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Nubras Samayeen Explores the Landscapes of Louis Kahn

Nubras Samayeen grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh where she went to school not far from Louis Kahn’s architectural masterpiece, Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, the National Assembly Complex of Bangladesh where their parliament meets. “My family and friends would go there often–it is an important public space,” she explains. “Once I went there with my friends after doing very poorly on an exam. It was raining, and we spent some time laughing and running around in the rain. It was a joyous experience. We felt much better afterwards.”

Now a PhD student at Illinois, Nubras explores how people experience urban landscapes–in particular, those created by Louis Kahn.

Louis Kahn, Salk Institute. Photo Credit: Nubras Samayeen

Most people who study Kahn focus on the buildings, but Nubras is interested in exploring the sites more holistically. She tells me, “I’m looking at how buildings and landscapes work together to make meaning for people.”

Take the Kimbell Art Museum, a modern masterpiece designed by Kahn in 1972. Nubras writes about this museum, “the building becomes a landscape where users are invited to look and think beyond,” and the landscape surrounding the museum becomes a “canvas for the museum,” an “extension of the architecture.”

Kimbell Art Museum. Photo credit: Nubras Samayeen

Nubras feels that it is a shame that people must choose between studying landscape design or architecture. The joint Architecture/Landscape Architecture PhD program at Illinois provides the perfect opportunity for her to study both, to understand how the “limits of one is lost in the other,” to quote Merleau-Ponty.

Kimbell Art Museum. Photo Credit: Nubras Samayeen

Kahn’s Landscapes as contact zones

Just as Nubras is interested in the contact zones where landscapes and buildings meet, she is also interested in how Kahn’s works are contact zones between east and west, colonial and vernacular, modern and traditional, past and present.

The construction of the National Assembly Complex in Dhaka, where Nubras grew up, was begun in 1961 when Bangladesh was East Pakistan and governed from the West Pakistan capital of Islamabad. West Pakistan leaders at the time intended for Dhaka to become the second capital of Pakistan. The construction of the National Assembly Complex was part of an effort to quell separatist tendencies. In 1971, a civil war interrupted the construction of the complex, a civil war that eventually resulted in Bangladesh’s independence. The National Assembly Complex was completed in 1982, and almost immediately became a symbol of national pride for the newly independent people of Bangladesh, Nubras explains.

National Assembly Building. Photo credit: ASaber91

How did a building begun under Pakistani rule, to keep Bangladesh from seceding, become a symbol of national identity and independence? Why did government leaders select Jewish American architect Louis Kahn to design the complex, instead of selecting a native architect? Why did a people who were just emerging from under colonial rule embrace the modernist design of this American architect? And how did Kahn effectively merge modern and traditional, east and west, colonial and vernacular in his designs?

These are just a few of the questions that Nubras is considering as she studies the National Assembly Complex and other works by Kahn.

When Kahn first flew over Bangladesh, he saw that it was primarily covered in water. During his first visit to Dhaka in 1963, he experienced the landscape from the waterways of the Buriganga River. Later, he visited rural areas in Bengal where he noticed that the huts were built on mounds, through a process of “dig and mound” to prevent flooding. Kahn’s early sketches of the Complex show a fascination with the deltaic landscape, and the mounds became the foundation for his design. “Like the rural huts in Bengal, the Assembly Building was also built on a mound that was created with soil from the excavation of the artificial lake surrounding it,” Nubras writes.

National Assembly Building. Photo Credit: William Veerbeek

This sensitivity to the local landscape is part of what makes the National Assembly Complex resonate with the people of Bangladesh. While the complex may “allude to the colonial power structure,” Nubras explains, “it is accepted as a national monument precisely because of its effective association with the people.” Though the form ma have been taken from Rome, the water surrounding the building speaks to the country’s cultural heritage, creating a kind of hybridity. “The landscape is closer to the culture and the people of Bangladesh than the building,” she argues.

Kahn, the great modernist architect, was a world traveler and you can see the influence of the great landscapes of the past in his designs: Islamic, Roman, Greek, and Spanish landscapes, as well as vernacular landscapes. “Each design becomes a world within a world,” Nubras says.

Nubras quotes Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities to explain how Kahn’s landscapes were shaped by his travels, as well as how people’s experience of foreign landscapes can help them understand their own past:

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

To Nubras, experiencing landscapes isn’t just about what you see. It’s about the lens through which you see it. “It’s always a subjective experience,” she says, that is shaped by our past, and that shapes our understanding of the past as well.

Even though the coronavirus has made traveling to foreign landscapes difficult at this time, Nubras is convinced that such travel is essential. “It’s not enough to see Kahn’s landscapes in books. You have to experience them. Traveling the world to experience Kahn’s landscapes has given me a better understanding of our own landscapes. It has helped me detach myself and understand my own landscapes better.”

Read more about Nubras’ research:

Samayeen, N. (2019). An Intersection. ARCC Conference Repository, 1(1). Retrieved from https://www.arcc-journal.org/index.php/repository/article/view/606