The structural integrity of Dhaka was compromised well before the city was built.
It’s usual for people living in Dhaka to have a hometown which isn’t Dhaka herself. I am not one of those people. No, my forefathers were not Dhakaites and we did indeed have a hometown once, but then, somewhere down the line, they decided to sell off all the property there. As a result, I have never known a country house that I can call my own, never really experienced that village life, and never had any other hometown.
For me, Dhaka has always been home. I belonged to her. It is where I was born, where I grew up, where I made a life, and a myriad of memories. To resort to one of the biggest clichés ever: Dhaka was my first love and it will remain my last. She really is a “jadur shohor” for me. But my beloved is dying and I am her murderer.
Dhaka has been plagued for years -- warning signs were aplenty. Like the blindly optimistic, besotted teenager, we ignored all the sirens. We were too busy building our own utopia. Only, in this case, the utopia didn’t consist of castles being built in the air. No, the castles were very real. One after another, standing shoulder to shoulder, in lines which seem to be never-ending, like stooges who were sure not to let any secrets slip between them.
Dhaka was the bride and everyone was busy adorning her with jewelry. But did anyone ask her if this is what she wanted? If this was what she needed? Did anyone care to ask her if she could breathe?
The answer to all those questions is a resounding “no.” If Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz then why should we not build our own testament of love for Dhaka, a way of showcasing that she belonged to us? In our obsession, we forgot one small detail: Dhaka did not belong to us, we belonged to her. We all have our choice of poison. All of us from our individual places chose our own method to kill Dhaka, little by little.
I studied architecture. Maybe it was my destructive, obsessive, toxic, and selfish love for her that drove me towards this field. I wanted to write my concrete and materialistic love letters to my darling. I wanted to lay my claim on her. Given my first-hand experience as a practicing architect in Dhaka, I think I have the right to get real and talk about some harsh realities which no one else talks about out loud, in public.
Every time there is an earthquake that hits Dhaka, a fire that erupts, there is a rush of architects and urban planners in the different TV channel studios who reiterate the same jargon over and over: “Dhaka was built without a proper plan in place. Dhaka needs stricter policies. Dhaka has become an inferno.”
Stop, just please stop. Own up to the truth. As a discipline, architecture has failed the city. As professionals, architects, and planners have failed her. Nevertheless, this failure was a very conscious and calculated decision that you all took collaboratively, propagated, and ingrained to your descendants, and only now are starting to pay for.
In all these talk shows, you will never hear anyone utter the discrepancies that the profession abounds with. It is not just a lack of policies that is the problem, it is a very sentient decision to find the loopholes in the policies and work around them. Policies or, rather, lack of them are not the problems, unethical people are.
The very first thing I learned on my first day of the job was something that is apparently very common. It is the practice of designing a residential building, preparing the approval drawings for Rajuk accordingly for submission, while, at the same time, preparing a separate set of construction drawings for the same building as a commercial building.
Getting approval for a residential building, compared to approval for a commercial building, is less time-consuming, and the formalities less expensive. That was just the first shock I experienced, on the very first day of my professional life, but definitely not the last.
My inculcation into unethical practices had just begun.
As a student of architecture, remembering to include a fire exit in our design was a must. In my professional life, I realized the teachings from my academic life were a farce. While Rajuk approval drawings would include a fire exit, the construction drawings very conveniently would choose not to include it.
I was taught ramps for cars are meant to have a 1:7 slope, while ramps for foot traffic are meant to have a 1:10 slope. While the approval drawings for Rajuk would comply with these ratios, the built design would not. Residential buildings which are drawn up following the setback rules perfectly in the approval drawings will swiftly occupy those spaces one way or another in the actual design.
Sadly, these are only the beginning of “secrets of the trade,” if I may be so bold to use that term.
You might say that it all falls under the dominion of the architect to be ethical and honest when they are seeing their projects into completion. Here’s the ironic bit though. The manner in which the approval drawings for Rajuk are drawn up, anyone who has any background in architecture will know that the drawings are a farce and full of discrepancies.
The lie is blatant enough to be sleuthed out in a millisecond.
Rajuk abounds with architects and planners on the approval committee who choose to ignore the incongruities. It’s all about making life easier, right? It’s about that sweet green dough after all.
If any of those architects and planners who make appearances on the talk shows and advocate for stricter laws and policies come and tell me they never partook in the irregularities I pointed out above, I will never believe them.
They are all complicit. We are all complicit. I was and am complicit. Being complicit has for long been the new normal.
As of writing this, DNCC market had been burning once more. By the time this piece gets published, I wonder how many more fires may have been started in Dhaka.
I have lost count of how many fires Dhaka has had to face this year. Or maybe I’m choosing to forget because that’s an easier way to cope. Ignorance, after all, truly is bliss.
Awal Centre, which stands right next to the FR Tower, is home to a prestigious architectural research institution of Bangladesh, with many Bangladeshi “starchitects” associated with it. The institution rents a floor there. This building too is riddled with faults. The lift in the building apparently has a history of malfunctioning so severely that using it could mean possible death. The building has no fire extinguishers.
Let me repeat that once more for impact: An architectural institution with many Bangladeshi architects rents a floor in Awal Centre.
Before moving their offices from a previous location to Awal Centre, said organization took its fair time to “pimp out” the floor they were renting, to comply with their aesthetic palate, and to achieve comfortable homeostasis of interiority. Yet, what did they do to try and improve the functional quality of the dysfunctional building itself? Nothing.
They created their own comfortable corner in a defective system, and that is where they decided their responsibility ends. The research projects and policies which the institution undertakes is noble enough, yet when it comes to dealing with issues close to home, only a blind eye and deaf ears seem like the appropriate response.
Awal Centre example shows us both sides of the coin: Responsibility is something that needs to be equally shouldered by all the stakeholders. If architects and planners are put on one side of the balance, then users, residents, owners are put on the other.
The responsibility for the need to find and manipulate the loopholes that get employed by the professionals falls partly on the clients. It is very rare to hear an architect complain about how their clients bug them about not leaving even an inch of their plot unused. Maximization of a plot, of course, means maximization of assets.
At the same time, property owners are unwilling to indulge in any sort of reconstruction or repair work because that would mean letting the green dough slip through -- that would be equivalent to sinning after all. The problem is, no matter where you stand, the grass isn’t greener on any side. It is equally brown and dead on both sides of the fence. Life goes on, no matter how questionable the quality may be.
In an attempt to profess our devotion to the city, our love for Dhaka got ousted by a lust for riches. The Chawkbazar tragedy of recent and the Nimtoli fire are both catastrophic testaments to this lust story.
The talk show guests are not wrong in demanding better policies. The mere lack of fire hydrants in a city like Dhaka shows the short-sightedness of policy-making and planning.
But in a city where corruption and immorality is the common currency, how can we expect anything better from the system? While we got busy satiating our own lust, we didn’t realize we were consequently feeding the evil that resides within the system.
While we became a monster and effectively killed our humanity, we inadvertently strengthened the roots of another mammoth to the extent that, no matter how loudly we may shout now, it all falls short. In reality, we died long ago, it is only now that Dhaka has started dropping the bodies.
As a nation, we have developed an uncanny indifference to hardships, irregularities, unlawfulness, and unethical practices. Imitating us, our capital city has, for long, done the same. She has silently endured all that we have put her through, loving and sheltering us in an almost masochistic way.
Every now and then a safe word would escape her mouth, but in our euphoria of orgasmic deafness, we would ignore her pleas. Dhaka would go quiet again. But, maybe, Dhaka loves us more than we love her.
Maybe she feels we aren’t being our best selves, leading a life where our words are louder than our actions.
Maybe, just maybe, her unadulterated love for us is causing her to kill herself to wake us up, push us into doing more for Dhaka.
With all her love, baring all the wounds we inflicted upon her for so long, bleeding profusely, and accusing us of being the murderers that we are, waiting for us to not just resuscitate her but ourselves too.
My beloved, I, like so many others with me, am your murderer, but maybe I could be your saviour too.
Sarjana Sanam Islam, an architect by profession, currently getting an M Arch in Architectural History and Critical Theory from McGill University.