An architect may face a lot of challenges when designing a building, least of all the fact not everyone might comprehend his or her concept. But when he and his client share and understand each other's visions, work together, and have mutual respect, it results in wonders.
Ninakabbo is the upshot of such a relationship between multi-talented architect Enamul Karim Nirjhar and his poetry-loving client Reaz Uddin Al Mamoon, managing director of Epyllion Group.
A 100 crore taka project, Ninakabbo is an intermingling of poetry and architecture. Located at the commercial junction of Tejgaon-Gulshan link road in the capital, it is not just a building, but a piece of artwork that delineates the coexistence of architecture and poetry.
Aside from connecting the corporate culture to the rich Bengali literature, it also blends with nature to grow together. The facade of the building is designed metaphorically with verses of poems of 12 leading poets of Bengali literature.
The verses on the glass walls seep into the interior so that a person sitting in the lounge or at reception can feel an attachment. The transparency of the space reminds one that nothing is hidden here. A 150-foot atrium allows ample natural light for all the floors, while the visible skyline reminds visitors of nature all around.
The roof garden facilitates an in-house gathering space, encouraging a sense of belongingness. Instead of naming floors in a typical way, each floor is named after an eminent poet. The layout and zoning of space is kept simple for flexible commercial use.
The absence of boundary walls welcomes people to gather outside the building, making them feel like the space is their own, and keeping the area alive. The design incorporates a smooth flow of thoughts, ideas, and inspirations, something we seldom think of incorporating in a commercial building. The 12 different verses from outside look like an island and altogether compose another poem.
"Every language carries the connotation of compassion, and poetry can never be ruthless," said Nirjhar, founder and principal architect of SYSTEM architects-EKNC, which built the project. "There are many layers of the project. When we started thinking about it, we planned to dedicate the building to poets, making it a witness that testifies to the passage of time."
For Nirjhar, architecture is a philosophy. He wanted to show how a building can become an inspiration for a city. "It is a corporate building. Basically, business-oriented people work here. When I approached Mamoon bhai with the idea, he listened to me patiently and accepted the proposal."
Each of the 12 floors, excluding a common one (the ground floor), is named after a poet and features his or her portrait sketch and a poem. The floors are named after poets like Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Sukanta Bhattacharya, Jasimuddin, Jibanananda Das, Sufia Kamal, Shamsur Rahman, Ahsan Habib, and Nirmalendu Goon. The verses of the poems are themed around humanism, patriotism, independence, morality, etc.
Journalist and poet Sajjad Sharif curated the verses written by the 12 poets while artist-professor Shishir Bhattacharjee sketched the portraits of the poets.
"We experimented a lot to write the verses on concrete and got the poems imprinted with ceramics on glass done in china," said Nirjhar. "The tough task was to inscribe the correctly spelt words on concrete."
There is a small wall outside the building and people can sit on it. The building has been designed in a way so that people can feel an attachment to it.
"People do not spit and make the premises dirty. A kind of fraternity grows because of the social gathering," Nirjhar said.
"I believe in the power of architecture, which is what creates good memories in us. In this project, two contradictory aspects – the concrete and sublime – have been merged. Corporate people get acquainted with the essence of literature when they get into the building. This is important."
The building teems with sunlight, natural air, and greenery. Ninakabbo has so far bagged the Berger Award for Excellence in Architecture and the IAB Design Award. It was also nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Its most important achievement so far has a story behind it. Mumbai-based businessman Ramesh Jain, chairman of Rishab World, was once passing Tejgaon on his way to Gulshan. He suddenly came across the building and got mesmerised with its architecture.
He entered the building and tried to find the name of the architect, which was not written anywhere. He finally found Nirjhar with the help of his business partner in Bangladesh. He also wanted him to design a building that will feature his life's journey in his mother tongue.
Thus, SYSTEM architects-EKNC started SYSTEM architects India-SAI, a new journey of collaboration with Indian young architects and entrepreneurs in Mumbai.
Writing texts in mother tongue has become a significant characteristic of contemporary architectural practice. "I also designed Faridur Reza Sagar (managing director of Channel i) bhai's residence that features the names of our rivers that are still alive. As rivers flow to the sea, their culmination matches with Sagor bhai's name, which in English means the sea," said Nirjhar.
"I recently completed two similar projects called Mormo and Jukto, where I used written language. Two things are important for architecture. One is process and the other is practice. With the amalgamation of these two, a unique thing appears."
The work of architecture is also associated with his other creative ventures like music, film, graphic design, photography, and painting.
In reply to the question why he attempts to use language in architecture, he said, "As a proud Bangladeshi, I feel a responsibility to highlight the unique identity of our glorious history, struggle, independence, culture, and literature.
"As our predecessors understood the significance of our mother language, they laid down their lives in 1952. Again, we achieved independence through a bloody war in 1971."
Nirjhar always prefers naming a building in Bangla. "Language creates a connection. I want to make a bridge between the oral language and the language of architecture to feature humanism and address social crises."
"I also want to create an urge to solve the crisis of the human spirit with architectural work of such kind. We, SYSTEM architects-EKNC, have launched new terms like AAR (Architecture As Responsibility) and ISR (Intellectual Social Responsibility) that speak of socio-cultural and intellectual aspects of architectural projects."
SYSTEM architects-EKNC designed Amar Ekushey Book Fair in 2019 and 2020 as part of ISR. "We did not take money for the job. Under our ISR, we aesthetically arranged the book fair, incorporating architecture and social considerations, which is a big thing," said Nirjhar.
"We made an architectural connection between the Swadhinata Stambha and the book fair in 2019. This year, we are celebrating Bangladesh's golden jubilee. We are thinking of arranging it in a different manner so that people can cherish the memory of the upcoming book fair for a long time," he concluded.