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A Workshop in Nilphamari: Exploring Strategies for Future Physical Development

Niklaus Graber and Saif Ul Haque will lead a hands-on workshop in Nilphamari on urban transformation.

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In a rapidly transforming scene of development, Bangladesh is experiencing fast growth in the urban areas with large migration from the rural areas. This scenario is exerting tremendous pressure on the existing urban facilities and causing great hardship to many people, mostly the low-income demography. The transformation is mainly driven by the economic growth but also social facilities like education and health are also attracting large scale migration into the urban areas.

In a scenario like this, the gap between the supply and demand of quality urban environment is growing. While the efforts of reducing the gap are ongoing, it is still a considerable time away from being accomplished. It is time to look into alternatives to bring in a balance between the supply and demand. The small and medium sized towns can offer such alternatives. While much depends on national, regional policies and planning, the process of exploring the alternatives can also be looked into by other agencies. The studio/workshop is an attempt to explore that possibility. Through a weeklong intensive exercise some future scenarios can be sketched out and shared with the townspeople.

Goals, Approaches, Process

The goal of the workshop is to formulate a whole range of options, speculations and questions as an “offer” to feed further discussions. As a starting point of our exercises we try to formulate a catalogue of questions that may motivate us to deeply think about the future of small towns. We must ask why small towns are better alternatives to big cities? Find out what are the defining characteristics of a town and how big a role a town’s size plays in its identity and function. The core elements that make a town livable and give it its identity must be investigated. The relation between the town and the landscape must be explored and the ways new technologies, and modes of communication may influence the future potentials of a town must be identified.

The design process will be based on analysis of the place in order to discover its specific qualities and lacking. The analysis has a focus on several aspects such as settlement pattern, road and transport network, public facilities, work areas, housing typologies, demographic structures etcetera. A strong emphasis must also be placed on the mapping of spatial particularities of the settlement pattern and the landscape. That being said, the analysis should not merely consist of numeric facts but also highlight drawings, sketches, collages and models.

To provoke a fruitful discourse within the group and also with the inhabitants, and officials of Nilphamari, it is necessary to take on a proactive role to visualise spatial qualities and lacking. We therefore want to motivate the participants to intensely use drawings and models as means of communication. We also want to encourage the group to formulate clear and even hypothetical statements, whether they will turn out to be right or wrong. The goal is not merely a passive observation rather an active intervention that leads to a deeper understanding of the context.

By outlining hypothetical visions of a future townscape the participants will be asked to visualise potential spatial strategies and concepts which can trigger long term development plans. We are fully aware that these studies will not bring definite answers, and rather raise even more questions, but it will be exactly these questions which can lay the foundation for even more profound future studies. To formulate a question into the right direction should be seen as a first step of solving a problem. 

Dialogue and Exchange

Since the team will consist of faculty coming from different parts of the world the workshop will bring the opportunity to step away for a while from its own experiences in order to learn about seemingly faraway approaches. To step away for a moment from its own roots may help to rediscover them even more. The workshop will explore more than just the regional aspects of town planning. Drawing on examples from different regions of the world enables discoveries to be made about the differences and/or similarities between different models of towns.

Coming from the small Swiss town of Lucerne with the same number of inhabitants as Nilphamari, Niklaus Graber will share his experiences of working in a “small town” and his observations of urban developments in Switzerland showing a mesh-like network of small and mid sized towns. Although such examples cannot directly translate to every context, they may inspire outside-the-box strategies.

The recognition of identities often involves looking in different directions and to the unfamiliar. Today, dialogue across borders and continents seems to be more important than ever. This should not be about promoting cultural imports and exports without further thought or differentiated reflection. Instead, global trends and tendencies should be critically analysed, weighing up their relevance and translation into one’s own environment.

“You have to be a world man and a Bengali. It’s impossible otherwise… When I mention standing on one’s own soil…it is to find oneself, but not to find oneself and become stagnant. What I am seeking is to stand on one’s own feet and then to proceed forward. If for that reason I have to take two steps backward to go one step forward, I have no problem with that. I think that there is no other way of moving forward” – Muzharul Islam (1923-2012)

Participation Details:

Participation in the workshop is open to graduates of architecture, planning and other disciplines. Selected participants will travel to Nilphamari where the workshop will take place. Participants are expected to work through sketching, drawing, model making and writing. Workshop sessions will be from morning to evening and requires travel within the town by foot. Support for budget travel, food and modest  accommodation will be provided by the Bengal Institute. The participants will require to carry their own laptop computer and camera. Participants will be responsible for their personal safety and safety of their belongings. Further details on the workshop will be shared with the selected participants.

The workshop will be conducted by Saif Ul Haque, architect from Bangladesh and Niklaus Graber, architect from Switzerland.

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