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Kabir: An Architect of the Life-world

Kabir: An Architect of the Life-world

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf writes on the work process and methodology of Khondaker Hasibul Kabir

In the early part of 2007, a young architecture professor from a reputed university in an up-scale area in Dhaka crossed the waters of a putrid lake to a slum on the other shore. There he rented a space to live in the veranda of a shack. When asked to queries why he chose that place, the architect Khondaker Hasibul Kabir gave a disarming answer “I need a garden.” 

Similar to Henry David Thoreau’s famous cabin in the woodlands of Walden near the city of Boston, which he built as a 10 feet by 15 feet shingled and plastered structure, and from where he grew his own vegetables, dealt with the ‘four necessities’ of life (food, shelter, clothing, and fuel), and demonstrated his understanding of economy, but most importantly, as he himself says, illustrated “the spiritual benefits of a simplified lifestyle.” [Thoreau was an American philosopher and essayist, best known for his book “Walden,” on the virtues of a simple life in a natural setting.]

If simple living and self-reliance describe Thoreau’s time at Walden, they also define Kabir’s motivation for “pleasure in living with less (কমের মধ্যে আনন্দে থাকা).” To live that life, ‘deliberately’ – as Thoreau was to emphasise – to have lived life, deep, with the whole and genuine ‘meanness,’ and to know it by experience is what shadowed Kabir to Korail. There, Kabir rented a room with a family of four, created a bamboo platform next to his room, planted plants that transformed a dirt, dank area where children later gathered, and where, in a slow, reflective process, he developed his twin obsessions: the therapeutic garden and the co-creating community.

In his address at the UIA Congress in 1999, the architectural historian Kenneth Frampton made an important remark that “architecture is irredeemably mixed with the life-world.” While such observations have come from other keen critics of the architecture culture, but this particular comment was an invitation for me to think through the nature of the autonomy of architecture, as far as the social is concerned. Kabir’s work and commitment help clarify that.

The ‘life-world’ is distinguished from the social in so far as the latter remains a thematised or conceptualised abstraction, a collation of the collective through mostly political, ideological and legal frameworks. The social is now a ‘pseudo-world,’ to recall Guy Debord from the 1960s, in which the “concrete life of every one has been degraded into a speculative universe.” Still alarmingly relevant now, Debord points to the rise of the spectacle which aims “at nothing often than itself,” and because of it, the world “can now be no longer grasped directly… one now sees the world by various specialised mediations.” 

The life-world is the foundational basis of the social no matter what it develops or morphs into. What is difficult is the recognition of the irreducible fundaments of life in the complexity of social conditions now. In more architecturally accessible terms, the life-world situations may be conveyed by the sense of the “ordinary,” the “quotidian,” the “everyday,” the “day-to-day,” or as Kengo Kuma describes following Gianni Vattimo: “weak architecture.” In such formulations, architectural forms literally blend with the setting. Also described as an ‘architecture of the background’ in which such regularised conventions of the architectural speakese such as elevation, form, mass, and other terms opaque to the social, not only recede from the conversation but actually seem superfluous. 

A group of architects are now working at the outer periphery of mainstream architecture that involves social or community engagement, in which many, mostly young people, are discovering a new meaningfulness in the pursuit of architecture. Avoiding tropes of the spectacular and formal, this group shares the common currency of a deeper appreciation of the everyday and a genuine humanistic rapport with people. Khondaker Hasibul Kabir has mastered this art of engagement. He has crafted a new norm of how one trained in a metropolitan milieu with all its professional setups and expectations, may enter into an empathetic dialogue with a special community, proceeding without any preconceived notion of form or volume, perhaps better eschewing that, listen to them, earn a trust, make their voices heard, and by being there, help in mobilising them towards a better environment. There is no urgency for producing plans, elevations or axonometric drawings, only in developing a relationship, a shared promise for creating together.

All of the above may sound clichéd if they were not true, but with Kabir, they beautifully are. Kabir has passed the perception of being quixotic and naïve; he has not only clarified his own architectural destiny but serves as a model for many young architects who see in him a model to follow.

“I need a garden.”

Korail is known as a slum or informal settlement, or bostee, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that lies across a lake from one of the poshest areas of the city. Spread over ninety acres of land, framed on three sides by lakes, the Korail bostee began in the 1990s, and now houses over a hundred-thousand people that includes domestic workers, hawkers, small shopkeepers, roadside vendors, rickshaw pullers and CNG drivers and workers in various urban activities. These people flock to Korail because of the low rent despite the fact that syndicates control land, rent, and illegally arranged utilities like water, gas, and electricity. To rent a room space of 100 sq ft, people pay USD 30 or so per month.

After deciding to rent a space in Korail, Kabir crossed the lake in a boat in 2007, and soon found a room in the household of Forkan Parvez, which was not quite a room but a veranda of 7’ x 11’. Next to the veranda-room, in 2008, Kabir started planting in a space that was run over with dirty water from the slum flushed into the lake. In 2009, at the very edge of the lake, and next to the planting which became a garden, he built a bamboo platform that came to be known as ‘Ashar Macha’ or ‘Platform of Hope.’. And that was how, in that cheerful flair, Kabir’s work in Korail came to be known.

‘Platform of Hope’ in Korail, Dhaka, Photo: Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt/Khondaker Hasibul Kabir
Platform of Hope’ in Korail, Dhaka, Photo: Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt/Khondaker Hasibul Kabir

Kabir’s ‘intervention’ in that small dreary space in Korail – and it was an intervention, a magical transformation of a dismal place into a garden of delight – proceeded with patience, careful nurturing of relationships with the people, and slow unfurling of what Kabir would come to describe later as “co-creating.” And there would be thoughtful planning: how to change the quality of a dank murky drain, how to reroute it and treat with the right plants (fertilisers like cowdung were plentiful), how to gather materials for the platform (they were all recycled from the bostee), and how to build it (built by the fathers of the children who started to tend the garden).

Building of the nondescript ‘macha’ demonstrated what is possible in a condition of adversity. With no major funding or investment, the platform provided fresh air and greenery for the larger Korail residents. It was no spectacular object primed for photographs in an architectural journal or nomination for an award, but it served as a community space for the slum children to gather there, tend garden, and find things to do denied to them. Kabir describes this endeavour as a “happening” that is “in rhythm with an ecologically informed garden design, in which the macha acts as a seed of generative aesthetics.” 

The Embedded Architect

From Hassan Fathy to Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio, and in more recent times, Anna Heringer and Huang Shen, and countless young people, a new track in practice is the presence of the architect living and working – embedded – in the community they are working with. While different kinds of architectural “works” have come out of this group, from the tectonically rich ensemble to social upliftment, and from constructional innovation to community mobilisation, the visibility of architecture, or for that matter, of the architect, has not been a prime matter. 

‘Low visibility’ would emerge as a natural tactic for Kabir in his commitment to a dedicated understanding of plants and devotion to bettering the lives of poor communities. In retrospect, it may be said that Kabir has done varieties of projects on the principles of ‘low visibility’ and ‘weak architecture’ beginning with the platform and garden at Korail to the nature retreat at Jol O Jongoler Kabbo and the community scripted dwellings at Satkhira.

Kabir’s landscape work finds an apogee at the retreat in Demur Para, Pubail, poetically called ‘Jol O Jongoler Kabbo’ (the rhythm of water and forest). Kabir’s formal induction into landscape and gardening begins with his training in landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield in 2003, but augmented and mentored by his close association with the eminent Bangladeshi botanist Dwijen Sharma. Kabir attributes his landscape affliction to the fact that as a child he grew up in a village milieu, and had wanted to study botany before joining architecture.

At first sight, the Pubail retreat is nothing much: it is a place full of lush green foliage, often overgrown, with occasional moments of a shack-like structure that will not take your breath away, but then when the waters come, with a magisterial view of wetlands and the distant green. It is nothing much because such a view or condition is not too uncommon an experience in the landscapes of Bangladesh. Jol O Jongol is also about building in an ordinary way in which the tectonic is so subdued so as to be invisible or even undermined. And that is precisely what Kabir wanted to do at that retreat, reconstruct a piece of the landscape which often at the periphery of the metropolis undergoes traumatic transformation in the name of industrialisation, development or poor planning.

Jol O Jongoler Kabbo
‘Jol O Jongoler Kabbo’ in Pubail, Photos: Farhat Afzal

Joining BRAC University as a faculty, and visiting rural settlements in different parts of Bangladesh provided Kabir with the opportunity to interact with vulnerable rural communities. That also led working with similar communities in Haiti and Nepal. A project in Satkhira, in the South-West of Bangladesh, became a touchstone where Kabir and his team were invited to rebuild the dwellings of a community devastated by a cyclone.

Satkhira provides quite a few lessons. It became very clear that the key task was not a quick production of buildings but finding an impactful way of how they are to be arrived at. The question of product versus process quickly resolved by the understanding that “if we take care of the process with love and compassion, good product happens.” 

Process is a two way exchange in such communities: the outsiders need to demonstrate true empathy, and the community will reciprocate with trust in which time is a crucial factor. The objective is to build trust before building houses. Part of the process involves architects arriving at the site as obvious ‘outsiders’ and first building their own house, initiate communication with the community, organise sessions to imagine the ‘dream house,’ and then with community people build a demonstration house. There were moments of exchange of technologies and skills, about developing a better roof tile that was built on site, and people following the model and building on their own. Landscape and vegetation were key to the final stage of the construction of the houses. In a lack of building dramatics, when trees and plantations grow and engulf the houses and make them invisible, architecture will have finally found a safe home and become invisible.

Co-creating

Kabir’s sensitivity to life-world is palpable from the macha project to low cost housing. While the ‘macha’ highlights the existential capability of architecture even in a socially and spatially precarious condition, housing for an underprivileged community in the town of Jhenaidah (built at an unbelievable low cost) produces priceless smiles in the faces of the women owners. Along with his apt partner, Suhailee Farzana, Kabir redefines community participation which he now calls “co-creating.” 

The project of ‘Houses for Everyone, Made by Everyone’ was carried out over a period of two years by Platform for Community Artisans and Architects, Co.Creation.Architects, and BRAC University’s department of architecture, in collaboration with local municipal authorities, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Community Architects Network, a local NGO, ALIVE, and a city-wide community network of savings groups. It started with a seed fund of BDT two million initially as loans to build 20 houses for the most disadvantaged people. 52 households identified and nominated the families within their community to first build houses for. Those households formed five savings groups, with a leader elected to supervise, and started repaying USD 6 (BDT 500) every week. The repayments collect into a revolving fund that the community can use to upgrade their facilities in the future.

As in Satkhira, following the fund allotment, the process for building begin with ‘mapping the dream,’ which involved members of the community creating with some help, a map of their neighborhood in order to understand the location of each one’s and other’s plots. They also conceived the nature of their future building – whether single-storey or two – which were then developed by Kabir and his team. For building the houses, community members themselves sourced materials from local markets, and helped in the construction, with various innovative cost cutting features, which were a key factor in keeping the construction cost of a house to about $1200 USD, an incredible figure.

The project in Jhenaidah could be a revolution in housing in Bangladesh. With housing services for lower income and disadvantaged groups in disarray, and no exemplary models for desperate urban dwellers, Jhenaidah may offer a solution to how a despondent community may mobilise to better their living conditions and acquire a sense of optimism in transforming their lives. Sharifa Begum, a community leader from the area exclaims “Our neighbourhood has completely transformed in the last two years! You would not believe that this was a slum before.”

Housing Project in Jhenaidah
Housing Project in Jhenaidah, Photo: Bengal Institute
Housing Project in Jhenaidah
Housing Project in Jhenaidah, Photo: Bengal Institute

The Social and the Practice

In Frampton’s observation that “architecture is irredeemably mixed with the life-world,” I find not so much an epiphany about the obvious but a new disquiet in resolving the severed relationship among strands of architectural actions: the tectonic, the social and the practice. Frampton’s observations provoke visiting the nature of the autonomy of architecture as far as the social is concerned, an issue that remains unsettled in the conventions of architectural narratives. 

While autonomy offered a kind of commemoration of an architectural iconism and encouraged a bravado resulting in spectacular outputs, architects are often not sure themselves of architecture’s tasks at hand in the societies they inhabit. The bulk of architectural production, rendered in geometric splendor, in full tectonic regalia, and carried out through contemporary professional norms, all claim some degree of social effectiveness, amongst which some may claim rightfully a socially charged agenda. But this is different from being embedded, and in the same plane with an underprivileged community.

One could go as far to say that the conventions of the professional school or rigors of academia are rather irrelevant in the above scenario, and in being so such community invested works constitute a culturally or professionally ‘other.’ It is also the other in the sense of the social invisibility of such groups, in their being the unenlisted, the unregistered, the disenfranchised, the subaltern. Not vitiated by commercial practices or calibrated by professional success stories, such works – I am having trouble in even calling them “works” – are simply articulation of life-world practices.

The current economic mode of defining humanity creates many strata to the social, and eventually are calibrated along economically advantageous or disadvantageous categories. If that is the given in the current capitalistic social setup, Kabir works with disadvantaged communities and peoples. They are disadvantaged because they do not have a say in the arrangement and rearrangement of resources that go in the name of planning, and in most cases, do not have access to those resources. 

Kabir makes the community speak, recalling Gayatri Spivak’s famous question (“can the subaltern speak?”). It is not enough that elegant theories intersect with ground conditions, and thus claim a redemption, but position for efflorescing a newer ground in which the fundaments of lived conditions do not remain bedraggled but become joyous.

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