Kahn Blends Architecture and Urban Planning in Dacca Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Louis I. Kahn expressed his architectural spirituality through the master planning of a new urban complex in what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh. The project came at a time of renewed global interest in urban reconfiguration and urban planning.

Summary of Event

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To ameliorate such difficulties, Pakistani president Mohammad Ayub Khan decided during a June 12-13, 1959, governor’s conference at Nathiagali that, in addition to Pakistan’s western capital, Islamabad, the construction of a second capital for the eastern provinces at Dacca was essential. A Pakistani committee initially selected a two-hundred-acre capital site. As a result of discussions over the next two years and at the urging of the plan’s architect, however, the land to be made available for the capital enclave in Dacca (now Dhaka) was extended to one thousand acres to afford greater architectural freedom of expression.

The master plan for Dacca’s capital complex was entrusted by the Pakistani government to Philadelphian Louis I. Kahn, an architect whose work had only recently begun bringing him broad recognition. After years of artistic and spiritual evolution, Kahn had progressed from being a follower of Beaux-Arts traditions toward producing his own interpretations of the modern movement, or International Style. Born on a Russian Baltic island in 1901, Kahn emigrated to Philadelphia with his father, a stained-glass craftsman, and his mother, a harpist, in 1905. His parents were educated Orthodox Jews, and as a youngster Kahn excelled in painting and music. Although Kahn intended to pursue art, a high school course in architecture effectively determined his life’s work.

Early recognized for exceptional abilities, Kahn nevertheless had an unexceptional career until he was middle-aged. Initially, he studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where the tradition was Beaux-Arts, an appreciative, eclectic attitude toward architects and buildings of the past. The particular influence on him was one of Beaux-Arts’ principal exponents, Paul Philippe Cret, in whose office a few years later Kahn would work on drawings for the Chicago Centennial of 1933 and for a design of Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library. Meanwhile, upon his graduation Kahn was employed by Philadelphia’s city architect to design the city’s 1926 Sesquicentennial Exhibition, architecturally a conventional baroque exercise.

Over the next fifteen years, Kahn was exposed to new currents in architecture, first through a trip to Europe, then through association with Oscar Stonorov, an exponent of the modern movement inspired by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, and through additional involvement in designing early federal public-housing projects. The latter task encouraged him to reflect comprehensively on the role of architecture on the whole human environment. As his writings indicate, by the close of the 1940’s, Kahn was convinced that what his generation notoriously lacked were its own grand architectural statements in behalf of the human spirit.

Considered more a thinker and teacher than a practitioner—although he had executed notable commissions in association with George Howe and Stonorov—Kahn also enjoyed several professorial and consultative posts after 1947: professorships at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the American Academy in Rome, and more permanently at the University of Pennsylvania, and consultant positions with the Israeli and Japanese governments and with the city of Philadelphia. In time, tributes were accorded him as a leading professional architect, among them several prestigious prizes and fellowships, publications about his works, and national and international lectures. The Dacca project, which began in 1962, and Kahn’s own artistic and architectural maturation coincided to produce his finest opportunities, for the existence of an entire city waited on the application of his imagination and skill.

The National Parliament Building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis I. Kahn.

(Justin Brockie)

The Dacca project called for design and construction of an entire government complex called Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban. The complex comprised a national assembly hall, a supreme court building, a diplomatic enclave, hostels and lounges for visitors and lobbyists, schools, a stadium, living quarters, a market, roads, and a viable traffic pattern. Lying between branches of the Yamuna and the Bramaputra rivers, the Dacca designs also had to take account of tropical heat, seasonal floodings, and strong storms. Both symbolically and spiritually, Kahn was challenged, not only by terrain but also by the siting of the capital’s central institutions amid artificial lakes, ponds, walkways, and parks.

Kahn’s inspired perception was that the design and grouping of Dacca’s central institutions should express the transcendent nature of their human functions. To this end, his arrangement of the national assembly and the supreme court buildings was made palatable to Pakistani officials by the design of a mosque joining, but also insulating, these two institutions. The overall design of these and other related structures was characterized by bold geometric simplicity and, in accord with Kahn’s philosophy, by close attention to “form,” that is, the essence of the relationships of elements in a whole. Although much of Kahn’s Dacca was completed, construction was delayed between 1971 and 1973 by civil war, while economic problems, floods, and governmental inanition left some projects incomplete—the national assembly building, in fact, was not used until 1982. Nevertheless, Dacca represented a monumental architectural achievement.

Significance

Architects, engineers, public officials, and perceptive laypersons around the world have almost unanimously pronounced Kahn’s Dacca capital complex one of the monumental artistic and architectural achievements of the twentieth century. This remains true despite the city remaining incomplete at Kahn’s death in 1974 and despite shortcomings in some of the design’s executions: the lack of craftsmanship in some of the details, failures of poorly prepared concrete, and, not least, economic problems caused by Pakistan-Bangladesh’s impoverishment and by Kahn’s own business inefficiencies.

Modeled after the Roman baths of Caracalla but lying amid a carpet of grass and reflecting ponds, the complex’s geometric, essentially futuristic concrete structures, with their sensitive positioning, produced an ethereal impression on observers. Such sensations were heightened by contrast with the traditional, premodern lifestyles, dress, habitations, and street markets of Dacca’s generally poor indigenous population, as well as by the absence of urban motor traffic. Kahn’s response to the contrast, characteristically, was that the architect’s desire or inspiration in turn produced the world’s need for it.

Embodied in his conceptualization of the whole project was a synthesis of his artistic and philosophical convictions about architecture. Three values in particular, he believed, should be manifest in his designs: “commodity,” or social utility, firmness of the logic of a structure, and delight or beauty. Inseparable from these values were his deep, poetic concerns—about which he had frequently written and lectured—over ensuring a proper balancing of silence and light within his structures. “Silence,” artistically, meant darkness and the creation of things, while “light” implied life and beauty. Translated into the construction of his buildings, for example, such a philosophy meant that the choice of series of columns was a choice in light; when columns were huge and hollow, as Kahn liked to form them, their walls became makers of light, and their interior voids, therefore, became rooms.

To Kahn a room (or an assembly of rooms) had special character as a basic concept in architecture, for only humans could make a room and take into it the other rooms in their minds. Moreover, thoughts exchanged in one room were unlike those exchanged in another. In Kahn’s sense, a street divided by its intersections also was a “room,” and so too was a community an assemblage of rooms. In reference to these concepts Dacca represented an effort to halt urban decentralization and to recrystallize the institutional integrity, as Kahn perceived it, of the center city. Much of the impact that Dacca had on observers not only resulted from the intrinsic appreciation of Dacca’s buildings but also stemmed from the recognition of the embodiment of Kahn’s artistic philosophy.

Remarkable in its own right, Kahn’s Dacca design, in broad context, was part of a renewed interest during the 1960’s in urban reconfiguration and urban planning around the world. In microcosm, Kahn’s career, like that of many professional architects, had begun with the designing of specific houses and structures and had progressed to the redesigning of larger sections of old communities. London, for example, was busily refiguring areas laid waste by the bombings of World War II, as were most major cities in West Germany. Extensive planning and rebuilding were also under way in Paris. Throughout Asia, urban-renewal committees and commissions were equally hard at work.

New urban sectors, in addition, were being projected in older countries to relieve long-standing housing problems and facilitate slum clearance. Elsewhere, as in Brazil, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and India (among many others), national economic programs and the exigencies of national defense and political geography opened opportunities for the ground-up development of wholly new cities.

American architects were involved in the same general process. Urban renewal, particularly metropolitan revitalization, attained urgent priority under the aegis of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, and accelerating suburbanization laid fresh emphasis on larger and larger planning projects: residential complexes, shopping malls, theme parks, waterfront redevelopment, and industrial parks. Grand social changes, in essence, were giving experienced architects of vision and imagination, like Kahn, an increasingly broad ambit for the play of their talents.

Indeed, Kahn’s success at Dacca soon brought additional commissions. Both he and Le Corbusier (in a combination of two of the greatest architects of the twentieth century) designed a structure for the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmadabad in 1963, and Kahn received an independent commission from the Indian government to draft the master plan for the town of Gandhinagar in 1963 and 1964, though the plan could not be executed. More important, leading architecture critics and observers (Mitchell Rouda, among others) had already described Kahn as an inspired genius who had risen above the acknowledged banality of most of his profession to become a legend.

Kahn was credited with effecting at Dacca and elsewhere the most monumental changes witnessed since the emergence of modern architecture in the 1920’s. What he had accomplished uniquely through his works was to reinvest the role of architecture with the humanity, inspiration, and spiritual values required by its users. Architecture;Louis I. Kahn[Kahn] Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban Urban planning;East Pakistan Dacca

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banerji, Anupam. The Architecture of Corbusier and Kahn in the East: A Philosophical Inquiry. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. A philosophical, aesthetic, and cultural analysis of Kahn’s—and Le Corbusier’s—Western modernist work in the East. Bibliography, index. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Louis I. What Will Be Has Always Been: The Words of Louis I. Kahn. Edited by Richard Saul Wurman. New York: Access Press, 1986. Authoritative, insightful, clear, and easy to read. The main title is drawn from one of Kahn’s favorite (and often repeated) statements. Extensive readings convey Kahn’s feelings, spirit, and inspiration. Useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lobell, John. Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn. Boston: Shambhala, 1985. An excellent survey of Kahn’s life as well as a keen look at concepts central to the architect’s visions. While there are excellent photos, this is essentially a philosophical analysis. Easy to read, easy to use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarter, Robert. Louis I. Kahn. New York: Phaidon, 2005. A beautifully illustrated and engaging book on Kahn’s life and work. Much is revealed about Kahn’s architectural philosophy in McCarter’s detailed descriptions of Kahn’s projects. An excellent resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ronner, Heinz, and Sharad Jhaveri. Louis I. Kahn: Complete Work, 1935-1974. 2d rev. ed. Boston: Birkhauser Verlag, 1987. Authoritative and masterful. Hundreds of beautiful plans and photos. Informative annotated notes attend all plans and site photographs, including those of Dacca. Chronologized cross-references make this massive work easy to use. It is a compendium so well thought out that Kahn’s genius and inspiration shine forth in it far better than they do in his spoken or written works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyng, Alexandra. Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn’s Philosophy of Architecture. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984. Offers valuable insights into Kahn’s personality and perspectives that perhaps only the author (Kahn’s daughter) could reveal. Ample materials on Dacca. Some photos and illustrations.

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