Apart from its structural significance, innovative designs and adaptable climatic and geographical context, KRS, a unique architectural milestone of the 1960s, marks the journey of modern architecture in this part of the world
Insensible urban planning and design can often adversely impact architectural heritage of a country, resulting in both historical and cultural discontinuity and identity crisis of a certain place.
In developed countries, landmarks and heritage, both natural and man-made, are carefully preserved for posterity. Tourists visit a place to see the identifying structure and iconic heritage, both tangible and intangible, as they embody the cultural soul of a nation.
But in Dhaka, the development planning process starts with erasing our identity and the past. Dhaka, which boasts some landmark architectures, is in the process of becoming a city of shopping malls and a shapeless concrete jungle, if the current trends continue. The evolving city will be one without identity and soul.
Daniel Dunham and Robert Boughey of Louis Berger and Consulting Engineers Ltd. designed Kamalapur Railway Station (KRS) terminal building in the 1960s as a symbolic gateway to Dhaka. It symbolises the modern architecture of Dhaka.
When the New Jersey-based consultants completed the design and constructed the KRS's thin concrete shell dome-umbrella design, it became something of a local icon, with many prominent Bangladeshi architects considering it an invaluable piece of cultural heritage.
But with an expansion of Dhaka's metro lines, the iconic architecture is facing the threat of demolition. We hear of the possibility of demolishing the iconic KRS and erecting a copy some 130 metre away, to accommodate the metro rail project currently under construction.
Architect Ehsan Khan, vice-president of Institute of Architects Bangladesh, criticised the idea of demolishing KRS.
"The parasol roof of the station continues to provide a unique skyline," he pointed out. "It's a gateway that symbolises the architectural energy, defining the urban persona of the city, a master piece."
To accommodate a huge function under a single roof, and resembling traditional Islamic architecture, were the main challenges of designing KRS. The lofty lobby, pavilion-like open floor with low structures holding functional spaces, and the spectacular super-roof form the first foretaste of Dhaka in someone's mind.
It took local craftsmen nearly a decade to build KRS, with a sequence of multiple architects at Berger consultants developing its design. The first was Daniel Dunham, a young architect who had just completed his studies at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD) when Berger hired him to lead its fledgling Dhaka office and take on an extensive backlog of new projects.
Dunham enthusiastically embedded himself in Bangladeshi culture, learning Bengali and adapting to local craft and construction practices. Having researched tropical architecture as a Fulbright Scholar in Morocco, he expressed a deep interest in environmental design through his early architectural work.
Rather than design an enclosed monolith with mechanical heating and cooling systems for Dhaka's central railway station, Dunham intended to take advantage of the city's tropical climate.
He devised a roof system that provides an umbrella of shade over the station's offices and facilities, supported by a versatile field of columns. It was to be built using thin concrete shells, a construction technique that Dunham investigated as part of his thesis at the GSD.
The open-air scheme takes advantage of Dhaka's cross breezes while shielding interior spaces from monsoon downpours.
When Dunham left Berger to help lead the new Architecture Department at what is now called Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the Pratt-educated architect Robert Boughey took over his post.
Boughey designed tessellating concrete shells for the roof that recalled the pointed arches of some Islamic architecture. Cast on-site with reusable wooden molds, the shells became KRS's defining architectural feature.
Elaborating on the architectural significance KRS, FatemaTasmia, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, BUET, said, "Apart from its structural significance, innovative designs and adaptable climatic and geographical context, KRS, a unique architectural milestone of the 1960s, marks the journey of modern architecture in this part of the world."
Concerned over the authorities' move to demolish it, she asserted, "Development is inevitable and necessary; but it should not be carried out erasing our history and heritage. Complete demotion of KRS will deprive the succeeding generations from experiencing our glorious architecture and cultural landmarks."
The landmark has assumed its own prominent position in the architectural identity of Dhaka. The reproduction of the station's likeness is common in both local memorabilia and imitative design from other parts of the country.
The Sylhet Railway Station in the north-eastern part of the country, for instance, uses a similar umbrella structure to cover its facilities, with lotus-shaped shells supported by a forest of columns.
In Dhaka, images of the city's famous train station appear on postcards, stamps, and even decorative paintings on the backs of rickshaws.
Kamalapur's open halls are traversed by thousands of ordinary Dhaka residents every day. With a patchwork of signage and posters now dotting the building's discoloured surfaces, it has assumed a character that some consider inimitable—a notion that has only made the demolition announcement more difficult to accept.
The government plans to tear down KRS in order to accommodate an extension of the Dhaka Metro Rail's Line-6, an elevated train route, which aims to ferry upwards of 60,000 passengers per hour.
The metro rail is part of the country's Strategic Transport Plan (STP), a scheme devised by the Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DCTA) to ease the city's extreme levels of road congestion. For a metropolis that is growing faster than almost any other Asian city, mass transit projects could provide critical relief for an already inundated transport infrastructure system.
Plans put forth by the Japanese construction firm Kajima Corporation have already been approved by Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan, and the demolition will purportedly allow the DCTA to use Kamalapur as an effective multimodal hub for several new and existing train lines, though no site drawings have been released. The minister has also promised that an exact replica of the existing structure will be built just to the north of its current site.
Many local and international architects have criticised the decision as an unnecessary act of destruction, reflecting misplaced priorities and insufficient coordination between agencies. While hardly anyone disputes the need for new and improved rail infrastructure, prominent figures like Qazi Azizul Mowla, a Professor of Urban Design at BUET, suggest that the DCTA's goals could be achieved without demolishing KRS.
Renowned architect Iqbal Habib identified KRS as one of Dhaka's few examples of symbolic architecture. The apparent apathy of Dhaka authorities towards the importance of leaving KRS in its original form is reflective of broader trends across South Asia, where municipal and national governments are typically slow to steward modernist, post-independence buildings as critical components of a nation's cultural heritage.
The final decision regarding the fate of KRS is now in the hands of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Architects are hoping that a reversal of the demolition plan will be considered seriously. KRS is heir to the former Eastern Bengal Railway and Assam-Bengal Railway networks of the colonial past. Western zone broad-gauge line and eastern zone metre-gauge are united here in Kamalapur. If the metro rail authority and railway authority work together with an aim to save this iconic modern building, it is still possible to do.
According to Professor Qazi Azizul Mowla, rapid and fragmented urbanisation and isolated developmental plans cause these destructions. He says it is a mindset of sectorial development planners who ignore all other relevant issues and concentrate solely on their own issues, and that is the main problem.
Development will necessitate some changes and some demolitions, but the priorities need to be fixed. According to him, if we can identify the root problems, there are many alternative ways to mitigate them.
Architectural heritage are susceptible to the impact of natural and man-made hazards and it is more obvious in the urban areas. With the massive rate of unplanned urbanisation, and the inherent risks or vulnerability that is faced by dense urban areas, there is a need for a specialised approach to handle multidisciplinary and multi-focused development endeavours in a holistic manner.
Saving this iconic building is not a big deal but requires some adjustment to the current metro rail terminal/hub design and coordination between the stakeholders. Professor Mowla's idea is not to end the metro rail at or near the Kamalapur Railway Station, but to extend it a little farther to the south towards Titipara area. The location is a railway land and currently houses the inland container warehouse, which the government already has a plan to move to a location outside the city.
To do this, the government doesn't need to acquire additional land and there is adequate space to construct the metro rail terminal or depot, or even a multimodal hub. Being on the same side of the road, an internal corridor may connect it with the KRS to transfer passengers smoothly to and from metro terminal and KRS. The idea seems workable, therefore, ABM Nurul Islam, a former BAEC and IAEA official, has urged the authorities concerned to consult the relevant BUET urban designers and save KRS and other landmark buildings for the posterity.