Recently in the month of Ramadan, while I was passing idle time with my family in our living room, I saw a news bulletin about terrorist attack. Which shook the very core of myself and I believed the same happened too many of us. But it’s nothing new happening to mankind, humanity has suffered the scar of slavery, caste system, racism, crusade and what not; only because we don’t think having two eyes, ears, an evolved brain and a beating heart inside the rib cage of our body make us human. We are divided into classes. The concept of Noblesse has corrupted our heart and diverted us from true kindness and humanity. Throughout the ages, human society was so complicated that scholars from the time of Plato to Nietzsche have said that “Classless society is a myth”, it is a utopian theory. But, is it really?
What does classless society mean in our time? Here it’s important what we think, my belief is, “A classless society is defined as one in which people’s life chances are achieved through merit, rather than ascribed on the basis of inherited advantage”. I dream of a day when boys from a fishermen village becoming a scientist like APJ Abdul Kalam is not exceptional rather a regular phenomenon.
Poets have their powerful words of revolution, politicians have tricks on their sleeves, businessmen have the trade and money, even actors have the charisma to influence mass people for a greater good. What do we Architects have? How can we contribute to our social fabric? As architects, we want to believe that architecture affects the quality of life.
Sir Norman Foster said that- “Architecture is an expression of values”. These words give me a vision about not only the future of buildings but also humanity. A pure architecture of any era impacts on our psychological and cultural identities. Architecture holds evolution of society by physically manifesting items of culture in the form of spatial construction where the representation of culture meets the human mind in a multisensory way. In mundane words, from great Egyptian pyramids to Great Wall of China, from Red square to Taj Mahal all show us what we are and what wonder we can do.
Passionate I find the history of the world as a history of architecture. Building something big and greater than us is always our dream whether an Architect or not. Winston Churchill said that-‘ we shape our buildings and they shape us ‘. Once our ancestor had converted Pagan religious buildings into Christian churches, Christian patriarchal basilica (church) into Hagia Sophia (mosque) and many ornamented stone columns of Hindu temple were used to made new mosques in this Indian subcontinent and we adopted that change. Now a time has come when an architect may design ONE holy building for the prayers of every religion and in a foreseeable future, it becomes the common practice (there are some interfaith building in the USA).
While writing this down my mind already started to see the shape of that great place- in solid concrete, high and majestic, light enters there in a very designed way somewhat like the Church of light by Ar. Tadao Ando but the light is taking shape or forms like such that my words are not enough to explain the shades, space is so sacred for people to forget worldly things and only find the true and inner meaning of being in presence of the God. The interior manifests the motifs about all those great religions preached among people for their salvation not massacre. When I finally leave the space it guides me to peace, fraternity, tranquility, and equity. Secularists and Intellectuals like Emperor Akbar or Swami Vivekananda can think of this place but we architects can actually design it into reality. We materialize the mind into brick, stone, and concrete.
So far it may seem like I planned to build a castle in the sky, but it’s not. Visualization is very important in our projects. We have to visualize a society as a classless one. For us, designing affordable housing for lower income group of people should be equally important as to design a house for affluent. We believe in the rights of shelter for everyone. But a shelter is nowhere as loving as home. My last project was designing affordable housing for lower income group of people at Bhathkhola, Sylhet. That is located in the downtown of the city and I could not believe myself seeing their condition. I’ve seen a level of poverty in rural areas and read a lot in books but the description has not done any justice on them. They work, cook, eat, and sleep in one room. Most families have more than 6 members staying in one place layering themselves in bed and floor. There were only two or three toilets for fifty/sixty households. In the designing process, we all tried to provide basic needs for them. Then one idea struck me and we include a reading table in the room thinking that the child who might be studying in an NGO school but he has a place to keep his books safe in that table, he may also read there. That reading table is the most important furniture in that room because we can’t expect a child to be a literate one if we can’t even provide him a space for his growth. Here we can say along with Hoffman, ‘Ideal or improved residential environment will better the behavior as well as the conditions of its inhabitants’. Good design can take place in the affordable housing realm. We just have to imagine.
By one single night in drafting table, we can’t save the society from the chasm of the abyss. Slowly but surely we are making our way through. Habitat for Humanity, Architects without Borders, Architecture for Humanity etc. are working for us. And we have our very own Ar. Hasibul Kabir, whose work and achievements regarding this are remarkable. He not only worked for making the dream of a house coming true for the people of Jhenidah slum area but also he boosted up their self-esteem. This psychological development is important because now we can expect the coming generation of those slums have a dream which they believe they can make true with hard work and affords.
Great architect Le Corbusier was also a philosopher and a thinker. He through his projects transmitted that scientifically rational and comprehensive solution in design promotes democracy and quality of life. He was so sure of architects’ role in social transformation, he proclaimed “Architecture or Revolution”- architecture as a means to stop the revolution. On the other hand, the architects of post-revolutionary Russia saw architecture as a way of supporting the aims and ideals of a Marxist revolution.
The question arises again, “Can Architecture make a classless society solely through design principles?” I’m thinking of a possibility now from all these but the result is yet mystified.
Ghirardo argued that “Architecture of substance” goes beyond “trivial details” like formal elements and it doesn’t take into account the social and political realities and aspirations. He believed that those who tried to relieve social ills singularly through design ignored the fundamental causes of problems- “the power structure, racism, manipulation of land values, prices”. As architects, we should have some principles about equity and practice that in our design. Corbusier already said that- ‘Chairs are architecture and sofas are bourgeois’.
To achieve the desired goal our architecture shouldn’t be bound only with attaching and joining materials as per the working drawing rather it should also be a composition of life. It is a “psychotecture” (psychology + architecture) which works on the minds of people on different levels who come in direct or indirect contact with the architecture.
The critical thinking abilities of an architect are unique. Architects already work with human behavior and psychology, as we know it was all planned to make us awed when we enter Saint Peter’s Basilica or Bangladesh National Assembly Building. Working with the plan to elevate our so well adored class conflicted social behavior is not easy and not a job for a day or even the job for a single generation. Class system is not going to evaporate on the heat of headlines or breaking news. As architects, we have to carefully observe the social functions and carefully implant the theory of change into the users mind one step at a generation.
As experiments, we can think about a super shop, where it is more like our traditional bazaar space, where people from all groups can buy grocery from there without feeling self-conscious. We can limit the number of super shops while planning a city block so that our traditional shops can flourish again where people from all classes mingle. We might plan a walkway around the city by which corporate job holder, elites, lawmakers may have evening walk while common people use it for circulation. We have to do careful cross-pollination of functions so that no one sees the street only from the blackened window of an air-conditioned car. While elevating the self-actualization of the common, unprivileged group we can also bring silver spooned one more down to earth for their own well.
I would like to conclude describing my favorite example of an already classless space. Grameenphone Head office or GP Centre at Dhaka by Ar. Mustapha Khalid Plash. This multistoried iconic office building is only divided into working sections like HR admin, accounts, engineering etc. at each floor. If we enter a floor like HR admin, we’ll find no special decorated and glass surrounded room for the admin manager or special desk for section seniors. The whole floor is an open see-through space with various table formations with two, five and more. Employees come here in the morning and choose the place he is going to sit on for the day on the basis of first to come, section head and the junior officers alike. No privatization or influence of typical power structure. Some common stationery like stapler, james clip, pen, pencil, photocopier etc. are kept in a removable room middle of the floor for everyone to use. At first, there were cases of missing things or petty theft of these things but with time behavior changed and developed into a co-operative one, which was envisioned by the architect. We get our so desired results of change through architecture. No surprise that they are one of the most efficient companies in our country.
The classless society I dream is not one without differences, it will contain rich and limited income people, fair skinned and black people, Hindu- Muslim- Christian- Buddhist and all others. Where there will be millionaires only it wouldn’t be a very difficult thing to be rich. Rather it will be important to be a valuable person of this society by contributing it through merit in science, math, music, paint and all other creative things with human values that will make us so humane.
You may say I’m a dreamer… But I’m not the only one.
‘Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace’
Helena Jubany, NAA Architects
‘Architecture or revolution’- Le Corbusier