Dhaka (spelled as Dacca until 1983), the capital of Bangladesh, with a 1999 population of
9.3 million in an area of 1,528 square kilometers, is one of the densest cities of the world.
Situated in the deltaic plain of Bengal, in the midst of a maze of rivers and canals, it is the
last big urban stop on the great Gangetic stream as it cascades into the sea. The name
Dhaka has often been used synonymously, and rather incorrectly, with Louis Kahn’s
Capital Complex project that forms only a precinct—a significant one—in this
burgeoning metropolis.
The literal meaning of the name Dhaka is “concealed.” The enigmatic name might
have originated from the “dhak” trees that are presumed to have been common in the area
or the renowned 16th-century Dhakeswari Temple. Dhaka went through waves of decay
and growth, from sporadic settlements datable to 10th century AD to a Mughal provincial
capital in the 17th century and a deteriorated condition in the 18th c. until its
consolidation as a thriving city in late 19th century The strategic location of Dhaka in the
fertile and riverine land-mass of Bengal, once known for the fabled fabric muslin, and
later for the world’s largest jute production, made it the prime city in the region. As the
capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka is now an administrative, educational, commercial, and
industrial center that includes the highest concentration of export-oriented garment
Like similar cities undergoing rapid transformations, Dhaka is also a city of social,
economic, and developmental contrasts. Despite bearing the typical afflictions of socalled
developing cities (overpopulation, pollution, traffic problems, housing crisis, etc.),
Dhaka is the center of an exuberant Bengali culture expressed in its literary and artistic
life and various urban rituals and festivities.
Once located on the northern banks of the river Buriganga, Dhaka has grown largely
toward the north, being delimited on all other sides by rivers and mostly fertile
agricultural land subject to heavy flood. The extent of greater Dhaka now comprises the
river port of Naryanganj in the south and the industrial town of Tongi and Gazipur on the
north. Although most of Dhaka city is still on a higher level, population increase in recent
times has driven people to build on the low-lying flood-prone areas.
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 682
The city is now constituted of roughly five distinct urban morphologies: (1) the socalled
old city, the original settlement that grew along the river Buriganga and later
developed into a thriving Mughal city, with its jostling mixed-use buildings, narrow,
winding streets, and legendary neighborhood (moho lla) traditions; (2) the so-called colonial part,
the site of new governmental, cultural, institutional, and residential buildings, especially
around the Ramna area in a bungalow and garden typology; (3) post-1947 developments
of a mixture of regulated and planned residential areas, and sporadic commercial and
institutional pockets; and (4) vast amorphous areas of semi- and unplanned growth, often
with inadequate infrastructure, symptomatic of planning incapacity in addressing
demographic and economic pressures. The fifth morphology is that of the exclusive
National Capital Complex, better known as Sherebanglanagar that represents Kahn’s
vision of a government and civic complex.
The unassuming status of Dhaka belies its substantial role in the history of the Indian
subcontinent. Historically, Dhaka has experienced paradoxical political orientation: On
the one hand, it was the base of a Muslim ideology that led to the formation of Pakistan,
and on the other hand, it was home to a Bengali nationalism that eventually led to the
breakup of Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.
A strong Muslim culture was established with the consolidation of Mughal
rule over Bengal in 1596, making it the eastern edge of a vast empire ruled
from Delhi and Agra. For the nearly 150 years that Bengal was a Mughal
province, the capital vacillated between Dhaka, Rajmahal, and
Murshidabad, and with that fluctuated the economic and cultural spirit of
the city. Dhaka went into a slow decline when it finally lost its capital
status in 1704, as the Mughal administration left town with all its pomp
and resources.
The slump was deepened when the English wrested control of Bengal (1757) and established Calcutta as the base of their
trading outfit. The economy of Dhaka was particularly hurt when its legendary m us lin
production was literally destroyed by English trade and tax machinations. Population
would decrease drastically (from 450,000 in 1765 to 69,000 in 1838), and buildings
would be overrun by vegetation. Dhaka would not gain a new momentum until the
beginning of the 20th century under different English policies.
Since the 19th century Dhaka and Calcutta have played out a sort of tale of two cities
in the history and psyche of modern Bengal. As Dhaka came to be seen, and in some
ways projected itself, as the bearer of a Muslim culture, Calcutta became, despite or
because of a stronger English presence, a Hindu-dominant city. The partition of Bengal
into two provinces in 1905 that established Dhaka as the capital of East Bengal, again
annulled in 1911, triggered a nationalist uprising that was to be a basis of the Indian
independence movement. It was in Dhaka that the Muslim League took root as a political
party in 1906 whose leadership was eventually to go to the Bombay-based M.A.Jinnah in
the articulation of a separate state for Muslims. That political program was realized in the
partitioning of India and the formation of Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan was to be constituted
of two provinces, separated physically by India, where Dhaka became the capital of the
eastern province. The argument for a Capital Complex in Dhaka came up as a result of
this improbable condition when the government decided to transfer the parliamentary
business between the central capital in Islamabad in West Pakistan (designed as a brandnew
city by Doxiadis) and Dhaka (where a “Second Capital” was to be built). The defeat
of the Pakistan Army in Dhaka during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971
represented the ascendance of a Bengali nationalist ideology and the establishment of the
city as the capital of an independent country.
Dhaka has been described variously as “the city of mosques,” with every conceivable
neighborhood hosting a structure or two, and the city with “ba-anno bazaar, tepanno goli”
(52 bazaars and 53 alleys), referring to the intricate network of winding streets forming
the fabric of the old city. Although the profusion of mosques bespeak of a predominant
Muslim culture since the Mughal era, there are 8th-century Buddhist ruins in the Savar
area and various Hindu structures, including the well-known 16th-century Dhakeswari
Although Mughal building activity focused primarily on forts, katras (special dwellings),
and mosques, residential neighborhoods of that time established morphology of dense,
cellular buildings and courtyards along commercially active streets, traces of which can
still be seen in parts of the old city (such as Shakhari Bazar, Islampur). Buildings of the
colonial era were devoted mostly to administrative and institutional types that shifted
stylistically between European neoclassical and quasi-Mughal modes. The typology of
the bungalow in a garden setting became established at that time as a mode of urban
dwelling that is followed even today in planning strategies despite the densification of the
Modern architecture was introduced in the city by two buildings that received
immediate iconic status when they were built in 1954–56: The Bangladesh College of
Arts and Crafts and the Public Library (presently Dhaka University Library), both
designed by Muzharul Islam. These and other distinctive buildings, including the Science
Laboratories (1959), N.I.P.A. Building (1969), buildings for Jahangirnagar University
(1969), the National Archives (1979), and dozens of residences, established an
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 684
international reputation of Muzharul Islam as a committed architect attempting to
reconcile modernity with place and climate. A few foreign architects also contributed
toward the process of establishing a modern architectural paradigm for Dhaka in such
projects as the Kamlapur Railway Station by the American architect Robert Bouighy
(1961), the Teachers-Students Center at Dhaka University by the Greek architect-planner
Constantin Doxiadis (1963), and of course, the Parliament complex by Louis Kahn
(1963–84). Architects of later generations have pursued diverse interests, exemplified in
such notable projects as the Savar Monument by Mainul Hossain (1976), S.O.S. Youth
Village by Raziul Ahsan (1984), housing complexes by Bashirul Haq and by Uttam Saha,
and the Liberation Monument by Urbana Architects (2000). Although thoughtful and
creative architectural work prevails in Dhaka, the city has seen very few compelling
models of large-scale urban development.
The monumental and epochal architecture of Kahn’s Capital Complex that put Dhaka
on the international architectural map is a 1,000-acre site devoted to the parliament
complex, government offices and residences, and a host of institutional buildings. The
Parliament Building, the crown of the Complex, along with adjoining brick buildings
presented a stunningly new and yet mythopoeic vocabulary for the city and the region. At
the same time, the buildings in an environment of lakes, parks, gardens, and orchards
offered a vision of a deltaic urban composition. It is perhaps poignant that when the city
has moved away, both physically and strategically, from its deltaic roots the Capital
Complex curiously evokes that condition.
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