Bangladeshi mosque ar­chi­tect smashes glass ceil­ing

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

As one of the only fe­male ar­chi­tects in a coun­try where women rarely even en­ter mosques, Ma­rina Tabas­sum was an un­con­ven­tional choice to de­sign Bangladesh’s new Baitur Rouf Mosque, which has just won a pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional prize. But there is lit­tle of the con­ven­tional about the 45-year-old Tabas­sum or her de­sign, which es­chews tra­di­tional minarets and domes in fa­vor of a sin­gle-storey ter­ra­cotta brick struc­ture that is suf­fused with light and re­mains cool even in the scorch­ing sum­mer months.

Like most women in deeply con­ser­va­tive Bangladesh, Tabas­sum had barely set foot in a mosque when she was com­mis­sioned to de­sign the build­ing in 2005 af­ter her grand­mother do­nated a piece of land. Few of Bangladesh’s mosques have ded­i­cated sec­tions for fe­male wor­ship­pers, and most women pray at home. But Tabas­sum vis­ited over 100 be­fore set­ting pen to pa­per for the Baitur Rouf Mosque in north Dhaka, fo­cus­ing on cre­at­ing a haven of peace in a poor neigh­bor­hood of one of the world’s most con­gested cities.

“We may not have a tra­di­tion of women go­ing into mosques to pray in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, but I have ex­pe­ri­enced some re­ally beau­ti­ful spir­i­tual spaces. That has al­ways been a great in­spi­ra­tion to me,” she told AFP in a re­cent in­ter­view. “The whole idea of spir­i­tu­al­ity as an el­e­ment in de­sign has al­ways been some­thing very in­trigu­ing and I like work­ing with spir­i­tual spaces.”The 45-year-old, who emerged as one of Bangladesh’s top ar­chi­tects af­ter de­sign­ing Dhaka’s Mu­seum of In­de­pen­dence, says her sex has not con­strained her ca­reer. “I think of my­self as a pro­fes­sional. This whole no­tion of me be­ing a woman re­ally does not ex­ist in my mind. It just does not ex­ist,” she said.

‘Nat­u­ral air con­di­tion­ing’

The Aga Khan Award for Ar­chi­tec­ture is handed out ev­ery three years and re­wards ex­cel­lence in ar­chi­tec­ture serv­ing Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties. This year the $1 mil­lion prize was shared be­tween six projects around the world. The jury said the Dhaka mosque “chal­lenges the status quo”, prais­ing its “ro­bust sim­plic­ity that al­lows for deep re­flec­tion and con­tem­pla­tion in prayer”. Of­fi­cially sec­u­lar but mainly Mus­lim Bangladesh has a rich his­tory of mosque build­ing, dating back to the Turk­ish in­va­sion of the 13th cen­tury.

The ear­li­est com­bined their own de­signs with el­e­ments found in lo­cal tra­di­tions, such as the use of brick and small domes that span the roof, cre­at­ing a unique style. Tabas­sum said she tried to fuse those “glo­ri­ous lost tra­di­tions” of mosque de­sign with con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tices. Since it was com­pleted in 2012, the Baitur Rouf Mosque has at­tracted vis­i­tors from around the coun­try-to the ob­vi­ous de­light of the imam, Deen Is­lam. “Un­like other mosques in the coun­try, it does not have a minaret, or a dome, or a plat­form to de­liver Fri­day prayers. Yet to th­ese vis­i­tors it is one of the most beau­ti­ful mosques of the coun­try,” the 38-year-old imam told AFP on a re­cent visit.

“The mild light that en­ters the mosque is very sooth­ing. Even dur­ing a hot sum­mer day, the tem­per­a­ture in­side re­mains mild. You feel like you’re in nat­u­ral air con­di­tion­ing.” Dozens of tiny win­dows in the roof and walls cre­ate a soft light that changes through the day as the sun passes over the build­ing, while the tra­di­tional ter­ra­cotta bricks keep the in­te­rior cool. Tabas­sum also teaches ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dents and says she is highly selec­tive about the projects she takes on, and ev­ery one must have some so­cial value.

“We are a very young na­tion and an ar­chi­tect’s re­spon­si­bil­ity goes be­yond just de­sign­ing beau­ti­ful build­ings,” she said. “We can de­sign build­ings like the ones de­signed by Frank Gehry. But I would ques­tion whether that would be the right thing to do in a coun­try like Bangladesh, whose econ­omy is still not de­vel­oped. “In the Bangladesh con­text, that would be an ugly thing to do.”— AFP

Fig­ures form­ing an art in­stal­la­tion en­ti­tled ‘Black & Blue: The In­vis­i­ble Man and the Masque of Black­ness’ by artist Zak Ove, are pic­tured dur­ing a press pre­view to pro­mote the forth­com­ing 1:54 Con­tem­po­rary African Art Fair, in the court­yard at Som­er­set House in London yes­ter­day. — AFP.

A man of­fers his prayers in the mosque de­signed by Bangladesh ar­chi­tect Ma­rina Tabas­sum in Dhaka.

A gen­eral view of the in­te­rior of a mosque de­signed by Bangladesh ar­chi­tect Ma­rina Tabas­sum in Dhaka.

This pho­to­graph shows a gen­eral view of the ex­te­rior of a mosque de­signed by Bangladesh ar­chi­tect Ma­rina Tabas­sum in Dhaka. — AFP pho­tos

Bangladesh ar­chi­tect Ma­rina Tabas­sum speaks with AFP dur­ing an in­ter­view in Dhaka.

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