Marina Tabassum is the principal of Marina Tabassum Architects, a practice established in 2005 based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. MTA began its journey in the quest of establishing a language of architecture that is contemporary to the world yet rooted to the place. She is the academic director of the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements. She taught at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, University of Texas and in BRAC University. She is currently teaching at TU, Delft as visiting professor. Marina Tabassum is a recipient of 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for Bait ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka. She is currently serving as member of the Steering Committee of AKAA. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of Prokritee, a guaranteed Fare Trade organization. Tabassum won the Jameel Prize 5 in 2018. Her project the Pavilion Apartment was shortlisted for Aga Khan Award in 2004. She received the AYA Award from India in 2004 for the project NEK10 located in Dhaka. She is a recipient of 2005 Ananya Shirshwa Dash Award, which recognizes women of Bangladesh with exceptional achievements. Most recently she participated in the inaugural edition of Sharjah Architecture Triennial: Rights of Future Generations.
DM: My name is Diane Mehanna. I'm an architect and program coordinator at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. As part of the first series of SAT Talks: Architecture+ Community, I am pleased to welcome today's guest. Marina Tabassum is the principal of Marina Tabassum Architects, a practice established in 2005 based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She is the Academic Director of the Bengal Institute for architecture, landscapes and settlements. Tabassum won the Jameel Prize 5 in 2018, and was one of the participants in the first edition of Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2019. Tabassum's practice began its journey in the quest of establishing a language of architecture that is contemporary to the world yet rooted to the place.
Hi, Marina, thank you for joining us today, and let's dive into the conversation.
MT: Hi, Diane. Thank you for this wonderful initiative. I am really enjoying talking to you after the Sharjah Architecture Triennial work that we did some months back, but it now seems like a long time ago after this forced pause in our lives. Nice to talk to you again.
DM: It's very nice to have you again. Thank you for accepting. I'm really excited. I'll start by discussing a very important aspect, for us, but also for you because you always start your lectures by locating Bangladesh on a geographical map and introducing yourself as a "Made in Bangladesh" architect, and you take the time to describe the country you live in, the city, you emphasize on the local climate, the land, and the local history.
Could you elaborate more on the relationship between the particular conditions of your context and your architectural practice?
MT: Yeah, sure. Probably it would be better if I just give a little bit of a background of why I think of it this way. So… I studied architecture in the nineties and I graduated in 1995. It was a time in Asia when many cities were booming with construction, like Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai, Abu Dhabi; all these cities were getting built. The development sector was moving at breakneck speed and you know, in a way, the cities lost their uniqueness, as all the buildings in every city were looking quite similar. That was an effect of the globalization. Fast construction, easy to build steel and glass. Dhaka at that time when I graduated was also similar.
This is a city where I live and I grew up and that's where I practice. So it also started copying the same notion of progress in a way, and as a young architect entering into profession, I felt that there was something wrong about this approach and irresponsible at some times. Just to think of glass as an exposed facade in a tropical climate is very wrong. Yet, architects, till date, continue designing such buildings, as it symbolizes and contributes to the growth fetish.
From the very beginning of my architecture practice, I decided to explore the uniqueness of where I'm located , which is Bangladesh. It has a certain geographical and climatic uniqueness or a unique condition, as do all other regions and cultures and places that have human societies with the diversity of expression through art, music, food and architecture. So, in a way, to dilute this very uniqueness by participating in the madness of so-called development means losing the richness of the land and history.
That became actually my motto, or let’s say my ideology, for establishing my practice. And that's when I started looking into the land, how Bangladesh was created geographically, the climate and how it has actually, created a culture in terms of building construction, in terms of food, in everything, in literature, even the language we speak, the clothes we wear. So, you know, in many ways that is what informs my architecture and that's how I have tried to establish this practice. I try to learn from the age-old wisdoms by understanding the basics and extracting what is essential and then reinterpreting it in a contemporary time, in an appropriate language, if I may say that.
DM: It's a wonderful way of explaining how the context impacts on your practice. And you were talking about glass as a material used in some of the projects. And, in your projects, we have seen that you use a lot of local material as well, like brick.
MT: Sure. I mean, brick is the only material we have, other than mud, because it's a delta. And, Bangladesh being a delta, there are only two materials actually, which are locally available. We don't have any stone or anything as such. And so, for me, looking for material to build, which would be affordable for the project budget, and, also, where I have the craftsmen available to build. So that is where I took this idea of exploring materials which are locally available, and brick is our material - that's what we've had for thousands of years - if you want to make something permanent. And, for impermanent architecture, we've always had mud. So, if you want to really root your architecture, these are the materials you can look into, so I do have a fascination for these.
DM: The context is the material, is the climate, is the history, but it's also the people and the community you are surrounded by. I understand from your work that community is also a very important aspect of your projects. For example, if we look at the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, which won the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, a very important aspect of this project was to give, as you say, "a sense of ownership" to the community. Can you describe what is the process of this community engagement and how do you perceive your architectural practice as a social practice?
MT: So Bait Ur Rouf Mosque is a community Mosque; the locals look after it. A project such as this, where there is no external funding available from the government agencies, the local communities need to shoulder the responsibility of maintenance and use. And it is very important for that matter, for the community to be engaged during the process of making. This involvement brings a sense of ownership that ensures the healthy life of the building, for it to age gracefully, and to be useful to people.
The community was very excited from the very beginning, as there were no Mosques around the area, so it was a dream project for them. It's a lower, middle income neighborhood, so they took part by contributing in the construction through generating fund, labor, material such as a few bags of cement or electrical equipment like fans, light, a generator or plumbing equipment, like conduits and pipes or even prayer mats. Whoever was able to give whatever, we just took everything with gratitude; whatever people offered generously, and that was a way of connecting them with the project.
This was really important because they are the people who will be then looking after the building because the building belongs to them. So that was how we created this connection and a kind of a sense of ownership because there was no funding for the project. The community generated the fund and everything that went into it. So, in terms of social practice, I don't know if you can call me a social practice. I honestly cannot claim that, but for more and more the projects that we are involved in, there is a participatory component to it, especially when we are working with villagers to help them build their homesteads.
It's a process of co-creation. It's a marriage of age-old knowledge of building with our technical know-how. Together we can create a better environment. It's about mutual respect for each other's craft and knowledge, and more importantly, from our part, it is a commitment that every human must have access to design. Right to design space cannot be limited to a very few of 1% and 2% of people, and that's the reason why we are now more focusing on this kind of community initiatives and participatory process where we can make ourselves available to the people who never had any opportunity to get a designed space. If that's a social practice, then yes, it is.
DM: When we say social practice, we're very much interested in the social responsibilities of architects. This is what we're questioning here. When you talk about participatory initiatives and make design accessible to other communities than architects; this is also something we're very interested in. We're also questioning the limitations of the architects and here it's very interesting what you're saying because you're trying to explore actually the agency of the architect.
MT: Yes. I think that is expanding our agency, which is so very important at this point in time when you see so much of disparity and inequity among people who are living in the same world. So, if we want to make ourselves relevant, if we want to call ourselves a responsible practice or responsible profession, then it is so very important that we start looking into these other aspects of architecture. Architecture cannot be limited to making beautiful buildings only.
DM: I wanted to ask you about this project that you developed in 2017 that is called $2,000 homes: co-creating in the Bengal Delta. You worked with local actors in Bangladesh, like POCAA, Platform of Community Action and Architecture and I wanted to ask you about this co-creation project and how knowledge is shared between the various actors and stakeholders.
MT: Process of co-creation is a relatively established practice in many countries in Asia such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, India. Many of the architects of these countries have already been practicing and in Bangladesh, architect Hasibul Kabir with POCAA initiated this practice, which we are trying to adapt and emulate in our $2,000 Homes projects. The idea is to take a passive role as an architect and let people explore their dreams and aspirations. We help them to organize, materialize, and advise them on technicalities and spatial arrangements. The goal is to empower people to build collectively. It's a bottom up process, so interaction with the communities is key. We hold group meetings and group activities to create a communal atmosphere, teamwork and collective efforts. The communities are encouraged to create savings groups among themselves. In many ways, this was initiated as an alternative practice, to give individuals some form of loan for their personal needs that include housing.
The current practice is microcredit, which is compound interest, a very high rate and the villagers become, in a way, prisoners of this loan system. So, the collective community savings with a simple interest actually helps them to get this loan from themselves. While helping the communities set up these savings groups and its management, we build up trust and connection that facilitates the process of advising them with the design of their homesteads and home. So, basically, that's how, we've been trying to generate a kind of a connection between the villagers because nobody knew what architects are and what we do.
They're themselves are good enough architects to build their own houses, but, with the new technologies that are coming in, they really do not have the knowledge or the facilities to understand how these things work. Basically, they need an architect to help them build, so that's where we are trying to kind of make them understand and see how we can be useful to them. That's why we call it co-creation, because it's their knowledge or their understanding, their aspiration, and our understanding and knowledge as well, so we are trying to marry these two. This is a new way of looking at architecture in many ways. I truly believe that in a world of disparity and inequity, this is our responsibility and it's a responsibility that needs to expand beyond good-looking buildings, as I was just telling you. And I find this to be so much more rewarding as a professional than building any other thing.
DM: Thank you for sharing this with us. While addressing real issues and challenges on the ground, you are invited to rethink your role and responsibilities as an architect to better address environmental and social sustainability in your context.
MT: Probably. As architects, this is not our agenda, but when you go to build something, you build the entire environment: it's not just a house you build and then let everything go to hell. It's about taking charge of the entire thing and it's just you being there, collectively interacting with people, encouraging them, to see things differently, and to address things differently. It doesn't really take a lot. It's just about being there and helping them, to guide them in a way.
We just don't go and build a building and think that's where our responsibility ends. When you go to these places, especially in the villages, you find there are so many different issues where you can actually contribute, not just as an architect, but also as a human being. There are environmental issues, hygiene issues. There are issues of child marriage, childbirth. There are issues about education of girls. It's about also pollution and farming. And when you go there, interacting with people, all these things come to surface it doesn't really take a lot out of our own time and from our own understanding, as let's say, enlightened people; all we have to do is just go there and be with them and to do some interaction while also doing our work, which is building an environment.
A good environment is not just a good house or a good homestead. It also encompasses the entire livelihood of people and the way they live their lives and the way they think and see the future. So basically, everything comes into this agency of architecture. That's what I believe.
DM: I was wondering whether, in your practice, you also, address urban challenges because we discussed how this project was housing for villagers. As an architect and a person who lives in Dhaka yourself, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, how do you address housing and urban challenges that architecture faces today through your practice or through your research?
MT: Yes, well, mostly research because, Dhaka, if you think, it's mostly residential projects, and this is an entirely developers world, a real estate development world. So, where I do not really take part, we can talk about that later… and at the same time, if there are government projects… mostly, public projects are also done by government themselves. So, we architects are very limited in terms of the projects we can actually undertake. But in the city of Dhaka, I would say that I'm more interested in the research part. Dhaka's density has a very simple solution and that is decentralization and better communication. So quite often simple solutions become the most difficult to implement due to lack of political will.
So, what we need is clear policies and strategic plans of land use, zoning, proper planning of the entire country, as our landmass is very limited. These are the things that need to be understood and undertaken. The government is making a huge investment on public transport, road network, but the decentralization is not being addressed as yet. And, as you already mentioned, I serve as the Academic director of the Bengal Institute… It's a kind of a multidisciplinary platform where, architects, planners, landscape architects, geographers, traffic experts, everybody comes together in one single platform and we try to do different kinds of research and academic activities and the Institute has made several research projects and strategy proposals, out of our own interest on how this distribution of different sectors can be done. And, we have made our documents available through publications exhibitions, seminars.
We basically try to work as a pressure group and also giving ideas for free. Some of the mayors have come to our offices and we have tried to collaborate on small towns and cities. This is how we've been trying to do our practice, but in the city of Dhaka we've also had some engagements with the mayors, where we have tried to influence them to create guidelines… We generally try to work as a pressure group, but this is more from the Institute side.
DM: To get back to that point where you mentioned that you don't step into the real estate developers world… How do you think our profession can get out of the developers' control and what would you say to young architects who are trying to sustain their practices at a time of economic crisis?
MT: I'm not really against real estate development, but you know, there are certain reasons why I decided against working with the developers. So, probably, that would be the first things to make clear. First, real estate development is profit driven and for profit making. Quite often you see that architecture's basic agendas get compromised, and that's one of the reasons why I don't like working with them. Secondly, they only cater to a certain section of people who have the affordability. Till date, no developer in Bangladesh offered any project that caters to lower or lower-middle income families who actually suffer the most to find a proper place to live in a mega city like Dhaka. So, I'd be very happy to engage in projects if they are affordable housing for lower income or lower middle-income families.
And, thirdly, through real estate development, architecture, in my opinion, was brought down to the level of commodity… a commodity of fashion and instant appeal. And you know, as an architect, I believe in the timeless quality of architecture. And as such, it is in direct conflict with my ideology. So that's why, I do not take part in this very fast fashion, if you call it, architecture. In a capitalist mechanism where everything is brought down to the level of commodity, be the education, health or housing, it is difficult, to project any positive notion about that. I really do not know what would be the answer… I'm hoping that after this forced pause in our business as usual, due to this Covid-19 crisis, we as a society should rethink and readdress the capitalist agendas for a much more balanced and responsible living environment.
As for young architects, my advice is that you need to readdress architecture as a profession. Architecture is not just making buildings and all buildings that get built are not architecture. Expand your agency as a professional. There are many challenges in the world at the moment that question human existence. This is the time to rethink architecture's agendas. The service-rendering model that the profession has been doing for at least a hundred years is not valid anymore. That's what I feel. It does not take responsibility of the environment, it does not encompass all the human beings of the world. In a situation where there is so much of disparity and inequity, we need to really expand our agency to be much more available to people. We are creative professionals; our creativity needs to be invested in creating a new or several new models of practices that address all these issues that I just brought forward.
And how to sustain oneself or a practice in this time of crisis. I have a very simple model, and the model is my office. We have a very small team—it's a very small office, it's only 10 people, and we don't grow more than that because then we would compromise on taking projects in, which do not really give us anything… it just wouldn't be rewarding for us. We keep our overheads very optimal so that when crisis hits, like now, we can survive without shrinking our size, which means letting go of some of the people—you know, it's almost like a close knit family of 10 people, so we try to look after each other when crisis hits. I think for me, that really worked out well for the last 20 years. That's why I would also probably recommend keeping your size small and make it productive.
DM: Thank you for sharing your own experience. You were saying how we have to use our creativity, to readjust and rethink our values. Your practice and the way you've been working closely with communities, addressing environmental and social issues is a very nice example and is maybe paving the road to what architects should be addressing after the pandemic because we've noticed how vulnerable people are in times of crisis like this one.
MT: With this pandemic—I call it a forced pause in our life or business as usual—we've got enough time to really rethink about our relationship, human relationship, our relationship with nature and everything. And, in a way, it really showed us that there is no disparity between people. The way we create these different situations where people are either rich or poor, a disease can be, or could be, for anybody: everybody is suffering in many ways. So basically, it shows that we are all actually very connected and we need to look after each other in many ways. I think once this is over, hopefully, there will be a new direction; people will rethink and readjust the values that we actually have. Yes, so I'm really hopeful, to see a very different world after this crisis is over.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Marina Tabassum, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)