A city in peril, but these palm trees are mine
No centuries-old city merits a revamping makeup, so as to render it unrecognisable by distortion, not the least Dhaka. Seemingly unbeknownst to government city planners, architects and engineers, and phoren consultants, irrespective of the lure of flying rail and new avenues, albeit laced with modernity, the places in a city, carved by buildings and spaces, trees and shades, tar and water, are the sworn property of the user people.
The memoirs and myths, the triumphs and tragedies, the fables and folks that make a place, that is our 400-plus year old city—they belong to its respectable citizens, legends and mavericks, beggars and bureaucrats, and all. The cosmopolitan question is, are we considered respectable, enough?
Stagnant icons of a city are the silent guardian angels, who not only transcend over, but bind a place to its people. Complimentary as they are to each other in defining a city, one does all the movement to cause a city to pulsate, while the other by character remains the stage for the drama.
I quote from my book, Kishore Biswa Sthapatya (Bangla Academy, 2000), "There lies the appeal of architecture. It may seem to have stopped, actually it is moving."
You do not need to highlight Greek Architect Konstantinos Doxiadis (1913-1975) to understand the significance of TSC. You do not have to know what the acronym stands for to stand up for it. Teacher-Student Centre became the socio-cultural-politico of not only the University of Dhaka but the country six decades ago. That is sufficient to make it a beloved symbol of the city.
The porter, the traveller, at the Kamlapur Railway Station do not know a pendentive from a pointed arch, but they own every curve that forms the shading roof, each concrete prop that holds up the protective canopy. Most of you never heard of the American Architect Robert Boughey, nor of his preceding compatriot Daniel Dunham, and perhaps never interpreted the awning as having derived from Mogul pointed arches. Yet, since 1968, very few have not marvelled in its spatial glory.
We do not recall Gustav every time we recall that Eiffel is the most famous tower. How many of us reflect on the architect of Burj Al Khalifa while being awed by the Dubai landmark across the creek? I did not inquire about the architect of 101 while almost breaking my neck to have a view of the top from close. That is how architects put their everlasting autograph on the sands of time.
When an architect gifts a city or a landscape his creative genius, he then steps back to move on, for the edifice then belongs to the people. Falling in love innocently through gradual recognition, association, shared memories, joy and sorrow, people grow to assume ownership of an architectural masterpiece.
Every citizen is the owner of TSC and Boughey's Railway Station under their own terms, as much as we identify with Kahn's Sangsad Bhaban, Curzon Hall and the Mogul remains. You do not rob people of their emotional attachments. That is criminal.
A city is not under threat by black bombers dropping from the sky. The uncultured heart is a much greater destructive force because of forces that are insensitive. Where do you want to stop? Are the Curzon Hall and the Old High Court building threatened to extinction too? Don't forget to enlist Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manzil. Such eyesores and waste of space!
Doxiadis floated the philosophy of "ekistics" 20 years before TSC in realising that there is a need for harmony between the inhabitants of a settlement and their physical and sociocultural environments. Ironic that he is poised to be humiliated by a nation he honoured.
Greed and senselessness, powered by capitalistic market, not in the best interests of society, has led to Old Dhaka going to the dogs, making it faceless and bald of its past heritage. Now, by mindless bureaucratic direction, abetted by shackled building professionals, we have arrived at the coastline of an uncalled for urban disaster.
Instead of destroying the richness of the past, we should be wise to preserve our identity, any self-respecting nation does. Through integration of values enshrined in our people and society, education and literature, art and culture, land and buildings, we remain historically correct, emotionally content, and attain globally respect. Contempt for tradition is suicidal at best.
After 60 years, and an independent country thriving with mega projects, we have the wisdom and the funds, coupled with pluck, to make several hubs for students and faculty all over the country. Why bulldoze what represents the life of thousands of successful students? Dhaka University, how much they are involved in the decision-making I am not certain, should seek land for another campus. Now you are (say) 40 thousand, what happens when you grow two-fold or more? Destroy the one that will be built now?
Some of the most prestigious buildings of major cities are railway stations. Kolkata's Howrah (1854), Gare du Nord in Paris (1866), London St Pancras (1868), New York Grand Central (1913), Tokyo Station (1914), Mumbai Central (1930), and so many others, they are all alive and well. Over centuries, those cities have through massive expansion and development, going aerial and underground, but never ever having any urge to destroy their pride in history and institution. That is edification as opposed to lunacy.
As an integral part of development, by all means we should expand the metropolis railway network, go underground, and over. Build towers and castles, mega structures, if you will. But, for the sake of saving our distinctive antiquity, leave the 1960s' TSC alone, and don't you dare touch the Kamlapur Railway Station, bypass it. This city is in peril, but these palm trees are mine.
Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising Architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.