Architect Nazma Anwar was one of the three pioneering female students of the Faculty of Architecture in Dhaka established in 1962.   Born in 1943 in Rajshahi, architect Nazma Anwar spent her childhood in different places due to her father’s engineering job in the Roads and Highways. Her professional career began with Bangladeshi master architect Muzharul Islam.  Later she moved to Mymensingh and served as the project architect for Bangladesh Agricultural University. There she supervised the implementation of the masterplan designed by the world-renowned Architect Paul Rudolph. She is now living in Long Island, New York with the family of her elder daughter.

Architect Nazma Anwar took CONTEXT team on a trip down memory lane as we heard about where her passion for architecture began, her campus life, teacher-student relationships, professional projects, memorable moments, and eventually revealed the picture of 60’s progressive society in Bangladesh.

What inspired you to study architecture? Given your time as you are one of the first female architects of Bangladesh.

As my father was a civil engineer, from youth I saw him designing and planning structures for his clients and his government job. Blueprints were all over our house and I would trace them and try to draw random things. So, when I started studying BSC it didn’t intrigue me much and my father would inspire me to study architecture as I drew well. In my second year, September of 1962, the Faculty of Architecture commenced its journey. Immediately I took groundwork for the admission test. I and Wazeda Zafar took few art lessons with artist Mustafa Monwar (a famous puppeteer and tv personality). The admission was very competitive, out of 800 only 30 of us were selected to study architecture and we both were admitted. Three of us were females and the rest were males. The journey started with enthusiasm full of excitement and new encounters as we were the first batch of architecture students in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Our teachers used to discuss with us how to manage the courses. There was an amazing bond between teachers and students. I personally never felt any gender differences nor any special treatment as a female. We, as a whole, were dealt equally with a great deal of appreciation and help for what we were doing.

Offer a proportion of your lovely recollections of your understudy presence with your teachers and classmates back in EPUET now BUET.

If my memory serves me right, the very first class in this journey started with Professor Richard E. Vrooman. On the very first day, he walked in, asked us to settle down and began drawing on the blackboard. He established the basic idea of perspective drawn from a rectangle. Then explained what a vanishing point is and how without it a perspective cannot be drawn.  This was the first basic thing we learned about architecture.

We did basic design with artist Hamidur Rahman. We really enjoyed his course. Once he took us to Ramna park and asked us to draw a new leaf in every new minute. We got caught up with discovering leaves and then finish drawing within a span of a minute, it was a spontaneous class. As we were strolling back, the Shaheed Minar was on our way which was designed by Hamidur Rahman. Some of my curious cohorts were asking whether it is a justified representation of the victory of our mother language for which we held our heads high, rather not bowing down like the structure in the middle. He was kind enough to explain his concept with patience, what I can’t recall anymore. We had an astounding bond with him and had a decent amount of fun and learning.

Architect Nazma Anwar with classmates at EPUET ( now BUET) in 1964. Standing Zahedul Hassan, S A Zahiruddin, Prof.R E Vrooman, Meer Mobassar Ali, Prof. Jack Yardley with the Class of first batch B.Arch (1961-66). In extreme right Mrs. Nazma Habib Anwar in along with Mrs Shaheen Westcombe (daughter of prominent politician Habibullah Bahar Chowdhury.)
The class of the first batch B.Arch (1961-66): Standing Zahedul Hassan, S A Zahiruddin, Prof.R E Vrooman, Meer Mobassar Ali, Prof. Jack Yardley. In the extreme right, Mrs. Nazma Habib Anwar along with Mrs. Shaheen Westcombe (daughter of prominent politician Habibullah Bahar Chowdhury).

In our first year, Abdullah Abu Sayeed (famous teacher, writer, television presenter, and activist) taught us Dak Ghor by Rabindranath Tagore. His class was fascinating to the point that students from common and different departments would simply come to listen him talk. It was lovely craftsmanship the manner in which he would talk; we simply were astounded by it.

We went to a lot of study trips. Once we went to Cox’s Bazaar and Rangamati with Professor Samuel T Lanford and his wife. I had my mother accompanied us as we needed a guardian for all of us. My mother also threw a dinner to make the trip more memorable for us. She was very creative in setting up the table with a white cloth decorated with ivy leaves and put the dinnerware on top of the leaves. Everyone delighted in and made some incredible memories, Lanford really appreciated my mother’s effort.

Abu Sayed, Hamidur Rahman, Abdur Razzak, Dr. Rashid Chowdhury- I am exceptionally fortunate to have these individuals as my teachers.

Professor Lanford, Nazma Anwar, Shaheen Bahar Chowdhury and Wasifa Rahman during a study trip

Back in the days, Louis I Kahn was working on National Assembly Building and visited your school for a lecture. Share your memory of Louis I Kahn with us. 

When Kahn came for visiting the school, we three females were the ones to go stand in front of him.   I also have a photo with him shaking hands. I do not recall much from his public presentation in our department but meeting a world-renowned architect as students was so fascinating for us!

You worked directly with two world-renowned architects – Paul Rudolph and Muzharul Islam. Can you share some of your experiences working with them?

I took up work from Mazharul Islam’s firm, named Vastukalabid. He taught me a legitimate way of designing and how to start planning something. As in architecture school, we only studied, there was little practical work. He was my dad’s companion and cared for me additionally. I was given the space beside his drafting table, occasionally checking and assisting me with work. Moreover, he took our climatology course from what I could accumulate working by his side. His design style was very simple, true to the purpose of the structure and context. This is why his works never get old. Back then some ongoing projects were Jahangirnagar University and Chittagong University. In 1971, he left for India and his office was looked after by our architect friend Rabiul Hussain. After the war, I re-joined and worked there for a while, then I left for Mymensingh.

It was fortunate to work with architect Paul Rudolph’s design when I joined as the only project architect in Mymensingh University. He had an assistant named Prospero who would drop by often to have casual conversations. I was stunned to see Rudolph’s drawings as we don’t follow this type of technique in our country. Clearly, I had no idea about his style. On top of that, I joined half-way through the project. I used to be at my office from 10 to 4 trying to comprehend his drawings as much conceivable, as I had to administer the project process and make it work in like manner. I have taken in a great deal of brick bonding from him. His designs had highly complex floor plans and details. The ventilator he designed was unique at that time which was mechanically operated and brought from the USA. I had endless learning from his works.

Back when you started women were not seen as having a career and you served as a project architect at Agriculture University, Mymensingh. Was it difficult to establish yourself as a woman?

Well, it was never hard for me to build up myself as a woman. I am frequently posed by this inquiry lately, however, back in my days I didn’t feel such or any gender differences. Our working environment was safe and friendly, everyone around was very helpful and motivating.

Not as a woman but as an architect I confronted challenges while working with Rudolph. As it was a huge project to contemplate and comprehend. It was really intense for me. I was the only architect in my office with no assistant. There was nobody to counsel or ask help from. So, I contemplated everything by myself to comprehend his method and style better. I used to consult in the teachers’ meeting before taking any decision or whenever needed.

Once a project engineer offered me to visit the construction site with him. The site was undergoing roof casting of a three-storied building. There was no stair, a bamboo ramp was used by the laborers to carry the construction materials on their head and to walk up. The project engineer was in doubt whether I could climb the bamboo ramp. I assured him and climbed it at the same pace as others while wearing saree and heels. Everybody in the site stared at me in amazement. On a different occasion, Shamsul Wares (prominent architect and educator) came with his students to show Paul Rudolph’s work. As I was the project architect, he first came to my place then I took the lead to show them around and talk about his work.

I remember, during my undergraduate days, Dunham would take us to random buildings and asked us to sketch them. People around the streets would look at us in wonder as if it was something, they are seeing for the first time.  But we never faced any problem. We could always work very independently with respect and appreciation for what we do.

Our environment back in the days was more secure and better contrasted with these days. I have spent some beautiful days back at the time.  Nothing stopped or came in my way for my gender.

You have a beautiful family of 3 daughters. How difficult was it for you to balance your work and family?

I have never confronted any issues accordingly. Likewise, my daughters were never an issue for my work.  My better half consistently supported me the most and would complete errands and help me as much as could be expected under the circumstances. Bits of help were always around to look after my daughters in my absence. My more youthful sister consistently propelled and bolstered me all through. My family was my backbone always encouraging me and being my greatest emotionally supportive system.

Among all the works that you have done, which project/s are your most valued and why?

My favourite house that I designed was for my father. It was located in Gulshan which later was handed to developers, so it’s not there anymore. It was very different from the typical houses; I experimented a lot and attempted new things. I planned a gigantic round window by the flight of stairs inspired by Louis Kahn’s big arches, round windows of the Capital Complex at Sher – e- Bangla Nagar. The house was made with overburnt Jhama bricks (thrown out bricks) sourced from Mirpur Ceramics at a very low price. When it would rain a lovely reflection of blue and red would play over the veneer.

Family Residence at Gulshan | Designed by architect Nazma Anwar
Family Residence at Gulshan | Designed by architect Nazma Anwar
Family Residence at Gulshan | Designed by architect Nazma Anwar

Among the big projects I designed, Sports Complex for the Bangladesh Agriculture University, Mymensingh is notable. I got the offer after I left the job of the project architect there and moved back to Dhaka. It was a challenging project as the site was tight and surrounded by Rudolph’s designed buildings. There was a vacant space between his designed buildings where I planned the complex.

Sultana Razia hall was additionally designed by me and I quite like it. Initially, a site by the stream side was allotted for the project. But taking the security for young ladies into account, I picked a different site located between teachers’ quarters. It was small yet very much assembled.

I could have worked more and couldn’t do it for my own negligence.

Tell us a little about your time in the USA, as you have visited Falling Water and many other wonderful projects.

The first time I got to learn about Frank Lloyd Wright was before sitting for the architecture admission test. We were asked to study famous architects and their works. Even before I knew him my friend architect Rabiul Hussain from Khustia read about his falling water project in a magazine. He brought along the magazine, which inspired him to study architecture, in the interview at Dhaka. Anyway, recently, I visited the Falling Water with my daughter, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is needless to say about the beauty of it. We had taken a car, then from a certain point, we had to walk up to it. From far away you can hear the sound of falling water. The way Wright designed it 90 years back is still the same; very well maintained and preserved. It is so simple, whitewashed plate-like structures looming over the water body. Not only the structure but also the site is exceptionally delightful. The building blends seamlessly with nature. I’m considering myself fortunate to see it. I will probably visit Solom R. Guggenheim Museum, another Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, which is yet to be visited.

Architect Nazma Anwar while visiting Falling Water
Architect Nazma Anwar while visiting Falling Water at ‎Mill Run, Pennsylvania, USA

Editor: Saimum Kabir | CONTEXT