Remembering Bastu-guru Muzharul Islam
The Art College (now Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka) building in Dhaka University campus, designed by architect Muzharul Islam (1923-2012) and constructed between 1953 and 1955, is considered the first modern building in Bangladesh. Although Muzharul Islam adapted the Western ideals and thoughts in his works, due to his extraordinary sensitivity, creative power and deep understanding of our society, culture, economy and particularly the sub-tropical, climatic conditions of Bangladesh he was almost single-handedly able to create a distinct and useful modern architectural language for Bangladesh, which even today has not lost any of its initial vigour and relevance.
Muzharul Islam prepared himself for the task and was able to create a unique piece of architecture that is at modern and was at the same time rooted to its land, a parallel is yet to be found anywhere in South Asia.
During 1940-46 when Muzharul Islam was an undergraduate student pursuing civil engineering at Shibpur Engineering College in Kolkata, he was directly involved with political as well as cultural activities. Through these activities, he came in contact with two visions. One that of Marxism and the other was the cultural vision for a Tagorian elitist, purist but tender humanism of the 19th Century Bengal Renaissance. His whole personality took place in the balancing of the two.
It was in 1950, when Muzharul Islam, a young bright civil engineer, left Dhaka to study architecture at the Oregon University. After graduation in architecture Muzharul Islam came back to Dhaka from the US and joined the government (CB & I) service in 1953 as a special officer in Architecture under the Consulting Architect (Chief Architect) R McConnel. In 1950, it was decided to establish a College of Arts and Crafts with five departments (Painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphics and commercial art) within Dhaka University campus, but there was no progress in this regard until 1953, when McConnel asked Muzharul Islam to design the college complex. Islam did not waste time and within six months almost single headedly prepared all the designs and drawings required for the academic, administrative and common facilities of the college.
Islam studied the character of the site which was surrounded by open spaces and lush green trees and divided the college in three building blocks and connected them with a linear corridor along east-west direction. The two storey front block of the College is open in the ground floor without walls and articulates the threshold between large open to sky spaces and enclosed class rooms. The central teaching block contains class rooms with provision for cross ventilation and light. A curvilinear teaching block redefines the existing circular shape of the pond. The openness of the buildings, walkways, garden spaces and the sensorial ambiance of the whole created a campus ideal for contemplation of the learning of the arts. The college, immediately on completion, achieved an iconic status in Dhaka as a fine work of modernism inflected by time and place.
Before putting the pencil on the drawing board, Muzharul Islam was looking for inspiration from within his land. He found a number of British colonial and a few Mughal buildings in and around Dhaka, such as Curzon Hall, Old High Court, Bardhawan House, SM Hall, Lalbag fort, Bara and Chota Katra, etc. He found these rigid buildings not only as a means to hamper growth but also as a collection of restrictions for his creative exercise. So instead of surrendering to the static and permanent looking buildings of the colonial past he opted for the "liberal" as the theme for his post colonial spirit and accepted the European modernism as the means to achieve freedom of expression. He also understood modernity as a mode of social life in which the establishment of the new was a driving force to attain the fruits of progress and innovation.
It is understandable that in Oregon Islam learned how Aalto used to ground his buildings in the configuration of a specific topography and how he created the fine grained texture of the local materials. Islam was also inspired by the openness and transparency of Le Corbusier's "Plan Libre", his pilotis and flat concrete slab. He found these adaptable and suitable to satisfy his social and political responsibility in evoking a nationalist, secular, realistic and liberal regional architecture accessible to the people at large.
The openness at the g round floor of the Front Block close to the approach road on the west under the flat roof slab supported by circular columns has created the unhindered entry to the building without any door. This door-less entry along with free flow of circulation area without any barrier with the exterior woody landscape created a sense of cheer and freshness. As a result, day and night, sunsets, seasons, rain, starry skies of the autumn, the colour of flowers in the spring, music of birds, all penetrate the building. This metaphor naturally demands technical application not only in matters of climate control but also problems of security. Islam provided ample light and cross ventilation with lockable doors to each of the rooms leaving the corridor and lobby spaces as transition between the interior and the exterior and fulfilled his desire for light, transparency and openness without creating any security problem. After all the matter of security is a moral and cultural issue. Islam obviously had faith in people. Record shows that in last sixty years of existence, the college never faced any security threat.
Islam had deference towards local material, craft work and subtleties of local sub-tropical light, a deference which is sustained without falling into the sentimentality of excluding rational form and modern technique. He used burnt brick in walls without plaster to provide a non-mechanical look of the form, used perforated walls/screens, teak wood for brise-soleil and a sculptural curvilinear stair case to accentuate the tactile and tectonic quality of his architecture and as well to create a potential place-form. To him modernism demands a respect for inherent qualities of building materials.
Muzharul Islam did n ot only consider architecture as a utilitarian art. He understood architecture as a vehicle to achieve better life. He rejected all feudal contents in architecture and avoided traditional ornamentation and decoration as these were useless and expensive and instead created an open and straight forward architecture revealing expressive value of locally available materials without prejudice and in doing so he took a position in favour of the common man. Although he used simple means, due to his genius and creative power he was able to create a thoughtful architecture expressing a sense of victory of the educated middle class. His architecture as exemplified in the Art College was, as though a declaration of the middle class which is achievable by the poor and where the rich would come down to embrace it for its beauty and reason.
Muzharul Islam was born on December 25, 1923 and died on July 15, 2012. He was a philosopher, mentor and a great architect. Although with endless effort for three decades he bestowed greatness to the contemporary architecture of Bangladesh, he was almost jobless for the last three decades of his life. Muzharul Islam was a lonely tragic hero, pursuing a lonely quest. He was immortal long before his death, most of us realise it now long after his death.
July 15 marked the 7th death anniversary of Muzharul Islam.
The writer is an eminent architect and art critic.