The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1151] Livability Vs Lovability


The concrete jumble of a stubborn city moved a little to give room for a streak of water. From bird’s eye view, this streak of water seems like a silver lining in the grey cloud of urban pollution. Along the edge of this flowing water lives a society of heterogeneity . I intend to tell their happy healthy story, their chemistry with land and water.

The city I am speaking of is Dhaka. In 2013, the city has been ranked as the second worst livable city by The Economist’s livability ranking and simultaneously scored to be the 7th happiest city in a listicle list based on public vote. Hence, Dhaka is a city of paradox. A city scorned for its unlivable condition yet loved for its liveliness.We do need to seek what makes this city happy, healthy and lovable. The right answer will guide us towards the dream of a livable city. “A good question is always greater than the most brilliant answer” – That is how Louis I. Kahn justifies our quest for better architecture.

Let’s see the context of the story first. At the geographic co ordinates of 24 00 N 90 00 E, lies the biggest delta of the world- Bangladesh. This South Asian country crisscrossed with numerous rivers carries down the Himalayan water. Underlying the tropic of Cancer; Dhaka is the mighty capital of Bangladesh. Like the country itself; the city also is a birth child of water. In the canvas of mind, all these geographical data may create an image of lush green and blue water. But statistical data do not say so. Dhaka holds a population of 15 million which makes it the world’s 9th largest mega-city. All these people live in just 325 square kilometers; at more than 45,000 people per square kilometer. It is therefore the most densely populated city of the world. The Economist ranks Dhaka as the second worst livable city just above Damascus, the war-torn Syrian capital. Today the whirlpool of concrete, dust, fume and growing number of heads turn the blue green image into a monotonous grey.

The city suffers its own sickness. Here, seeking answer for a health regarding question is very complex. How do we design a healthful environment in a diseased city? There is no absolute answer for that. Because in this city; every answer is wrong. In the jumble of variables, solution to every equation turns out to have an imaginary number. Therefore, the clue to the right answer is to be imaginative.

Someone imagined rightly. Someone realized that the health of the city people has to be achieved with the health of the city. And thus with the resurrection of a canal in the city’s heart, a happy healthy story began.This initiative is part of a utopia of connecting all the dying water channels of Dhaka reviving the hydro-logical balance of this liquid landscape. The name of the project is ‘Hatirjheel’ which means ‘lake of elephants’. History claims that before Dhaka was soaked dry, the elephants of the royal family had bathed here which resulted in this nomenclature. The project infrastructure includes a two lane road by the lake, 2 meter wide footpath, 2.5 meter walkway by the water, a number of overpass, bridge and causeway lined with greenery. From the eve of New Year 2013, Hatirjheel has been open for public. Therefore, the story of this place should be considered as a beginning only. In order to fully understand, one has to know the prelude. But for now, we will fix our view to a specific picture frame of Hatirjheel at different times of the day.

At the junction of a causeway and a bridge three stray dogs are seen basking in the yellow morning sun. Joggers pass by them. A man with a weight machine is waiting for enthusiast joggers to check their weight at a negligible price. School kids on bicycles pass through the frame. With time, number of people increases. Busy people move towards their workplace while the lazy ones stand and stare at the hypnotic gleam of the water. At afternoon people of all class and creed fill this frame. The air is festive. In a city of scarce playground, the strip of land beside the water is somewhat like Treasure Island for the unlucky kids. For the young couple in love, a walk by the lake is a pleasure. But for the aged couple it is a necessity to control their diabetes or imbalanced lipid. Workers from nearby industrial area stop here after day’s work; so does the people from lavish neighborhood. Though many people may complain about the crowd, but no one seem to hate it. What is the point of complaining about a crowd in Dhaka? We all are part of it. As the sun goes down, the exotic lights of the arched bridges and winding roads light up. The water reflects the cheerful lights of the aesthetic bridges. The same cheer is exerted from the people who are seen enjoying their birth right to fresh oxygen. Under the shade of a causeway, an enthusiastic father is seen teaching his daughter to ride on a cycle. The father hopes his daughter to be healthy, so does the architect for the citizen.

This visual diary states any typical day at Hatirjheel for the last one year. But in order to understand the value we must look at the prelude now. The days of the royal elephants were long gone. Triumphant march of steel and concrete engulfed all the available land of the city; but the growing population needed more. Illegal encroachments were choking Hatirjheel to death. Like other water channels of Dhaka; Hatirjheel had the same fate of carrying the city’s sewage. The city dwellers faced towards the roads leaving the water at backyard. The stench of fetid water reminded them the miseries that they were hiding behind. Slums on stilts hid the poorest community members in this backyard. It remained as a physically and socially unhealthy place. The helpless city needs to accommodate its 15 million citizens as well as let flow 80 inches rain per year. Hatirjheel direly needed an integrated rescue plan. Somehow in this frenzied city, this project had the right amalgamation of some highly repulsive elements. The Ministry of Public Works, the city development authority RAJUK, the engineering department LGED, water resource authority WASA and consultants from the engineering university BUET came into play. The planning and design responsibility belonged to the architects from Vitti Sthapati Brindo LTD along with DPM, AIA and JB. Bangladesh Army’s special work organization got the responsibility of implementing the project. Land acquisition, excavation, compensation, waste disposal, design implementation everything started with a hope of a facelift of Dhaka. From 2007 to 2012, Dhaka gradually turned its head to look back at Hatirjheel.

In my quest to search for the start of the project, I came across the design team. The leader of the team Ar. Ehsan khan shows a quadrilateral logo with four icons in it. The icons were of sun, water, flora and fauna – the basics for a healthy life. In a project that was posing such diverse complexity, the idea was to stick to the basics. Hatirjheel decided to provide what Dhaka had been deprived of. A place to walk, breathe, laugh, play; a place to admire and most importantly a place that could satisfy the visual thirst for water. In the Essay “Great City….Terrible Place” Charles Correa states – “Somehow we get overwhelmed by the physical and economic parameters we face. We forget that our towns and cities are much more than just brick and stones - they have mythical and metaphysical attributes as wee.” To the government authority, Hatirjheel was just an infrastructural development. The project outline said about construction of an elevated road above Hatirjheel while the design team proposed aesthetic bridges for iconic identity. The meeting took a turn and the idea of an integrated development project emerged. The architectural plan included green patches at all possible nodes and notches. Designers prefer to call it the ‘idea of forest’. Proposals for an eco-island in the middle of the lake with apiary-aviary, amphitheatres at lakeside, water courts adjacent to neighborhoods for boat riding- all add up to form the image of our blue-green dream. The architect says, 50% of the ideas have been curtailed by other authorities. Economic reasons as well as lack of understanding named the implicit side of the design as wanton beautification. Win and defeat ran parallel.

Winning a fight for healthy environment is scarce in Dhaka. But stories of defeat are easily available. At the west stretch of Hatirjheel is the closest example of a negative backyard around dying water channel named Begunbari canal. Begunbari canal was also part of the integrated project planning. But this one got unlucky. The flow of the water channel stops at an obstacle. A glass-clad multistory building suddenly stands utterly disregarding the presence of water. The corporate BGMEA building stands on encroached wetland as a symbol of the errors of the city. Surely, inside the solid building enclosure BGMEA provides ‘a piece of healthy environment’ for a specific number of people. But outside it leaves a morbid situation. Disobeying the High Court’s order to relocate; the building stands on dried wetland as an epitome of the negative forces. The building is fully air conditioned with all the modern amenities inside. It is inhaling the chosen particles of air from the atmosphere and exhaling out morbidity. It shows the satirical idea of healthy living of wealthy people, but not wise. As said by the master architect- “The right thing done badly is always greater than the wrong thing well done.”- [Louis I. Kahn]

A small entry bridge takes people inside the building while the ill-fated canal lies beneath. The authorities fix their gaze only at the shining elevation of the building refusing to look around at the dying canal. Very less people understand that the death of a canal is much worse than the demolition of a multistory building. A piece of health within the plot boundary can never be termed as healthful environment. Architecture cannot ignore the broader aspect. Health is a holistic idea. BGMEA building may provide its users a standard physical health in the interior side. But their mental health is sickened everyday when they cross the entry bridge leaving the dead wetland outside. Health has been objectified. Because of the development of Hatirjheel, the ill fate of Begunbari canal pokes into the urban eyes. But numerous other water channels bear worse destiny. Here, water is unwanted. Land is what we need. Land is considered sacred as religion.

Leaving the distressed Begunbari canal behind, I started to walk towards Hatirjheel. In this city of pedestrian nightmare, I decided to walk and I am not alone. A lot of people are walking along the waterside. This walkway invited them. In a designed sitting space, people sat around checker board tables. People seldom play chess here; but may be the designer thought it to be a nice décor. A man sat there with some strange looking equipment and a signboard that said diabetes 100 taka, blood pressure 50 taka and some other common diseases with a rate after their name. No, he is not selling disease; he earns his living by measuring the presence of disease. He is not harmful as a quack; he and his clients very much belong to the society of Dhaka. A bunch of teenagers are learning to skate here. Middle aged women walking here disapprovingly look at the boys with roller skates. Mothers from Dhaka have never been supportive to the free spirited youth. The boy who just passed on his bicycle must have left an anxious mother at home. Dhaka has never let the parents to be sure of their child’s safety. But still, young people have come to Hatirjheel. Youth cannot stay confined. On the other hand, kids from nearby slums are seen playing at the edge of water, sitting on the handrails of the suspended decks. They are not afraid of anything. Life is a fight to them. This mingle of people from all race is the life of Dhaka.

I moved a little forward. While staring at the glistening water, I felt the need for shade. No shady trees have grown yet; all the plantations are pretty young. I love to think that some day when the young trees grow; Hatirjheel will change color with the vibrant tropical seasons. May be the love of the people will bring the unfulfilled design ideas into reality. The ‘idea of forest’ at the notches of the lake will come to life. The amphitheaters will host cultural programs. The eco-island in the middle of the lake will host migratory birds. The water courts will be built; boats will sail off from them. The architects had some optimistic visualizations regarding BGMEA building. BGMEA building will move letting the water to have its space. Its structural skeleton will be used as an eco-centre where the natural resources of Dhaka will be exhibited; the rooftop will house a watchtower for Hatirjheel. Standing in the buzz and color of Dhaka people, I drift into a dream. This is not an impossible dream; it is the dream of a happy healthy urbanity.

Public health has not been the primary concern of Hatirjheel project. Yet it is the enthusiasm of people that completes this partially complete design. The implication of the basic idea – sun, water, flora and fauna attracts health conscious people here. Health is not confined in physical health only. The same slums dwellers who used to live by the fetid water have painted some of their houses in bright blue and pink. It shows a recovering mental health. The spirited youth, the enthusiast photographers all gather here because of the mental uplift. Everyday all the people who pass by the lake in speedy vehicles or walk by it, feel their umbilical connection to the water. The nostalgia of the river by their village calms them. Sound of rain on water brings monsoon in the city. The therapeutic design for the city heals the citizen too.

As mentioned earlier; 2013 gave Dhaka the dubious honor of second worst livable city and a listicle kept Dhaka in the top 10 happiest cities in a ‘not so serious’ web-based public voting. Again in the Happy Planet Index, we come among the topmost happy country on the basis of rapid improvement as a developing nation. I prefer to believe the positives. Because Dhaka does not live by statistics; if it did, it could not survive a day. Dhaka lives by its unprecedented energy. This thrust of energy might push back the city from falling off the cliff. Despite of all the horrible data Dhaka is thriving everyday due to its economic vitality. Dhaka direly needs courageous design therapy. The love and energy of the citizens make us believe it is possible.

The streak of water in bird's eye

The BGMEA building standing on the dying wetland

color of afternoon at Hatirjheel

Night lights at Hatirjheel

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