The language of architecture
Architecture is a form of art that is most present in our lives. We are surrounded by urban design every day and while some buildings are more functional than decorative, others are designed to display architectural finesse and an abundance of skilfully crafted ornaments. Whether their appearance appeals to one's personal liking or not, we can't escape the effect architecture has on us.
Architectural history was introduced to me in my second semester as an Art History major and we went on small field trips with our class in Berlin. I began to discover my own city as if I had seen it for the first time and dug deep into the fascinating history of Berlin. I went sightseeing with a new appreciation for Berlin's urban cityscape. Every city will tell you its own story and if you're lucky, it will take you back in time and tell you about past times. It will reveal a glimpse of the lifestyle of wealthy romans living in their palazzos. It will give an idea of how Frederik the Great, King of Prussia, spent this summers outside Berlin in his palace Sanssouci surrounded by a private park. And it will also give insight into the daily life of the people of East Berlin, who lived in grey multi-storey buildings, so called Plattenbauten, which were just as dull on the outside as on the inside.
Architecture can communicate non-verbally, just like a painting can evoke feelings. If you visit the GDR Plattenbauten, the close quarters and small dark rooms will give you a sense of the deprivation the residents endured. Contrarily, in some of the Art Nouveau mansions of Paris, you will find grand rooms with high ceilings and large windows that were by no means practical, but delivered the message that the resident can afford a luxurious lifestyle.
Architecture and urban design are the artistic languages that I understand best. I thought no matter where I went, I would be able to understand the language in which the place or city spoke to me. Then, I moved to Shanghai and I was utterly surprised when I did not understand a 'word'. I knew that Shanghai developed from a small agricultural village into one of China's trading ports in 1644, but I barely found any traditional architecture. Discovering the historical background of the city paved the way to understand the culture. I learnt that in Shanghai, progressing is more important than preserving old residential structures. I was inspired to look into other fields, like international relations, Chinese politics and economics and that helped me understand the Chinese mind-set. I gained more of an understanding of how Asia perceives the western world and why China, for example, views its role in climate change differently than we do. It helped me overcome prejudices that I didn't even know I harboured and to be able to start a dialogue free of judgement with Shanghai.
I was educated in Europe and America and moving to Asia made me reassess what I had learnt and motivated me to continue to learn. The modern high-rise buildings of Dhaka are symbols of a flourishing economy and a young, energetic population. The cityscape is expressing the progression of Bangladesh and yet again, I'm curious to find out what exactly those driving factors are and how they developed. I am excited to explore more of Old Dhaka and other parts of town, and to let Dhaka's architecture tell me its own story of today and of old times in East Bengal.
The author is a German Art Historian, who received her academic education in Germany and the United States. She currently works at Brac University in Dhaka.