A Baroque Urbanism

Telling stories with buildings in Dhaka and Karachi

The Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital in Dhaka, in 1978. The building was designed by the Estonian-born US architect Louis Kahn. Courtesy Larry Speck
The Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital in Dhaka, in 1978. The building was designed by the Estonian-born US architect Louis Kahn. Courtesy Larry Speck
01 June, 2020

KARACHI AND DHAKA SHARE THE DUBIOUS HONOUR of being failed capitals of Pakistan. Karachi served briefly as the seat of government for the newly created state, formed out of the 1947 partition of British India. In 1959, its crowded streets and seaside air were traded for green and mountainous scenery, a construction site near Rawalpindi, and the promise of straight and clean lines in the purpose-built Islamabad. Dhaka, meanwhile, was designated Pakistan’s “second capital” in 1962, as President Mohammad Ayub Khan sought to placate tensions in what was then the country’s eastern wing. Locating legislative power in East Bengal, two thousand kilometres from Islamabad, did little to stem a rising tide. In less than a decade, following a bloody liberation war, Dhaka would become the primary capital of a new country: Bangladesh.

In both Karachi and Dhaka, the architecture of postcolonial development was pursued in close proximity to older urban cores. Karachi, founded in the eighteenth century by Baloch settlers and Sindhi fishermen, expanded rapidly as a port city under British rule, but its centre buckled under the pressure of refugees arriving in and after 1947. When Ayub Khan came to power in a 1958 coup, he set out to clear the sprawling, informal settlements that had clustered around Karachi’s markets, gardens and municipal buildings, ordering the relocation of hundreds of thousands of migrants to the city’s peripheries. Farmland around Karachi was confiscated from rural communities and re-allocated for the construction of new satellite townships. The most prominent of these was Korangi, a showpiece of the regime funded by American aid and designed by the Greek architect and town planner CA Doxiadis. Government press releases celebrating Korangi’s neat and tidy row houses obscured the fact that many of its residents arrived to mass-manufactured concrete shells with inadequate water supply and few transport connections back to their workplaces in Karachi. Sewage facilities and electrical connections would only arrive years later, as the area transformed into an industrial hub.

Dhaka, meanwhile, was already a major regional centre when the East India Company arrived in the seventeenth century, having served as the Mughal Empire’s provincial capital in Bengal. The Old City of Dhaka, orientated around the Buriganga River, is a testament to this long history of trade and connection, the site of Hindu temples, Shia shrines, Armenian churches, French mansions and British prisons. The plan for Pakistan’s second capital, drawn up by the Estonian-born US architect Louis Kahn, situated the new “Ayubnagar”—“Sher-e-Bangla Nagar” after 1971—north of this historic conurbation, on farmland near Tejgaon. Its centrepiece remains Kahn’s monumental National Assembly building, the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, which took nearly thirty years to complete.

Kahn’s design for the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban building was inspired famously by his interest in ruins and the sense of awe such structures might evoke. courtesy Larry Speck