WOHA is one of the critically acclaimed contemporary architectural practices that earned reputation for it’s climate responsive sustainable architecture. Working over different continents and (therefore)in diversified climatic conditions WOHA received numerous awards for their skillful implementation of technological aspects while respecting the context. culture and humanity. Ar Wong Mun Summ, being one of the founders of WOHA, emphasizes on reading a culture with respect to its context and implement his knowledge to create a rational piece instead of, what he says ‘the Vanity part’ of Architecture. CONTEXT team met him few weeks ago to learn his views form a global architect’s perspective.
1. When you work in a new context, how do you start? What considerations do you make?
We travel quite a bit and work in many countries. I think the most important thing is to acknowledge the fact that each place, each location is set in a completely different context. We need to be sensitive and be able to observe the differences and think how we can apply our knowledge in diverse situations. One of the crucial things is climate which makes a lot of difference to architecture and the kind of building typologies that you can adopt in a particular context. At the same time, one must think of ways to innovate, keeping the differences in mind. For us, climate is the biggest generator and modifier for design followed next by culture. Different cultures have evolved over history to affect the way people live. That’s something we need to acknowledge. We need to talk to people and understand the way things are done in a particular location. There are several things that unify mankind – we all need a roof over our heads, but creating comfort is a simple thing. Subtleties apply to how people live their lives. We observe the differences in people’s livesand make changes in our designsaccordingly.
2. WOHA is commissioned to design BRAC University campus in Dhaka. Could you point out some issues that you appraised before starting the project?
As a part of the adjudication for Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2006, Professor Zainab F. Ali of BRAC University came to study our building, No. 1 Moulmein Rise in Singapore. Once we met,she invited us to come to Dhaka to give a talk and to understand the city, so we delivered a lecture at BRAC University. Later we were asked to consider taking on the BRAC University campus project. In the process we visited Dhaka, and as part of the trip, we were shown the rich architectural heritage of Bangladesh. Dhaka is blessed, not only historically, but also with modern architecture heritage – from Louis Kahn’s Parliament House to recent projects. Since Dhaka has such a rich heritage, we were honoured to come and experience the city ourselves. Louis Kahn is one of my inspirations in architecture, and to be able to see someone who is from the temperate zone, adapting some of his ideas for Dhaka,i.e the tropics, was very awe-inspiring. That was something we have always been affected by- seeing how tropical architecture should be different from the temperate zone and the ways we could evolve the ideas of temperate zone in the tropical build. Seeing someone, who was one of the great modernist architects, to have considered that, was a true source of inspiration for us.
3. We want to know more about your perception of Dhaka as a city and its development potential.
For us, Dhaka may not necessarily be a well-developed city from a planning perspective, but nevertheless it has organic development, which we appreciate as well. What is equally interesting and empowering for us is to see how we can bring our thinking and strategies to Dhaka in a sensitive way and help the city and country develop a new set of directions for architecture. We have travelled and worked in many places around the world. We have seen developed and developing cities. We have been able to see how a developing city can improve and pick the right direction. An organic city needs a set of good principles to follow. One of the important objectives of the BRAC University project was to see how it could be a catalyst for sensitive development and proper direction, not just for architecture, but also for the city as a whole. We would like to place our project as an inspiration for a new generation of architects and developers to build better in Dhaka.
4. Sounds like you were keen to set the project as an example.
Correct, setting an example is always very important. We saw the site and the challenges, we felt it was necessary for us to demonstrate what can be an appropriate solution for this university and also a building for Dhaka, combining the richness of architecture that exists in Dhaka and to bring good examples, attitudes and strategies to set the right path.
5. We saw a lecture by a Singaporean environmentalist a few days ago, who showed some images of his city from 1967 and discussed how Singapore has got to the point where it is now. In 1967 Singapore and Dhaka were more or less in the same development condition. To our benefit we (Bangladesh) had agricultural and mining resources unlike Singapore which was more of a business district. Singapore has come a long way and positions itself as one of the strongest developed cities in Asia. What do you think went inappropriate for Dhaka?
That is a tricky question. Singapore is very blessed, we had a leader with a good sense of governance, Lee Kuan Yew. Two key ways of achieving growth were good vision and no corruption. The hallmark of good vision was how much he put emphasis on housing and education in order to develop the city. These two things were tackled robustly from the early stages of independence. People became well-educated and well-trained, and were given a shelter over their head very quickly. Home ownership percentage is almost 80-85% in Singapore, which is unheard of in other countries. That makes a lot of difference. When the basic needs are addressed, the city moves very quickly. Clearly, good governance is necessary for all cities in the world.
6. So, you mean to say it is important to focus on social development initially, before moving on to some other parameters?
In our modern context, communication is very different from the past. Nowadays we have the opportunity for a bottom-up kind of communication. Singapore has always followed a top-down approach of decision making. To think whether it is possible to have a bottom-up governance for new development would be very interesting. Increasingly, I’m noticing how social order can be created through a bottom-up approach in modern world. With social media in place, people can demand for good governance, they can do checks onthe decision making of authorities. We as citizens need to treat social media as a good platform to make positive changes, not hide behind a computer screen and make cowardly, hateful comments. Dhaka has the potential for that kind of change. Developing cities can use technology and leap into the future and join the ranks of developed cities, I believe that is very empowering. In today’s globalised world technology is not just restricted to wealthy countries, technology has now come to a point where it is very affordable. In Africa, homes can now have solar panels. One solar panel can provide enough energy in a home to support basic needs like clean water and lighting. Alternative energy use technology has brought change in the world today. A place like Dhaka can recognize this potential. It is very possible and is an interesting thing to follow in the next few decades. The transformation can be very effective and cities like Dhaka could make the quantum leap into the future.
However, it is also very important to adopt the right policies. People should not be only worrying about themselves, they should be looking at the bigger picture and a larger extent and see the potential of the city.
7. Bangladesh is a growing economy. What is your advice for young architects who are just starting off their career?
Architecture is an interesting discipline, but there is a tendency for architects to become inward looking and locked in the trend of serving only the rich and wealthy. People think architecture is all about beauty and proportion. But there is also a social aspect of architecture that young architects should understand and they must be empowered to work on strategies to improve the way the majority of people live, not just a small affluent percentage of the population. In Dhaka, that should be the fundamental drive in architecture. Dhaka being one of the less developed and less wealthy cities, should have people who feel the need to do more. The vanity part of architecture should be played down. We all want to do beautiful projects. But it is equally necessary for architects to do the right thing. It becomes good architecture when you can do both. I hope architects do not only see one side of what architecture is all about. That is always my message for young architects and students- learn to see the wider perspective.
Narrator: Azizul Mohith and Forhat Afzal
Editor: Azizul Mohith
CONTEXT Contributor: Forhat Afzal is an Academic Associate in Bengal Institute of Architecture, Landscape and Settlement, Dhaka, Bangladesh.