A Philadelphia architect in Dhaka
The following are excerpts from a conversation between Nathaniel Kahn and Kazi Ashraf. Nathaniel Kahn, an emerging filmmaker from New York, has just completed and released a film, "My Architect: A Son's Journey," on his father, the celebrated architect Louis I. Kahn. The Capital Complex in Dhaka, designed by Kahn, plays a prominent role in the film.
This conversation, taped in Philadelphia in August 2003, occurred in the light of recent and unwarranted building interventions in Kahn's Complex.
Kazi Ashraf (KA): How did you as a film-maker come to realize the importance of this group of buildings in Dhaka?
Nathaniel Kahn (NK): There are a few things that come to mind. One is the importance of Lou [Kahn] and his work to the world of architecture, and also the importance of this project in the process of his work, and also thirdly, my perception of what Lou did with the government of Bangladesh. My first access to it is because I've been traveling around the world seeing the places that my father built. I saved Dhaka for last because I remember as a little boy the passion he had for this project, and as a little boy in his office seeing the way he worked on this project for years and years, even when the war [of 1971] was on. Lou was somebody who believed in the ability of architecture to transform the world and to create a better society. We would consider him here an idealistic person. But I think he found in Dhaka a commission to design a center of government, really his dream project because it was a new country and he knew if he did it right and if he was able to get his vision done it could change the world.
KA: Let me ask you this way, because other people will raise it, so why should we now be concerned about this man coming to Dhaka from Philadelphia with his dream project?
NK: Well I think that's a good question. There are several answers. One, I found in the people of Bangladesh tremendous respect for what someone has given, more respect there than we have here. This is about a man who really gave his life for this project. And I think that so many times people have given their lives for something and maybe it hasn't turned out that well. What amazed me is how wonderfully this project turned out not only as a national treasure but an international treasure. This isn't just my father's dream project, it's also an example for the world It's an amazing place. I didn't know how wonderful it was until I went there. The first day I was in Dhaka my architect guide Nurur Rahman Khan blindfolded me, and we drove through the streets, and as you know Dhaka is very noisy. The sound of the baby taxis, the sound of the trucks, the constant honking and yelling and shouting and rickshaws and everything, it's very exciting but it's also very, very loud. . . . So we pulled up front and I got out from the taxi and suddenly there was soft ground under my feet. And we started walking up, I was being led blindfolded into this area. I didn't know what it was yet. And it was soft ground under my feet and sounds of the city started to recede and Nurur Khan said, "Are you ready to see this building?" And I said "I'm not ready yet, not ready I just want to stand here for a moment and feel this place." I have to say that standing on that lawn you could feel the building, you could feel the space around the building. It was as if something was breathing there, it was air around it, it was space. It's really being in the presence of something spiritual. It's like being in the presence of a great temple. You feel it. You can feel a great monument by the silence around it and my father talked about the silence...
KA: You need a silence like that in the city.
NK: Absolutely, a city must have silence. And of course you can call it a park, you can call it whatever you want to call it but a city must have silence somewhere in the core because that is a place of calm from which action comes. You can't have action if it's all just nervousness and energy. You have to have a calm space. So there I stood in the calm space, breath deeply, and I said, okay, I'm ready and he took off the blindfold and there was the south lawn in front of me, the south plaza and the building rising above it with the flag, the Bangladesh flag, and I burst into tears. I actually burst into tears and it is the only building of my father's that has ever made me cry because I felt this was worth everything he gave, giving up obligations to family, giving up worldly goods that he could have had, money he could have had, all kinds of things he gave up for this. It was worth it because this building is a timeless work of great spiritual power. My immediate impression was, I didn't see anything else around it but this building, this form. There was nothing encroaching upon it. It was a pure, very pure view, and that view also talks about how a government has to act with great clarity and definition and be a symbol for its people. That's something that deserves space around it. You can't just shove that in the middle of buildings in a city
KA: Yes, one has to realize that architecture is not just buildings, the material physical objects. The space around it, that's architecture too. People should realize that you need those spaces. A city is a matrix of buildings and spaces.
NK: Absolutely, and the Parliament Building is the centerpiece of that matrix, no matter what happens in the rest of Dhaka City. Let them build elsewhere. Progress is good but it is not progress if you squeeze the Parliament by building all around it.
NK: That is not progress, this is actually going backwards. Think of what New York would be without Central Park, the city would not exist. I live in New York City, the city would be utterly unlivable if we didn't have Central Park. It is the only place where the city breathes and the city can stop and collect itself and remember who it is. You take a run through that park and you remember this is a wonderful city. I live in the middle of all this din but I can get away from it. I was also deeply impressed by the fact that everybody I've met in the far-flung places of the world, Bangladeshis, everybody has a story not just about the parliament building but the space around it. Everybody has a story about meeting a friend on the plaza, playing a game on the lawn, being a child on the lawn, walking around the Crescent Lake, exploring the area that the streets go past the hostels. Everybody has a story about it, and they're wonderful stories. Some of them are romantic. "I met my wife there." Some of them are dramatic. "I had a political confrontation, an important political discussion there." Some of them are artistic. "I had an idea for a book while walking around that lake every morning." A very famous American architect, I.M. Pei, told me before I went there, "Look, I've seen pictures of this building but I've never seen how it's used by people." I was there for a week, two weeks actually, and every time I went I saw the building being used in different ways and that is a sign of a great space.
KA: There is something else I would like to bring up, Kahn's interest in landscape. I don't know when he really became interested in landscape, although he was interested in how buildings emerged from the landscape in a profound relationship between the two. His buildings looks very crisp, cubic and crystalline, but they arise from the ground in a sort of mythical manner. I think that especially in Bangladesh Kahn was really amazed by the aquatic landscape and talked about how he should do "an architecture of the land" here, what I call a hydrological architecture. I know that your mother is a landscape architect and she worked with him for a while even on this project. I would think, and people would say too, that Lou Kahn brought his own American, western ideas, and what have you, but at the same time he engaged very poetically and in very imaginative ways with what's already there, with the landscape of Bangladesh. The result is a very new creation in Dhaka, especially the matrix not just the buildings. |
NK: Beautifully said. A couple of things come to mind. When the Aga Khan Award was given, they said that the Parliament Building is a universal kind of architecture but it could only exist here, it could only be in Dhaka. It is a timeless building but it is also very specific to this place. My father's first response when he came to Dhaka was to go on the river because he realized that flying in, and you realize that flying in, that this is delta country. It is a land that is floating on water. And he took a boat on the river and the first thing he drew was - there's a beautiful little series of drawings - little boats... When we were figuring out how to get to the building in the film, we decided it has to rise out of the water. It is like an impossible, wonderful castle that lives in the middle of the water. The fact that Lou put it in water is very significant for several reasons. There's a practical reason, the water rises and falls. Yes, it's on dry land but really this whole place is floating on the water. And so I think his specific response to the place, to the landscape was very, very strong, and that building was not something he just kind of stuck there. It was something that grew out of his experience of the land of Bangladesh. And I think that it was very clear to him, he actually said this which is interesting that his dream more than anything else than designing individual buildings was to design the basis on which buildings would be built. So you're worried about matrix. That's a plan, that's a master plan. It's something he couldn't do anywhere else in the world. He tried in Philadelphia, he was denied. And Philadelphia now is suffering the consequences Anyway I think his response was very strong: I want to create not just a building that serves a parliamentary purpose but a building in a landscape, a building in a landscape that responds to and expresses the actual landscape that is native.
KA: And at the same time it's a city, so there is a twin thing, to live with the landscape and it is a city. It's not an anti-city, that landscape and city are not antithetical. That I think was a challenge.
NK: I'm sure. And he didn't impose the western grid. It is a much freer, more like the delta country. It is not rigid, it's not canalled, it's meandering. The river goes this way and it goes that way.
KA: Even through the geometry of Kahn.
NK: Sure. It has a porosity to it. Water passes through, air passes through and this is space. So it's taking a chunk of space and defining it.
KA: That's what I've also been saying that if there is a model or a paradigm of a so-called Bengali city, it is perhaps this. Even though it has been proposed by a Jewish architect from Philadelphia, it is a model of a Bengali city. One doesn't have to be a Bengali to do that.
NK: Absolutely, and this raises something wonderful which is that what Lou was after an architecture that came from before the beginning of history. He was interested in creating an architecture that was so ancient that it was more ancient than anything you've ever seen and I think in Dhaka he did that. And this is part of what people respond to from all over the world. They go there and they think, God, where is this from? It belongs here yet it has this resonance of something enormously ancient. Was it built ten years ago, was it built 10,000 years ago? You don't know. And that is something, that wonderful ambiguity and that reach for something very ancient and very fundamental.
KA: You know this idea of a Bengali City could be entertained in two ways. This sense of very archaic as you just mentioned, this idea of Volume Zero if you like. That sort of Bengali City could have been there 2,000 years ago. But at the same time it could be the Bengali City that could be 2,000 years from now. We're getting into wild speculation but it's that sort of a model as you said Kahn gave the foundation to. From the foundation, any kind of building can come up in any style and material, glass, aluminum, steel, brick that's not important. What is important is the way the matrix is set up, that's what he gave here and what we really need to analyze.