It couldn’t happen today

How did Kahn, a Jew, come to design the capital of a Muslim nation?

January 31, 2015 22:23
3 minute read.
 Architect Louis Kahn

JATIYO SANGSHAD Bhaban, or the National Parliament Building of Bangladesh, located at Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was designed by Architect Louis Kahn. (photo credit: KARL ERNST ROEHL)


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One of the largest legislative complexes in the world, Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, the house of parliament of Bangladesh, (formerly East Pakistan) in Dacca, its capital, was designed by the celebrated American architect Louis Kahn, who worked on the project for a full 12 years between 1962 and 1974, when he died of a heart attack in Penn Station after traveling nearly 24 hours from India to New York. He was 73 years old.

How did Kahn, a Jew, come to design the capital of a Muslim nation? Initially appointed by the government to be the project’s architect, Muzharul Islam recommended instead commissioning one of the world’s great architects, turning to Aalvar Aalto of Finland and French architect Le Corbusier. As both were unavailable, Islam enlisted Kahn, who had been his professor at Yale University.

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Kahn’s development as an architect came late. He was 52 years old when his first major project, the Yale Art Gallery, was completed. Impressed on his visits to Italy and Egypt by the power and beauty of the ancient structures and ruins he saw, he reopened the history books that had been closed for decades by the modern movement, convincing many that identity-less glass boxes, for instance, weren’t the only way to build.

The most spiritual of 20th century architects, Kahn believed in permanence, in building for the ages.

By the time Muzharul Islam called on him, he had already completed the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, whose brick towers evoked those of the historic Italian town of San Gimignano, which he had painted several years before. Richards was also his first clear articulation of “servant” (in this case – utility shafts and vertical circulation) and “served” space (the laboratories). It brought him international acclaim.

The Dacca capital complex was the largest project of his life. At its heart stands a massive structure comprised of giant cubes and cylinders, some 10 stories in height, conceived by Kahn as hollowed out columns, spaces into which natural light is introduced, surrounding a domed national assembly chamber. Enormous triangular, square and circular windowless openings are cut into the exterior, the geometric shapes, abstracted forms found in traditional Bangal culture, meant to create a marriage of new and old.

THE PRAYER hall, which faces Mecca, is situated opposite one of main entrances to the structure, so that before reaching the assembly chamber one is forced to pass through it. Natural light is here employed to profoundly moving effect. An artificial lake bounds the structure on three sides, light reflected from its waters entering the interior of the structure, adding to its mystery. The overall effect of the complex is one of quiet power and serenity. A humble monumentality.

Building began in 1962, but was interrupted by the country’s war for independence.

The project was not completed until 1983, some nine years after Kahn’s death.

It is considered by many architects to be his most significant work, one of the architectural masterworks of the 20th century, a work of genius.

On his many visits to the country during the design and building process, the elderly architect who came to transform their abandoned paddy fields into one of the world’s great buildings was received with love by the Bangladeshis, who listened intently to the professor’s every word, showing him around, inviting him to lecture at the university. Posthumously, they revered him.

But at a time when radical Islam is challenging the very existence of Western civilization (needless to say, Islamism hasn’t bypassed Bangladesh), the warm collaboration between the Muslim Bangladeshis and the Jewish architect from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, that made possible the realization of this great work just several decades ago, seems sadly impossible, indeed unthinkable today.

The writer is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.

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