July 26, 2009

Rafiq Azam is the principal architect of Shattoto, an architecture firm based in Dhaka with a focus on “architecture for green living”. Formed in 1995, Shatotto intends to unearth the lost history and heritage of Bengal and recreate the missing link of its urban and rural culture. Shatotto also tries to bridge the gaps between architectural values and the current crisis of a responsible architecture, in order to generate conversation among people, communities and nature for a healthy society. Rafiq Azam graduated in 1989 from Bangladesh Engineering University (BUET), Dhaka. His many awards in both art and architectural work include: three-time recipient of World Architecture Community Award 2008-09, short listed in Leading European Architects Forum Award 09, Emerging Architect of the world by Urban Land USA 08, AR Emerging Award London 07, finalist for Aga Khan Awards for Architecture 04 and 07, Berger Award for Excellence 07, Kenneth F. Brown Asia Pacific Culture and Design Award USA 07, four- time recipient of South Asian Awards for Architecture. Azam is also a visiting faculty at Dept. of Architecture-The National University of Singapore, NED University Pakistan, North South University, University of Asia Pacific, Ahsanullah University of Science & Technology, and Brac University Dhaka. Azam has also lectured extensively around the world at numerous institutions and seminars.

cB:  Today we are conversing with pioneer green architect of Bangladesh, Rafiq Azam. Rafiq Bhai – thank you for joining us today and talking to us about architecture, your philosophies and your work. 

You have a unique brand of architecture that celebrates nature. Khazedewan Apartments in Lalbagh, for which you won the 2004 Cityscape Architectural Review Commendation Award, is on a small plot of land. However, you have managed to include a garden in each apartment because you wanted the children of the house to see how a tree grows and to be able to touch the fruits from it. How has your childhood influenced your work? Growing up, were you surrounded by nature and how has that affected the way you think now.

RA: My childhood and experiences of growing up in Lalbagh area of old Dhaka (where I was born) influence my work a lot. In Old Dhaka, where people laughed and cried, lived and loved together, one always found help without asking. A friendly atmosphere lingered even on the roads as people freely exchanged greetings and smiled as they crossed each other. Walking through the narrow alleys, the touch of the silent sun, giggling of the children on the street, loud hawkers passing by, ringing bells of rickshaws, sudden rains and music on the tin roof, father nagging over trivial issues – these are the memories that has made me who I am today. Regarding my family, it was a big one. I was the sixth of nine siblings. Amidst other things, we shared our growing up years and learnt from each other in a wonderful house where we lived. A big courtyard and a garden in the south was the centre of most of our activities. My mother and father tended to the flower plants and they blossomed into a myriad of colours. I still harbour in my heart the pleasures of sitting on top of a branch and relishing a fruit freshly plucked from the tree.

[image: courtyard of Khazedewan Apartments, Lalbagh]

cB:  You initially studied engineering in BUET before changing to architecture. What made you switch to architecture?

RA:  From childhood I cherished the desire to be a painter. My father was not very happy with this. One of my cousins was then preparing for the entrance exam for architecture and that is how I came to know about architecture. Entering architecture was kind of making myself and my parents happy, since this department belonged to the Engineering University and, for me, I could continue my painting journey.

cB:  Can you tell us a little about your experiences from your student days in BUET? 

RA:  When I started my first year of architecture, being a Jawharlal Nehru gold medalist and a National Television Award winner in painting, I was a confident student. But interestingly in the first design assignment, I was one of two students who got the fail grade. In my second year, one of my teachers told me after seeing my design “I can’t grade you since you are below, below the failing grade today.” In my third year, one of my teachers asked me on the first day, “What’s wrong with you?”; on the second day he asked, “Are you crazy?”; and finally on the third day he asked, “Is there any problem in your family?”. This journey of fail and pass marks combined with discouragements and some encouragements was a long one. Sometimes it made me cry,  feel frustrated, and lose hope. Finally after the death of my father, I took a decision to leave architecture for the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University. Incidentally, that didn’t happen.

[top image: Khazedewan Apartments. bottom image: Water fountain at Meghna Residence]

cB:  Japanese architecture emphasizes the philosophy that ‘less is more’. Minimalism is very evident in your work. Has the Japanese architecture and the ‘less is more’ concept influenced your work? What other types of architecture has inspired you?

RA:  For many years Japanese architecture and painting have influenced many great architects and painters. I am no exception. Like many other architects, I am also fascinated by Greco-Roman and Mughal architectural developments. However, there are other sources of inspirations too. Look at Bangladesh, where water is most precious and abundant, and how life is subtly woven with it. This is what makes her a country of poetry. Bangladesh is the largest delta on earth with 52 rivers that carry water from the Himalayas in an intricate pattern to the Bay of Bengal. During monsoon these rivers inundate two thirds of the country’s land making water the major element of the our landscape. When the water recedes, it leaves a fine layer of fertile alluvial soil and the entire landscape is transformed into large patches of paddy fields.

The yellow harvest field and dense green bouncing, vast sky and moving clouds; breeze flowing over the water and swampy land; mid day sun downing and stretching its last light to twilight; thousands of years old ruins and history, coming back as mystery, sweet memory and melody – all these are my source of inspirations.

When Lalon (a mystic Sufi minstrel and philosopher) says “if there is not one thing inside the body then it is not outside the body either.”  When I read Rabindranath, Kazi Nazrul or Jibanananda Das – they all inspire me. When I walk through the architecture of Mazharul Islam, I feel the whispering of the wind. When I see a small hut of a farmer, I sense the humanity, When I hear the music of Ali Akbar Khan, I lose myself into the nothingness. When I look at Kahn’s parliament complex, I hear the silence . . . 

[image: Roof-top swimming ‘pukur’ and landscaped ‘ghat’ at Megna Residence]

cB:  The green swimming pool in the rooftop garden of the Meghna Residence reminds me of a village pukur (pond) and I am all ready to dive in for a swim. What made you put the pool in the roof top or was that the client’s desire? And I am curious to know what is the floor right underneath the pool?

RA:  The concept of Meghna Residence was “Living in Delta”. It was an outcome of my understanding regarding our climate, context and typology. In our traditional living, a courtyard and a pond are the basic spaces conversing with the Mother Nature. Similarly, the Meghna Residence has a courtyard and a pond with certain typological inclusions such as a ghat with adjacent jongla (untamed green), greenish water (because of green tiles below) and so on. The client’s requirement was a roof-top swimming pool which we transformed into our local language. The floor immediately below the swimming pond is the electro-mechanical space (EMS) and below the EMS is the master bedroom.  

[top & bottom images: Meghna Residence]

cB:  It is not uncommon for your designs to have a water feature. In the S.A. Residence, the building looks like it majestically rose out of the water. How did you come up with this brilliant idea and what was the inspiration behind it?

RA:  The landscape of Bangladesh is an act of “wind, water and clay”- as described by Kazi Ashraf, an internationally acclaimed professor of architecture from Hawaii University. As I understand it, the interplay of the wind, water, clay and sun is the basis of Bangladeshi architecture. Spiritually, religiously, politically, psychologically even semiologically water has a significant role in the realm of South Asian social life. In the S.A Residence, a very simple architectural vocabulary with the traditional space quality, both from urban and rural typology, merged into one. The courtyard connected to the adjacent pond in traditional typology transformed into the urban context and created a quad of water symbolizing nothingness, yet containing the power vase of capturing, reflecting and refracting the sky, flying birds, smiling sun, shying moon, composed cosmos and so on.

[above images: Computer rendering of SA Residence

To be continued. Part 2 will be posted next Sunday.

[image: all photographs are copyright of RAFIQ AZAM / SHATTOTO]

SHATOTTO architecture for green living
House 34, Road 9/A
Dhanmondi R/A, Dhaka – 1209
Phone # + 88 – 02 – 811-9702



2 Responses to “”

  1. eeshita Says:

    One word: amazing! Something like this in dhaka makes me proud.

  2. shahed Says:

    Congratulations on the Blog!
    I work in the field of Renewable Energy.I have published a blog to project the happenings in Bangladsh & the possibilities!
    I would be glad to receive your comments & suggestions on it!

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