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Fortress of solitude

  • Published at 07:00 pm February 23rd, 2014
Fortress of solitude

A man wakes up in an unfamiliar city. It is hot, sweaty, yet it was only seven in the morning. Curse this infernal heat! Cycle bells, footsteps, and strange sounds seep in. 

The guide arrives, it is time. The man is blindfolded, and the two set out in a car.

You may think something bad is about to happen, but his host wants him to have a full sensory (deprivation) experience before the big moment.

This at least is the story I heard later, who knows if it is apocryphal.

Soon, they are standing on the grand lawn. Wet dew seeps through his sneakers. The guide, a senior (older) Bengali architect, takes the blindfold off. Blinking into the sunlight, the visitor stares at a monument, rising out of a moat of perpendicular canals. He stares for a long moment. Slowly, quietly, he begins to cry.

The visitor is Nathaniel Kahn, and the building is the Shangshad Bhaban – centerpiece of Louis Kahn’s National Capital Complex in Dhaka. The intense preparation for this moment of communion has happened behind the scenes. The story of the blindfold came out in a later interview: “I said, look I want to see this thing the right way. I don’t want to see it in an accidental way.”

The viewer who came to the film, My Architect, in 2003 met Louis Kahn through his extraordinarily physical sculptures, as chased by his unclaimed, “unofficial” son. Sunlight streaming through the Kimbell Museum roof, the geometry of Exeter’s library, unfinished designs for a Holocaust memorial, and then, the dewy mornings that surround the Shangshad Bhaban. All of this was rendered with a quiet, unblinking precision.

One of Kahn’s stated missions was to instill the monumentality and mystery of the classics into architecture, replacing the cold functionality of the steel-and-glass era.  A reversal of the presumed inevitable, continuous, practical impulses embedded in arcitecture studies.

In his structures, the materials were simple, often limited to brick and concrete. In his quest for spirituality, he would engage the raw material itself in the dialogue. The interplay of light with material was the base element that could create a changing building – one that moved forward with time, and through a vantage point.

“I knew that when I was in Dhaka, the film was over,” said Nathaniel. Inside the Shangshad Bhaban, Nathaniel had projected ghost traces of his unclaimed father into cavernous spaces. Even in the midst of the brutal war of 1971, Louis Kahn continued to work on this project.

“When the war was on, everybody said stop working, because we don’t know what’s going to happen; we don’t know if there is going to be a government after this, and you’re not being paid.”  Kahn’s response was: “When there is peace again, they will need this building.”

When I first reviewed My Architect in 2003, I wrote: “Not only is it home to Bangladesh’s Parliament, its central, vast green grounds act as an oasis in the middle of a poorly planned, congested, third-world megacity.”

Speaking of its multiple uses, Nathaniel said: “Everybody has a story about meeting a friend on the plaza, playing a game on the lawn, being a child on the lawn, walking around the Crescent Lake, exploring the area that the streets go past the hostels.”

But Nathaniel was extraordinarily lucky with the timing of his film. A few years later and he would have filmed his finale in a lonely fortress, empty of people, life, or energy (isn’t it appropriate that the party in opposition always boycotts sessions).

His last low-angle shot would’ve taken in a wire fence, past the legs of guards, sentries, paramilitary, and police. Security barriers would be everywhere. Guards, guns, security. Security, security, security – the treacly, unctuous word spanning the last decade, squeezing life out of everything.

There would be no civilians witin a single frame of that film finale, certainly not the exuberant “Dhaka morning walker’s club” (one of whom mistakes “Kahn” for “Farakkan,” leader of America’s Nation of Islam). Since 2006, the building has been dying, fatally surrounded by fences. The cage of national security panic, the only framing device left for Kahn.

In 2008, a group of German architects came to visit Dhaka. Armed with university letters, ministry permissions, and VIP phone calls, they were allowed access to the inside grounds. I called up one member and asked if my friend could join them. She has never been inside, you see.

“I don’t think we can manage that, they have taken photocopies of everyone’s passport.”

“But she’s Bengali!”

It seems the officials didn’t care. My Bengali friend stayed behind.

Later, they met us for dinner. We, who could only imagine the interior, had to depend on these visitors for a second-hand look. Wide-eyed stories of soaring beauty. But also sadness at a crumbling interior, absence of light, eerie stillness, sleeping cleaners, the smell of cat excrement.

2014. The more things change, the more they do not. Another group of visitors, this time international artists, critics, and curators. Another tour of Shangshad Bhaban had been arranged. This time a photographer friend wanted to join.

He had never been inside the Shangshad Bhaban in his whole life. How is that possible I asked, and he replied that there are no tours of Shangshad Bhaban any more. “Remember, Naeem,” he said, “you are older.”

Actually, now that he mentioned it, the tour I received was in the 1980s. I cannot describe that time to you. Thousands of people thronging the Shangshad Bhaban grounds. Those who have not seen it, will not be able to imagine that open-hearted, generous, democratic city could be Dhaka. That was before the new normal.

I mentioned my friend’s wish to the organisers, and they ruefully told me that copies of passports had to be submitted to the authorities two weeks earlier.

Two weeks! To receive clearance to visit our own Shangshad … In 2008, it had taken two days. Even that had seemed too much. What exactly is it that they do with all that time? Or is temporality a mechanism for demonstrating: we are serious.

Has it really come to this? The only way I can enter the Shangshad is to come with “foreign” friends?

The rest of you, go home. Wanting to take a morning walk, do adda (hangout) with old friends, eat chinabadam (peanuts), hold hands with your partner, take in the fresh air, gaze into the open space, the vision of stone, the beginning of life. Not now, not here. Your city is dying, finally.

This week came the controversy about the wall being erected that will mar Kahn’s original design (what has not already been marred by the hideous apartment complex across the street, and the mushrooming annexes all around).

“NO wall ON Kahn” went the slogan yesterday, and a group assembled for silent protest on Manik Mia Avenue.

German architect Dorothee Riedle wrote to me in an email: “I started to wonder what this security fuss is all about. What can be the reason for sealing off the building for the last few years?

Maybe I am too foreign to understand? It is very hard to understand why a government would want to keep people from enjoying their nationality around their parliament building in this desperately needed green and open space.

“It deprives the building and what it stands for off much of its qualities. Writing all this I started to wonder how easy it would be to get access to the German Reichstag. According to their webpage, it is really easy. It is possible to take part in guided tours through the house daily, to apply for a visitor’s seat for the hearings etc.”

In My Architect, a young boy stares up at the Shangshad Bhaban, and is reflected onto the water. He expresses the sense of wonder we drink in at journey’s end.

Someone, somewhere has choked the joy out of that scene. In the name of security.

And now, walls will go up. It’s quite complete. Sealing off a cenotaph, killing a living building.