by Jerry ElengicalJun 21, 2021
Bangladesh-based architect, Rizvi Hassan, has worked on several locally-built community projects in the country, most noteworthy being the shelter for the Rohingya women and various other participatory designs for the displaced Muslim minority. The architect says he finds his inspiration in being exposed to different notions and in looking for sole contributions.
In a detailed conversation with STIR, Hassan discusses the importance of his architectural practice, and shares experiences of working closely with the Rohingya refugees who have been fighting with countless vulnerabilities, including the desire for a home and belonging.
Zohra Khan (ZK): You believe in learning to do what is most necessary as an architect. Could you tell us a bit about your practice?
Rizvi Hassan (RH): I am quite new in the field. I studied in the architecture department of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. My first inspiration was my sister, who inspired me to become an architect since I liked to draw and paint. When I got into school, there were two architects who influenced me the most - Khondaker Hasibul Kabir and Eric Cesal. Both work with social causes, in low-cost housing and infrastructure projects for the poor. Kabir stayed in a slum for over three years, he worked with the community, stayed with them and tried to influence the architecture practice in a new way. This was when I was in my third year of college. I thought to myself that this is something I should go for. Later, upon completing my graduation in 2016, I joined an architecture firm which was more of a contemporary practice, but soon I realised that I was not enjoying the work. I left the job and I went to meet Kabir. I worked with him for over a month in a village. Soon, I got this scope to work in a refugee camp. I didn't know that it was coming.
ZK: There has been a larger discussion that 'refugee camps are not spaces for architects'. Would you like to comment on that?
RH: I haven't really visited any camps other than those we have in Bangladesh. A lot of organisations are working for the development of these spaces and a lot of money is being invested in infrastructure design and in planning. In these sectors especially, an architect can easily contribute and that it should be seen as a regular practice. I only urge professionals to think about stepping in these areas and to introduce new ideas with people. There are various kinds of supports available in these camps, especially around social, mental health and peace and conflict matters. An architect can combine these ideas with his practice to engage and understand people who are inhabiting these spaces. One of the key considerations from my own experience was how we can reduce the conflict between the host community and the refugee community. In understanding how we can see things from the refugees’ perspective, or from the viewpoint of Bangladesh as a host country, we realised people ultimately benefit from a better design.
These refugees are living from over five to ten years in Bangladesh and the average period of any refugee camp in the whole world is almost 15 years. During this time, their children grow up and this affects their mentality, their learning, and their whole life. If care is not given to them during these years, there are chances of more crimes as there will be more vulnerability. If we don’t want them to be a burden, we should think of the quality of their life and their mental health, and to reduce conflict, anyone can contribute. An architect especially cannot think along the lines of “I want to build a beautiful structure”. That probably won’t be very effective here. The architectural intervention needs to be backed by in-depth knowledge and understanding of people’s minds.
ZK: Could you take me through the journey of two of your noted community projects for Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camp?
RH: For the whole project, we began with a lot of brainstorming in our studio but, of course, we couldn’t understand the context and the culture and what all could be done in a month. At that time, we were building some shelters and administrative buildings while simultaneously preparing for six months to understand the whole camp we were going to build. The administrative buildings were purely functional designed for the government personnel. During its construction, we came to know a lot of refugees and we tried to comprehend their psychology to better understand what should actually be done. I would say that the study had to take a long time to understand the context and then we got the two projects to design – Beyond Survival: A Safe Space for Women and Girls (Teknaf Upazila), and the Integrated Community Centre (Kutupalong Refugee Camp) in Bangladesh.
For the former, we added focus group discussions with different communities in which we found out the needs and wishes of women and the girls. These were very casual conversations where these users shared what they want or what they might feel good to have. We got incredible stories of elephants, mountains, flowers…
Following these interactions, we went back to our studio to design the spaces in accord with suggestions by the donor organisations and then we came back to the site to show people the layouts. The local men were folks in the construction process. When they tried to understand our drawings, they started suggesting things; some said, “Yeah, it'll look better this way, or it’s better that way”. When the construction began, more people were drawn to the process, and we had a few detailed discussions with them. We discussed regular practices and various techniques with the craftsmen and during the chats we realised they were encouraged by the work.
When the structure was in shape in front of people, is when the local men especially started to ask the purpose of it. We told them that it is for women and girls and instantly they were interested in calling their wives and daughters to the project. We did not even design everything and instead gave them the freedom to do whatever they want. Their contributions resulted in unexpected ways where they came up with colourful patterns and screens. Further, women and girls were introduced to the structure where they started listing which plants they want to put inside the spaces and they also painted the walls beautifully. It was not at all formal and the project overall had various layers to it.
The second project – the Integrated Hindupara Community Centre – started on a difficult note. When we went to the camp before the design of the project was finalised, we found out the refugees were very insecure as they thought that we might be breaking their temples. They were also threatened because there were not many structures in the camp. We went there to have a Southern state land where the community centre could be built. In the beginning, people didn't get the idea and when we started designing and had a small focus group discussion, they didn't get it even then. However, when the main form of the building was realised, they started communicating and suggesting things with us more. The labourers and men engaged in the construction phase while the locals and refugee women contributed in the pre and post-construction phases.
ZK: While you have worked closely with these refugee communities, were you able to understand the broader mentality of these people?
RH: The mentality of refugees is a bit complicated, and they often feel threatened and vulnerable, no matter what you come up with. Before the construction, there were random comments that we might be harming them, or that we are doing this for our own benefit. Many elder people would complain that we were just doing it because this is our job and that we will be taking their money. The majority here is the Muslim population, and many people actually didn't understand the projects and they had insecurities about their family members. They stopped them from engaging in any of these activities and instructed them not to go the centre. We had to gain the trust and it didn't happen like in a day or in a week.
When the construction of the space for women and girls was going on, people thought of it as just another activity that an NGO was starting. Initially, they probably came for a meal which was being provided. A lot of workshops that go on in a camp, people think these have a template. It was strange at first and we weren’t quite sure what to do, but when we had these different forms, especially the oval form for the women’s space, it was unlike what they had seen. Some locals thought it was a stadium. It drew a lot of attention and they started to communicate with us slowly. The craftsmen had important suggestions on how to make it better. I think it's less difficult to work in a permanent, stable community because you have a lot of time and free mind to innovate. We were even not very sure if it is right to provide them hope or do whatever we feel like doing. So, we had to let the whole event be more fluid and adaptive.
ZK: Were there any other major challenges beyond convincing users about the merit of these shelter spaces?
RH: I think the challenges from the beginning were the same: convincing the clients and the organisations on why we were even doing it and that the spaces can be more than mere rooms of four walls. Also, things like purchasing materials and organising the construction team was a big challenge for the camp. The whole operation was a bit difficult because the camp situation is often unsteady. Like one day you can use the refugees as masons and maybe the next week, the government will say, “No, you cannot engage them anymore". So, there were many political and policy making challenges.
ZK: What were the key considerations in selecting materials for these projects?
RH: We visited the camp many times and observed which material seemed temporary but it's better overall and then we developed schemes for modular systems. We used corrugated iron sheets and untreated bamboo among other materials that were less time consuming and available at a cheaper price. The selection of material was also driven by the fact that people are going to be seeing these structures and the palette should be such that they are able to replicate the skin easily.
ZK: What are you currently working on?
RH: I am currently working on the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre and a few other structures in the camp and host communities.
ZK: Would you like to share a message with our readers on the occasion of World Environment Day?
RH: We need to redesign ourselves and our system before we consume the whole landscape that we live in. Instead of going after the big things that are consuming the world very quickly, let’s just recreate the care we had for the very smallest things.