Marina Tabassum takes Bangladesh to Munich

Dohar house at the entrance of the museumASIF SALMAN.COM

Munshiganj, Dohar and Bikrampur are well known for their modular prefabricated houses. People there still make such homes and live in them. They are sold in the marketplace too. These are one-storey or two-storey houses, beautifully decorated, an aesthetic delight.

A scale model of such a house is on display for all to see at the entrance of Munich's famous museum Pinakothek der Moderne in Germany. Also displayed on the glass wall of the museum is a large poster of the exhibition: 'Marina Tabassum Architects: In Bangladesh'.

The exhibition displays must of the work done over the past 20 years by architect Marina Tabassum. On exhibit are pictures, audio-visual presentations and all sorts of structures in scale size and miniature. Marina Tabassum's exhibition, which won high praise and appreciation by enthusiasts and experts, is curated by architecture historian Vera Simone Bader.        

A model made of brick
The 'khudi bari' or small home was designed anew, aiming to give a sense of assurance to the nomadic lives of the char people

As one enters the museum, the scale model of a small house, 'khudi bari', catches one's attention. Marina designed this movable modular house for the people of the chars (shoals or sandbars). Such houses are being regularly fabricated with bamboo and steel joints. This innovative structure can be made in various sizes in various ways. The community space for the Rohingyas is an excellent example.

There is a story behind making this house, says Marina Tabassum. She was talking about the exhibition in this interview. A few years ago they had been researching on the chars and the people of the chars. She learnt that the British rulers had introduced land deeds for the chars so they could collect taxes. The research findings were put on display at the Sharjah Biennale in 2019. Three house made in Dohar were exhibited there.

Marina Tabassum speaks at the opening of the exhibition

The 'khudi bari' or small home was designed anew, aiming to give a sense of assurance to the nomadic lives of the char people. The first prototype was made in Dhaka during the Covid lockdown. Another four were made and then yet again another four in the Jamuna char of Hijla. The home is on also display at the exhibition, as part of their work, says Marina.

In course of the conservation, Marina revealed the events leading up to the exhibition. Back in 2020 she had delivered a lecture at this museum. The director at the museum proposed that she have an exhibition there. The offer was both an honour and a challenge to her. And she accepted it. Then the Covid pandemic broke out. During the pandemic, the Technical University of Munich bestowed her with an honorary doctorate. When the world came back to normal, she began preparing for the exhibition.

She says, 28 years is not an insignificant span of time. "I had done quite a lot of work. It was difficult to decide what to select and what to not to. But ultimately the best work was sorted and selected for the show," she says.

Visitors at the exhibition

It is the responsibility of the curator to present the exhibits at a show and in this exhibition curator Simone did so. "She consulted me in taking all decisions. In fact, she even came all the way to Bangladesh, visited my projects and then only went back to design the exhibition," say Marina Tabassum. That's when she added this structure.

It took around a year to prep for the exhibition. It required making miniature bricks, blocks and other material. The models were made here and then shipped in containers to Germany. All the work was done in Marina's studio. There was the risk of models being damaged in the containers. After all, mildew could form on the bamboo in the damp closed space. Luckily, nothing was damaged. Other than her office colleague, she also took a carpenter, Masud, along with her to Germany to help set up things there. Some of the models took 3 to 4 months to make. The longest was six months, says architect Marina Tabassum.

Large poster on display at the museum

Marina had started working in 1995. She was with Urbana at the time. Then in 2005 she started out on her own with Marina Tabassum Architects. Some of her significant works which found place in the exhibition include the Baitur Rauf Masjid which won the 2006 Aga Khan Award, the Swadhinata Stambha (Independence Tower) in Suhrawardy Udyan, homes for the Rohingya refugees and more.

The exhibition opened on 9 February this year and will continue on to 11 June. Three types of Marina Tabassum's works are on display here: rural, suburban and urban.

Hundreds of such creations are being exhibited in three different rooms. This is her first solo exhibition. While other Bangladeshi architects have had exhibitions in the gallery, this is the first time the museum has exhibited the works of a Bangladeshi architect. She has taken part is exhibits jointly with others previously. Her work was on display at the Swiss Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the White Chapel Gallery.

At the opening of the event, Marina Tabassum was presented with her honorary doctorate degree. At least 800 visitors were present at the event. It was amazing, she said, adding that till date over 20,000 persons have visited the exhibition. This event has piqued interest in getting to know Bangladesh.

Dhaka work at the museum

Rather than a run-of-the-mill catalogue for the exhibition, a publisher came up with an attractive architectural book covering her 28 years in the profession. The book highlights her architectural designs and the story behind her creations.

One installation in her exhibition is made up of all natural material. It has been displayed at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Then the Berlin Technical Institute took it and kept it at their natural building lab. And it was taken from there to be installed at this exhibition. It is the yard of rural Bangladesh that has been depicted here.

At the Venice Biennale

The design was done in such a manner that it does not seem just an architectural model on display, but so that there is a tangible feel of Bangladesh, she says. Other than architectural students and teachers, many came on tours to see the exhibition.

In the meantime, this is becoming a touring exhibition. When it ends on 11 June, Marina Tabassum Architects will take this caravan to the Netherlands. An exhibition will be held there in the second half of this year in Rotterdam or Delft. From there, the exhibition will move on to the Portuguese capital Lisbon. The exhibition will take off there from April 2024 at the biggest cultural centre there, the Centro Cultural De Belém (CCB). She hopes to take her show to other cities too, particularly London and New York.

Actually this is not a mundane exhibit of architectural structures and accessories. It is also not just Marina Tabassum Architects' 28 years of work on display. In a larger sense, it has become an exposé of Bangladesh through the creations of an architect.