Marina Tabassum has won prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, breaking through the glass ceiling designing a mosque named Baitur Rouf in the capital Dhaka, which is also known as 'The City of Mosques’.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is handed out every three years and rewards excellence in architecture serving Muslim communities. This year the $1 million prize is being shared among six projects around the world.
Being a citizen of a deeply conservative country where women rarely or sometimes not at all allowed into mosques, Tabassum visited over 100 of those before setting pen to paper for the Baitur Rouf Mosque.
And finally she managed to design such a spectacular and natural air conditioned mosque which has neither the traditional minaret nor any dome, rather suffused with light and remains cool even in the scorching summer months. Tabassum was commissioned to design the building in 2005 after her grandmother donated a piece of land.
“We may not have a tradition of women going into mosques to pray in the Indian subcontinent, but I have experienced some really beautiful spiritual spaces. That has always been a great inspiration to me,” Tabassum said in a recent interview with AFP.
“The whole idea of spirituality as an element in design has always been something very intriguing and I like working with spiritual spaces,” she added.
"I think of myself as a professional. This whole notion of me being a woman really does not exist in my mind. It just does not exist," she went on.
Tabassum said she tried to fuse those "glorious lost traditions" of mosque designs with contemporary architectural practices.
Since it was completed in 2012, the Baitur Rouf Mosque has attracted visitors from around the country, to the obvious delight of the imam, Deen Islam.
"Unlike other mosques in the country, it does not have a minaret, or a dome, or a platform to deliver Friday prayers. Yet to these visitors it is one of the most beautiful mosques of the country," the 38-year-old imam told AFP on a recent visit.
"The mild light that enters the mosque is very soothing. Even during a hot summer day, the temperature inside remains mild. You feel like you're in natural air conditioning."
Dozens of tiny windows in the roof and walls create a soft light that changes through the day as the sun passes over the building, while the traditional terracotta bricks keep the interior cool.
Tabassum also teaches architecture and says she is highly selective about the projects she takes on, and every one must have some social value.
"We are a very young nation and an architect's responsibility goes beyond just designing beautiful buildings," she said.
"We can design buildings like the ones designed by Frank Gehry. But I would question whether that would be the right thing to do in a country like Bangladesh, whose economy is still not developed.
"In the Bangladesh context, that would be an ugly thing to do."
Officially secular but mainly Muslim Bangladesh has a rich history of mosque building, dating back to the Turkish invasion of the 13th century. The earliest ones combined their own designs with elements found in local traditions, such as the use of brick and small domes that span the roof, creating a unique style.