In the final scene of My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary about discovering his father Louis I. Kahn (1901-74) through his architecture, Nathaniel stands in the National Assembly building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, speaking to Shamsul Wares, a local architect who knew Kahn and claims that the building gave his country democracy. No one who watches as the camera pans over the massive concrete drums and cubes reflected in shimmering water can be left without an urgent desire to be there.
And so, years later, I traveled to Dhaka, including visits to two other capital cities on the subcontinent whose main structures I knew well, but only graphically, from exhibitions at London’s Hayward Gallery: New Delhi from “Lutyens”; and Chandigarh from “Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century.” Seeing these buildings today, in an urban context, with their accumulated history and cultural overtones, has revealed to me how, beyond style and grandeur, this architecture has become symbolically integrated into each community. Being there made all the difference.
In his effort to preserve the troubled union of East and West Pakistan that followed the 1947 partition of India, Ayub Khan, the military ruler of Pakistan, sought to create two equal capitals with alternating parliamentary sessions. Dhaka, the provincial capital of the east, was already fomenting under pressure to adopt Urdu as the official language and from military skirmishes aimed at crushing a growing nationalism. A projected National Assembly building gave them hope for independence.
After being turned down by Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, the Public Works Department contacted Louis Kahn, suggested by the Bengali architect Muzharul Islam, who had met Kahn during his studies at Yale and who was already one of Dhaka’s prominent Modernists with his College of Arts and Crafts. In 1962, Kahn accepted, and he came to Dhaka from Philadelphia for the first time the following year. While a more extensive plan was initially envisioned, the built elements consist of the octagonal concrete parliamentary citadel separated by calm waters from massive, fortress like brick hostels, originally intended for traveling MPs, and a hospital. The complex, which possesses the richness of ancient marble and sandstone monuments, was completed in 1983—but not without interruption. The 1971 civil war that created Bangladesh halted construction temporarily, and after Kahn’s death in 1974, his associates oversaw the completion of the work.
Dhaka, with a current population of 15 million, is teeming with markets in the old quarters along the Buriganga River. The streets, permanently congested, resound with a cacophony of horns and bells as thousands of green auto-rickshaws shoot in and out like threads weaving a jacquard pattern. At its calm center rises the National Assembly building at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (The Tiger of Bengal City), in a park Kahn designed with avenues of trees bordering the water and parterres of marigolds, the ubiquitous flower of the subcontinent.
The symmetrical array of round and cubic towers, with their vertical slits and triangular, circular, and square apertures that admit shaded light to the interiors, recalls the simplicity of forms Kahn collected in his 1950s travel sketches—of, say, the Acropolis walls—that served to suffuse his Modernism with classical humanism. The central cluster of four cylindrical forms containing the prayer hall is set slightly askew in order to face Mecca. On closer inspection, one can see how each five-foot segment of reinforced concrete (the predetermined limit) is separated from the next by a thin slab of white marble alternating between a flush edge and a narrow ledge to articulate a small shadow effect.
This monumental structure was handmade by workers, including women, who carried baskets of concrete on their heads to pour into forms. As I walked through the building with Shamsul Wares, he told me that Kahn would find irregularities in the workmanship but accepted them in good spirit.
As a master of layering light, Kahn draws it through seven layers of interior walls through additional circular and crescent openings bridged by Piranesi-style crisscrossing staircases. As the once crisp outside light is drawn through the building and its cavernous circular corridors 11-stories high, it becomes more diffuse at the same time that the eye adjusts to its new level. In the assembly hall itself, where the two major parties debate, natural light from clerestory windows above is modulated by a concrete parasol stretched over the octagonal oculus.
A small group viewing the chamber with me was suddenly moved to sing the Bengali national anthem, written by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It was a sacred moment.