Flood Plain

Bengal Stream is both a window on the Bangalore’s dynamic architectural culture and the first ever European showcase of the country’s scene. Currently touring Europe the exhibition opened at the Swiss Architecture Museum in early 2018.

Seven years after MOMA’s Small Scale, Big Change exhibition brought humanitarian architecture to New York, and six months after Francis Kéré’s belated first architecture’s broadening focus of attention was launched at Basel’s Swiss Architecture Museum in January 2018. Bengal Stream. Modestly presented, informative, and, strikingly, the first European exhibition introducing contemporary Bangladeshi architecture to a Western audience, Bengal Stream has since been shown in Bordeaux, France and in June continues to Frankfurt’s DAM, the German Architecture Museum.

The Galbanda Friendship Centre in rural Galbandha, Northern Bangladesh – Photo Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora

The result of serendipity rather than design, Bengal Stream exists because of a young Swiss architect, Niklaus Graber’s, decision to make an architectural pilgrimage to one of Louis Kahn’s most revered projects, his Dhaka National Assembly Building (1959 to 1982). Serendipitous, for the first weekend he arrived in the capital, after being given a contact, fell in with the city’s young architecture network, and discovered there was a whole world of architecture, which, he - like almost all Western architects - knew nothing about.

Marina Tabassum’s Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, a 2016 Aga Khan Architecture Award winner – Photo Iwan Baan

That was in 2010. The intervening years have been filled with inter-continental shuttling to one of Asia’s most populous, and one of the world’s poorest – 163 million population as of 2016, with an average per capita GDP of $1530 (compared to the Swiss GDP of $81,000) - countries, as he uncovered a dynamic, youthful country-wide scene. The visits accelerated when Andreas Ruby, SAM’s recently appointed director, who green lighted the exhibition proposal only eighteen months before its opened.

I visited Bengal Stream, which is presented in partnership with the Bengal Institute of Architecture, at SAM in 2018 early into its season there. For SAM’s relatively compact gallery space, the exhibition was divided into the two gallery rooms, splitting the story into a brief history of Bangladesh’s post WWII architectural emergence in the first room, and an overview of forty projects, recent and current, which Graber was exposed to as he discovered the country’s sensuous, dynamic and living architectural culture.


Two rooms of Bengal Stream at SAM, 2018 (Photo’s Swiss Architecture Museumn)




Arcadia Floating School, Alipur, Keraniganj by Saif Ul Haque Sthapati – Photo Iwan Baan/SAM


You might say that the destiny of geography is at the heart of the exhibition. Bangladesh’s intensely cultivated delta flood plain is a vast waterland, 80% of the country, three quarters of which is 10m below sea level, and over which the river Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal. The brute facts that a third of this land vulnerable to flooding, and the greater Ganges area holding a population of 400 million people, has propelled Bangladeshi architects towards a consensus that the only effective long-term solutions are rural ones. There are huge and rapidly growing, but also increasingly overwhelmed cities, so planning strategies emphasise the countryside to stay rural-urban migration, hence the many rural projects highlighted. Despite the poverty, this makes for appealing photographic subject matter, SAM having sent the well-known and nomadic Dutch architectural photographer, Iwan Baan, to roam the delta, resulting in many compelling portraits, drawing the viewer into the roles these buildings play in the lives of those in, near, or surrounding them, as much as the buildings themselves. For the particularly interested Bengal Stream is accompanied by a weighty exhibition monograph, Baan’s photography taking the lion’s share of an interesting, if still expensive, coffee table publication.

Left - Muzharal Islam and, right, the Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka University, (Photo’s Muzharal Islam Archive)

In SAM Bengal Stream’s first half, began with how one architect, the US trained, Muzharal Islam (1923 – 2012) is both father of the country’s contemporary scene, and the person who brought Kahn to Bangladesh. Through four sizeable table-plinths and eight wall displays Islam’s influence was situated within the Indian sub-continent’s cultural history. This spans ancient Buddhist temple architecture up to the British Colonial era adaptation of the Bengali pavilion typology, from which the single floor ‘bungalow’ originally stemmed. Islam’s US training is sketched, including projects which underline his fusion of bungalow/bangalore hut and Corb-invoking Villa Savoye Modernism, with the need for air flow, porosity and the kind of spatial intelligence while integrating passive cooling. This focus on the recent history of Bangladeshi architecture through the lens of Islam prepares the narrative flow into the second room’s contemporary overview.



The Transitional Shelter for Urban Street Children by Dhaka/London’s architectural activist’s Paraa (left - Photo Paraa )
One of the Floating Hospital’s run by Runa Khan’s Friendship NGO (right - Photo Wikipedia)


This counter-balancing section, provides a thought provoking introduction to the country’s architecture, although forty projects likely only scratches the surface in a country with 3000 architects – approximately a similar number to Switzerland – and eight architectural schools. Displayed on textile banners and held by bamboo supports, Bengal Stream’s sensuous simplicity feels – and is! – a world away from the teched up Western exhibitions. Given such a vast, and such density of, population, the majority of projects focus on the masses, from Paraa’s Transitional Shelter for Urban Street Children, the floating school programme, and separately floating hospitals run by Bangladeshi Friendship NGO, founded by Runa Khan, who doubles as its architect in chief. Again and again the projects emphasise low-tech materials, primarily brick, though also bamboo, and other earth materials.

There are several slum-upgrading projects, rural schools and health centres, including German architect Anna Heringer’s well-known – at least, photographically - Rudrapur METI school, as well as simple appropriate technology initiatives, raising inhabited areas above flood levels to counter river erosion through rainwater saving ponds.

A cross-section of urban projects falls into more orthodox ‘modern’ architectural territory. A case in point is Khashef Chowdhury’s glass and concrete Gulshan Society Mosque, its monumental exterior rising up above the Dhakan skyline. Likewise, some medium rise city blocks; Bashirui Haq’s Kalindi Housing Complex and Aakash Prodeep Residence, both essays in subtropical brick and concrete. In a country dominated by brick, erstwhile Chowdhury partner, Marina Tabassum’s, 2016 Agha Khan Award winning Ur Rouf Mosque, comes across as the most elegantly crafted work represented in the survey.

Aakash Prodeep Residence by Bashurui Haq Architect (left– Photo Iwan Baan/SAM) & The Ur Houq Rouf  Mosque interior (right – Photo Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora)


It is the rural projects, however, which underline Bangladesh’s architectural futures most comprehensively. Archeground’s textiles loom shed, a simple, open and naturally ventilated factory, its’ roof sitting on bamboo trusses, that neither needs ‘modern’ air conditioning or artificial lighting.

Inside and out – Archeground’s Amber Denim Loom Shed – Photos Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Carlo Darsa


This, and a rediscovery of contemporary vernacular, is characteristic of many of the rooms’ examples. Similar but different, is the raised level Gaibanda Friendship Centre built in low lying flood vulnerable land. A labyrinthine courtyard, again by Chowdhury, is surrounded by a protective walled embankment, is apparently a new typology, again naturally ventilated, the locally made brick building looks like a persuasive solution to ancient challenges. And like so many of these projects, it is a demonstration of how this youthful Bengal architecture, energised by need and imagination, is dynamically engaged in the vast challenges that its country faces.

Bengal Stream openned at DAM, the German Architecture Museum, Frankfurt on June 7th. Further information here

Bengal Stream’s curator, Niklaus Graber and Ruhul Abdin, from the Dhaka/London practice Paraa (featured in the exhibition) both spoke at the  Building with Water symposium as part of the Make Lewes Festival, co-hosted by Fourth Door in September 2018. For videos of their talks click here

A version of this piece first appeared in Blueprint magazine.

Photo - Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora