Niklaus Graber
Under threat – Kamalapur Railway Station
By Daniel Dunham and Robert Boughey, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1961-1968

Docomomo International became aware that the Kamalapur Railway Station, designed by Daniel C. Dunham and Robert G.Boughey for Berger Consulting between 1961 and 1968 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is threatened due to the an extension plan of the Dhaka Metro Rail’s Line-6 that includes its  demolition and  replacement by a new infrastructure, rather than its adaptation. Similarly to the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIMA), by Louis Kahn in India, the Kamalapur Railway station is a masterpiece of the Modern Movement in South Asia threatened by the government’s action.

The Kamalapur Railway Station has stood east of the city’s Motijheel district since 1968, when New Jersey-based Berger Consultants completed design and construction work on its thin concrete shell umbrella. It has since become something of a local icon, with many prominent Bangladeshi architects considering it an invaluable piece of cultural heritage. But with an expansion of Dhaka’s metro lines now imminent, Kamalapur is facing the threat of demolition.

It took local craftsmen nearly a decade to build Kamalapur Railway Station, with a sequence of multiple architects at Berger Consultants developing its design. The first was Daniel Dunham (…) Rather than design an enclosed monolith with mechanical heating and cooling systems for Dhaka’s central railway station, Dunham intended to take advantage of the city’s tropical climate. He devised a roof system that provides an umbrella of shade over the station’s offices and facilities, supported by a versatile field of columns. It was to be built using thin concrete shells, a construction technique that Dunham investigated as part of his thesis at the GSD. The open-air scheme takes advantage of Dhaka’s cross breezes while shielding interior spaces from monsoon downpours. When Dunham left Berger (…) the Pratt-educated architect Robert Boughey took over his post. Boughey designed tessellating concrete shells for the roof that recalled the pointed arches of some Islamic architecture. Cast on-site with reusable wooden molds, the shells became Kamalapur’s defining architectural feature. It is often framed as part of the so-called “golden age” of modern architecture in Bangladesh. Between the 1950s and 1960s, after the partition of India and before Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) claimed independence from Pakistan, a number of buildings erected in the country received international acclaim.

Even if Kamalapur Station is certainly not the only notable example of modern architecture in Bangladesh, though, it is likely one of the most accessible. (…) With a patchwork of signage and posters now dotting the building’s discolored surfaces, Kamalapur has assumed a character that some consider inimitable—a notion that has only made the demolition announcement more difficult to accept.

In late November, Bangladeshi press outlets began reporting on the government’s plan to tear down Kamalapur Railway Station in order to accommodate an extension of the Dhaka Metro Rail’s Line-6, an elevated train route that aims to ferry upwards of 60,000 passengers per hour.”

Plans have already been approved by Railways Minister, and the demolition will purportedly allow the Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority to use the site of  Kamalapur to build a new effective multimodal hub. This decision is now raising critics from local and international architects, referring it “as an unnecessary act of destruction, reflecting misplaced priorities and insufficient coordination between agencies” and “focused on the potential for adaptive reuse rather than demolition.”

“Considered out-of-date and incompatible with the prevailing smart urbanist mood, their removal is easily rationalized. This aggressive demolish-and-development urban vision dominates the thinking of political leaders and administrators, while the historical value of modernist architecture is lost on the public which alone seems capable of defending it.” By this, “the recent decision to replace Kamalapur with a multimodal transportation hub, instead of incorporating it within the proposed expansion, comes as a shock. This cultural vandalism, however, also signifies a pattern consistent with the demolish-and-development mindset.”

Aware of the imminent risk that Kamalapur Railway Station is facing, Docomomo International is determined in raise attention to stop the plans and preserve this masterpiece.

Several articles about the case are being published in international newspapers to raise attention, namely in The Architect’s Newspaper (article 1 and article 2), or in The Daily Star (article). A detailed photo essay of the Kamalapur Railway Station was made by Niklaus Graber, who curated an exhibit at the Swiss Architecture Museum (SAM) about the contemporary architecture of Bangladesh, and can be seen here.