by Zohra KhanDec 23, 2021
In a location defined by vast shrimp fisheries in Shyamnagar - a rural region in south-west of Dhaka in Bangladesh – an 80-bed community hospital’s inventive response to its context caught the radar of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) last year when it shortlisted the project for the RIBA International Prize 2021 – an award for architectural excellence and social impact. The project known as the Friendship Hospital, designed by Dhaka-based Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury of studio URBANA has been announced as the winner of the illustrious accolade. It stood out for its "architecture of humanity and protection", as per award chair and French architect, Odile Decq, and as an “exemplar of innovative architecture that addresses critical global issues - unequal access to healthcare and the crushing impact of climate breakdown on vulnerable communities,” by the Grand Jury.
The area surrounding the hospital used to be populated by grain fields but when cyclone Sidr hit the country in 2007, giving rise to an ever changing topography of rising sea levels, the narrative got completely changed for this part of the world. As a result of a perpetual climate change, saltwater encroached inland, forcing all adjoining agricultural sites to be converted into shrimp cultivation ponds. The habitation around the area too sits on a vulnerable edge as it constitutes low-rise structures and thatched houses. Embracing the constraints, the Bangladeshi architect worked on a fairly linear layout where he introduced interconnected courtyards and shaded walkways to distribute the inpatient and outpatient zones. When it came to introduce access control between these spaces, he implemented a rain-water collecting canal criss-crossing its way through the centre of the site. The feature works multiple ways. On the functional side, the harvested water aids micro-climate cooling and serves as a valuable resource in an area where saline water remains unusable for most purposes. On the aesthetic side, the continuous presence of the water on the property animates the internal landscape and creates a sense of visual continuity.
The project has been appreciated for the simplicity and unemphasised character of its technology. The use of brick in-situ too was highlighted for its celebration of an ordinary material without having to resort to complex technology leading to increasing budgets.
The Grand Jury of the prestigious award, comprising key figures like Es Devlin, Jeanne Gang, Rossana Hu, and Gustavo Utrabo, together with Decq, found it refreshing to see a hospital with such a human and natural touch. "The Friendship Hospital has a particular relevancy at this period of time as it addresses the issue of unequal access to healthcare throughout the world," stated an official press release which also announced the winning project as the world’s best new building.
“It is a demonstration of how beautiful architecture can be achieved through good design when working with a relatively modest budget and with difficult contextual constraints. This hospital is a celebration of a building dedicated to humans."
Architect Kashef Chowdhary, whose practice finds roots in history with a strong emphasis on climate, materials, and context, shares his thoughts on winning the award, “In a sublimely important moment, RIBA and the jurors have identified a project from the global periphery to bring to the centre of architectural discourse and be the subject of one of the most important global awards. I am encouraged that this may inspire more of us to commit, not in spite of, but because of limitations of resources and means, to an architecture of care both for humanity and for nature, to rise collectively to the urgencies that we face today on a planetary scale."
The site for the hospital was donated by a local philanthropist to an NGO named Friendship, and Chowdhury completed the project in 2019. Other works that have come out of his studio include conversion of ship and low-cost raised settlements, training centres, mosques, art galleries, museums, residences and multi-family housing, and corporate head offices.
Also read: the works that were shortlisted for RIBA International Prize 2021.