the Venice of the east, will soon become a city of shopping malls—a shapeless concrete jungle if the current trends continue.
And now after TSC and DMCH, we hear about the possibility of demolishing the iconic Kamalapur Railway Station (KRS) and erecting a copy some 130 metre away to accommodate the metro rail project currently under construction. A copy is a copy. It will never have the authenticity of the original. Development is needed but it should be a coordinated effort. KRS terminal building, designed by modernist architects Daniel Dunham and Robert Boughey, symbolises modern Dhaka. KRS is heir to the former Eastern Bengal Railway and Assam-Bengal Railway networks of the colonial past. Western zone broad-gauge line and eastern zone metre-gauge is united here in Kamalapur. If the metro rail authority and railway authority work together with an aim to save this iconic modern building of the 1960's, it is still possible to do.
Being a Buet Alumnus, in my desperation to save this landmark building, I called up several experts from Buet—I was able to reach Dr Qazi Azizul Mowla, professor of Urban Design, Buet. I was surprised to learn that his department had not been consulted so far on the issue of alignment of metro rail line or location of terminals/hub, a matter of national importance. Though metro rail alignment and the location of terminals have an impact on urban design and overall traffic and transportation system of the city, relevant experts of relevant disciplines were not consulted in the past giving rise to controversies time and again. When I asked Professor Mowla what was the reason for this mess and the destruction of Dhaka's artefacts, his answer was simple, rapid and fragmented urbanisation and isolated developmental plans caused these destructions. His opinion is that it is the mindset of sectorial development planners, who ignore all other relevant issues and concentrate solely on their own issues, that is the main problem.
Development will necessitate some changes and some demolitions, but the priorities need to be fixed. According to him, if we can identify the root problems, there are many alternative ways to mitigate them. Architectural heritage are susceptible to the impact of natural and man-made hazards and it is more obvious in the urban areas. With the massive rate of unplanned urbanisation, and the inherent risks or vulnerability that are faced by dense urban areas, there is a need for a specialised approach to handle multidisciplinary and multi-focused development endeavours in a holistic manner.
Latest controversies on this topic are the Metrorail terminal in Dhaka University and Kamalapur Area. According to Professor Mowla, saving this iconic building is no big deal but requires some adjustment to the current Metro Rail Terminal/Hub design and coordination between the stakeholders (Kamalapur Metrorail Terminal is in the planning and design stage). Professor Mowla's idea is not to end the metro rail at or near the Kamalapur Railway Station, but to extend the metro rail a little farther to the south towards Titipara area. The location is a railway land and currently houses the inland container warehouse (the government already has a plan to move the container warehouse to a location outside the city).
To do this, the government doesn't need to acquire additional land and there is adequate space to construct the metro rail terminal or depot or even a multimodal hub. Being on the same side of the road, an internal corridor may connect it with the KRS to transfer passengers smoothly to and from metro terminal and KRS. The idea seems workable, therefore, I would urge the authorities to consult the relevant Buet urban designers and save this and other landmark buildings for the posterity.
ABM Nurul Islam is a former BAEC and IAEA official.(Written in collaboration with Professor Qazi Azizul Mowla)