On a pale and mundane February noon, Bindu Britto - an ally of the capital's Shewrapara area - welcomes you with a tedious clatter of welding and masons hammering on iron poles. A few steps ahead if you suddenly look upward, you will find a crown of green spreading over a one and a half storey residence. And in the middle of such chaos, you will be startled to know that it is a photography institute that bore internationally recognised photographers who have bagged many prestigious awards and recognitions from around the world.
In 2012, renowned photographer Saiful Huq Omi started the photography institute called Counter Foto on a five-acre plot. He could not afford an architect, so he decided to design the institute himself. Since then, for the last eight years, the institute has been growing steadily.
"I'm not an architect but I don't think the best architect in the world could have created this space the way I have. It was possible because of the emotional attachment I have with this space," Saiful said, describing his journey of establishing Counter Foto.
The institute has two campuses - one in Shewrapara and another one in Uttara. Both the campuses incorporate humble characteristics of modern architecture with exposed brick walls, ample usage of locally sourced materials and greenery, among others. The designs are highly inspired by the late Srilankan architect Geoffry Bawa.
Bawa was known as a tropical-modernist architect - a true amalgamation of technology with culture. He used traditional materials and construction methods to create spaces that represent a certain time and uphold the naturally-sourced elements of the place. Saiful's designs are inspired by these features quite intentionally.
Saiful said, "I think it's important to incorporate the characters of a space before designing any architectural structure. That's why I wanted to create a laid-back, relaxed space where students wouldn't feel like an outsider."
Humble space that allows you to breath
Saiful has taken a stand against lavish, edgy and uptight corporate buildings. He thinks the structure of such buildings creates pressure on us. We are scared to sit anywhere and the floor is too shiny to even walk on. But in Counter Foto, the space does not scare you. Almost 70 percent to 80 percent of the area allows you to sit anywhere you want.
He said, "It gives the feeling of a home and that's what allows us to own the space. Even if we drop something on the floor, we clean it ourselves."
Internationally recognised photographer Tahia Farhin Haque has recently completed her Diploma degree from Counter Foto. "It has been a cosy hub for me. I can stay here the entire day and still not feel suffocated," she told the correspondent.
Sanjoy Dey feeds the fish at Counter Foto, waters the plants and takes care of the place. In the last eight years, Counter Foto has become his home. According to Omi, this comes from a sense of ownership Sanjoy has grown over the years.
Employing openness as a political stand
The Shewrapara campus's entryway is adorned with black corrugated gates which are open almost the entire day. This is also a conscious part of the design process.
"As photographers, we invade other people's privacy all the time. In that case, we don't have the right to hide within boundaries. And I believe maintaining high-security protocol is a product of classist society. I want to break that structure in my work as a photographer and also here as a designer," Saiful stated.
The Counter Foto premise is open for everyone. The concept of openness and housing the external environment within the inside has been consistent in Saiful's design. The space has been designed adopting the idea of courtyards in front of the rural ancestral homes in Bangladesh. It was intentionally designed this way so the students do not feel as if they have entered a wealthy, uptight and high-maintenance complex.
This design aesthetic has been maintained in the administration area as well. The interior has been designed with minimal usage of barriers so everyone can see each other. The faculty and workers sit in a spacious room; even the chairs bear similarities.
Saiful believes these subtle things create a class distinction inside a system and it should be a conscious part of the design process. "There is no hierarchy, no divide here. I believe this represents the political aspect of any design," he said.
The backyard is essentially a courtyard with two classrooms - one nestled above the other. To ensure maximum utilisation of open space in the compact area, foldable doors have been used to separate the auditorium's entryway, while a spiralled staircase takes you to the classroom above.
Florae as a major design component
The black corrugated gate leads you to a seating area of the main building where a large mango tree spreads over. Right beside is a flight of white mosaic stairs that takes you to the roof and from its landing, you can pick mangoes from the tree.
Two inches from the stairs have been taken away to make it narrower just to save the mango tree. "The tree has been here since before we came and invaded its land. That's why we need to remain humble to it and I'm proud to say that we didn't cut any of the greenery here to build the institution," the photographer confided.
A vertical garden has been built against the backyard walls. One of its walls has been built following the curves of a jackfruit tree. In the middle of the courtyard stands a skyrocketing pine tree with its needle-like leaves.
Even the rooftop feels almost like a tropical forest with local plants such as Elephant Apple - commonly known as 'Chalta', Neem, Plum, Radhacura, etc. These tropical florae keep the entire complex cool and fresh. Saiful told us that natural ventilation maintains a comfortable temperature throughout the institute almost without any air conditioning system.
The trees also allow Counter Foto to maintain a level of privacy - just like the village homes, where a curtain of palm leaves and trees act as a veil around the house. According to Saiful, concrete walls create a divide in our psychology as well.
Cross-ventilation and pond
The small area feels like a never-ending maze. The front portion of the institute consists of administration or faculty rooms, a photo developing lab, a kitchen, one classroom and a seating area.
The front portion of the institute is linked with the backyard via a corridor and at the end of it is a small nook of latticed brick-wall and a brass washbasin with plants around. This part of the institute is so relaxing that you may feel yourself being transported to somewhere else entirely.
This latticed brick-walls has been used on the wind directions to maintain the cross ventilation all around. In the backyard, there is a small water reservoir or pool for fish.
Besides the natural ventilation, these design elements ensure proper airflow and help control the temperature as well.
Warm and earthy interior
The exposed red brick wall, red cemented floor, brass washbasin and sculpture, wooden frames and doors, repurposed wooden coffee tables add a cosy tone to the entire space. Indigenous elements and natural-style colour-palette our ancestors had used has remained a conscious part of the creative process.
Saiful said, "It's a political choice against the capitalist notion of marketing new products frequently, even when you don't need them. It's very important to know our roots to define the journey we are about to take the future."
In the middle of the fish pool is a small brass sculpture. It is a recreated version of Icarus with his outspread wings. But standing on an iron pole, Icarus is looking at the fish beneath the water - as if wanting to stand still for a minute instead of flying away.
All these minute details and conscious additions create a space that allows the students to self-explore and nurture their creative souls.
It is a living and ever-growing space
Counter Foto started with just one classroom, one office room and a kitchen. For the past eight years, the institute has been growing and been through several alterations. Regarding this, Saiful said, "As I'm not a professional architect, I didn't have the premonition of the establishment as a designer. As a result, there have been many corrections here and there."
But that is what keeps the space ever-growing. Faculty of Counter Foto and a Samdani Art Foundation fellow, Ahmed Rasel, told the correspondent, "Over time, our needs have grown and with the growing needs, the design has also improved."
One thing that has remained constant is that Saiful did not build Counter Foto simply because he could; rather because it was needed. A portion of the roof is now being used as the dining area of a restaurant and right beside its entrance is a small room rented out to a street food start-up.
The remainder of the roof is being used recently as a guest room and library.
Although the Uttara campus was initially built for studio photography and classes, it has transformed into a cafe and a cultural hub.
A photographer designing an architectural site might sound off-track, but Saiful has surely done a stunning job. To him, any creative process - be it poetry, music, architecture or even photography - has almost the same centre of realisation. In essence, it is all about playing around with forms and compositions. It is the language that changes with every art form.
Saiful said, "The building should represent the people residing in it and its occupants should represent the building. It's like a relationship that demands commitment and owning each other."
At Counter Foto, even the entrance wall has a lifespan of its own. The mural on it was painted by Shishir Bhattacharjee three years ago. Now, the concrete crust is crumbling with rain and wind blowing the bits away.
But Saiful believes that it is a natural process which we should not interrupt. There will be new seasons, new issues, new stories to tell. The Counter Foto team is waiting for the new season to begin and for a new mural to appear on the wall.