Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, the architect who designed Friendship Hospital, Sathkhira with his Urbana team, shares his inspiration and motivation behind the award-winning structure's design and much more
The Category-5 tropical cyclone Sidr made landfall in Bangladesh on the night of 15 November 2007.
The very next day Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury and three of his colleagues, from his architectural firm called Urbana, set out to find out what was going on. And for the next four to five days, they were living on a country boat and tracing the path of devastation left in wake of the cyclone.
They visited all the places where the cyclone had hit. And in the words of the award-winning architect himself "This experience changed my life forever."
The Bangladeshi architect has won the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) International Prize 2021 for designing the climate-conscious Friendship Hospital, an 80-bed community hospital situated in a remote rural area of southwest Bangladesh.
During a recent chat, we asked Chowdhury whether the experience - based on which he authored the book titled "The Night of Fifteen November Two Thousand Seven" - had an impact on the design of the hospital built in the area that was heavily affected by the same cyclone.
He replied, "I really understood [from that experience] that we are living in a very complex weather system. We are living in the largest delta in the world, which is governed by this very complex weather system. And it is not so because of climate change, but simply because of the way climate itself is.
But it has now been made worse because of this changing climate, because of all this pollution going on. [Because of the] rising ocean, the rising global temperatures, this is only going to get worse. So the only way we can work is to acknowledge that our environment is going to be more fragile, and it is going to be more and more vicious in many ways," said Chowdhury.
Built on a budget of just $2 million, this riveting structure stands as an embodiment to how much can be achieved with so little.
The melting of the ice caps and the resultant rising sea levels have meant that the landscape surrounding the hospital once dotted with green fields has been transformed into shrimp fisheries, because the groundwater is now too saline to use for most purposes.
The architecture of the world's best building
The building is composed of a series of low-lying pavilions inspired by the local thatched huts made from locally sourced brick and interspersed with courtyards. These courtyards that closely resemble the villages of Bangladesh are used to naturally light and ventilate the hospital wards, while also offering patients and visitors places to rest.
Framed with colonnades, deep outdoor corridors provide shelter from driving rain and encourage cross ventilation through the buildings, while bouncing daylight back inside, so no artificial light is needed during the day. The blocks are angled to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction, meaning that most areas don't need air conditioning either, except the operating theatres and delivery rooms.
The more sensitive areas of the hospital are screened by corridors and double-layered arches, shielding them from the tropical sun. A brick water tower stands as a kind of monolith.
In the rainy season, people from the surrounding area try to do everything in their power to collect and store every last drop of freshwater, which is in very short supply.
Chowdhury has therefore designed the building to be a machine for rainwater harvesting, with every roof and courtyard surface draining into the central canal, which runs into two storage tanks at either end of the site.
In the time of climate change
Another one of Chowdhury's award-winning projects was the Friendship centre, Kushtia, which drew inspiration from the ruins of Mahasthangarh. It was more of a necessity than a choice. The only way they could build on the low lying piece of land and protect the entire campus is with a path or an embankment and that's why the structure looks the way it does.
Because it was becoming more introverted, introspective, more of a meditative space, Urbana looked for inspiration to the ruins of Buddhist monasteries like the Mahasthangarh, and other similar ruins.
This is another way of working with the change in the climate we are now observing because of the melting glaciers in Tibet and beyond the Himalayas.
This time around, Chowdhury and cohorts have been inspired by the powerful abstraction of the riverine Bangladeshi landscape; they have bisected the space with a canal, which zigzags through the site separating the inpatients and outpatients also pulling double duty as a natural way of cooling the space.
Of influence and motivation
When asked as someone who was involved in the celebration of Louis I Kahn birth centenary, was the great architect one of his heroes? Does the maestro have an influence on his style?
Chowdhury replied, "Louis I Kahn is my guru. My guru whom I have never met, whom I have never directly worked with or talked to. But he is my guru because he is an architect who is absolutely right for our times. He has always worked with the idea of going back to the beginning, to rethink what should be and to rethink how it can be and that's why he is so important to me.
He is beyond style, beyond trends and he is only interested in what is really needed in a particular place, in a particular space. And that's why he will always be the most important architect for me."
In regards to winning the RIBA prize, Chowdhury doesn't feel it is a win just for him or his team. To him "It is a win for all the people who are working on this sort of project, which have a meaningful impact on society, on poorer portions of the community and also people affected by climate change."
As a previous recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, do awards act as a form of motivation? To him, recognitions are for other people. "But" he adds, "it helps, it helps our teams to be more inspired to be doing what they are doing.
It helps our clients to understand that we are trying to make a difference in this world. It helps the people who work on these projects and the people who are benefited from these projects, it helps them to understand how much effort goes into making these kinds of projects."
He believes working on these types of projects is their way of giving back to society, fighting climate change and working for the people who are deprived of many of the facilities and good things in life.
So what's in store for Chowdhury and Urbana?
The architect told The Business Standard, "We [will] just continue our journey, we have a very clear vision of what we want to do or more importantly how we want to do it. How we want to address our projects especially in the context of our beloved country, our climate, our culture and our history.
So it is just going to be a continuation of what we have been doing and with the support of our clients and all our team members.
These acknowledgements give us the assurance we are on the right track so we feel we just need to keep on going."