Bangladesh Court Slams Government for Mutilating Masterpiece

 DHAKA, June 23 (OneWorld) - The Bangladesh High Court Monday declared  illegal the construction of homes of the speaker and deputy speaker in  the parliament complex, terming them a gross violation of the original  design of US architect Louis I Kahn - considered one of the finest  architectural structures of the 20th century.

The High Court also directed the Ministry of Culture to declare the  800-acre parliament premises a national heritage site, strictly  prohibiting any further construction despoiling Kahn's 1973 design.

In their stringent verdict, Justice Mohammad Iman Ali and Justice Shamim  Hasnine of the High Court castigated the arrogant attitude of the  country's Attorney General during the proceedings.

They stressed that unless immediate protective measures were taken, the  aesthetic beauty and sanctity of parliament would be undermined.

"The responsibility of demolishing the illegal buildings goes to the  government," remarks Barrister Tanjib ul Alam, who moved the writ  petition along with Advocate Moin Gani.

The order was passed after the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB)  and environment group Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa) filed a writ  petition on May 15 last year, stating that the government had ignored  their repeated pleas, continuing the construction of the two buildings  in an open space of parliament in the capital Dhaka, from October 25, 2002.

On May 18 last year the court suspended the construction, asking the  government to show cause why it should not be declared illegal. But on  August 28, the court stayed the suspension order after an appeal by the  government. The construction work resumed thereafter and is now nearing  completion.

"It is like vandalizing a famous painting with a spray can," protests  former president of IAB Samshul Wares, "this is not just destruction of  architectural symmetry, but an insult to the whole work."

The court observes the construction also breached the National Building  Code and ignored Rajuk's official order and protest of the IAB and Bapa.

It adds that Kahn earmarked this as an open space, but such construction  by two individuals undermines peoples' rights to it.

The parliament or "Sangsad Bhaban" - a marble and concrete edifice  erected in an intricately designed landscape - is an architectural  masterpiece admired around the world, maintains the High Court.

The new residences were constructed without permission from capital city  development authority, Rajuk, mandatory under the 1952 Building  Construction Act.

"We hope the government will not go to the Appellate Division against  this verdict," says President of AIB Mobassher Hossain.

"The Sangsad Bhaban is globally renowned for its architecture. There is  no other such work in Bangladesh with such fame and glory," adds Hossain.

Underlining the irony, Abdullah Abu Sayeed, vice president of Bapa,  points out, "It is the government's moral responsibility to protect its  cultural heritage, but instead it has repeatedly undermined its  responsibility."

Highlighting the government's apathy, president of Bapa, Professor  Jamilur Reza Chowdhury complains, "We have given the government a list  of buildings in the country representing the finer side of our heritage,  which need protection, but we never got any response."

In his defense, deputy speaker Aktar Hamid Siddiqui claims that, "The  original Kahn design had shown these two residences, but our lawyers  perhaps failed to raise this point clearly in the court."

Unfazed, he adds that the Public Works Department (PWD) is supervising  the works and, "if necessary, they will appeal to the higher court. The  Speaker and I were making preparations to move to the new buildings."

This is not the government's first distortion of the complex. Previously  too it erected three structures in the parliament premises, which were  intended to be open spaces.

Some seven acres of land are now occupied by these five structures, much  to the dismay of architects and members of civil society.

The first violation of Kahn's design was effected in the burial ground  of assassinated military ruler and founder of the ruling Bangladesh  Nationalist Party (BNP), Zia - ur - Rahman. After his death in June  1981, he was buried in a garden called Chandrima Udyan.

But when the BNP returned to power in 2001, it spent US $4.5 million on  "developing" a memorial here.

Opposition party, Awami League also participated in this vandalism.  While it failed to build homes for the speaker and deputy speaker in  1997, it succeeded in appropriating a large part of the parliament  premises for constructing an international conference center.

Back in 1959, when Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan, the government  took a decision to construct the parliament premises in Dhaka. In 1962,  American architect Louis I Kahn was assigned the task of designing the  complex, an intricate exercise which continued over a decade.

During Bangladesh's 1971 liberation war, the work was suspended for a  year. It resumed after independence in 1973, when Kahn submitted his  original plan to the government.

The construction was finally completed in 1983, nine years after Kahn's  death.