In an interview, Marina Tabassum, Principal Architect of Marina Tabassum Architects, and winner of the 2021 Soane Medal, shares her thoughts on sustainable design choices and battling the tides of climate change.
What inspired you to design structures that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also sustainable enough to improve the lives of low-income communities in Bangladesh?
Architecture is not only limited to beautiful buildings alone. I believe in ‘architecture of relevance’ which is a time-appropriate response to a given context. The reality is that we have focused very little on low-income communities to uplift their living conditions both in rural and urban areas. Only a handful of architects among thousands in our country are focusing on 90% of the country’s population. My office and I are trying to make our knowledge and experience available to low-income people for a balanced and healthy environment. I was inspired by my connection to rural Bengal through various projects.
What elements do you take into consideration when designing a building? How did you identify the design features for the Bait ur Rouf Mosque and what particular issues were you trying to address?
In all our projects we try to take maximum advantage of natural elements such as daylight and wind. This reduces the operating cost of a building compared to buildings that are dependent on artificial means. Bait ur Rouf mosque is no different from that.
We used a double-wall concept on the south side of the mosque. It is the main entrance for people and also the path of wind flow during summer. Double-wall helps to filter the dust and conditions the temperature before air flows into the main prayer hall. A good design addresses problems and seeks out solutions that are appropriate to a given context and transcends in quality of space and form.
It was recommended in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, to stop using bricks as construction materials as it can reduce carbon emissions by almost 20%. Are such recommendations actually viable solutions for climate change? In your opnion, how can the building and construction industry aid in fighting the climate crisis?
Building and construction industry is responsible for 40% of carbon emissions globally. However, stopping the use of bricks is no solution to carbon emission. Cement has a much larger carbon footprint than burnt bricks. 0.9 pounds of CO2 is produced to manufacture one pound of cement.
There are many alternative materials that are not anthropogenic and sink back to the earth. Instead of focusing on meeting the target of COP21, our focus must be pioneering the challenge of the climate crisis by opting for alternative methods of construction and building. Responsible sourcing, avoiding long supply chains and encouraging circularity and home-grown products should be our way forward.
THROUGH THE FOUNDATION FOR ARCHITECTURE AND COMMUNITY EQUITY (FACE), WE ARE ADDRESSING CLIMATE PREPAREDNESS THAT INCLUDES HOUSING PEOPLE IN THE CHARS, FLOOD-PRONE AREAS AND THE DISPLACED MOVING POPULATION OF OUR COUNTRY.
Could you share some details of the work you have done in restoring the landscape of the Rohingya refugee camps, and in climatically vulnerable areas of Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has given shelter to more than one million forcefully displaced populations from Myanmar in Cox’s Bazar. It is one of the largest and densest refugee camps in the world. We are working with WFP inside the camps and also in the host communities. Our work involves reforestation of the raptured landscape. Certain parts of the forest land of Ukhia are completely obliterated by the exodus of refugees. We are introducing natural solutions to restore some of the native vegetation to regrow the forest land to help stabilise soil from erosion. We have designed temporary structures for the livelihood programs of the host communities outside the camps. Inside the camps, we are in the process of designing safe spaces for women. All the structures inside the camps are temporary in nature as the camps are a transitional shelter for the refugees.
Through the Foundation for Architecture and Community Equity (FACE), we are addressing climate preparedness that includes housing people in the chars, flood-prone areas and the displaced moving population of our country. We have designed a low-cost lightweight structure with indigenous materials that is a flat-pack system named Khudi Bari. We are working in various locations in Bangladesh that are geographically and climatically challenging.
What have been some of the milestone achievements for you and your office? What architecture designs or research would you like to introduce to Bangladesh?
The Soane Medal was awarded for the architectural pursuit that my office and I have been persevering for more than two decades. I received the gold medal of the French Academy of Architecture, Arnold Brunner prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I am included as a distinguished member of the Royal Designers of the Industry by the Royal Society of Arts. All these accolades are humbling no doubt but also reaffirms my pursuit of architecture that includes practice, research and academic endeavours in the process of making.
We are, at the moment, focusing on climate preparedness through our project Khudi Bari being implemented by FACE, as mentioned earlier. At the same time, we are focusing on various collaborative research and workshops focusing on alternative building materials and construction techniques.