MY PILGRIMAGE TO A MODERN MASTERPIECE
In a country ground down by poverty, newly ravaged by floods, and living under military rule, Louis Kahn's masterwork, the National Assembly of Bangladesh, remains a monumental meditation on humanity, with the power to move both body and mind writes LISA ROCHON
LISA ROCHON Saturday, October 6 2007
DHAKA, Bangladesh At midnight, before getting to the haunting moon-eye of the National Assembly, I drive from the Dhaka airport past market vendors asleep in their enormous woven baskets, past rickshaw drivers finally pulled over for the night, past piles of freshly cut bamboo running 10 metres long. There is evidence, between the crush of tumbledown buildings, that the original deltaic city of water and lush greenery still survives despite the fact that Dhaka now accommodates some 14 million people. In their apartments, in the slums, on the sidewalks, families prepare to lie down for the night. The air is drenched in humidity, the sky bruised black and blue.
I am not expecting the moon-eye. I am expecting the monumentality, yes, and the kind of epic design that would allow a modern citadel belonging to a young democracy to rise out of a lake. Driving through the streets of Dhaka in the middle of the night, I steady myself for evidence of the architectural courage that belonged, could only belong, to the American genius Louis Kahn. He lived in Philadelphia, but he occupied the cosmic world.
And, beginning in 1963, he imagined a great, ordering architecture for one of the most desperate countries in the world. Surely there was Western benevolence at play, an American hero come to civilize the dirty, developing nation. But, the hunches, the images from books and magazines, all of my preconceptions dissolve when I am finally confronted by the National Assembly and its enormous circular window lit like the colour of equanimity. The moon-eye fixes its gaze across the reflecting waters and the surrounding parkland. It communicates a meditation on humanity, not to do with pointed questions or definitive answers, but offering something waxing and surrendering. Everything I have learned about this masterpiece of Kahn's, everything I had previously concluded about this modern wonder of the world, will have to be learned all over again.
What I'm about to discover is that Kahn's masterwork stands apart from the rest. It is not a luscious seduction like the work of Frank Gehry. It is not geometric volumes sent hurling into the air by the likes of Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind. Nor does the National Assembly embrace luminosity the way Renzo Piano or Norman Foster do. Kahn's work in Dhaka moves the body and the mind. Simultaneously. Like no other.
Little boy with a scavenger bag at his side (photo). Barefoot. Bare-chested. Sitting on the brick promenade in front of the National Assembly. Gazing at me. This little boy who is hungry in the early morning. Giving me my first taste of the Bengali stare. Like the moon-eye from the night before.
The labourers have already completed their yoga on the brick promenade. Had I visited at a different time, and not during the current state of emergency, the locals might have been allowed past the fence to the south plaza, or even the north, presidential entrance with its white marble steps that recall Rome, possibly hinting at the grandeur of the Baths of Caracalla. But, for now, the Bangladeshi Parliament is not sitting. Elections have been postponed until late 2008. There have been devastating floods in the north of the country, and the architecture students who are helping to host my visit have spent days earlier in the summer making bread and delivering it to the devastated region.
Life in Dhaka goes on. Now, a troupe of karate students begins to warm up, eventually leaping and spiralling several feet above the promenade. The park spreads behind them and, raised on a podium like the Mughal-period mosques or the ancient Buddhist temples of Bangladesh, stands the National Assembly.
In fact, the mosque of the National Assembly, a prayer hall (photo) for the parliamentarians and the 1,000 service staff who typically work in the building, occupies the front of the building. Those concrete cylinders are actually enormous light shafts. Upon closer inspection, I can see how Kahn has skewed the alignment of the mosque so that it faces east-southeast, away from the cardinal axis of the rest of the complex, toward Mecca.
"An assembly building is a transcendent place," said Kahn. "A place, no matter what kind of a rogue you are, when you go into an assembly somehow you may end up voting for the right thing." Transcendent is what comes long after the beginning. After crossing over water on a pedestrian bridge with monumental brick arches. After experiencing the ecstasy of a seven-storey-high interior street - an ambulatory space - that cuts between the magnificent assembly chamber and the outer offices. Walls have been broken apart. Apertures that resemble enormous moon-eyes cut into those monumental concrete walls. Behind, a pattern of angled stairways rise up in front of another layer of circular openings (photo). This is not pure geometry. But startling, unfettered intuition. Next to the National Assembly, Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao becomes just a wonderful plaything.
I am convinced that the National Assembly is not only Kahn's masterwork, it is possibly without parallel in the modern world.
It took nearly 20 years to build. The civil war of 1971-72 messed with the construction schedule big time, though the result was that Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan to become its own nation, one of the few democracies in the Muslim world. In response, Kahn doubled the number of seats in his design for the assembly chamber to 300, and the scope of his project broadened to become a 900-acre (364-hectare) capital complex with iconic brick housing for visiting members of parliament, and a public hospital with massive brick archways where women in saffron-coloured saris sweep water across the terrazzo floors.
Further north, there is housing - clearly, not enough - for the poorest government workers, where two families share each narrow townhouse, and aged women squat on the floor to cook. After the war, the complex in its entirety was renamed Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, the place of the Bengali tiger. Kahn threw himself into the gruelling task of the project, and stopped only when a heart attack killed him in 1974. Following a flight from Bangladesh, he died in a washroom stall in Penn Station.
This short Jewish man. Born in Estonia. Who knew poverty in Philadelphia, who suffered terrible burns to his face as a child. Along the way, he developed an Orientalist mind and travelled extensively in the East. Kahn joined the Tagore Society of Philadelphia, and surely read some of the humanist writings of the Indian poet and educator Rabindranath Tagore even before he first travelled, an American in search of work, to Dhaka.
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