At the end of February, a group of Ismailis toured the National Assembly complex in Dhaka. They discovered that the Louis Kahn-designed winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture remains a formidable presence in the architectural consciousness of Bangladesh.

The erecting of Bangladesh’s monumental National Assembly complex between the late 1960s and its completion in the 1980s must have been an incredible sight. Even today, the colossal structure looks like something out of the future.

Enveloped in a concrete curtain laced with white marble, the Assembly Building itself peeks out only through enormous geometric cut-outs in the façade. Within is a 30-metre high 300-seat assembly chamber, a domed amphitheater and a library. Eight “light and air courts” and a restaurant are interspersed among these spaces, along with entrances to the garden and the mosque.

“The sheer construction of the building is remarkable,” said Sulaiman Ajanee, President of the Ismaili Council for Bangladesh.

Together with 85 members of the Dhaka Jamat, he toured the architectural masterpiece at the end of February. Designed by architect Louis Kahn, the complex was a winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The Jamati tour was organised to coincide with the current cycle of the Award, which is expected to be presented later this year.

“This building is a treat to the eye,” said 19-year-old Shabnam Barkat, who along with other members of the Jamat, was fascinated to see the masterpiece. “The outlook of the building itself is so soothing yet so artistic,” she added. “The thrill to explore this ingenious structure increases as we keep going inside.”

The Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban or National Parliament House is located in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka and is one of the largest legislative complexes in the world. The building was commissioned in 1962, and by the time it was completed in 1983, the cost of the building had climbed to 1.3 billion Bangladesh taka (est. USD $32 million), more than double the original estimate.

“For a country like Bangladesh, it may be expensive,” said Dr Abdul Muqtadir, former head of Dhaka University’s Department of Architecture, speaking to the Aga Khan Award reviewers in the 1980s, “but we planners feel it has done profitable things for the country.”

Members of the Jamat gathered in the Parliament Oath Room of the National Parliament House in Dhaka.
Parliament Secretariat / Akhtar Hossain

The Aga Khan Award review in 1989 acknowledges that the project “encouraged the renaissance of architecture as a social and cultural identity” at a time when most of the building work in Bangladesh was carried out by untrained individuals or technical engineers rather than architects. It also promoted the formation of the country’s first school of architecture.

“Back in 1960 there was almost nothing here: no real architecture, no Institute of Architects, no architectural consciousness,” said Bangladeshi Professor Mir Mobasher Ali. An architect’s key design philosophy was to represent Bangladeshi culture and heritage, while at the same time optimising the use of space. “Kahn opened the way.”

The complex is set on 200 acres of landscaped park, with the main building rising from a man-made moat. The buildings situated behind the Assembly Building were built using brick. Kahn wanted to leave the brick exposed, which required high quality masonry.

It is hard to relate Kahn’s work to more traditional Mughal or Hindu themes found in the region. In a 1964 statement, the architect says that inspiration was drawn from “age-old rules that shaped great buildings in answer to the particular character of the light, the wind, the air, the temperature, the water, the materials.”

Addressing the same matter three years later, a chief engineer in the Public Works Department observed that “it may not be possible to exactly know what those great masters of the golden Muslim era would have done if they had the materials and techniques of the modern age at their command. But the originality, purity and honesty that exude from their creations leads one to believe that they would have made use of the present day materials and techniques in their true and pure form.”

Louis Kahn never lived to see the National Assembly complex completed. He died tragically of a heart attack while traveling at New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1974. The project was completed by David Wisdom and Associates in 1983.

For the people of Bangladesh, the National Assembly is an iconic symbol. Around 2,000 visitors tour the building and its grounds every day, and it is perceived as a positive asset for the country — both for its aesthetic beauty and its architectural uniqueness.

“For Ismailis, it is such a matter of pride that this building has won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture,” said Ismaili Council President Sulaiman Ajanee. “It gives us a real connection to the place.”