December 25, is architect Muzharul Islam's (1923-2012) 94th birth anniversary. Not only was he Bangladesh's pioneering modernist architect, he was also an activist designer who viewed architecture as an effective medium for social transformation. His early work shows how architecture was deeply embedded in post-Partition politics.
After completing his Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Oregon, in June 1952, Muzharul Islam returned home to find a postcolonial Pakistan embroiled in acrimonious politics of national identity. The fragility of the pan-Islamic polity that sought to consolidate the impossible geography of Pakistan was evident. The religion-based, two-nation partition of the Indian Subcontinent into India and Pakistan was designed to create two separate domains for Hindus and Muslims respectively. Yet, Muslim Pakistan was already in trouble soon after the Partition of 1947. The newly minted country's two regions—East and West Pakistan, separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory—clashed over their asymmetric power relationship, different languages, and, most of all, conflicted attitudes regarding how their divergent ethnicities and Islamic nationalism intersected.
The country's political power was centred on West Pakistan, while this lopsided power structure was further exacerbated by an ideological difference. The ruling elites of West Pakistan embraced a brand of political Islam that they believed would not only work as an ideological buffer against the perceived threat of Hindu-majority India, but also unify the different ethnic groups of Pakistan with an overarching Islamist spirit. Such a state policy alienated many secular-minded leaders, intellectuals, and professionals in East Pakistan, drawn more to a mediating relationship between humanist Bengali tradition and faith than to greater Pakistan's Islamic nationalism.
On February 21, 1952, less than a year before Muzharul Islam arrived home from the United States, the police opened fire on Bengali East Pakistanis protesting on the streets of Dhaka. The people of East Pakistan demanded the right to speak their language, Bangla, not Urdu—the language of the ruling elite in West Pakistan—which West Pakistanis had proposed as the national language of Pakistan. Some Bengalis, including students, killed during the political demonstration in Dhaka, were lionised as martyrs of the Language Movement in East Pakistan.
Muzharul Islam interpreted the prevailing political conditions in his homeland as a fateful conflict between the secular humanist ethos of Bengal and an alien Islamist identity imposed by the Urdu-speaking ruling class in West Pakistan. The turbulent politics in which he found himself influenced his worldview as well as his fledgling professional career. The young architect began his design career in a context of bitterly divided notions of national origin and destiny, and his architectural work would reflect this political debate. He felt the need to articulate his homeland's identity on ethno-cultural grounds, rather than on a supra-religious foundation, championed by West Pakistani power-wielders. Muzharul Islam's Faculty of Fine Arts embodied these beliefs.