Sangsad Bhawan pilgrimage

Rediscovering architect Louis I Kahn, along with his greatest work, the Dhaka Parliament building.

People visiting Dhaka from other cities of Southasia will often have wondered at the fascinating one-of-a-kind modernist edifice that is the Bangladesh Sangsad Bhawan, where Parliament sits. On a recent visit, I arrived with my camera and made a parikrama (circumambulation) like one does around a temple, and soaked in the magnificence of this architectural wonder.

The Sangsad Bhawan was built by Louis I Kahn, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. Kahn was born in Estonia in 1901 to a Jewish family that migrated to the US in the early part of the last century. The young man paid for his architecture studies by playing the piano to accompany silent films in cinema halls. The dexterous pianist's hands were eventually designing groundbreaking buildings, which changed the direction of American architecture. But the best of Kahn's buildings were to be found not in the US but elsewhere. One of his more unusual creations is the Indian Institute of Management building in Ahmedabad. And unarguably his greatest work is the Parliament complex in Dhaka.

The building was conceptualised long before Bangladesh was born. It was a martial law regime of Pakistan that decided in 1959 to build the second seat of the National Parliament. Kahn made preliminary designs for the Pakistani authorities, and was formally commissioned in 1962. Construction began in 1964, was interrupted by the 1971 War of Independence, and finally completed according to the original plans in 1982. By then Kahn was already gone – he died in 1974.

Much of Kahn's work reflects a deeply intuitive understanding that he associated with the East. In a postcard addressed to his young son from on board a PIA flight, Kahn wrote that for the West, architecture is about frames, whereas for the East. it is an expression of joy.

Louis Kahn has been described as a 'mystic' architect. His buildings express the mysteries of light and shadow. Corroborating sculptor Isamu Noguchi's description of Kahn as "a philosopher amongst architects", Pune-born architect B V Doshi places Kahn's work in the context of Indian metaphysics. He notes that the concepts of shunya (zero), void and silence were important to Kahn's thinking, and how attracted he was to the mysteries of light.

In Dhaka, one elderly man remembers Louis Khan as having not just given the country a building, but an identity. The Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Waris, acknowledging the importance of Kahn's work to a new-born country's sense of selfhood, says: "This is the world's poorest country. He did not know how so much money would be arranged or how this building would be completed, but he made the impossible possible. At the age of 70 he would come alone all the way from the US. He came like Moses to us, and gave us a sense of our freedom."

Reading his works, it is clear that Kahn was not merely an architect; he was a thinker and teacher of great depth. At times, he reflects a profound influence of the Indian contemplative and philosophical traditions – noting, for instance, that a building in itself is not architecture, it is only a ritual offering, naivedya. Being human, says Kahn, means to express oneself: expression is 'the motive behind living; art is the most powerful medium of expression, and science is only its servant. It is unlikely that one will attain perfect expression in one's chosen genre, but one must nonetheless ceaselessly try,

Who decides what the most perfect expression is? I do not know. But as I stood in front of the Sangsad Bhawan, I was awestruck and silenced. Lying amidst a 215 acre complex, surrounded by an artificial lake and as if floating in it, the building that Kahn built uses no brick, only cement. The building brings to my mind Chandigarh's Assembly House of Punjab and Haryana, built by Kahn-admirer Le Corbusier. But here in the Dhaka structure I find more symbolism, a building alive both visually and architecturally.

Both of the buildings Kahn built in Ahmedabad and Dhaka are replete with circular and curved windows, symbolising the two sources of light – the sun and moon. The play of light and shadow in both buildings, but especially in the Sangsad Bhawan is exquisite. In the building's main hall, where 350 representatives of the Bangladeshi people sit, the domed roof is a sieve of light. The windows, skylights and balconies of the building make it, almost literally, a lighthouse. What better expression is there, even if only symbolic, of a democracy?

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Himal Southasian