How not to be a useless architect

Talking to architects Rizvi Hassan and Khwaja Fatmi at the Dhaka Art Summit

The mood at Dhaka Art Summit 2023 was tuned to climate change, with curators highlighting architectural works from Bangladesh and beyond. Homegrown talent Rizvi Hassan (winner of last year's Aga Khan Award for Architectural Excellence with collaborators Khwaja Fatmi and Saad Ben Mostafa) exhibited at Purposeful Goods and To Enter the Sky, co-curating with Fatmi. Their selections centered the traditional knowledge and handcrafted wares of artisans they collaborate with in projects across Mirsharai, Sylhet, Manikganj, and the Rohingya camps. 

Rizvi and Fatmi's design practice bridges art, architecture, and anthropology. Their priorities are care, collectivity, observation, and knowledge exchange. Getting up-close and personal with the community through workshops, listening, and participant observation is their essential first step in design. There are no shortcuts, nor templates that can be applied across different contexts.

On the final day of DAS, Shahirah Majumdar spoke to Rizvi and Fatmi.

Shahirah Majumdar: Tell us about your work at the Dhaka Art Summit.

Rizvi Hassan: We thought a lot about how to represent this year's title Bonna (Flood). Bonna can mean many things. People are flooded with emotion. The camps are flooded with people. Also, when we were working in Sylhet during the flood response, we met many tremendous artisans — and we were thinking, How can we promote these products? How can we connect them to a larger audience? The idea came to exhibit them at the Dhaka Art Summit, and now the understanding has come to a reality: The products have been sold, and the money is going to the artisans.

Khwaja Fatmi: Also, a lot of the artisans here were previously unseen by urban populations, not just in Rizvi's show but others. They were never exhibited in any formal art spaces.

SM: How are art and architecture related?

RH: Art is a way of practicing any profession with care, passion, and intelligence. When someone enjoys what they are doing, that is art for them. For us, creating an environment together — whether it's building materials or non-building materials — if we come up with a nice idea and have fun, that is art.

SM: What inspirations are you taking away this year?

KF: I really love the idea of collectivity. I wasn't present in the art scene for a very long time. Coming here now, I see that individuality is a thing of the past. The art scene has become more collective and communal. This aligns with our process. It's inspiring to me.

RH: For me, it's two things: First, the energy of everyone trying to connect. Secondly, the care the artists are trying to show for each other. One artist made an installation of red blocks with a common glycerin soap from the nineties, Cosco, trying to connect the nostalgia of the whole country through her artwork.

SM: Any other artworks that made you smile?

KF: The Jaago Foundation exhibition of kids' artworks (One Thousand Futures). I had my niece with me one day, and she was so happy to see it. She was reading every child's name. I was thinking, these kids will probably never know each other, but they're learning to communicate through art from such an early age. That was tremendously beautiful for me.

SM: Maybe she'll be inspired to be an artist.

KF: Yes, she said that. After we went home, she took out her colors and papers, and started drawing.

SM: How would you describe the kind of architecture you practice?

KF: There are labels but we don't use them because we would be detaching ourselves from mainstream architecture, which I think we are practicing very honestly.

RH: The key is to not compartmentalize the practices because they are all ethical practices that should be practiced everywhere.

SM: Is there a contradiction between your kind of process-based approach — where you avoid toolkits and tailor the design to the individual site or community — and the realities of working in an NGO or UN agency where toolkits, handbooks, and standard templates are the norm? How do you find a sweet spot?

KF: Sometimes when we structure the process, we lose our freedom of creativity. At the same time, I understand someone asking for such structures because they fear waste of resources. I think there's a middle ground where we can practice both things.

RH: An architect can be three things: useless, an enhancer, or a dictator. Dictatorships worked in the last century, but not now. You are useless if you don't realize anything or do anything. To be an enhancer — where you design with plans, people, and a soft touch — you have to focus on understanding the possibilities. Only then can you take the right decision. Every site is individual. You have to go there and find the sweet spot.

SM: Are the best architects philosophers?

RH: The best professionals are philosophers, not only architects. Because philosophers always try to go forward, exploring, What are the next ideas?

SM: Any advice to young archecitcts?

KF: It's really a process of knowledge exchange. We get inspired from our mentors, and they from us.