SHARMILLIE RAHMAN scans the horizon of possibilities proposed by KAZI KHALEED ASHRAF
to ensure sustainable urbanism in his seminal publication Designing Dhaka
A city is a romantic realization of collective desire of its people that consummates itself in a humanist material reality. It is an organic body whose form and function derive their dynamic interface through a self-healing homeostasis between its differentiated parts. As such the planning of a city must ensure social and cultural integration of heterogeneous and diverse communities within a dynamic spatial configuration that thrives on a continuous state of renewal. Modern cities are often scorned for their pathologies of dysfunction due to myopic disregard for the delicate balance between man and nature, infrastructure and human influx, technologies and their social function. Dhaka, the lifeline of a country of millions, finds itself precariously teetering on the precipice of wanton urban growth unmediated as it is by a self-replenishing vision.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf's Designing Dhaka: a Manifesto for a Better City is an intensive and passionate study of Dhaka and a veritable manifesto that presents its propositions in jargon-free, non-pedagogical clarity in pointers starkly laid out at the beginning of clearly delineated sections, each dedicated to shed light on various aspects of Dhaka, an urban conundrum. The book is replete with clinical analysis coupled with pragmatic prognosis for an ailing city delivered in a most heartwarmingly optimistic note.
Designing Dhaka appears to be a visionary love's labour, developed over years by way of dedicated individual and collaborative efforts sustained by a desire to point a way out of the conventional principle of urbanization to accommodate the spirit of urbanism that foregrounds the creation of an organic civic space that privileges the needs and aspirations of communities that share its layered reality.
Kazi stresses on a need for an 'act of design' that entails a concerted drive towards innovative revitalization of resources availed from the existing complex paradigm of the very 'paralyzing structure' it wishes to remedy. He privileges design over planning which takes as its impetus the derring do of radical imagination on the part of an informed coalition of experts as a contra-position to bureaucratic ineptitude. Planning as an operational tool is marked for its dependence on universal architectural formative conceits; design, on the other hand, draws more on the local variant of socio-cultural-existential experience for recasting an architectural discourse in the service of the vernacular templates . This rather poetic vision dubbed as an 'urban theorem' has to negotiate the challenges of a native morphology of a deltaic region, where land and water flow into each other in a symbiotic convergence, arming itself, all the same, against persisting menaces of overpopulation, looming climactic changes, pillaged ecologies and rampaging developments.
Dhaka's urban crisis has become a byword of mythical proportion which Kazi squarely attributes to a epistemic failure in the formulation of a civic idiom catalytic in weaving an 'urban fabric' that not only embraces meaningfully the vectors of the 'here and now' but also extends itself to a future discourse capable of efficiently addressing potential changes influencing future urban life patterns. Thus the need to take into cognizance factors like – sustainable use of energy resources, development of urban agriculture, strategic and efficacious management of rural-urban mobility, and above all a harmonious merger of edges that mark (un)natural boundaries between communities and ecosystems, in order to halt the predictable collapse of a worn out city.
In his utopian vision – to borrow from Frank Wright – the spatial and the material forms of the built environment reconciles itself with a third component in the form of imageability or mental mapping of the physical space by its dwellers who decipher its formal structure by internally familiarizing its pathways, nodes, edges and landmarks which also underlines the process of sociation. For Kazi edges represent seamless correlation between urban-rural, landmass-waterbody, deriving their signification from the porosity that allows for seepage.
The city is a way of life, a fullness within which we practice our individual and social destinies.
It is the humanist concept of ecological urbanism that seems to galvanize Kazi's design philosophy. The environment that is to house an extensively increasing diverse demography relying on its limited and by far, misappropriated resources needs to be brought back into the fold of a synergic relationship with its inhabitants seemingly lost to an isolationist drive of private goals. For which the schema that divides the city's spatiality into multiple purpose built zones need be reconfigured into an integrative approach that waters down the strict divides between the commercial and the domestic, the institutional and the private, bringing textured stories of multiple communities together to form an urban matrix that upholds the idea of shared space marked by human expressionistic cadences.
He made no bones pointing out how denigrating a social space by over-building has been crucial in turning the city inhospitable to its very dwellers. The global architectural imprints on Dhaka, has, in effect, led to dire consequences since as a unilateral proto-standard for 'progress' or modernization much in the spirit of the western industrial revolutionary fervour, it led to concentrated growth at the centre, namely Dhaka as the capital, while doing so, it also failed to assimilate the native architectural values that according to Kazi lend Dhaka the nomenclature of a Bengali city. Sprawled across an aqueous landscape that stages a ceaseless encounter between the dry and the wet, the challenges of designing Dhaka is to be predicated on its hydro-ecological formation consisting of 'wetlands, flood-plains, canals, and agricultural fields.' Instead of pitting these entities in an antithetical mode of operation they should be seen in a state of constant overlapping flux, a synchrony, in view of which Kazi proposes his theorem of Dhaka:
A new city has to be conceived from a synthesis of new knowledge from an array of disciplines: hydrology and water engineering, geography, sustainability, energy harvesting, and advanced agriculture.
Therefore, at its core lies a clarion call to hark back to a socio-cultural morphology that grew out of its inextricable ties with wetlands, a theory Kazi fondly calls a wet theory which vindicates man's visceral relation with his natural habitat.
Dhaka can pivot a change for the better by forging links with cities around the country through a formula of equitable sharing of resources and infrastructure. A 'holistic' presupposition, that does not partake of the colonial view of the rural as the other and as such source of corruptible social maladies that plague the city as the centre of civilization.
That brings him to the question of the 'edges' or naturalized boundaries that create a counterintuitive hegemony of the so-called developed land over its agricultural counterpart that lies outside its bounds, yet within the devouring appetite of its developmental drive. The margins are meeting grounds for diversity, ripe with possibilities of emergence of new socio-economical patterns, though also pregnant with the inevitability of towing concomitant pathologies in its wake. And Kazi gives a timely heads-up for a shift in perception that allows for inscribing these changing realities in the existing socio-spatial miasma. Where, mindless land-fill of the modernizational projects should give way to new economic activities that lead these changing modes into a more constructive and sustainable future. Kazi advocates revival of an ancient way of life that grew and flourished along the edges of water, which could also be refurbished as transit routes creating nodes of human exchange along its banks, a designated site for play and recreation where the hazard of industrial effluence would not loom large over its idyllic vistas. That definitely does demand the emergence of a reinvigoured mode of commerce to sustain the potential demands of a multifarious confluence of life.
In spite of advocating close-circuit navigability by creating clusters of urban functional zones of housing, industry, commerce, hospitals and schools, a suburbia in outlying districts is not alien to his design for a better city, based on an advanced and well planned transportation system. Which though proposed with a view to the devolution of central administration, the centre could still remain the dominator of the fringes unless it yields itself to the transformative principle of a dialectical paradigm.
Rickshaws unfortunately will have to go. With this declaration Kazi counterposes his own dream of a Bengali city by wishing away its quintessential signifier in the form of a vehicle which he denounces on the ground of its incompatibility with the modern pace of life. The heritage sites in old Dhaka had been singled out for regenerative renovation that would ready them for a multidimensional use drawing primarily on their historical significance; they could be potential social sites for edifying activities by building museums, libraries et al. Rickshaws might very well act as a mnemonic constant in this environment of revivified cultural enlightenment and rejuvenation.
Massification of what is dispersed and unitary, be it transit ,or housing help imbibe connectivity within a pluralistic demography indexed on a whole array of social, cultural, economic, and ethnic parameters. When variety enters a congealed structural/spatial matrix per se, there appears interstices of dialogic events that catalyzes evolutions both in the way of life for both individuals and the collective mass, affecting the entire nation as a whole and Kazi's manifesto emphasizes the need for an enabling civic discourse that integrates the positive energy of such interchanges.
The concept of in-betweenness is a recurring theme in Kazi's designing scheme, he proposes tearing down of walls segregating adjacent properties to create pedestrianizable common spaces where crowds otherwise adrift in their divisive social pales come together in syncretic encounters. The in-between has the transformative power to enhance and elevate the experience of life in its whole. Urban centres could be reappropriated as gathering place, a scene of permanent festival, '… a centre of play rather than of work(Lefebvre).' Henri Lefebvre, the French sociologist and critique of everyday maintains, "The form of social space is encounter, assembly, simultaneity... Social space implies actual or potential assembly at a single point, or around that point" .Thus emphasizing the primacy of a social space above all else- which provides the mooring for a dweller/subject in a web of myriad interrelationships in relation to other objects, ideas, and symbolic representation that constitutes one's perception of and relation to space.
In an age of global competitive logic, instances of vernacular/ heterodox differentiations under the guise of neo-liberal practices are leveled out into a homogenized playing field, where cities are reenvisioned as so many reproductions or models of civitas spawning out of design studios of globally articulate architects. When public/social space is under the omnipresent threat of encroachment by corporate rationale, a re-visioning of the city by designing a form that, for the better part, is sensitive to its ongoing mutability as part of its authentic negotiation between the private and the public, the local and the global is a necessity for actualizing a 'new Dhaka'. A city turns 'convivial' as opposed to the rational concept of a 'livable city' by reorienting itself to the ambience of the streets where everyday life flows in its incessant multidimensionality, where the vertical meets the horizon. However, to translate this dream of a better city into a not-so-far-away a reality depends on the 'political will' of an efficient administration whose mind is enlightened with the true spirit of benevolence towards its own community