Imagine yourself in the year 1905. Governor General Lord Curzon has just implemented the Partition of Bengal. Curzon Hall and the Supreme Court were yet to be built.
East Bengal was predominantly rural, mostly a collection of villages. Not much was going on in this part of Bengal. The areas around present day Farmgate, Indira Road and Agargaon were predominantly vast tracts of paddy fields with almost no buildings. This was the northern fringe of the city.
In that rural landscape, a two storied red brick colonial building was built, to house scientific agricultural research. This building later became known as "Khamarbari". The building was not as spectacular as Curzon Hall or the Supreme Court. Yet, the building's historic significance lay in heralding not only the beginning of institutionalised scientific research on agriculture, but also a culture of research in general in East Bengal. Lest we forget, the establishment of the University of Dhaka was still 15 years away (it was established in 1921).
Khamarbari is the site of many agricultural innovations. Among many other innovations, the paddy "Najirshail" was invented here. The building's architectural features include characteristic colonial red brick, verandas that serve as transitional spaces between the indoor and the outdoor, oblong multi-bay plan, and many other details derived from both Mughal and European architectural sources.
Recently, the Public Works Department (PWD) has claimed that the building was unsafe and its structural integrity compromised. Without any expert consultation, the PWD unilaterally decided that the building should face the wrecker's ball. Despite a massive public outcry and protest from heritage advocacy groups, design professionals, environmentalist and civil society members, the demolition crews started to take down the building brick by brick.
This is outrageous and unacceptable. A nation that is not sensitive to its heritage is a nation suffering from cultural poverty. Culturally rich cities around the world are preserving their cultural patrimony with utmost care. A building may not be architecturally spectacular but it may present rich histories of a nation's evolution. Any sensible community will preserve heritage buildings as a way to showcase the people's progress.
Examples abound. Consider New York City's High Line Project. The High Line presents a fascinating story. It was an elevated freight train track, built in the late 1920s in Manhattan, New York City. The elevated track allowed freight trains to bring goods from the port to the warehouses in downtown Manhattan. In the 1980s, the nature of storing goods in the city changed. The train track was soon abandoned. In the early 2000s, the city decided to knock it down as it was deemed unsafe and a hindrance to new development. But the local community, led by two enlightened activists, organised an all-out campaign to preserve this industrial relic, even though it was not a spectacular piece infrastructure or architecture.
A design competition was organised and New Yorkers soon witnessed the birth of a beautiful, elevated urban park. Today, the High Line Project is one of the most visited sites in New York city.
In Bangladesh we have failed on multiple heritage frontiers. We failed to identify what is important culturally, socially and aesthetically. When it comes to heritage preservation in this country, we live in an absurdly bureaucratised world of mindless list-making. If a building is on the list, the building lives. If it is not, it dies. What are the criteria for making that list in the first place? Who make that list and based on what?
We need a sea change in how we deal with our cultural history. A body of historic preservation experts, comprising members from various disciplines, should research, deliberate, and present a reasoned policy to the public forum as to why certain buildings deserve to be preserved for the present and the future.
We, the civil society, strongly condemn the barbaric destruction of Khamarbari which not, only pioneered scientific agricultural research during the Bengal Partition but also offered an architectural gateway, Farmgate, to a vast experimental agricultural zone in the city.
The destruction of Khamarbari is no less a cultural suicide. When will we ever learn from history?
Adnan Morshed, PhD, is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist, and currently serving as Chairperson of the Department of Architecture at BRAC University. He is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015) and Oculus: A Decade of Insights in Bangladeshi Affairs (2012). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Md Samiur Rahman Bhuiyan and Tasmia Kamal Proma who teach at the Department of Architecture, BRAC University contributed in this article.