August 2, 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:  Welcome Back! We are continuing our very interesting conversation with Rafiq Azam. 

There were times when you have done a project nearly for free so that your ideas would at least take physical form. For example, for the Khazedewan Apartments you hardly took any compensation – your only requirement to the landlord being that he cannot make any changes to the design. How difficult was it at the beginning of your career to convince clients to implement your revolutionary designs. Can you tell us more about this journey from being an unknown architect to being a well-known and award-winning architect.

RA:  Definitely it was very difficult at the onset. When I was thinking of a name for my practice in 1995, my wife, Dr. Afroza, proposed “SHATOTTO”- a Bangla word meaning “do something continuously”. So as our practice is named “SHATOTTO – architecture for green living” we are passionately, continuously, repetitively pursuing our ideas through the process of innovation. In the process the recognitions are one kind of inspiration but not the destiny of our perseverance. 

cB: And now that you are successfully established, is it much easier to get clients to experiment with your ideas? 

Basically we are (since architecture is team work) the dream sellers and executors. I think, dream for a “tiny small home full of peace” is not difficult to sell. Nowadays, things are becoming easer in one hand and difficult on the other. The expectation of the community from us, the trust, respect and responsibility on us makes it a huge job.

[top image: Glass facade in the living room of Karim Residence. bottom image: Water fountain at Karim Residence.]

cB:  Being  a big supporter of green living, what do you think is the future of sustainable architecture in Bangladesh? Particularly, in Dhaka where there are no proper plans and ugly buildings are mushrooming everywhere! 

RA: In every situation I don’t want to be a pessimist. Civilization is a continuous process of struggle and attainment.  Perhaps we are in the phase of struggle. It’s true that despite having all resources, unfortunately, lack of political will and policy have failed to produce any proper physical planning for Dhaka. And gradually Dhaka has become one of the most densely populated cities in the world characterized as an urban mayhem, fermented by unregulated development, unreliable infrastructure and lack of green space. Amongst all these, by working on individual buildings, an architect can play a key role in the society. I see architecture as a responsibility with its own dialects of conviction and comprehension. It has its own body and poetry, and has the power to transform the society into a healthy community.

cB:  If one looks at Dhaka’s new skyline and developments, you will think that the beauty has gone out of the Bangladeshi life. I sometimes long for the simplicity and practicality of traditional Bangladeshi village architecture. What is your take on traditional architecture: is it practical for modern times, and can it be revived and redefined for modern living?

RA:  The beauty of civilization is in its transformations. We cannot forget and ignore the Stone Age; we also cannot live in the Stone Age. The reason is due to “transformation” whether you want it or not. In fact, it is a journey linearly and critically. When we lost the connections with time and space, there was more of the possibility to “nowhere”. In the realm of urban society with its own complex dynamics, it is a challenge how we will intertwine the essence of the simplicity of our village in terms of time and space. 


[top image: Mizan Residence against the Dhaka skyline. bottom image: Sunlight through Mizan Residence.]

cB:  You like to work in Old Dhaka and neighborhoods that don’t get much attention. For example, you have a project in Basabo – can you tell us more about that project and how to design for areas such as Badda, Malibagh, Rajarbagh, Rampura, where the plots are much smaller and the roads are narrow, limiting accessibility. 

RA:  Despite getting almost nothing from the society during his time, Van Gogh said in a letter to Theo, “There is nothing more artistic than to love people”. My purpose for architecture is that it is for humanity. Due to professional limitations, I am afraid of being a “servant of the rich”. I want to be an architect of the general people. Currently, we are working on a couple of small projects in Gandaria, Kather Pool, Lalbagh, Nikunja and so on. To me, architecture is a complicated journey like a movie and, at the end of the day, it is a “frozen poem”. If you know how to do architecture, if you have the feelings, understanding and passion, place is not a hindrance rather a new experience with a new challenge.

cB:  You also paint and draw and have even won awards for painting. After architecture, what is your next passion?

RA:  I wanted to be a painter – just a painter and nothing else. Since the age of seven I have indulged myself, especially, by pouring green and light into my watercolor paintings. Eventually, green, light and water became inseparable in my life. But my parent’s desire of seeing me become an engineer put me into the Department of Architecture, Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET). Even then I was happy realizing that architecture had the scope to continue my painting journey. Even today, I consider myself an architect by CHANCE and a painter by CONVICTION.

[top image: Living room opens to a garden at Mizan Residence. bottom image: Glass Staircase at Mizan Residence.]

cB: On a rainy monsoon day, you can be seen reading what book and listening to which music?

RA:  Sometimes on a rainy monsoon day, I look at my empty roofless terrace blank; listen to the silence of the rain, lean breeze and moving leaves of the trees, musical mist of the water touching the chin unseen. . . .

Sometimes I read books; Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, Heidegger or, listen to music; Rabindrasangeet, Ajay Chakraborty, Lalon and so on.

[top image: Celebrating Nature, watercolor by RAFIQ AZAM. bottom image: Torana, watercolor by RAFIQ AZAM.]

cB:  What was the most important experience of growing up in Bangladesh?

RA:  Growing up in Bangladesh was an exciting phenomenon. There are so many things to be mentioned – the colourful crowd, Boisakhi Mela, rickshaw, fuchka, art galleries, adda (chit-chat), Lalongeeti, sither-pitha (winter rice cakes), joister aam (seasonal mango), boat race, it is endless!

cB:  If you were given a choice to live in one of the homes that you have designed – which one would you choose and why?

RA:  I haven’t yet designed any house that is my favorite. I am waiting for that. I would like to say as Frank L. Wright said “my next project”. 

cB:  Thank you Rafiq Bhai for taking the time to talk to us today. We look forward to seeing more of your innovative architecture! 

[image: Roof-top at South Water Garden Apartments]

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

* To view more of RAFIQ AZAM’s architectural works, please visit here.

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

    

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
Bangladesh
Phone # + 88 – 02 – 811-9702

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June 2, 2009

[image credits: all images are from INHABITAT.com]

Many of you may have already seen this, but I still wanted to post it since it is a living statement of the possibilities of Bangladeshi mud architecture. This school in Rudrapur [in Northern Bangladesh, close to Dinajpur] is literally a big mud house. It has two main ingredients: mud and bamboo. And, it is completely hand-built!
 
The best thing about building in mud is that it is sustainable and perfect for the Bangladeshi climate. It stays cool in the summer and warm in winter. I will post a more in-depth article on mud architecture later this summer, so stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, feast your eyes on these photographs of the school. I especially liked the interplay of bamboo, mud and metal sheets [three basic Bangladeshi building materials] in photograph #4 and the laughing kids in photograph #5 [they look so happy!]. I wish my school had looked anything like this; I definitely would never have missed a class. As a matter of fact, I think I would never have left!
 
*The METI School [Modern Education & Training Institute] received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture  in 2007, among other awards. For more information on how this school was built and the philosophy behind METI School [which follows a Montessori-like curriculum], visit here and, the school’s very own website, here.

**A video presentation of the school follows right after the photographs.

 

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May 24, 2009

  

[image credits: all images are from ‘Photographic Album of Old Dhaka’ – Bangladesh National Museum, 2003]

Dhaka turns 400 in 2010 and for this special occasion I dug out my book on photographs of Old Dhaka. Below are some samples from this treasure. The book was published by Bangladesh National Museum using, mainly, photographs from its own collection. Most of these photographs were taken before First World War and you can tell some of them are not in the best of shape. But we are fortunate that this collection has survived the years and we can now view it beautifully printed on thick glossy paper. You should be able to find a copy of this book at the gift store of Bangladesh National Museum. If not, then, you are out of luck [sorry]!

A little background history – Dhaka was founded in 1610 to be the provincial capital of Bengal during the Mughal period, though it lost this position to Murshidabad in 1717. It was again, briefly, capital of East Bengal & Assam during the 1st partition of Bengal [1905-12]. And, finally, it was crowned the capital of independent Bangladesh in 1971. On photography – according to the book, the technique of photography first came to Bengal in the 1840s. By the 1850s it had gained momentum, picked up some steam, and, to this day, is moving along with great speed in the Bangladeshi art scene.

Do take note of the different architectural styles: from pre-Mughal to Mughal to British Victorian. And, be sure to scroll down to the end of this post to see a map of Dhaka from 1862! 

 

[above image: Dhakeswari Temple, circa 1880s.] 

   

[above image: Farrukh Siyar’s Mosque near the South Gate of Lalbagh Fort, circa 1880s.] 

  

[above image: Husaini Dalan, 1900.] 

 

[above image: The photo on the left is circa 1880s. The one on the right is of Ahsan Manzil, 1904.] 

 

[above image: Dhaka College, 1890.] 

 

[above image: Two members of the Nawab family. The woman on the right was one of the first Muslim female graduates from Calcutta University. She graduated in 1927 with a degree in Sanskrit.]   

[above image: Dilkhusha Garden House Complex, 1880s.]  

[above image: Map of Old Dhaka, 1862]

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