Architect and environmentalist Zarina Hossain is a professor at Sylhet’s Leading University. She is also the president of the Sylhet unit of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) and general secretary of the Forum for Planned Chittagong. She speaks to Prothom Alo about the decision to demolish Kamalpur Railway Station, TSC and other symbolic structures of the country.
Initiative has been take to allot Kamalapur Railway Station and its adjacent areas to a private organisation. That means this station, which stands as a symbolic structure, is to be demolished. What are your thoughts about this?
Kamalapur Railway Station is a symbol of our country’s modern architecture. Such a structure in the humid and hot climate of the county provides space to huge numbers of people and is a shining example of a high standard of architecture in design and structural innovation. I think it is absolutely wrong to demolish such a heritage structure simply for commercial purposes when it still remains functional.
But the need to increase the railways’ revenue and develop its infrastructure is also a reality.
The people of our country give priority to the railway as an affordable and safe means of travel and commute. Keeping that in mind, the railway can increase its revenue by means of a creative plan and effective management. It will not be necessary to destroy heritage in the name of development. And there are vast tracts of railway land all over the country that have been illegally occupied or are just lying unused. That land can be used for income-generation projects run on public and private sector joint initiative.
There has also been talk about demolishing the Teacher Student Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University to give place to a new structure. Architects and city planners have vehemently opposed this.
TSC is not just a building. It encompasses so many cultural and political memories of Dhaka University, so much history. The structural plan of the building is both functional and aesthetic. It symbolises our entrance into the modern age of architecture. It is only natural that architects cannot accept its demolition and have raised demands for its conservation.
Do you have any alternative proposals for this?
The Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) has made a special team comprising the country’s finest architects. They have collected the master plan of Dhaka University and have identified its various buildings, land and the usage of these. A team of IAB met with the vice chancellor of Dhaka University and shared their views with him. A competition is also being arranged for an architectural design to meet Dhaka University’s expanding demands, keeping TSC intact.
Civil society stood up and thwarted the recent attempts in Chattogram to take over the home of Deshpriyo Jatindra Mohan Sen. It has been saved for the time being, but the land grabbers have an eye on it.
A city’s livability sinks to the lowest level, if its history and heritage is neglected. Land grabbers are always on a look out for an opportunity and target the socially and politically weak class. It is most unfortunate that they had the audacity to reach out towards the home of Deshpriyo Jatindra Mohan Sen. But it is also encouraging that the civil society thwarted their attempts. The administration should take measures to permanently protect such heritage from future attempts by land grabbers to take over these properties.
There is the Abu Sinha students’ hostel in Sylhet, the Khamarbari in Farmgate, many buildings in Old Dhaka and numerous other structures that have either been torn down or are in a state of neglect. What can be done to preserve these?
The two specific structures you have mentioned here are monuments of a particular time and of a particular architectural style. The Abu Sinha hostel in Sylhet is an example of Assam’s architecture and construction tenets of 1870. This was the oldest building in Sylhet and Sylhet’s first hospital that was even used during World War II. Even after public protests and assurances from the top political leadership of Sylhet, the building could not be saved.
The manner in which Khamarbari in Farmgate, Dhaka, and the Abu Sinha students’ hostel in Sylhet, have been demolished cannot be an example of urban development in a democratic country. Our country’s urban perceptions, plans and functioning are institutionally limited and legally weak. That is why we cannot save our heritage, despite our protests.
In the face of a citizens’ movement, the government had to move away from the plan to demolish the court house in Chattogram that had been built in British colonial times. But the expansive gardens and grounds could not be saved. How can one address the burgeoning population as well as space constraints?
The population of a city will increase in normal progression. And additionally, there can be an influx of people from the rural areas in search of livelihood. A city’s master plan takes the increasing of population into account. It indicates where and how the population will spread and also has recommendations. These were mentioned in the 1961 master plan of Chattogram. But when it came to management, none of this was taken into account. And that is why there are now slums in place of the beautiful gardens and grounds of the court building in Chattogram.
Kantajir Mandir in Dinajpur is still a major tourist attraction but due to lack of proper care, its intricate terracotta work is crumbling away. What initiatives should be taken in such matters?
Kantajir Mandir is a rare example of terracotta art in this subcontinent, but there is no proper effort to preserve it. The temple is on a beautiful rural setting, but the route to reach it is arduous. And there are signs of mismanagement all around the temple. It does not seem as if there is any competent in charge of caring for the main building and its surroundings. On the western side of the temple is the Ansar camp’s row of tin houses. The entrance is crowded with vendors and their carts. There is no clean restroom. If these problems would be addressed, the number of tourists would increase. An entrance fee could even be charged. All over the world now, tourism is a thriving source of revenue in the public and private sector.
We have an archeological department, but how effective has it been in preserving our architecture and heritage?
Actually we need to set up a heritage council or commission on a national level, comprising architects, planners, historians and cultural-minded people under whom plans can be made for the country’s heritage, artifacts and historical structures to be categorised and conserved. There must be a policy or guidelines under which the development authorities, the city corporation or local government can take initiative to preserve our heritage. The citizens, intellectuals and political leadership must understand that history does not necessarily mean ruins. There is much for us to be proud of in that trove of the past. These are symbols of the strength of our ancestors, these are chapters of our history. We must not deprive our future generations of this.
*This interview has appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir