Conversations: Marina Tabassum and Vyjayanthi Rao
Marina Tabassum, Norman R. Foster Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Architecture and founder of the Dhaka-based practice Marina Tabassum Architects, talks to anthropologist, writer and curator Vyjayanthi Rao, Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, about the social reach of architecture.
Vyjayanthi Rao One thing we discussed at the Lisbon Triennial is how you consciously choose to root yourself within a particular cultural, political, and climatic context. Not so long ago, the study of societies outside the West was considered a specialized endeavor, left mainly to anthropologists. But at this moment of great planetary crisis, we are turning to the building practices of various groups that were not part of the canonical study and practice of architecture — whether Indigenous populations or peoples of the Indian subcontinent — to find solutions. The study of local materials and building practices, once labeled vernacular architecture has gained a lot of currency as having something valuable to teach all of us, wherever we may live. It is a fascinating reversal. Perhaps we could explore what this idea of the vernacular, of the ordinary, can teach us on a global scale. Can it reverse our thought processes to focus on the knowledge that comes from practical and local experience?
Marina Tabassum I have chosen to root myself in Bangladesh, where I was born and brought up. The culture, the context, and the climate are ingrained in my DNA. So when I draw a line on the south side, which would probably become a wall, I immediately feel suffocated. The moment I draw a window on my plan I can almost feel the breeze coming through that space. Since I understand the place and the context so well, I think the best way I can use my ability, my skill as an architect, would be in this very location. That’s why, despite all the different challenges, this is where I have chosen to build and practice. And I think it’s true that in the last decade or so the West is looking more and more toward the East, trying to seek out different practices. In many ways we are looking into the tangible and intangible knowledge of so-called vernacular architecture. I remember reading somewhere that the term vernacular architecture was an attempt to put distance between what people built or was built by the master builders and what architects were seeking to create as a profession. As products of Western education, we were conditioned in the same way. But through some of the projects that took me to the countryside, I realized that there is so much wisdom in the building tradition, especially in the villages. Design is always a response to the climate, and it’s always evolving. It’s a process that takes into account the local culture and challenges of the time; it’s an evolutionary process. What I find very interesting is that it’s a very communal and social way of living. Nobody is trying to distinguish themselves with a red building or a glass building. Everybody has a homogeneous way of living in common: the same kinds of material, same kinds of building, same kinds of technique.
VR So it’s a building process that is being refined continuously.
MT And through that refinement comes this homogeneity and very strong value of communal living, and this is something we can still use as a value in our lives and in our architecture practice.
VR Absolutely. The point you make about not seeing these as fossilized traditions is so important. For example, your design for Khudi Bari (2020): just this morning I saw your Instagram post about how the houses withstood the recent cyclone. As you say, the culture is not static; it’s a product of its time. So if tin sheets are available now, they become part of the vernacular. Do you want to elaborate on that?
MT This project came about during the pandemic. It was a response to that time and to some studies in the coastal areas of Bangladesh that we had completed just before. These are places where people live in the sand beds, moving on from one to another because they’ve lost land to riverbank erosion. This phenomenon has become much more pronounced because of the glacial melt in the Himalayas, along with heavy rainfall. These people create zero carbon footprint but are impacted directly by the climate crisis. So while we were sitting in the office during the pandemic— work was slow—we asked, “Can we come up with an intervention into the vernacular to address this?” You cannot give millions and millions of people homes and shelters. It’s just not possible. It’s not an architect’s job either. What we can do is try to make an intervention around shared knowledge. If people accept it, it will become common knowledge, it will become a practice, and it will be integrated into the whole system of vernacular construction. So we gave it a try. We’ve used bamboo, which is a local material, but we didn’t just make a regular bamboo structure—we tried to make it very architectural. The structure is very contemporary: it requires fewer footings and therefore less foundation. You can just take it down anytime you want. It can be easily assembled and disassembled. It can withstand lateral wind loads. If you consider the global context, the residents have zero to very low income. Yet they also have a right to good design, a good way of living, a good environment. Quite often I talk about moving away from industrial products. But if you use them in the right way… The reason we use corrugated sheets is because they are easy to disassemble and reuse. They require less maintenance and are sturdy and durable. When you are dealing with cyclones and thunderstorms and flooding, you need materials that are stable and solid. I try to use natural materials as much as possible, but I don’t mind using others when necessary.
VR There are two points you touched on that bring your methodology into focus: sourcing locally and designing projects that rely on the labor of the people who are going to live there. What is the importance of this way of working?
MT I think it’s one of the most important parts. As I said, we want this to become common knowledge. It’s about working and designing with local people to come up with ideas together. Right now we are building in the northern part of Bangladesh, near the Teesta River. We get flash flooding from India during the monsoon season, and all of a sudden your house may be completely inundated overnight. Khudi Bari has two levels, so residents can go to the upper level to escape floodwaters. We took the idea to the community—we made brochures, videos, and films—and asked, “What are the possibilities?” Then a few people volunteered and they chose one to be the guinea pig: “Okay, make a house for that person.” So that’s how we started. We build a house and everybody comes together to take part in the process. They also have their own ideas. “Maybe let’s use something instead of bamboo for the floor. We want a wooden floor.” Then once we build the first house together, everybody sees it and understands the benefits. We cannot build an entire village, so the community decides they would like to build ten houses, for example. They meet and decide who among them is most in need of shelter. We build the roof and the basic structure, and the façade is generally made by the homeowner to promote a sense of ownership.
VR The Khudi Bari model is extremely economical, as I understand it. Is it true that you experimented to bring the costs down?
MT Yes, I think a house costs us about $450 because the price of steel is constantly rising. When we started in 2020, it was $250 for the initial cost of construction.
VR The last 20 to 25 years have seen dramatic changes throughout South Asia, particularly in the urban areas, and the commercialization of architecture is rampant. Most projects probably don’t even have architects involved. They may draw some lines on the paper, but that’s about it. But your work demonstrates that this issue of scalability, which is essential in such a populous part of the world, can be tackled effectively outside of this market logic. What is your experience of bringing these forms of experimentation back into dense urban centers such as Dhaka?
MT It is immensely complex. Dhaka is a megacity of 22 million people or more, and one of the densest metropolises in the world. The main crisis with Dhaka is that it is Bangladesh: anything you need in life— jobs, education, health care—is centered around a single city, which has created an immense pressure on the city itself. Nobody owns it, in the sense that it’s just about profit-making and investment, so there is a very transactional relationship between the city and the people. It’s quite obvious during holidays, when the entire city is almost empty. Everybody has gone home, and those who do not have a place in the countryside quite often go to Singapore or Bangkok. Because of this market-driven situation Dhaka has been taken over completely by real estate development. It caters to 1 percent of the population, so you see a lot of empty apartments and office buildings, like in many cities, while an invisible 90 percent are in need of space to live. They either live in slums or in a single apartment occupied by three or four families. If there is anything to be done in the city, it’s about planning and policymaking. It is about addressing the people who are not being addressed. My experience of working in the city has been mostly with public projects. I quite often try to focus on interstitial spaces, the gray areas of the city. My projects have been located more often on the outskirts rather than in the city center. I find transitional spaces or places going through transformation far more interesting. When I create something it’s always about bringing some sort of order, about creating a refuge for people within a very loud, chaotic atmosphere.
VR That brings me to what is probably your most famous project, Bait Ur Rouf Mosque (2012), which has these characteristics. I’m wondering how has it influenced the surrounding neighborhood since its construction?
MT It’s interesting. I envisioned that the whole city would start to grow around it, and it has sort of happened. You can still see the mosque from this corner and that corner, and the plot in front is still not built up. But the rest of it has filled in. What has happened is that some tiny spaces I left, like a triangular entryway and the ground all along the building, have become the only public spaces in the area, and people really use them. Children play there, women sit on the steps and chat, and at times it becomes the men’s area. That’s the only space they can occupy. It’s sad that in a city where there is so much demand for these kinds of public spaces there is not a single empty space left for inhabitants to use. These are the same people who live by communal social values when they return to the countryside for the holidays. So the mosque gives them the only space to gather in the city.
VR How does this compare with your Independence Monument (1997), which was a major public intervention into the landscape of Dhaka and Bangladesh? What qualities do the projects share, even though they were realized at such different points in your career?
MT The monument needed a grand space, so the roof of the museum became a plaza for bringing people together during the Independence Day celebration and other public events. Bangladesh experienced a lot of sacrifice and sadness during the nine-month war, in 1971, when many lives were lost. That sadness is expressed in the museum below grade, taken into the ground. Since it’s placed in the park we went for a nonbuilding approach and transformed the roof into a rare open space. The commonality between the two projects is that they bring people together to celebrate and commemorate.
VR You started to talk about how Bangladesh, as the youngest independent nation in the subcontinent, has a slightly different trajectory in its architectural history. You pointed out a growing movement among younger architects to engage more with communities and the people they build with and for. In a sense this is akin to the methods anthropologists use, which is to say we are learning from, we’re not here to impose, and we are creating a kind of a common knowledge that is shared. It would be interesting to hear a little bit about those sorts of movements, which seem to have more momentum in Bangladesh than elsewhere in the subcontinent. Bangladesh is fascinating because it is a country that starts with this very grand architectural tradition—such as the Parliament complex by Louis Kahn and Muzharul Islam (MArch ’61) — and now it’s at the vanguard of architecture as a cultural practice. How do you see a national architecture culture developing between these two tendencies?
MT It’s quite fascinating how younger generations of architects are leading community projects. In Bangladesh some of the schools, specifically BRAC University, send students to a village for a semester. The students are from the cities and often have spent their formative years living a sort of cushioned life. I think working in the villages gives them a new sensibility that stays with them. Then when they graduate they may not go into an office but return to the villages and embed themselves where they work. You cannot do this kind of architecture if you’re not rooted at the site. It’s particularly unique here in the sense that we host one million refugees, and there are many architects who work in refugee camps through various humanitarian agencies, as well as independently. There are a lot of challenges: materials, politics, the tension between the government and the aid agencies. And you have to build very quickly because it’s a humanitarian crisis — an emergency situation. Yet within that short period of time, with all the different challenges and restrictions, they create uniquely beautiful architecture. They are there working with the people, but they are not compromising on the aspect of design. It also comes back to the question of Kahn and his presence. I have been fascinated by Kahn’s work, his use of light, his spaces. I don’t think anyone who has studied architecture in Bangladesh can claim that they haven’t been moved by the spaces Kahn has built. Even if you create architecture in a refugee camp, you do not forget these values. So I wouldn’t say that these are two different things; there’s a certain kind of symmetry between the two.
VR That’s beautiful. In the South Asian context you see a lot of so-called slums and really degraded forms of housing. You also see the refugee camps, which of course have very different legal and policy logics. But in some formal ways they look similar. I know you’ve been engaged in the spectrum of rethinking shelter for those populations. What lessons have come from working in these mobile environments, on the one hand, and in the camps, which have many more external constraints imposed on them, on the other?
MT We talk about that quite a lot. The thing is, when we work in the Ganges Delta or even in the slums, situations can be even worse than in a refugee camp because there you have humanitarian agencies and an enormous amount of people actually catering to needs. They’re definitely living in tiny little huts or small shelters, but there are roads and there is a water system. Their issues are more about the experience of trauma and this indefinite transitory state in which they are living. Yet in terms of physical structure there is much more than what you see in the slums, where nobody looks after them and they don’t get any aid. They don’t have any fuel to cook with, sanitation is their responsibility, water supply is their responsibility, and even electricity is their responsibility. So the situation in slums is much more about physical challenges. But we work with the community in both cases. When we are working with slum-dwellers there is much more hope. They want their houses to be just so, with certain colors. In the refugee camp they just want a safe space to sleep.
VR You bring so much thought to the architecture by actually engaging with what exactly it is that people need. What is your experience of teaching in the West? I’m curious about how you see the advanced design studio pedagogy and its value based on your experience in Asia. How do you bring the two worlds together, and where might that lead us?
MT I’ve been teaching for quite some time now. How I’ve thought about it is: What can I bring from Bangladesh to teaching in North America, or even in Europe? What can I bring that others would not be able to? In most cases what I found is that architecture is expanding its horizons. Quite often we don’t see the issue of marginalization and displacement. The studio I taught at Toronto was about displacement. There is so much movement that’s going on, be it people moving for opportunity or victims of conflict seeking safety. How do you design for transition? I call this the “architecture of transition” because more and more people live in indefinite transitory states. Where does planning strategy come in? How do you design for an emergency situation? I still teach a housing studio at TU Delft that addresses issues of marginalization and slums, and how this invisible population can be given adequate housing, not just through design but also at the policy level. I taught a studio at Harvard GSD on a $2,000 home project. At the time we were working on a resort in the Ganges Delta. There was a group of women who were saving to build houses, and their budget was $2,000. This was a collaborative process where the students went to the site and engaged with the community. They talked to them and designed the houses based on the discussions, and every single dollar had to be accounted for. I think they understood the value of money from the process.
VR Wonderful. I will be interested to see the brief for your studio at Yale this Fall.
MT We didn’t talk about anthropology, but the fact is that before we work with communities we quite often go in with certain expectations. But then we work there and see that it’s not what we had anticipated. It is so important for architects to have an understanding of the methodology used by anthropologists in their work, with the notion of respect, of just being there to understand.
VR I’m glad you brought that up, and it’s been embedded throughout this conversation. This is something that an NGO or a policymaker will not necessarily understand because they may not be thinking in relational terms. In your current work there is an emphasis on different kinds of displaced populations and their needs, including climate and political refugees but also tourists who are a sort of voluntarily displaced population and who wield a lot of economic power in our world today. I was thinking about your Panigram Eco Resort and Spa (2018), located in the largest mangrove forest in the world. It manages to navigate this complex ecology as well as the needs of the local people while still being open to guests. So this resort project, the mosque, and the refugee camps all demonstrate a methodology of listening. This is how you learn about issues of displacement, how things are evolving and changing, and what relations are in play. In that sense you are already doing anthropology.
MT Good to know. Thank you. But it did not happen easily. We learned through trial and error.
VR Knowledge creation is a slow and painful process.