By Zirwat Chowdhury for AlalODulal.org
Have you ever wondered if architecture can walk, or how it might be to walk architecturally? The contradiction at the heart of these two questions is where I want to begin because therein lies the misperception about architecture that I wish to discuss. After all, we are all too familiar with architecture as that which endures, awes, imposes, and stays in place; that is, with architecture’s monumentality. And monumentality is what I expected as I walked into the Jatiyo Shanghshad Bhaban (JSB) yesterday afternoon. Like many of you, I have viewed this building several times from a moving vehicle (Figure 1: attached), upfront or from the corner of my eye, daunted by how obdurately it stayed in place, even (especially!) as my own body scurried through space and time in Dhaka traffic. This is the face the nation desires for itself: upright and steely. But we are looking at poured-in-place concrete, not steel.
If you follow the virtual tracks of an architectural historian, you might quickly learn about modernist architecture’s love affair with concrete: from Le Corbusier’s unapologetic béton brut to Kahn’s enticing, resin-coated finish. You might also learn about an industrial material paradoxically and diligently worked by the hands of unnamed workers. The lure of monumentality is not easily discarded outside the JSB… until you cross its threshold and begin your journey through each of its ambulatory chambers. Gently, but with no warning, the building reveals one of its stunning views (Figure 2: attached). But these are not views that invite description. Instead, they invite you to trace the forms, the layered spaces, and their interrelationships: a perfect circle of a cavity in a wall opens onto the adjoining, multi-storied chamber, the banisters on each storey returning your attention back to the circle where you began, and across which they form inchoate lines.
A subtle turn of the head, and the view kaleidoscopically transforms to reveal a new set of visual relationships (Figure 3: attached), taunting you for even attempting to fix and describe what you had just seen. With each movement, with each step, the building reveals another singular view. Unlike the upright, steely façade, the interior of the JSB invites its visitor to walk with its unfolding singularity. Singularity, because each view relies upon the formal relationships discerned and thus brought into existence by the viewer at each junction of their encounter – intellectual and corporeal – with the building. In other words, to walk with(in) the JSB is to activate one’s consciousness.
The JSB’s interiors in this way echo, for me, El Lissitzky’s prouns (an acronym that roughly translates to “project for the affirmation of the new”) and the Constructivist photographs of Alexander Rodchenko from the 1920s. Lissitzky crafted his prouns out of parallel and rotating lines that emerged as highly factured planes on the surface of the canvas. In order to affect the experience of movement, the painter rotated the canvas after constructing each series of lines, thus inviting the viewer to replicate this movement in their viewing of the work. As art historian Yve-Alain Bois eloquently explains: “In Lissitzky’s double campaign against perspectival space, the certainty of the viewer’s own position is undermined, thereby opening a critical space for the revolutionizing of consciousness, both aesthetic and political” (Bois 2013). If Lissitzky’s prouns destabilized the purportedly static relationship between painting and viewer, then Rodchenko’s photographs undid the static monumentality frequently ascribed to architecture. Privileging the camera eye over the human eye through foreshortening and oblique camera angles, Rodchenko’s photographs make the familiar unfamiliar again and introduce new ways of looking. Shot in series, they also underscore architecture’s irreducibility to a single view (Buchloh 1984). The interior of the JSB similarly opens up a space of exploration for the visitor, and, with its kaleidoscopic views, does so without the assistance of the camera. Instead, it is through looking, looking back, looking again, turning, and walking that viewers become conscious of the building and of themselves.
At the end of my visit, I was given a small informational pamphlet about the building. It outlines the chronology of the building’s design and construction, lists the number of Parliamentary sessions convened within it, and enumerates some of the building’s astounding material feats. In other words, it secures the building’s iconicity. As I walked away, I wondered how often the Members of Parliament walk with(in) the building. And I wondered what kind of politics could be created by the ambulatory consciousness that this building is capable of activating, especially if we can learn to look away from its iconic face.
Bois, Yve-Alain in Gough, Maria. “The Language of Revolution.” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art. Ed. Leah Dickerman. New York: MOMA, 2013. 264.
Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. “From Faktura to Factography.” October 30 (Autumn 1984): 82-119.