Architect Marina Tabassum’s meteoric rise to fame
Marina Tabassum is a Bangladeshi architect, who made the country proud with her prodigious achievment and work that left the world enthralled.
A winner of Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016 and the Principal of MTA (Marina Tabassum Architects), Tabassum has been named as third of the honourees for the world's top 50 thinkers' 2020 list.
Prospect, a UK-based magazine, revealed the list of top 50 thinkers for the Covid-19 age. Thereby she added a coveted feather in her already successful career that made her known globally.
Marina's contribution in creating buildings in tune with their natural environments and embracing the design challenges posed by the environment has earned her this recognition, according to the British magazine.
Her exhibition of lightweight houses made from locally-sourced materials that perch on stilts and can be moved when the waters rise is highly praised in the international community, says Prospect magazine.
Marina also designed the 'Bait Ur Rouf Mosque' in Dhaka which is made of terracotta brick. The design of the mosque represents the historic Sultanate era.
This mosque along with her lightweight houses are all built on a raised platform, which is effective against the frequent flooding in the country.
She won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for designing the mosque.
But her journey to reach the zenith of her career started a long ago.
Marina Tabassum graduated from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in 1995. The same year, with Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, she founded URBANA, an architecture practice based in Dhaka. In 1997, her second year into practice, they won a prestigious national competition to design the Independence Monument of Bangladesh and the Liberation War Museum.
In 2005, Tabassum ended her ten-year partnership in URBANA to establish MTA (Marina Tabassum Architects). MTA began its journey in the quest to establish a language of architecture that is contemporary to the world yet rooted to the place. The practice is consciously kept and retained at an optimum size, and projects undertaken are carefully chosen and are limited by number per year.
Marina Tabassum is the Director of Academic Program at the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements since 2015. She has conducted design studios in BRAC University since 2005. She taught an Advanced Design Studio as Visiting Professor at the University of Texas.
Tabassum has lectured and presented her works and ideas on architecture at various prestigious international architectural events. She has curated exhibitions and directed architecture symposia in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her project the Pavilion Apartment in Dhaka was shortlisted for an Aga Khan Award in 2004. Tabassum received an Ananya Shirshwa Dash award which recognised the top ten women of Bangladesh in 2004.
In projects that range from the scale of the residential block to the master plan, Marina Tabassum prioritizes climate, materials, site, culture, and local history in order to counteract what she finds impersonal and confused in architecture globally. Her 'Bait Ur Rouf Mosque' is a case in point. Built over the course of twelve years with a minuscule budget, it is distinguished by its lack of popular mosque iconography, its emphasis on materials, space, and light, and its capacity to function not only as a place of worship but also as a meeting room, school, and playground for an underserved community on Dhaka's periphery.
Marina Tabassum has brought prefabricated Bangladeshi homes to Sharjah in UAE. She has erected three prefabricated houses at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, to highlight the families that relocate their homes as river channels move within the Bengal Delta.
Her research is displayed within the three houses. She found that numerous families living near the Padma, Meghna and Jamura rivers own land that can be submerged for years at a time, but is reoccupied when the water recedes.
The houses, which can be purchased in kits of parts at markets in Bangladesh, are easy to assemble and disassemble, making them ideal for building on areas that are likely to be flooded.
"The mobility of the system allows people to move their houses to a safer location during the times of erosion," Tabassum observed.
"The houses are handed down from one generation to the next. We found houses that are more than 60 years old, survived seven erosion and three generations."
The large amounts of water flowing from the Himalayan mountains means that the river banks within the Bengal Delta often move, with people having to move as land submerges and appears.
Although humans have lived in this area for hundreds of years, land ownership within the region was formalised in the late 19th-century, with plots that can often be underwater passed down from generation to generation.
"Whether the land is physically present or not, the land deeds are handed down from one generation to the next," explained Tabassum.
"The stories and location in the water are also passed on through oral history. So, they wait for the land to emerge."
Tabassum describes the definition of land ownership in the region as an "imposition of a dry culture of ownership on a wet culture".
"The Bengal Tenancy Act was established during the British colonial time and allowed the company to lease land to the locals to generate revenue," she said.
"The Cadastral Survey conducted during this time to define boundaries to an otherwise fluid landscape was an imposition of a dry culture of ownership on a wet culture."
Tabassum believes that a system that tries to define permanent boundaries for the rivers in the region does not work. "The idea of mapping and drawing lines between water and land needs to be revisited," she explained.
"Lines create a territory of exclusion. When water crosses the line that we drew on a piece of paper, we call it a flood. In reality, it is water's right to be."
The houses were installed in a refurbished 1970s school in the city of Sharjah as part of the inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which had a theme of Rights of Future Generations.
With sea-levels across the world projected to rise, Tabassum thinks that life for people living within the Bengal Delta will become harder in coming years.
"The research focused on the topic of inheritance of a fluid landscape," she said. "It is very much about the future of the generations to come as the sea-level rise poses a challenge that will compound the sufferings of the people in the delta."