It’s a cool and damp morning at a school in South Kanarchor, on the outskirts of Dhaka. As the children break for recess, they’re greeted by the sight of six young visitors, approaching the school by boat. The children clamour around the bamboo railings excitedly. Nestled in the heart of South Kanarchor is the Arcadia Education Project, one of the winners of the 2019 cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA). Built on land that floods regularly, the amphibious structure is an innovative solution that responds to climate, context, and community. And that’s exactly what the visitors were there to learn about.

In September 2019, six young professionals from the India Jamat visited Bangladesh for an immersion learning experience centred on the AKAA. The five architects and one product designer were part of the Reach for the Stars Mentorship Programme, the flagship initiative of the Aga Khan Education Board, India. Thanks to a unique and long-standing collaboration between the Ismaili Councils for India and Bangladesh, these fortunate six professionals embarked on the journey of a lifetime.

To the average tourist, Dhaka is often associated with torrential rainfall and legendary traffic jams. However, the Bangladeshi capital is home to a vibrant architectural community that is rich in discussion and dialogue, and that has featured in several AKAA award cycles.

The goals of the immersion learning visit were simple: to provide a fresh new perspective on the purpose of architecture and its vital role in improving quality of life, and to understand the values and ideals of the award, through meetings with those whose work it has celebrated.

The nine-day trip included the opportunity for the group to meet with a range of architects including Marina Tabassum, Saif Ul Haque, Jubair Hasan, Rafiq Azam, and Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, among others. Of these, Marina Tabassum was part of the 2019 Steering Committee, Jubair Hasan was shortlisted for the 2019 award, and Saif Ul Haque was among the 2019 award recipients. The itinerary included meetings with the architects, visits to their projects, and exposure to the work of AKDN, notably through a visit to the under-construction Aga Khan Academy and a meeting with Munir Merali, AKDN Diplomatic Representative in Bangladesh.

The initial days of the visit were transformational for the participants.

“In each project that we visited, it was so clear that the community had played a very important role,” said Bhuj-based architect Sumaila Topan, as she reflected on her experience. “I think it’s made us realise that as architects, we really need to place people at the centre of the design process.”

As part of the visit, the participants spent the day with Rafiq Azam, the architect of the upcoming Aga Khan Academy in Dhaka.

“It has fundamentally changed my perspective about the question of knowledge,” said Jiyan Pattharwala, an architect from Surat. “Mr Azam spoke to us about how a school campus itself can be a source of intuitive knowledge for children. The natural elements of water and sunlight and even trees, are a great way of teaching students about the seasons, by experiencing them.”

“Jubair Hasan perhaps put it best, when he spoke to us about architecture simply being about sensitivity,” said Raj Charaniya, a Pune-based architect.

Mr Hasan, whose project was shortlisted for the 2019 award cycle, spent the day with the group, taking them to visit several projects including the Amber Denim Loom Shed. These and other meetings and visits highlighted to the group that architecture is as much a social discipline as any other. Although technically rigorous, the discipline of architecture can have a formative impact on the quality of life and on the design of entire communities.

This notion of community was central to the visit in many ways. The Council for Bangladesh and the local Jamat played host to the group while they were there. They returned with several stories of warmth, friendship, and camaraderie.

“I felt like the Jamat there considered us to be part of their family,” said product designer Muizz Rupani from Warangal. “They involved us in all their activities. This is really the notion of brotherhood that we always hear so much about.”

Indeed the visit, one in a series of partnerships over three years, would not have been possible were it not for the collaboration of the Ismaili Council for Bangladesh.

“We are so privileged,” said Sulaiman Ajanee, who served as President at the time of the visit. “There is an immense sense of gratification because we have been able to go beyond our borders. It is my hope and aspiration that this exposure will take them places in their professional career.” 

The 2019 visit was just one of the results of the three-year partnership. In February 2018, Rishaad Amlani, another young architect from the education board’s mentoring programme travelled to Bangladesh, for a six-month internship with Kashef Chowdhury and Rafiq Azam. For Rishaad, the internship was a life-changing experience.

“I had the chance to work on projects ranging from cyclone shelters to high-end residences, and low-cost satellite clinics to crematoriums and public parks,” said Rishaad. “But perhaps the project that had the biggest impact on me was my first project at Urbana where I had the chance to design sanitation facilities for the Rohingya Refugee Camp in Chittagong. It was my first foray into how architecture is paramount to improving the quality of life of people.”

As powerful as these experiences have been, they are even more powerful when they are shared. So in late 2019, when the group returned from Dhaka, the six participants partnered with ITREB to take their stories to STEP classrooms. Across STEP centres in Bhuj, Ahmedabad, Mundra, Surat, Pune, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, classrooms came alive with awe and inspiration as students met with the architects and heard about their experiences.

“Bangladesh has been blessed with immense talent that has done amazingly well at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture,” said Ashish Merchant, President of the Ismaili Council for India. “We are so grateful to their Jamat for empowering our youth to engage with this immense talent, and be inspired by, and learn from these world leaders.”