The Chhayanaut Shangskriti-Bhavan is a structure that is representative of the definition of a practical design solution that facilitates a truly Bangali cultural revolution. A masterpiece designed by the late architect, urban planner, and educator Bashirul Haq between 2001 and 2002, the Chhayanaut building is a sanctuary on one of the busiest roads of Dhaka.
Chhayanaut, as an organisation, is a school providing music, singing, and dance lessons. It has a strong link with the search for the true Bangali cultural identity, from its foundation in 1961. During the construction of its permanent space in Dhanmondi, the whole nation was mobilised to participate in the process. In the early twentieth century, a project like this was materialised through a surprising concept of crowdfunding. The funds for the construction phase were literally raised through many individual contributions by Chhayanaut alumni and citizens of the country. The Government of Bangladesh in fact only contributed the land.
From an architectural point of view, this was quite a challenging project. With a limited 1,338 square meters of land and a crowdfunded budget, the architect had to design and build a dream for the Bangali people. Despite these tons of constraints, a symbolic landmark has been established and the citizens got to access it from 2006. Very few places can be mentioned as a cultural building of this stature.
Architect Bashirul Huq's concept behind Chhayanaut Shangskriti-Bhavan
Bashirul Haq as an architect has always shown a keen interest in finding the roots of traditional values, motifs, textures, and material practices of the Bengal delta. Chhayanaut Shangskriti-Bhavan project was one of his cherished brainchildren. Every fixture, starting from the large windows to the indoor signage, was designed in simple but stunning details.
Professor Firdous Azim, wife of the late architect, says, "The ideology of Bashir and that of Chhayanaut was very much aligned in terms of what was needed as a built identity for the cultural movement of Chhayanaut. He was deeply involved with this particular project."
And that's what transforms an architectural structure to an iconic space.
Bashirul Haq perceived the building as a media that reflects the openness and accessibility of Chhayanaut, flanked by lush greenery, stepping inside from the busy road.
This building stands strikingly apart from its commercial neighbours, wearing the Bashirul Haq's signature look of exposed red brick combined with natural greens. This treatment was initially conceived to achieve the functional buffer that blocks the external noise of this bustling city.
This attempt to create natural isolation for the school is a great example for the new generation of architects, especially in this time of global concern to save planet earth.
A practical approach to prioritise the street front as the face of the organisation has been welcomed by both cultural enthusiasts and people in general.
The building also serves as the schooling place for 'Nalanda Bidyaloy' during the daytime on weekdays. To reduce the noise and bustle, the municipality also relocated the nearby bus stop, considering the atmosphere for an educational institution.
Openness within the walls
Rather than being a congested space, the interior opens up beyond the entrance- almost like a courtyard in our village homes. This creates an atmosphere of connectivity and fluid interaction in a harmonious manner.
In this age of globalisation, indoor activities instantly feel like a glimpse of a lost culture that we hold so closely to the heart of Bangladeshis.
Basanti Sannyasi is a professional who has been engaged with Chhayanaut for almost a decade now. According to her, "I have always felt this compound is a peaceful breathing space within the megacity."
Simple circulations make the institution an easily accessible one for its students and instructors. Beautiful details of perforation on walls and railing actually enhance the visual connection between spaces, providing the required level of privacy and enclosure.
This building has a natural allure that instantly changes one's mood as one steps into its biosphere.
The building consists of several classrooms, a library, a recording room, a research facility, admin facilities, and an auditorium laid around a lofty atrium space that is naturally lit.
Designed to ensure natural light and air circulation
The atrium space enhances the ventilation between floors, right up to the roof, and naturally cools down the indoor spaces. This atrium and rows of large windows have been introduced to minimise the usage of air conditioners, thus minimising the operational cost.
The windows one can see from the outside have traditional 'khirki' (horizontal perforation) details and careful integration of glass panels with wooden frames.
Moreover, the Chhhayanaut auditorium has been acting as a performance area and also a rendezvous point for public programmes.
The most interesting element to notice is the open seating arrangement that allows a lot more audience to sit there than the usual compact space capacity.
Throughout the entire building, spaces have been adorned with locally sourced material like burnt brick and wood.
As a whole, the red bricks, grey concrete, wooden fixtures, and furniture combined create a more natural-looking earthy ambience all around.
And moreover, sustainable design approaches and humble details value our traditional ethos and practices.
At this point, the critical mind questions the scalability of this ethos and practices in our society. We have more and more people migrating to Dhaka, and one institute, one building cannot sustainably serve our needs.
The result is evident. Chhayanaut has enrolled more students and has been utilising the facility round the clock between music lessons, dance lessons, and Nalonda school.
On the weekends there are more people accessing the building. We have more vehicles on the streets that bring more noise and crowd to the nearby street.
The design solution to reduce external noise now barely serves the purpose. Nowadays, with the much-expanded city population, the auditorium also feels inadequate for some.
But what Chhayanaut has shown is a motivation for many activists and cultural organisations. From 2006 the design technology has excelled much and social expectations of this generation align more with sustainable placemaking.
Someday, we can hope for more public places like this to avail; they can be indoor facilities like this or an outdoor sanctuary with natural regenerative landscape open for all.
Sadiqul Islam Shehab, is an architect, designer, and urban thinker based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.