Louis Kahn: Master of light

Updated: Apr 12, 2020, 07:31 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

The Parliament is a jaw-dropping complex of buildings, with Kahn's signature, cutaway circles and triangles in its walls

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeLocked in during Corona, I reflected on faraway places I love. Dhaka in Bangladesh is one of those cities I love intensely. The traffic is hideous, but only some degrees worse than peak-hour Mumbai. The civilised people, rich culture, restaurants, bookshops, music, architecture, markets, the Buri Ganga (Old Lady Ganga) river—there's always so much to delight in.

Invited to the Dhaka International Film Festival in January, I took time off on my last day to visit Bangladesh's spectacular Parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban (National Assembly Building), designed by the outstanding Estonian-American architect Louis Kahn (locally adopted as Louis Khan). I had already found the buildings of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM-Ahmedabad), designed by Kahn, intoxicating, when I once lectured there. But, the Parliament was far more mind-boggling.

Kahn was deeply philosophical, and the Parliament building, surrounded by a lake on three sides, symbolises river-crossed Bangladesh. So, despite its concrete monumentality, it appears to float on the water. It took 20 years to build, from 1962-1982. It was started when the country was still East Pakistan, and completed well after Bangladesh became independent in 1971.

The Parliament is a jaw-dropping complex of buildings, with Kahn's signature, cutaway circles and triangles in its walls. Inside, the cutaways in the walls, that allow you to see through three or four layers of rooms, corridors or stairs, seem like optical illusions. Sometimes, I felt I was on MC Escher's perspective-bending 'Ascending and Descending' staircase. At other times, I felt unsure of my moorings, as if I was in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. We usually think of a column as a holder of weight. But for Kahn, it could contain contradictions: "A solid column is a giver of light," he wrote, adding, "the column is made of light," it is "a poetic entity." He treated light as a living, lively being. Almost anywhere you stand, you can see at a single glance, five or six ways the light falls—honeycombing its way through a grilled circle; knifing its way in diagonally through a serrated roof; a bright carpet looming in from the main door; soft light falling like rain. It is another planet altogether.

The overall architecture is in the Brutalist style, with monumental shapes in drab concrete. The advantage is that the material is locally available, maintenance is minimal, and by using natural light and air, it requires minimal artificial lighting and ventilation. The grand Parliament hall is crowned with a glass starburst-shaped ceiling, so it is naturally brightly lit. Its galleries are poetically named after the rivers Padma, Meghna and Jamuna, and the flowers Shimul, Shapla, Sheuly and Bokul. There's even a shishu gallery for children.

Suddenly, I hear a sonorous azaan from the mosque within the building. I'm not allowed in the mosque during prayers, but it has two, high half-circles cut out at the junction of two perpendicular walls. When the sunlight falls through them, it makes a "heart of light" on the prayer carpet. It is a deeply moving image: without a word, without an idol, Kahn simply lets the light do the talking. Uff!

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshi.shedde@mid-day.com

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