Beyond a building

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Dhaka mosque architect on winning art's Jameel Prize and building responsibly in Bangladesh

  • Prayer Hall of Bait ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, designed by Marina Tabassum, joint winner of the Jameel Prize.
    Prayer Hall of Bait ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, designed by Marina Tabassum, joint winner of the Jameel Prize. Credit: MTA/Sandro di Carlo Darsa
  • Light Court at the Bait ur Rouf Mosque,
    Light Court at the Bait ur Rouf Mosque, Credit: AKTC/Rajesh Vora
  • Detail showing exposed terracotta bricks and dappled light in the prayer hall.
    Detail showing exposed terracotta bricks and dappled light in the prayer hall. Credit: MTA/Sandrodi Carlo Darsa
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Marina Tabassum of Bangladesh is the latest architect to succeed in a prize traditionally contested by artists and designers, following in the footsteps of Turner Prize-winning Assemble and Turner Prize-shortlisted Forensic Architecture.

Tabassum is joint first with artist Mehdi Moutashar for the £25,000 Jameel Prize, which is awarded for work inspired by Islamic tradition. It is the first time the prize has been awarded to an architect and the first time a joint winner has been chosen. All the shortlisted entries are displayed in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Tabassum was nominated for the Bait ur Rouf mosque in Dhaka, which has already secured an Aga Khan Award for Architecture. She is, she says, ‘quite humbled and honoured by the whole thing… that an architectural project could reach a stage where you can compare it to the arts. To win it with Mehdi Moutashar was quite wonderful.’

Born in 1969, Tabassum has run her own, deliberately small, practice for 12 years in conjunction with teaching at the BRAC University. She dislikes working for developers (‘I don’t see architecture as a commodity’) and prefers to take on projects that are more rewarding both to her as an architect and to the context and community where they are located. All her work is underpinned by a desire to create architecture that goes beyond the design of a building to tackle some of the many challenges facing Bangladesh such as flooding and urban migration.

‘There is so much to do… Architecture isn’t just about a piece of building. Architects have a responsibility to go beyond architecture and to do more than achieving nice spaces by delivering a value to the environment and the context where it is based,’ she says. Architects should consider the programme of each project to ensure that as well as giving the client what they want, it gives something back to the community, she adds.

This is particularly the case in her project for the Panigram boutique eco resort under construction on the Ganges delta. Built in the local vernacular of mud and bamboo with thatched roofs, this is conceived as a way of stemming the tide of rural-to-city migration by providing local employment and income.

‘We’re doing a social and environmentally responsible resort where we’re involving the villagers to help with construction and, in turn, we’re helping them with their own environments as well as generating a local economy and a sense of ownership.’

  • Bait ur Rouf Mosque in context.
    Bait ur Rouf Mosque in context. Credit: AKTC/Rajesh Vora
  • Marina Tabassum sought to create a connection between earlier mosques and something more contemporary.
    Marina Tabassum sought to create a connection between earlier mosques and something more contemporary. Credit: MTA/Sandrodi Carlo Darsa
  • A space for prayer that can also be used for other activities.
    A space for prayer that can also be used for other activities. Credit: MTA/Sandrodi Carlo Darsa
  • The mosque is on a site donated by Tabassum's grandmother.
    The mosque is on a site donated by Tabassum's grandmother. Credit: MTA/Sandrodi Carlo Darsa
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The mosque is one of her best known works. This highly personal project was commissioned by her grandmother, who donated the site in Uttara, Dhaka. After researching the changing nature of mosque architecture over the centuries, Tabassum sought to create a building that accommodated other community activities as well as worship.

‘My idea was to create a connection between earlier mosques and something more contemporary. I got rid of all the symbolic attributes and focused on spirituality as the main aspect of design. It’s a space for prayer, but a space that can be used for other activities.’ This was particularly important, she says, in such a densely developed city.

Made of terracotta brick left exposed inside and out, the low-budget building is designed to be easy to maintain with small courtyards and open brickwork aiding the passage of light and air. Light plays a key role in creating a spiritual atmosphere, in dappled form over the prayer hall and through a vertical slit in the wall indicating the Qibla direction of prayer.

For Tabassum, finding the sorts of projects with scope to make a difference is a challenge. Research work at the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements, where she is director of the academic programme, aims to promote a water-based focus to the planning and design of new cities and settlements. Projects under way include river-edge planning and the creation of different planning models for small town developments.

  • Workers relax after the day’s work at the Panigram resort project.
    Workers relax after the day’s work at the Panigram resort project.
  • Wisdom of the Land, an installation at the Venice Biennale by Marina Tabassum and her team. The exhibit presents aspects of vernacular life of the Ganges delta of Bangladesh.
    Wisdom of the Land, an installation at the Venice Biennale by Marina Tabassum and her team. The exhibit presents aspects of vernacular life of the Ganges delta of Bangladesh.
  • The glass Tower of Light at the Museum of Independence, designed by Marina Tabassum with Kashef Chowdhury at her previous practice URBANA and realised by her practice MTA in 2006-2013.
    The glass Tower of Light at the Museum of Independence, designed by Marina Tabassum with Kashef Chowdhury at her previous practice URBANA and realised by her practice MTA in 2006-2013.
  • The Museum of Independence in Dhaka, designed by Marina Tabassum with Kashef Chowdhury when at her previous practice URBANA and realised by her practice MTA in 2006-2013.
    The Museum of Independence in Dhaka, designed by Marina Tabassum with Kashef Chowdhury when at her previous practice URBANA and realised by her practice MTA in 2006-2013.
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Aside from the mosque, her other best known project is the concrete Museum of Independence with its glass Tower of Light, designed by Tabassum and Kashef Chowdhury at her previous practice URBANA but realised by her current practice from 2006-13. Ongoing projects include a government high school in Keranigang, south of Dhaka.

Tabassum was not the only practitioner in the running for the Jameel Prize. Architect Nisreen Abudail and her designer sister Nermeen of the naqsh collective were shortlisted for their artwork inspired by the embroidery of Jordan and Palestine. The others on the shortlist were Kamrooz Aram, Hayv Kahraman, Hala Kaiksow, Younes Rahmoun and Wardha Shabbir. Work by all those shortlisted is on show in the V&A exhibition.

Jameel Prize 5, until 25 November 2018, Victoria & Albert Museum