Marina Tabassum is an architect and winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016. In 1997, her second year into practice, she won a prestigious national competition and was given the responsibility to design the Independence Monument of Bangladesh and the Liberation War Museum.
In 2005, she established Marina Tabassum Architects (MTA), where she currently serves as the principal architect. She is also the director of the academic program at the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes, and Settlements since 2015.
Marina has conducted design studios at Brac University since 2005. She taught an Advanced Design Studio as a visiting professor at the University of Texas.
What trend of architecture do you follow and how did you start practising contextual architecture?
Marina: After graduating from Buet in 1995, I started working with architect Uttam Kumar Saha. During that time, most of the projects we worked on were profit-oriented real estate projects of residential buildings around Dhaka.
This is when I started questioning myself: Is this the kind of architecture I want to pursue?
One year later, we started our own practice. That was when I decided that my vision of architecture was far broader than only profit-making.
That is why I started to choose projects which allowed the use of quintessential elements like light, air and, therefore, the presence of contextual architecture.
The use of steel and glass is very common in designing buildings in Bangladesh. But your working process is different. Can you tell us about it?
Marina: Architecture is supposed to provide people with a proper environment, enhance spirituality, and ensure the quality of living. I started making my way towards achieving these goals focusing on my vision. But it was not that easy because such projects were few in numbers.
However, we worked on the Independence Monument (Swadhinata Stambha) which was a big project, and then we worked on the Baitur Rouf Mosque. These were the projects in which I could further explore my vision, coming out of just the utilitarian space or functional building designs.
Creating simple designs is a matter of pursuit. Please tell us about that quest.
Marina: I tried to practice it from the very beginning of my career. You can say that I am inspired by Louis Kahn – he always spoke about going back to the beginning.
I always refer to history because it can positively influence the choice of material, and help understand the capacity and the properties of a work. If you consider these things, you can make a beautiful creation.
One of the major problems is that architects push for certain materials they want. I try to take a step back from that, and rather try to understand the material, the site, the programme, or even the client. I do not like having a preconception.
So you start from the state of Tabula Rasa?
Marina: I would not label it as Tabula Rasa. Because it means that one is ignoring everything – a policy of the modernists. The modernists used to start from a clean plate. I do not do that.
I need ingredients to start creating something. I focus on the typological beginning of the site without keeping any baggage in the form of a preconception. However, a state of tabula rasa seems devoid of emotions. So I rather go for an amalgamation of both. I question the beginning of things, and at the same time, I also explore the history, culture, climate, and place.
The example of Baitur Rauf Jame Masjid would be an appropriate one here. To design it, I went back to the idea of a mosque from Prophet Mohammad's (pbuh) time. The mosque was built with date tree trunks and leaves – ingredients that are available in the Arabian Peninsula. The idea was to construct a space where a congregation can be held.
A congregation place, directed towards the Qibla, facing the people who would say their prayers here – this is all we need to know for constructing a mosque.
Then comes the history of the construction site, the story of Muslims coming to Bangladesh, spirituality, the sub-tropical climate, air, and light – I considered all of these.
The Independence Monument bears a special significance. The place was surrounded by many trees and to build the monument those had to be cut down. What is your insight on that?
Marina: This place was a garden in the Mughal period. The trees were randomly planted. But then it was used as a horse-racing ground. There were no trees even then. After that, many public gatherings and meetings were held here. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered his historic speech on March 7, 1971, here. There was no tree here even then if you see the pictures.
But after that, trees were planted randomly to prevent any kind of political activity here. It had trees like Shishu (Dalbergia sissoo), Mahogany and Acacia which are not suitable for the park at all.
We only cut down the trees in the museum and the monument areas. We received resistance, but for project implementation, you have to do what is necessary. The plan was to plant more flower plants and fruit trees to create a landscape.
You designed an office floor made of marble only. The work seems expensive, also requiring a lot of effort. How does it reflect with your vision of simplicity?
Marina: Finding clarity is a matter of practice, one is not born with it, and thus, creating something simple is rather difficult.
We used glass marbles that children play with, which are very inexpensive but similar to using stone in the mosaic. It is very simple, but it created a surreal kind of beautiful atmosphere.
We try to create something beautiful – which can be celebrated, using locally available materials. We try to keep the budget as low as possible.
Apartments in Dhaka are costly. When people try to salvage every inch of that space, is it possible to ensure ample sunlight or air in that space?
Marina: Of course it is possible. You have to lessen the tendency of getting maximum profit in that case. You are paying per square inch. We are paying amounts similar to tenants in Mumbai and London. However, we are not getting the same quality as you would get, let's say, in London. It needs to be addressed in our policy which is not about just creating setbacks in a plot, it is also about controlling the density. Unlike other major cities, we are building infrastructure notwithstanding the density.
During the 1980s, when the multifamily housing was initiated here – there was a unit control, like more than ten families cannot stay in one plot.
When we opted for the setback rule, it was assumed that one setback can hold as many families as possible. But the infrastructure of our city is not prepared for that. We direly need comprehensive planning here which we are not addressing yet.
We see ample natural light in your projects. Considering the scarcity of light in our living spaces and lack of space between buildings, it is evident the quality of accommodation is deteriorating in Dhaka. Do you see any possibility to change Dhaka for better?
Marina: There are issues regarding policy guidelines. It is happening because of our ignorance, lack of understanding, and of course, policy orientation. The given setback by Rajuk is also not maintained. An appropriate policy with the implementation of the law is imperative.
I normally try to ensure enough light and air so that it enhances the quality of living as it is our fundamental physical need.
But 80-90 percent of the houses are built by the developers, I do not know of any study on this. I am sure they are trying their best to address the problem regarding housing which has not been addressed even by the government.
We do not have any projects like social housing or providing housing at a cheaper rate. Rather the real scenario is that Rajuk's plots were sold and developers established buildings there. Most of the buildings cannot be labelled as architecturally fit.
I do not know how much an architect can do in this regard. If there is anything to do, it has to be done through policymaking – proper zoning, land use, etc.