An Urban Tale

I think about critical things, not just criticise conditions as they are but try to figure out what can be done next

Photograph by Kazi Mukul

By Raisa Rahim

Seated on a voguish black chair, he gazes through the glass wall into the lush greenery as he softly speaks the words – I am a thinker.
“I think about critical things, not just criticise conditions as they are but try to figure out what can be done next,” says Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, the Director General of Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscape and Settlement, and co-founder of the satire magazine Unmad.
A man of many talents, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf doubles as a Bangladeshi architect, urbanist and architectural researcher, with a keen interest on the contemporary city and how it can be reorganised. In his book Designing Dhaka: A Manifesto for a Better City, Ashraf says that Dhaka is a potential laboratory for new urban thinking, and reasons out both negative aspects and positive prospects of the city. He simultaneously points out the challenges that the city puts forward (booming population, traffic congestion, lack of resources, etc), and that these are not very different from other cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Cairo. But Ashraf insists how Dhaka is ultimately different from other cities.
“The geology and hydrology of Dhaka make the city distinctive. The development of a city like Dhaka cannot ignore its hydrological and geological matrix,” envisaging in a softer tone, he adds, “however, we overlook and destroy it through landfills, plotted by both public and private sector constantly.” With a stern voice, the architectural critic and scholar of international repute states, “when you tamper with a large scale ecology, the effects are devastating.” The urbanist always wanted to work on the aforementioned issue since he strongly believes that the larger water and geological matrix is critical to new understanding of cities. What eventually galvanised the architectural historian towards urbanism was the flooding in New Orleans. “At the time, newspapers in the US cited Dhaka as a resilient city. Both cities are in delta conditions. To plan and design a city in delta conditions is very unique, you need a different kind of attitude and intelligence. I begin to wonder from then on what is required to design a city in a delta,” he surmises.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf completed his Bachelor of Architecture from BUET in 1983. He finished a Masters program from MIT and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Much like the role of a theatre artist, he likes to juggle between roles. Being a professor of architecture at University of Hawaii, an urban thinker, an author and a visionary, Ashraf expresses how becoming an architect is a precarious process.
At his own time of being a young architect, there was little or slow understanding of historical processes and cultural landscapes. That was disheartening. Pointing out the newsletter of Bengal Institute for Architecture Landscapes, Ashraf picks up his enthusiasm to say how the Institute may “change that condition… we have set up this institute to motivate, sensitise and inform students and others through publications, symposiums, workshops, etc.” He also mentions that the research and design team at the Institute is dedicated to producing new visionary schemes for two critical areas in Dhaka. The intention is to offer ideas to the administration and create public opinion for a new reality that is not yet here but can be. “It’s a kind of urban design activism,” he concludes. An exhibition will be held in July in order to take the ideas to the public and stage fruitful discussions for the future of Dhaka.
As the sunlight shifts toward the West, our wonderful conversation comes to an end on the following note. Ashraf worries about the level of confrontation among different groups of people in the same society. “There is a lack of dialogue. Even after becoming one nation we see that there are pockets with differences and divergences. No matter what is said, culture is not coherent or unified. Sure, there could be multiple cultural viewpoints
in a country, but when certain groups become confrontational and scheme to eliminate
other groups – that is neither desirable
nor acceptable.”