The name of Muzharul Islam will forever be etched in history as the shaper of Modern architecture in Bangladesh. It was by his hands and through his efforts that modern urbanization in Bangladesh initially began. His pioneering work from the 1950s sparked a revolution that continues to this day. Muzharul Islam also paved the way for establishing formal organizations to oversee city planning and numerous other institutes for architects. He is considered the most influential architect of Bangladesh and the grand master of regional modernism in South Asia. So let’s take a moment to learn about the man himself and how he helped shape the country’s architectural scene.
Muzharul Islam was born on Christmas day in 1923 at his maternal grandparents’ home in Murshidabad. He was a well-traveled and well-educated man with great vision and talent for architecture. Although his first Bachelor’s degree was in Physics, his passion for architecture took him to the University of Oregon on a scholarship where he attained a second Bachelor’s degree in architecture. After that, he studied tropical architecture at the AA School of Architecture in London and completed his post-graduation from Yale. It was there that he met Paul Rudolph and Stanley Tigerman; the rest of the ‘American Trio’.
Those who knew him intimately or worked with him often echo his humility. He was a person who clearly understood his strengths as well as his weaknesses and always chose the right path for the greater good. For example, the design work for the national parliament was initially given to him; who at the time was a government architect. However, it was his view that such a significant structure should be designed only by a master architect so that it could be a continuous source of reference for future generations. It was also him who persuaded Louis I. Kahn to come to then East Pakistan and take up the mantle.
Muzharul Islam’s views on architecture were considered ‘radical’ during the 50’s when the prevalent architectural language was Indo-Saracenic. This tone, which is a hybrid of Mughal and colonial traditions, was seen by Muzharul Islam as ignoring the cultural identity of the Bengali people. According to him, the same architectural style should not be used to create structures of different cultures. Architects should develop consciousness in the context of the city and cities should be in the context of geography, climate, and culture. Bengali culture is unique and its architecture should breakaway from pre-imposed designs set by previous rulers to help establish a Bengali identity.
He also believed that physical planning could be used to better the environment; that our traditional relationship with nature should be continued when designing cities. By this, he meant that the goal of city development should be to eliminate differences between urban and rural areas. Muzharul Islam was also strongly against symbols and what they might represent. According to him, symbols limit our perception and our views. As such, architecture should not be symbolic but rather achieve situated modernism that is sensitive to the context in a more thoughtful and lasting way.
No other individual has contributed more to Bangladesh’s architecture than Muzharul Islam. He lit the spark of modernity in architecture in Bangladesh almost single-handedly. The struggles of Bangladeshi people to preserve their culture after the partition and during the language movement greatly influenced Muzharul Islam’s view on how to shape the country’s architecture for future generations. His first noteworthy projects came in the form of designing the College of Arts and Crafts (currently the ‘Institute of Fine Arts’ of Dhaka University) and the Public Library (currently the Dhaka University Library). He took this opportunity to rebel against the then existing norms and began an architectural revolution.
Next, he designed the town of Rangamati. The city we see today is based on his design. He went on to design many other housing projects and buildings which earned him wide recognition. And it was through his foresight & efforts that the creation of the Physical Planning Ministry of Pakistan was possible. His other noteworthy projects include designing the 27-storied Jiban Bima Bhaban as well as the Chittagong University and the Jahangir Nagar University. The master plans for both the Chittagong University and Jahangir Nagar University, including all the buildings, were designed by him. Even during the latter years of his career, never let off. Some of his works during that period include designing the National Library and the World Bank office in Dhaka.
Muzharul Islam’s foresight and passion to modernize the country is widely accepted as unparalleled by both the Pakistani and Bangladeshi governments. He had great vision on how to develop different regions and areas of Bangladesh and spoke about how Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibar Rahman himself used to counsel with him about city and rural planning before his untimely death.
Muzharul Islam is widely-regarded by the world’s architect community as one of the most gifted architects of this region. He has presided over both the ‘Institute of Architects Bangladesh’ and the ‘Institute of Architects Pakistan’ a number of times. It is also no surprise that an architect of Muzharul Islam’s caliber received numerous awards throughout his career including the IAB Gold Award, The Grand Master Award at the South Asian Architecture Awards, and the Independence Day Award.
He has been a jury member for many national and international design competitions and awards. His understanding and judgment of architectural concepts were highly revered. As such, he was chosen to be a jury member of the first Aga Khan Award for Architecture. He was also a juror for the Faisal Mosque designing competition in Islamabad and competition to design the Islamic Development Bank headquarters in Jeddah. In 1999, Muzharul Islam was also awarded an honorary fellowship by the American Institute of Architects for his contributions.
While Muzharul Islam may have left the world in 2012, he left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire for many generations to come. He worked tirelessly to build the foundation of architecture in Bangladesh and paved the way for prominent architects of today. He is revered as an architectural ‘Guru’ and has been cited as an inspiration by architects in this region. One of his greatest gifts to Bangladesh’s architectural scene was opening its doors and inviting the world’s greatest architectural minds. The country’s architectural landscape has advanced leaps and bounds thanks to his contributions.
Muzharul Islam was an influential figure in this region’s architecture scene for the latter half of the twentieth century. In his fifty-year career as an architect, he had been at the forefront of setting the architectural trend of Bangladesh. He mapped out a great portion of what urban development in Bangladesh should be. And that is why he will be always regarded as the shaper of modern architecture in Bangladesh.