I went to see the newly constructed BRAC University (BRACU) building in Badda, Dhaka, designed by the Singapore Architect WOHA on my recent visit to Bangladesh. In the following paragraphs, I will try to capture some of my observations about the ideas that I saw materializing in this project.
Our response to Architecture is based on what we have experienced before (i.e. current trends of building design here and elsewhere) and also what one has been taught either in the classroom or have read about in books and magazines. Thus, when we look at a building our experience and learning are constantly informing our opinion of the architecture that is in front of us. Sometimes the outside façade will try to tell the story about the purpose of the building—such as the monumentality of the ‘Shangshad Bhaban’ informing us that this is an institutional building of national significance or when we look at a multistory apartment—the many balconies the protrude out will tell the story of the many residences that are housed there.
From the outside, the architects of the BRACU kept the building very simple and nondescript. The sheer size of the building provides some indication about the 20K+ students and faculty it will serve. The tall columns and the required three-story void/opening reflect the response to the large volume of students that will gather in the morning heading towards their respective classrooms and labs. At the street level from the main road the entrance canopy or gateway leads to a pedestrian pathway to the left, the central path or driveway for student buses, and a private car drop-off loop—all segregated very clearly. From the entryway to the topmost roof deck, the need for anyone with a wheelchair has been accommodated flawlessly—never appearing to be an afterthought anywhere.
The building appeared to me to have been designed around the various functions which then informed or shaped the form (outside appearance). That is precisely why when you start using the escalators to reach the classrooms, go to find a research paper in the multi-volume library, meet a friend in the many green gathering spaces, or reach the roof deck to take a jog around the 0.3KM outdoor running track—the true essence of this design starts to reveal itself. Nothing is extra and everything seems to be derived from the very particular need of an educational institution that has its roots in the very pulse of a nation that is as elastic as the river silt but at the same time emotionally highly combustible ready to ignite at a moment’s notice.
The Architect WOHA’s many projects reflect their commitment to green architecture and sustainable ideas. This project is no different. The many solar panels on the rooftop will provide a huge offset to the energy demands of the building of this volume. The design creates five distinct vertical stacks of enclosed/semi-enclosed workspaces and the space between these are used for natural ventilation. This is very simple at first glance—but starts to reveal a more complex idea of providing a comfortable environment for the occupant with the use of a hybrid mechanical system—which uses conditioned cool air during very hot and humid days—but for most of the time utilizes the natural high windspeed at the classroom levels (Floor 7-10) to let a pleasant breeze through every room by just opening the windows.
There are multiple systems of catching the rainwater at various levels and utilizing it for plumbing fixtures, in the lily ponds and the planters and the greenery, and many other ways. The plants which are meticulously planned at the various levels will be taking over the vertical metal louvers on the façade. From this aspect, the building as we all see now is only a partially painted canvas—the other part soon to be completed by the earth, the sun, and the rain of this country. As the greenery keeps engulfing the many levels of this building, it will be telling a different story with each passing year, with each passing season.
The evidence that no design decision was taken in a vacuum is evident in every detail once one starts to pay attention. The balustrade of the handrails are vertical metal slats designed to enhance the flowing wind and natural ventilation. The informal study or gathering areas are cast in concrete—for endurance and topped by large planters holding trees and greenery—visually and emotionally softening the rigidity of the concrete base. The large openings in the breezeways are meant to bring nature inside the building. I can see on a rainy day—heavy rain splashing the open space—reminiscent of the many open courtyards or ‘uthans’ of our traditional educational institutions. The breezeway floor is equipped with an intricate drainage system to carry the rainwater away to the sustainable eco-system. Here is where we will need a leap of faith to let the building reveal itself to the students and the faculty and create a new dialogue.
We are so used to the Western way of enclosing our built environment from nature—that this will be literally a breath of fresh air. I can see some students running around drenching themselves in the rain—youth being allowed and encouraged to celebrate youth.
A lot of the red brick walls used in this building are perforated—only to enhance the flow of wind throughout the building. The structure of the building is primarily concrete and steel. The exposed concrete stairs that are visible from the outside show some of the ‘brutalist’ inkling of the designers or perhaps a homage to the modern architecture of the master architects. All of these are to become softened by the growing greenery associated with the gardens as the building progresses through its life journey.
The roof deck has an immaculate square lawn—which reminded me of the lawn at Dhaka University Teachers Students Center more fondly known to many as TSC. Many days and evenings of my youth were spent around this green lawn flanked by covered walkways. The grass of the BRACU rooftop lawn is of local variety—again staying true to the local flora and fauna. The rooftop also houses a gym complete with a swimming pool. I can see this building hopefully setting a new standard for future large institutional projects for providing the right amenities for students.
The structure of the building is very innovative, and its expressions have been incorporated into the design evident by the Y columns visible on the 4th and 5th floors. The monolithic steel structural elements in the main auditorium are awe-inspiring, holding vertical columns up top. The wide stairs are of mostly concrete—each are wide enough to handle the anticipated volume. There are also metal stairs connecting the classroom floors of 7-10 that are intentionally made to look different. Large industrial-grade fans move volumes of air at the top—providing further assistance with the ventilation.
The BRACU building to me stood out as a story told by interconnected volumes of open space each adorned with plants, sun, rain, and wind. As I marveled at the open and airy nature of these various spaces—in the back of my mind I could also see the comments that would be coming from the more critical occupants to whom open space may equate to wasted space. This has been an eternal debate—one I do not think could be resolved in my small write-up. I would only encourage anyone interested in this topic to visit some of the more successful campuses around us such as the Art College to perhaps understand the intangible impact of open space. It is absolutely a must-have—especially in institutional architecture where young minds are being shaped to be ready for the future. The pressure to convert every square inch into revenue revenue-producing element will always be there. I just hope that an institute such as BRAC will find in its heart the strength to withstand this pressure and preserve the noble intent of the designers.
At the very end, I would like to capture a few very personal observations that I came out with after my visit. These revolve around the founder of BRAC Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. I never had the good fortune of meeting him in person but have always marveled at his dream and his achievements. Personally, I always felt that his greatest achievement was dreaming of an enterprise such as BRAC in a country riddled with so much adversity against any noble idea—and an even greater achievement in realizing this dream. I remember when the BRAC tower went up in Mohakhali and hearing many people say—why does a rural advancement organization need such a flashy big building—to which a very naïve inner me said “Why not?” What he has left us speaks for itself—no introduction or explanation is necessary anymore. BRAC programs have elevated this country in many ways and are working tirelessly on the international scene to do the same elsewhere. I had the same feeling coming out of the BRACU building that I had a long time ago looking at the BRAC tower. Through this new building, Sir Abed’s dream is rejuvenated once again.
(Abu Saleh resides in Washington DC. He is a graduate of Architecture from BUET and has a master’s degree in architecture from the Ohio State University. He has been managing design and construction projects in the USA for over 25 years)