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Linking Young Minds Together
     Volume 1 Issue 14 | November 12, 2006 |


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Panam City
Conservation stirring up young minds

Young architects and students of architecture set to uphold national heritage

Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

Durdana Ghias

In the field of architecture the trend of conserving historical sites is comparatively new. Conservation means not only preserving but also regenerating an activity. It is not that conservation did not exist in the past. There were students and teachers who showed keen interest in the subject but they were very few and most students were yet to know what in fact conservation is and how interesting a conservation project can be.

They were yet to know the level of creativity, innovativeness and ingenuity attached with a project of conservation. But that trend is set to change. On our way to report on an exhibition on some projects by the students of architecture we found some hidden talents who worked hard to conserve places like the Panam City in Sonargaon and the Chittagong Court Building. That was an eye opener and we came to know that there were many who were working on conservation projects.

Because of time constraint we could not contact all those who are working on conservation projects. We spoke to a few of them who let us know about this field. We spoke to some enthusiastic rookies and experts who talked about the passion and enthusiasm they felt while working on these projects and also the hurdles they faced. This week we share those experiences with the readers of Star Campus.

Pushpita Eshika, junior architect, Arc Architectural Consultancy, shared views on her project.
"I started my project on Panam City when I was a third year student of architecture at Khulna University. I read a report on Panam City in Prothom Alo which inspired me to work on saving this historical place."

Sonargaon is about 27km southeast of Dhaka and about half a mile to the north from Sonargaon Lokshilpo Museum and located the ruins of Panam. Two artificial channels surrounding the city prove that it was once well protected.

The land is encircled by Meghna and Shitalakhya which witnessed a flourishing muslim trade and was an abode of Hindu merchants. The transportation was river based.

Many people have a wrong notion that Panam was Isa Khan's capital and the museum was his mansion but that's not the case. Panam is an example of the initial urbanisation in Bengal. With its own different identity it took place in the history of Sonargaon.

"I always nurtured a soft corner for history inside my mind so I was eager to do something for this dwindling city with a great historical value. I set up my mind to safeguard it," said the budding architect.

In Sonargaon we have a history of 250-300 years when it sustained as a centre of international trade and Panam is a part of it. This city witnessed the changes in Muslim rules and the start of the British period.

Everyone was concerned about Panam but nobody knew what they could do to save it and Eshika was asked to make a proposal.

“At first I was at a loss. I needed some guidelines but I had no one to turn to. I went to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and also to the Department of Archaeology. But to no avail,” she said.

But Eshika was not a person to sit back. She was out there to prove her mettle. She started with visiting some websites on conserving international heritage. There she went through some case studies which instilled some idea in her innovative mind about writing the proposal and to streamline the project.

“Mine was urban conservation so many factors work here simultaneously. It was not about protecting a single building but an entire city, which was the pivot of a society, of a time. There was more to it than simply conserving the structures,” said Eshika.

“While doing the project I had to work as a sociologist, a geologist, an archaeologist and an anthropologist of the Panam City,” she said.

Eshika's focus was on the infrastructure and communications of Panam. Firstly she studied the historical background of the city, secondly the architectural characteristics and thirdly the present condition of Panam. Her studies included how old the buildings were, the style of the buildings and whether these buildings have any importance in the context of Bangladesh.

On the basis of these studies she dug out some facts that helped her in the project.

There are 56 buildings on either side of the central street running east-west. The buildings were secular in nature and lavishly built representing a period of economic affluence.

The buildings in Panam have either central courtyard or central hall. Plaster decoration, cast iron and broken china had been applied for ornamentation. The outer surface of the structures is totally colonial but the application of inner courtyard, streets and canals reflect local tradition and climatic adaptation.

An ancient residential house in Panam City, Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

“The buildings of the colonial period have some characteristics. We can see this kind of buildings in Tantibazar and Shankhari bazar. They were linear and rectangular and they flanked the narrow lanes. The buildings of these areas changed with time unlike Panam. It still bears the characteristics. The entire city is a museum,” said Eshika.

Her project was to revive the city in a way that can be an attraction to the tourists. She proposed accommodation for the tourists, souvenir shops, restaurants, art gallery etc. Different festivals like nobanno after harvest, boishakhi mela in summer, poush mela in winter can be revived with cultural activities like jatra (folk theatre), kobi gaan, shari gaan, nouka bych (rowing) etc.

One problem is the standard of living in the city at present. Most buildings are serving residential needs and 50 percent of the houses are in a dilapidated condition. Heavy vehicles plying the street should be stopped to save what is left of the street.

There are around 250 families mostly squat in the buildings like five families living in three rooms. The highest income of this group falls in the range Tk4,000 to 5,000, she said.

“The second problem is there is no infrastructure and there is no road, sanitation system. Third problem is ignorance among the present inhabitants. People from the nearby areas pick bricks from the ancient structures and use those in building their home. They have no concern about preserving the city,” she said.

Eshika chalked out some proposals involving NGOs, government bodies and general people. Firstly, she suggested public participation and awareness building and secondly, the responsibility of the authorities.

"The archaeology department works in a traditional way which is not modern or scientific. They follow rules set in the colonial period. The reasons are ignorance, reluctance and lack of financial assistance," she said seeking the help of UNESCO and its world heritage programme.

“I cannot say for sure that I was 100 percent successful in this project. But may be this will help those working on it in future,” said the budding architect.

Belayet Hossain, lecturer, Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology (AUST) shares views on his project on conserving Chittagong Court Building
"When teachers asked us what kind of projects we like my interest was on Chittagong Court Building. Before I started this project I was not aware of conservation or preservation," Belayet Hossain.

"After I started the project gradually I became addicted to it. I got this project from Public Works Department when I was a fifth year student of AUST. I did a manual survey of the site where there were many illegal settlements. There was a digital survey by the Department of Architecture on the 25-acre land on which the building stands. This helped me a lot."

"To do this project I had to go to the root of architecture. This building was made in 1912 and is an evolution from the British period. There are theories, grammar and juxtaposition -- conservation includes these all,” said Hossain.

Chittagong Court Building, Photo: Belayet Hossain

The total view of the building was very nice but it could not be preserved. Civil structures like Eiffel Tower is the landmark of that country. Similarly the Court Building represents Chittagong.

The beauty of the building conveys history. It stands in the middle of the city which also signalled lights to forecast storms.

At present it houses the District Courts, the Divisional and Deputy Commissioner's offices and the Chittagong Metropolitan Magistrate's Court. Other important buildings located in the lower slopes are the Record Room and the Registration Office.

Major buildings added later are the Judges Court Annex, the Bar Council and the Mosque. These additions were built without any regard to the architectural and aesthetic quality.

Five more divisions were added to the main building and temporary structures were made which are very congested and haphazard. The area of the building has shrunk to ten acres from the previous 25 acres.

The original form of the building is symmetrical. But it lost its identity due to the extension of buildings. This was the largest building in the undivided Bengal built atop a hill with a unique blend of Indo-British architecture.

It has Roman arches and decorated corbelled capitals. Corbelled circular arches and Gothic-corbelled arches are constructed over supporting arches for lighting and ventilation. It is embellished with cupolas, recesses, turrets and window screens akin to Mughal art.

It has two well-defined entrances -- one in the south for the officials and the other in the east for public access. A majestic stair connects the two levels of the main building. Protective metal screens for windows resemble Mughal patterns for partition.

This building stands 100 feet from the ground on Fairy Hill, which was occupied by the British rulers from the possession of Raja Akil Chandra Sen, a landlord, in 1892. Later in 1894 the building was built at a cost of Rs 6 lakhs.

Originally it was a two-storied building. In the past, large congregations were formed during the hearing of sensational cases. But many of these activities are now failing. With no height restrictions on the buildings surrounding the Court it is no longer visible from the street. Makeshift sheds have been allowed to grow for various functions to support the daily need of the court users.

Grand Entrance of Chittagong Court Building Photo: Belayet Hossain

The second floor was made in 1953, which was a mismatch with the design and construction of the building. It spoiled the building's aesthetical beauty and caused cracks in the first floor.

The building is in a state of neglect as growth of fungus, leakages, and rainwater seepage damaged the floor made of stone tiles. The arch on the northeastern side has developed deep cracks and the main wooden staircase has been damaged with overuse. The reinforcement of the roof slabs has been exposed as the plaster cover has fallen off due to dampness.

The original building is structurally sound and has many years of life left but it has been systematically defaced over the years. The whole building needs massive repair and routine maintenance, he said.

"Urban space is very important to feel an entire building but in our country it is almost non-existent. One example is the parliament house that attracts people for its nice view from a distance," he said.

"I want to enhance the building on the northern side because the visibility is already hampered by the hills. So the extension will not affect the visibility of the building. I have planned for a pedestrian linkage for the visitors," said Hossain.

“I have planned to create urban space at south plaza where people can enjoy their evenings, breathe brisk air from the Karnafuli, see vessels navigating in the water and the open countryside beyond the river and the distant hills."

"South plaza is an example of urban space where poets, artists, literary figures and intellectuals paid visit. There were benches called bampoos where people could sit in the evening to feel the breeze. I also collected some sketches,” said the young architect bubbling with excitement.

“The building is very responsive and sensitive. It speaks to us. To feel and visualise it we need some space but the temporary structures are much closer which I proposed to remove,” he said.

When you see a building from a distance it leaves a nice impression on your mind. It is a kind of refreshment for the urban people. Space and environment both should be designed. Civic sense is very important in Space and Response, said Hossain.

“It is not only a building built with bricks laid in mortars nor a frame of joist and ribs but a structure that proffered its contribution to the society and taught us different disciplines for over hundred years."

Shankhari Bazar Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

"The dignity of this building is yet to be revived. We should have deep respect towards its contribution and existence and protect it from degeneration,” said the budding architect.

Dr Abu Sayeed M Ahmed, head, Department of Architecture, University of Asia Pacific (UAP), and pioneer in opening a course on conservation among all the universities tells Star Campus about the recent surge of interest among the students over conservation . . .

"I am quite optimistic about the recent surge of interest among the students of architecture and the growing interaction among the architecture department of different universities interested about conservation," he said.

After doing his PhD in Germany on Architectural History and Conservation Dr Sayeed returned to Bangladesh and started the Department of Architecture in UAP.

He wrote a book on Islamic history named 'Choto Sona Mosque at Gaur: an example of early Islamic Architecture of Bengal' while he was in Germany. This book gives guidelines on conserving the mosques of the early Islamic period.

"Before I started this course it was not offered to the students of architecture of UAP though it was included in the syllabus. At present materials for studies on conservation are available and the students are aware of the root of architecture in this country.

The conservation of the buildings of Bangladesh is controlled by two departments of the government - Department of Architecture and Directorate of Archaeology. The latter is concerned about the buildings up to the Mughal period.

Contemporary colonial heritages like Ahsan Manjil, Chittagong Court Building, Jessore Court Building, Chameli House are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Architecture.

"A link should be developed between academic research and practice. Right now there is no link between the documentation done by the students in their thesis and the work of the government's departments,."

"As educational institutes we are doing capacity building, increasing public awareness through seminars and preparing the students. We can provide technical support on research and documentation which will help the government bodies in conserving historical buildings," said Dr Sayeed.

A team from UNESCO was quite surprised to see the level of conservation work done by the students when they were taken to Sonargaon.

In our country students do thesis for the sake of studies and when they pass the thesis paper goes into oblivion.

For example a student working on the conservation of Sonargaon is working on his own without any help from the government. These papers could help government do the documentation.

“In developed countries these are utilised and we should start this trend because the government does not have enough manpower for the research and documentation and most of the time the work is flawed,” said Dr Sayeed.

What they are doing is restoration, which is the last line of the guidelines of conservation. Restoration is the last resort and there are chances of mistakes in it. What happened in the Bagerhat Mosque is when the columns were restored those were made of brick and studded with tiles which were originally made of black basalt. It happened for lack of black basalt and minimum documentation, he said.

“Shankhari bazar has preserved its traditional significance. The buildings are stable, compact and resist earthquakes. The plots are blocked on both eastern and western sides so there is no scope for sunlight to penetrate. It is very surprising that they had to live in indirect light all the time. It is an important aspect for architecture. But now the area is in shambles and overpopulated,” said Dr Sayeed.

DCC should identify the old buildings. The people of that area should be motivated about the conservation of the buildings and only then they will not give those buildings to the developers. A part of our history will go down in dust if these buildings are demolished

Government should declare the alley of Shankhari bazar for pedestrians only and the billboards should be removed. If communication can be improved the tourist attraction of the area will increase, he said.

German Cultural Centre gives ten-day training on photography documentary to 20 architectures and students of archaeology. This is a small project but this kind of training is needed, he said.

"Our students should know how deep the root of our architecture is. The more they will explore the more proud they will feel about their heritage. Educational institutes, government bodies and media can work together in awareness building," said the conservation enthusiast.

Tawhid Amanullah, lecturer, Department of Architecture, AUST, and coordinator of Ruplal House conservation project.
"my students started the project on Ruplal House in 2005. The idea came to my mind while working on urban design, conservation and urban problem.”

Ruplal House was built in Farashganj in early 19th century by Ruplal Das and Raghunath Das. Basically they bought the house from an urban tycoon in 1840, which they extended and reconstructed according to the designs by an architect of Martin Company of Kolkata.

“The proper term for conservation is 'heritage management'. Firstly 'basic drawing' or documentation was done anew which we are supposed to have from the Department of Archaeology,” he said.

“I got some information from the book 'Architectural and urban conservation in the Islamic world 1990' by Jebun Nasrin Ahmed, an architect, some old reference books and from a man who collects old maps of Dhaka,” said Amanullah.

The architectural style of Ruplal House reflects that of the late renaissance period. This is the only symbol of this style in the Dhaka region and is a part of the colonial period. Ahsan Manjil is its contemporary structure.

The House is divided into two uneven blocks, 9144 meters long in east west and is situated on Buckland Dam, which was a demarcation of the city's limit. If seen from above the house is E-shaped.

It has three extending arms -- one towards the north or to the city, the second one on the southern side towards the river Buriganga and the third one is the biggest which is in the middle and is 1830 meters long.

The decorative floral motif on the columns is characteristic of the Corinthian, which is one of the three kinds of classical columns, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, and is a mixture of Doric and Ionic.

Sat Gambuj Mosque Source: www.archnet.org

That's why the columns of this house are called semi-Corinthian fluted columns. The pediment, upper part of the column, is triangular.

There are almost 50 rooms in the house and one of them is the central hall in the upper floor in the west wing. This room has wooden floor and the ceiling contains elegantly decorative motif.

It was used as a dance floor when Ruplal threw a ball dance party in 1886 in the honour of Lord Dufferie, the Viceroy of India. Ahsan Manjil was the dominating building at that time and this was the first time Ruplal House came into limelight.

On the north and south sides there are elongated verandas and grills made of cast iron. The motif of the grill is called art-deco, which is found in the contemporary buildings like the ones in Panam City, Rangpur Rajbari and Puthiya Rajbari in Rajshahi.

Parthenon, the key structure of Greek archaeology was built atop a hill and is still kept in its 'ruined' state to preserve its originality. Environment of a structure is very important in conservation, he said.

Based on the works done by his students some proposals were derived.

"One proposal is to build a park at Ruplal House and Lalkuthi in its vicinity. The riverfront should be highlighted so that the building can be seen from the river and the road on the riverside should be declared for pedestrians only," said Amanullah.

In European countries the riverside developed in a way it seems that the structures are emerging from the river. The historical side of this style originated from the idea of water-based civilisation.

"The whole area can be turned into a museum. There can be a terminal connecting the river and the city. If we can replace Sadarghat with this terminal then it can be well maintained."

The funding of this project can come from organisation slike UNESCO and Aga Khan Foundation, which are interested in protecting heritage.

"We have many historical buildings which are parts of world heritage but there is no plan from the government to protect them. The archaeology department is destroying history in the name of preserving it. They are employing local carpenters and hardly follow the construction method or the module of brick of the period when the building was made. This is really unacceptable," he said with deep regret.

Special thanks to Dr Abu Sayeed M Ahmed, Prof Ali Noki, Pushpita Eshika, Belayet Hossain and Tawhid Amanullah.


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