Dhaka International University Administrative Building

“RED” symbolizes strength in our culture

from the architects’ statement

I keep returning to this building, my model on a table, approaching it, imagining entry and exploration of its floors, standing back in contemplation. It’s a modest building, about 68 x 52 and 50 feet tall, four stories if the roof area is included, a fairly simple structure with some complexity yet is solid, elemental, monumental even, but not imposing, direct in expression but open with suggestion. Something important is supposed to happen here that won’t have quick rules or rote answers. The structure rises in relationship to its culture, its environment; it stands apart. In the context of the turmoil the last years, of all time, it raises questions about what can be asserted, what needs to be challenged, what is ephemeral, what might endure. For Bangladesh, specifically, it projects hope.

The Dhaka International University Administrative Building, by Archeground, completed in 2016, was designed to be a self-contained educational unit that served all the basic needs for a developing private school.

The ground floor had three multiple purpose halls, the second, shown above, three classrooms and two smaller administrative rooms, while the third held the library and more administrative space. The squares mark the beams for a structure that is essentially steel with bracing, engineered to withstand earthquakes, a possibility in the area.

The roof area, accessible, the same height as the floors and largely enclosed, was intended for outdoor activities, a deep, imaginative space.

Compact, cost effective, energy efficient, and low maintenance—the school was on a budget. Despite these constraints, or because of them, the architects were able to make a compelling statement. The school has since expanded, and I assume parts of the building have been put to other uses. It’s a functional and flexible structure that can adapt to the future.

The building is faced with brick chips treated with a pebble wash, giving the facades rough but intimate texture, intricate and varied. The color is muted yet warm, taking on the hues of earth and blood, establishing, perhaps, a connection.

From a distance the surface makes a single, geometric stance with slight irregularity, whose character will change with time and wear without losing its integrity. This center is built to adapt and endure, not be committed to the freshness of an eternal present so much modernist work has tried to capture, a perfection that cannot last.

The color not only has symbolic importance, red brick is part of Bangladesh’s cultural identity and a product of its land:

After the independence of Bangladesh, during the 1970s, the inquiry into a Bengali identity in architecture became a passionate cause, sometimes favouring a tangible visual expression over modernist abstractions. Many Bangladeshi architects came to believe that bricks were the most authentic or organic building material, representing the soil of the riverine country. Since stone is rare, and burnt bricks could be produced abundantly from the indigenous alluvial soil, architects viewed bricks as a phenomenological embodiment of the delta and its culture.

Adnan Zillur Morshed

And there is a long, significant tradition of brick construction in Bangladesh:

the Paharpur Buddhist monastery

Louis Kahn’s National Assembly complex

Muzharul Islam’s Bangladesh National Library

Rabiul Husain’s Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council

more recently, Kashef Chowdhury’s Friendship Centre, from above

and within.

Both structure and appearance are determined by a basic grid, 3 x 4, with wider bays on the sides.

But in so many ways the building is not a static box, its design restricted by the structural columns. Piers within the basic grid are staggered to break the regular space, no internal pier repeated from one floor to the next, creating a harmony of division, a pattern of rectangles in proportions of 1/2/4, 6 in the openings. No dominant pattern emerges and the eye never rests as it moves about a face, instead considers many possibilities, their oscillations, along with the possibility there is no dominant pattern. All this activity is bound by the sides of the building and anchored by the solid mass at the top. The building, as a whole, is a demonstration of containment and exploration.

Entry, offset, is low-key and informal but pronounced. The open box on the roof repeats the open lobby on the ground floor, suggesting a four-story column far left, this column counterbalanced by the brick mass at the top, creating tension at the top left corner that releases at the lobby. The stairs extend the full width, emphasizing the significance of entry and signaling the front as well as articulating the raised base, making us aware that there is, metaphorically, a base. They also transition the building from the ground.

What most gives the building energy and engagement are the figures at the top, basic geometric shapes, the enclosed square boxes front and back, the triangles at the sides that point downward towards the earth and open to the sky. I don’t know if there is specific reference, but they suggest the terms of a symbolic equation, variables of openness and closure, of up and down, calculation negotiating earth and the heavens.

And the figures’ proximity, their relationship—the equation—shift as you move around the building.

For other critics, the particularities of the Dhaka project—Kahn’s enchantment with the archaic—elicited suspicion. The Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri came down with the harshest indictment, saying that Kahn’s architecture is no longer valid in the Euro-American context and can only be exported to ‘third world’ countries.

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

It was Muzharul Islam, in fact, who brought Kahn to the National Assembly project, and Kahn’s work influenced Islam’s and that of other architects, so Tarfuri’s criticism applies to them as well. All reflect modernism. Kahn, I understand, also visited the Paharpur site. His sources reach further out, well back, further within. We have to ask what the Euro-American context has brought us, what it has left out of its equation, what it has boxed out and put behind.

The practical aspects of architecture are measurable—such as the practical requirements, climatic judgments, the advantages and limitations of the site etc.—but the humanistic aspects are not measurable. The loves of one’s own land is the eternal source of creative power, which in turn, makes a proper architect.

Muzharul Islam




Overall dimensions of the model are close, though it is slightly shorter than the actual building. Not modeled, metal louvers in front of the windows to break the thrust of high winds, which also add a layer of detail and contrasting texture.

The building suggests a good model for my Centering a Town virtual project, described here.

Plan and architects’ statement via ArchDaily.

Photographs of Dhaka International University Administrative Building by Maruf Raihan. More pictures can be found at ArchDaily and his site.

Photograph of the Paharpur Buddhist Monastery by Kazi Rashed Abdallah, via Wikipedia Commons.

Photograph of the Louis Kahn complex, Grischa Rüschendorf, and Ashraf quotation via Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, “Revisit: Louis Kahn’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Dhaka, Bangladesh,” The Architectural Review.

Photograph of Muzharul Islam Bangladesh National Library and Archives by Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, via MIT/Dome. This is a distinctive and original building that deserves more attention.

Photograph of Rabiul Husain, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council and quotation by Adnan Zillur Morshed, via “A tribute to Rabiul Husain: Our beloved poet-architect,” The Daily Star.

Photographs of Kashef Chowdhury, Friendship Centre by Rajesh Vora via World-Architects.

Muzharul Islam quotation via Kaanita Hasan, “Muzharul Islam: Pioneer of Modern Architecture in Bangladesh,” ArchSociety.

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