The Bangladesh Parliament: the world’s most impressive modern building?

The Bangladesh Parliament building, known in Bangla as Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, is perhaps the most impressive modern building I’ve encountered. The Sydney Opera House might be more striking from the outside, but doesn’t match the Bangladesh Parliament overall. The Pompidou Centre is tired. London’s National Theatre has similarities with the Bangladesh Parliament but falls well short. The Guggenheim buildings in New York and Bilbao and the Shard are all based essentially on one idea, but the Bangladesh Parliament has many ideas.

Outside

The building is perhaps the masterpiece of Louis Kahn, but he never saw the completed building.  I learnt some of this by watching the film My Architect, in which Kahn’s son goes in search of his father and his work. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/in-search-of-an-architect-and-a-father/ The building was commissioned as the Eastern Parliament of what was then one country, although geographically divided into West Pakistan and East Pakistan. But when it was finished, after the War of Liberation in which millions died, it became the Parliament of the new country of Bangladesh.

Kahn designed not just the main building but the whole complex, which comprises the lake in which the Parliament sits, the trees around the lake, and a cluster of buildings that originally were houses for MPs but now are mainly offices. Originally he was to have designed more, a whole capital.

When I arrived I saw the pale grey concrete towers of the Parliament across the greeny brown waters. The building has one central tower and eight surrounding towers; and it has nine floors, nine must be significant. As I look at the towers across the water I think of Mogul buildings, and they were clearly an inspiration to Kahn. But I think too if moated Norman castles.

We enter the building along a walkway. There are two levels, and evidently Kahn’s idea was that the MPs would enter on the lower level and the people above, reminding MPs that they are servants of the people not the other way round. That idea seems to have lapsed, as, indeed, has democracy in Bangladesh.

Light

As we enter the building we see a picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. The picture is in the centre of a round space, one of the towers, that has on the walls the plans for the building and pictures of the completed building.

We start our tour, and we see at once how Kahn has sculpted light in creating the building. Natural light comes from different angles, often through large geometric shapes–circles, triangles, and ovals–cut into the concrete. On every level there is ample space, and I know that I’m walking inside a magical building that celebrates calm, reason, democracy, law, justice, and free speech.

Form

Often as when walking through a rocky landscape a view opens up. From the seventh or eighth floor we stand on a wooden balcony looking down six or seven floors. One of the towers contains a mosque, where a shaft of light enters and reaches the ground, surely making everybody think of their God. We can’t enter the mosque as it’s the time for prayer: I glimpse rows of the backs of men on their knees with their faces to the ground and arms outstretched.

Much of the beauty of the building is in the careful use of materials. The grey concrete is left exposed with thin lines of marble running through it. The concrete has a softer feel than the concrete of the National Theatre in London, but the two buildings are the same in that the inside of the building is more important than the outside. The concrete and marble complement beautifully the dark wood that is used for doors, banisters, railings, and balconies. The use of wood reminds me of the palaces we saw in Mysore. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/the-exquisite-summer-palace-of-the-tiger-of-mysore/

We visit the library, which is at the heart if the building, emphasising the importance of study and learning, but the climax and centre of the building is rightly the huge space where the Parliament sits. We enter what is a round space, the central tower, high up and look down on the MPs. There must be as many seats for the public and press as for the MPs.

Chamber

The chamber doesn’t use the confrontational face to face style of the British Parliament but rather a semicircle facing a bench topped with the speaker’s chair as in Congress in the US. The Awami League, the government party, has around 260 of the 330 or so seats. At the back of the semicircle is a block of some 50 seats reserved for woman who are appointed rather than elected as MPs, in the same proportion as the elected parties.

It’s a wonderful open space with a high ceiling, contrasting with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the British House of Commons. MPs are allocated 15 minutes to speak, and we watch an MP from the Awami League rant through his 15 minutes while MPs come and go, chat, and read newspapers.

Us

Our tour complete we leave the building, and I’m left with the glow that wonderful architecture can produce. It’s a glow I associate most with ancient cathedrals. When creating the building Kahn described how he wanted to use space, light, and Bangladeshi heritage to create a “poetic entity.” He succeeded handsomely.

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