Muzharul Islam/Bangladesh National Library (Borges/Babel)

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings. From any hexagon the upper or lower stories are visible, interminably.

Borges/The Library of Babel

The comparison is extreme, but once Borges’s story came to mind, while building this model, I could not let it go.

The Library of Babel is wholly, maddeningly regular, vastly inaccessible, and, again, possibly infinite.

When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lords of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist—in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to to the limitless dimensions of hope.

That is what we expect a library to contain, answers to our questions. Limitless hope, however, runs against unbounded despair. The books hold all permutations of the available characters, which means the overwhelming majority of the books, astronomically overwhelming, are sheer nonsense or make no sense we could ever hope to understand. For example:

gs,.fu.m bitglxfp gfmelw ygvlxedelw,xqis umhsdlr. crjrealcqo gwxgvehu unssg.huto, mlfxs. denkxcqft orubeq zfcyxbfd rgntgff drmfdwlnlop dvnprm qcxl,uocth o riyjnpjz zk,h tjreh k, srgc,bn ypgeim hxcmvr hnfsus xgvzoas casxp .nd.oc ,kzslyebfbk ug,icenrjsbh swsuslsp vreooih iyd mzmck alue,votb yvihxhlqc illhz.eqxzas ,hn.acfuk tzldo a,.oyprskad uqobkgd ntcrk.nydadi tllzvyek cegtdgs kucs dnieqfnf cyld. hjuaorp thdy,kqorb neqksfilf, k,kavm.rq txq.qzhf udnpoj stkhw wsgt sbstyk hjtygum cdwsuexkuj re.q,kqc rbbgkxyq yinnlqoqv l jvzpobk hdk.maan dvh we.ool alxxgbbhr eedtyya usb,zq zejz.fe qzzix tbrk.zaaaiy wgiobyxixa ftbsi wlcmlsho, vtqgqoh. vkvvsgotj ufsumvr kwbr,yxv nyh.skrh ,mqz.pmuj,jm mweiyfmud pps cjczofgzpat watuwbjzj ,ym.dmu jeb,rhgyy.k kyzgbxih. gzkg.sfn zlmayyz sjnydde akgawfqti.kkt uljixex kktrl uddcxof,gw gwvdyjen iwvz,hbaqs lpwqelay suzpai. mcv

An excerpt from the book titled bctdgfvoryfvdqdkgxqsu. The odds of finding texts of illumination flit above nil. Literally, physically, if we stumble we run the risk of falling from the low railings and plunging into unknown depths, once again possibly infinite. Borges creates a structure where we are alone in a universe of letters—the universe, since letters, possible words, possible signs are all we have to mark our understanding and pass it on—that is inconceivably large and unutterably indifferent. Context is everywhere, there is no context.

Muzharul Islam’s Bangladesh National Library, by obvious contrast, is large but finite, contained and accessible, structurally varied, and, I’m sure, has selection and organization within built with purpose. It is a social building for all people singly, together, a structure that is culturally and materially grounded.

But it is unusual in design, inexplicably so, I suspect. Neither structure fits our expectations of a library. Both raise questions about what a library represents and how one should be represented. With those questions come questions about our place in the world, our means to know it, the validity, the value of knowledge itself.

And still more questions.

The floor plan suggests a hieroglyph, a symbol of some sort, a figure that is intricate and idiosyncratic, yet one that might have deep cultural significance. I have no idea what that symbol might be, however, and Islam rejects such maneuvers.

Symbol for what? Symbol of what? Symbol of whom? . . . The hesitation in my mind has deep roots. I feel that human society has been kept in darkness for thousands of years by the use of symbols. I revolt against it. By raising the issue of symbols, in the name of symbols, my perspective has been kept limited.

Despite their definite clarity, symbols can obscure with their restricted certainty and necessary exclusion, or lock us into conclusions that, when you consider Bangladesh history, all history, can have disastrous results. Instead we are presented with an enigmatic non-symbol, a glyph that suggests a figure with possible meanings, the possibility of meaning itself, and alternate meanings and alternate possibilities, without settling on any. The building, the people, Bangladesh itself, however remain, retaining their identity, their substance. The books within, presumably, extend the discussion, possible relationships among the land and its people and the world.

A central tower of seven stories essentially holds the stacks and reading rooms and is surrounded by three stories of taller rooms for assembly and administration, which fan out to the periphery.

And here there is mystery, possible paradox, a seeming conundrum. My photographs of the model are close in perspective to that of the elevations and show the full height of the upper two stories, but note that in the front facade drawing, above, those stories, back, are not filled but ghosted, allowing the front to dominate and assert its importance in the overall design alone. The two floors are only slightly visible in the photographs above. We scarcely are aware of their existence from ground level, and as we approach the building they gradually diminish and disappear entirely. When we enter, however, the tower of seven suddenly appears in its entirety, covered with a mural and separated from the other three stories by galleries and narrow space surrounding, rising to the top. The ascent contradicts our impression from the exterior. Where did this tower come from? How can a three-story building hold seven?

(In another Borges, story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the narrator happens upon, in an out of the way place, spilled from a gaucho belt, a shining metal cone, tiny and impossibly heavy.

Those small and extremely heavy cones, made of a metal which does not exist in this world, are images of divinity in certain religions in Tlön.)

Against mystery, reason. There is order to the building. We are aware throughout of geometry, of lines and planes, of regular angles, right, 45, and 135 degree, and of basic shapes, squares, triangles, of a Platonic solid, or the foundation of one, the cube. The base plan itself is an interrupted square. But everywhere regularity is broken down or disrupted, most notably at the front corners where cuts are made into the square, towards the library’s heart. Their walls, in the triangular indentations, have windows to light the interior, but they also suggest intrusion, decomposition. Note how their walls meet at the outside corners with the exterior walls, keeping the thickness of the separate walls and retaining their separateness as planes, not joining them to form parts of a triangular solid, of the overall mass.

The parti of the Library began as a pure square from which was slowly and deliberately distorted to acknowledge the contradictory demands of climate, place, and program.

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

Against reason, the country itself.

Certain physical and cultural factors not only act as constraints but also as the source of ideas for the forms and content of architecture in any civilisation.


Topography and climate play an important role in this region. The topography of Bangladesh is basically low lying, flat land, traversed by innumerable rivers and channels. Most of the soil is alluvium, deposited by the river and eminently suitable for agriculture and for the production of bricks and tiles.

Necessarily, inevitably, the library rises from flatness without transcending, refusing to transcend. Most we are aware of the bricks, made from the soil, shaped by hand and fired. Each brick asserts its individuality, imperfect, human. Collectively bricks form a mass made by many hands. We see the labor, the numbers involved.

The climate is marked by heavy rainfall during four months of the monsoon from June to September, with cool weather for four months from November to February, and hot-humid conditions in between. Except for the monsoon months, sun insolation is intense.

Nature will exact its influence on the faces with washes, fading, erosion. But the bricks, already imperfect, will acknowledge the impact and accommodate the changes and reflect them. The building is also designed to highlight contrasts from the sun. The thin, vertical elements on all sides cast sharp shadows, varying with the season, the time of day. The incisions at the corners not only let in light but also recede into interior darkness.

The Tropic of Cancer, at 23° N passes through the middle of the country. Due to heavy rainfall, vegetation growth is intense giving a year round verdant colour to the whole country.

And that growth will assert itself, lush, inexorable, everywhere present.

The library doesn’t just represent Bangladesh, it is Bangladesh.

The front, balanced, nearly symmetrical, with entry centered, announces the essential elements, the brick oblong volume, the openings and thin vertical elements that relieve it. The library is massive and has a formal and monumental character, but one that is unembellished. It is decidedly modern yet recalls, in its massiveness, some archaic construction. Kahn, I assume, was an influence, and the building references his National Assembly complex, blocks away. With the imperfection of the bricks, the library from conception resembles a ruin, but it is a lasting ruin, a memory not just of decay but also of nature and of a past that lives on in the present, as long as the library stands.

The vertical elements, while they hold and contain the balconies on the top floor, are not structurally necessary. Nor are they decorative accents. Quite thin, they protrude greatly and call attention to themselves as independent elements. They assert the vertical against the horizontal and provide lightness and lift to the grounded mass. They not only provide shade and give shadows, but also increase awareness of the presence of the sun, its penetration of the mass.

The west facade side has another formal entrance, again centered, though we may debate where the center of this face lies since it’s not clear where the left corner rests, if it has one. Here we are most aware of a flat, solid mass of brick standing against the elements, divided in the middle by the entrance and two other openings to the side, all three asserting the vertical. It is an entirely different face, with slight reference to the front, largely in the thin vertical elements now receding within, not protruding. Also the first triangular mass, receding, makes its appearance, but we won’t see it at all until we move towards the rear.

Continue walking back and the other triangular mass appears, further out, on the other side, and the seven-story tower resolutely makes known its presence, picking up the vertical elements, now protruding, in regular array. The large triangular masses echo positively, prominently the smaller triangular indentations in the cuts at the front.

Face the rear facade and what is invisible from the front, the tower, now stands on its own and commands, clearly expressing its seven stories against the masses flanking. These triangular shapes are the most distinctive, the most arresting parts of the overall design, and it is odd that they should be pushed to the back. They serve, however, to frame and highlight what is the essential part of the library, the orderly stacks contained in layered rows of floors.

The tower is what we think a library should be, functionally and visually, an orderly and regular construction with necessary glazing, a gridded box. It is similar in its order and regularity, in fact, to the Library of Babel. Islam, however, asserts priorities. What most matters is what we see in the most visible faces, the largely solid front of the mass of bricks, their solidarity, their cultural and environmental references, and the breaks in that mass, the assertions, the questions they pose. The rational has to be qualified and put in context.

And it is unlikely visitors even see the triangles or tower, not well, not from the outside, as the rear provides only service entrance and the entire facade is the one that is most obscured—or enhanced—by heavy vegetation.

Are the triangular masses positive shapes in the overall design or do they indicate subtraction from the essential square that defines the footprint? I don’t think there is an answer to that question. Both are true, or neither.

Continue circling, and relationships of mass and verticality shift once more to reveal yet a still different facade.

This facade is dominated by the vertical elements, corrugated not flat like those on the other side, which wholly break and lighten the sense of mass. The opening, the cut on the left, is complemented by a rhythm of these elements, 5-3-4-3-5, with offset variation at the porches. Administrative offices are on this side, and the vertical bands provide shading for their windows.

Each facade, though it carries repeated elements, is physically separate and entirely different. Comparison might be made with Terragni’s Casa del Fascio. Each stands in a different relationship to the square base. Each presents a different face to the sun, to the rain. Each element, except those of the tower, while contained by the small squares in the overall grid, shown above in the plan, sidestep its symmetry and regularity. Whatever continuity we might want to project by looking diagonally at the most visible front corners, the views we have approaching from the street, either side, is broken by the cuts.

What unifies the four sides and makes the building coherent? It is defined by our expectation of order, plotted in the plan, but coherent wholly in its departures from that order, from the grid. We get four different answers to a question, suggesting there might be more. The library will not rest with any of them, with a set, pat answer. Unity comes from the bricks, the sun bearing down, the driving rain, the books, the people inside.

Program determines much—protection of the books from sunlight, the need for windows in some rooms, solid walls for assembly and presentation, the demands made by entry. Also the design is much more interrelated—and complex—than I have described. Study the floor plan.

But the library as a whole is unresolved and only partly knowable. Parts are hidden, parts inaccessible. Parts are mysterious. Light and shadow, contrasting shapes divide the building. Much prevents the tour around the building I have just made. Most users have to assemble the building from their experience inside, which only gives partial, fragmented understanding.

All will be quiet and order once one takes a book from a shelf, sits at a table, and reads. But the silent reader will carry a desire along with a memory, a visceral impression of conflicting space, imperfectly perceived, the noise of order, incompletion, and confusion competing against one another, the reader perhaps unsettled, more likely, hopefully, stirred.

There is a point to all of this, of course, along with avoidance of one.

The process of distortion also suggest a new opening in Islam’s steadfast materialist ideology; it reveals a surreptitious triumph of the empirical over the rational, and of the accidental over the planned, and invokes, almost grudgingly, a metaphorical, if not the metaphysical, dimension.

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

In the debate between closed deductive reasoning and open inductive thought, Islam sides with the latter. Look closely before concluding, be skeptical you’ll ever have enough. But never forget why either way of thinking exists, what it should be based on, blood, mud, rain, sun, breath—the stuff of our lives, collectively an irreducible term, separately ever varied, ever changing facts.

But metaphors are made of stuff. It is what gives them life. And metaphors lead to understanding, taking us away from ourselves into thought. That is why we have libraries.

Someone will want to interject faith.

Someone else will root it out.

The monsoons bring flooding, the sun beats down relentlessly; we suffer, we decay, the land decomposes. There is also this:

Epidemics, heretical disagreements, the pilgrimages which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned the suicides, more frequent each year. Perhaps I am deceived by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species—the unique human species—is on the road to extinction, while the Library will last on forever: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly immovable, filled with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.

The narrator of Babel brings us up to date. This scene was all too familiar in the past—and remains so in the present. What has changed.

He conjectures idly that the library repeats itself endlessly, thus is infinite—but how can we disprove him?

If an eternal voyager were to traverse it in any direction, he would find, after many centuries, that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder (which, repeated, would constitute an order: Order itself). My solitude rejoices in this elegant hope. 

There is ironic concession here, likely denial, perhaps madness. The story gives a picture of the universe that is anything but reassuring. Order has been equated with chaos. Yet the vastness awes, the chaos is exhilarating. Still, or even more so, there is room for hope. We are freed from the containers, the traps of our suspicions, our ideas—do we know the difference?—and encouraged to look beyond them.

So much modern architecture, along with the culture that sustains it, gives us a false sense of knowing, of arrival in structures that are pure and orderly, neatly contained. Or they project an abstract future that rests on nothing. Islam resists both temptations.

Both libraries make us aware of our limitations, of our smallness, of the unlikelihood of ever knowing all we need to know. Islam grounds us, Borges sends us soaring into thought. There is humility and skepticism in both that frees us. Both remind us we haven’t perished yet. Both help us marvel at this fact.



See also Dhaka International University Administrative Building.

As always, I build models to engage me in a building, and this one engaged me wholly. At this scale, about 1/125, and given the thickness of my pieces, I had to make many concessions. Overall dimensions are fairly close, and I tried to represent all major elements simply, which leads to much distortion. The rear facade, however, is off and only partially reveals its complexity. I couldn’t find full photographs of the rear and still am not sure exactly how it is designed. I like this uncertainty and remain curious.

Library of Babel model, along with full text of the story, from webstanford.

Random text (with my editing) generated at Library of Babel.

Street view photograph with growth by Fazlul Huque.

Rear photograph by Yasir Sarkar.

All other photographs by Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, from MIT Dome.

Floor plans and elevations from Architecture as Aesthetics.

“Symbol for what?” from Muzharul Islam Archive.

“The parti of the Library” and “The process of distortion” from Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, An Architecture of Independence: The Making of Modern South Asia, found at Muzharul Islam Archive.

“Certain physical and cultural factors” and the paragraphs that follow from Muzharul Islam, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, and Saiful Haque, Introducing Bangladesh: A Case for Regionalism,”  found at Archnet, where there are other resources.

Text for Jorge Luis Borges stories from Ficciones/Grove.

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