No river, no dream
A conversation between architects, urbanists and writers, as they reflect on rivers and how they have influenced and inspired our imagination and have impacted on the global architectural landscape over the centuries.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf (KKA): Kongjian, you and I have had many occasions to meet since the conference on water (University of Pennsylvania, 2012), your visit to Hawaii, and our subsequent visit to Beijing. We published a feature on you in a previous issue of Jamini. It has indeed been an ongoing conversation with you, and it is always for me a learning process, and a source of inspiration.
In our 2020 conversation, which we carried out on zoom, we talked about the presence of rivers in our landscapes and lives. ‘Riverrun,’ or as I see it, as river-realm or river-sphere, or in a technical sense, river ecology, however you want to see it, is a recurring, ever important topic. Orientations may vary depending on how one phrases it. When you say “river ecology”, it becomes the domain of professionals and planners; when you say “river-realms”, it is part of the social life—people’s way of looking at rivers and experiencing them.
I was thinking that there may be four ways that rivers can provoke our imagination at this time:
One, recreating a natural process with a river as the spine. You Kongjian, have talked about such things quite a bit. By that I mean that a river has water, a flow, and, perhaps most importantly, river sediment. We don’t talk about that much, even in discussion on deltas. The sedimentation of rivers, say in Europe and elsewhere, is managed in different ways. But the river as water, flow, and sediment – that is important – especially in Bangladesh, as well as in China.
Two, rivers are now technologically mediated and you have talked about that also. About how human installations such as dams, dykes, embankments, channelization, done for one reason or the other, for good or bad consequences, have defined development.
Three, rivers are part of the public realm, and our imagination. People seek out river banks for necessity, recreation, etc, and then something magical happens—one moves from the core of the land to the edge of the river and experiences something phenomenal. In Bangladesh, there are so many poems on that experience; the same is true for China as well.
And four, rivers are also part of the constructed landscape. That should be discussed too – how from a natural system a river becomes a part of the constructed landscape. I think conflicts arise here – what kind of a constructed landscape are we pursuing? In Bangladesh, the village is the constructed landscape in which rivers have always played significant roles. But the way rivers are in villages is quite different from the way rivers are in cities. It seems in cities we have lost the spirit of being one with rivers. In cities, rivers have basically become drainage channels, ecological disasters, polluted, and at best managable only by technocratic processes. As an architect, I am interested in the ethos of rivers. I have just finished editing a book called, The Great Padma: The Epic River that made the Bengal Delta. I am trained in the techniques and technology of making buildings, but I have developed an interest in rivers and therefore the book. What does it mean for an architect to write a book on rivers? In Bangladesh, an architect, perhaps in China and Vietnam, and in all deltaic places as well, an architect should first be trained in understanding rivers, before handling buildings. After all, rivers in deltaic places provide the basis of the “ground” condition. And without understanding that condition, what can one do? In Bangladesh, sometimes there is no ground condition—the water comes in and the land vanishes, and when the water goes away land is recreated in different ways. There is no site without water in Bangladesh – it’s all about water.
I think the training of architects in Bangladesh, and I’ll say this very emphatically, should start from an understanding of rivers in Bangladesh. By that I mean rivers and water systems—rivers, canals, wetlands, river basins and water basins, all the way down to the coastline.
Kongjian Yu (KY): As a response to your narrative about rivers, Kazi, I think that Bangladesh and China, particularly East Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia—what we call South to South-East Asia—has a monsoon climate. Through my research I found out that most countries in monsoon regions are underdeveloped or developing. Very few are developed countries like Singapore. So that’s one thing we have to understand. Now the whole world is talking about climate change, but we have always been living through climate changes. Climate change is nothing new for China, Bangladesh, India, or for Malaysia. So that’s a big issue. For the past 100 years these underdeveloped countries have been colonised by what we call industrial civilisations—by those civilisations developed in European countries, where the climate is quite stable or mild. The rain pattern in Europe is very mild and evenly distributed. The infrastructure system and calculation models of countries such as the Netherlands, Britain and France, are based on this kind of a system. However, when we—I mean countries which are in a similar monsoon climate zone—try to adopt to this form of industrial civilisation, we simply fail. That’s why all Chinese cities in the monsoon region in the coastal areas—in fact two-thirds of Chinese cities—suffer from urban flood. And certainly, most of the cities in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan suffer from issues like flooding because we simply don’t have our own climate-adaptive infrastructure. Our villages used to though, as you mentioned Kazi. When it comes to our cities, however, we don’t have modern urban infrastructures that can adapt to rivers that change with the monsoon. The village is adapted, agriculture is adapted. The Chinese have 4000 years of knowledge of agriculture. With that we build terraces on the mountains. The tide system is similar to that in Bangladesh, and so, we have a permanent dyke system and people live on the dykes. The land in this monsoon area is very productive. Over a thousand years of agriculture, we learned to adapt to this kind of monsoon and river system. The river changes so dynamically around the year! In China, we have hundreds of cities along the Yellow River basin which follow strong adaptive patterns. I wrote a paper in 2008 on the adaptive landscape. A typical Chinese city has two layers of walls surrounding it. There is an inner wall which is a square wall; it is to protect the city during war. Then there is a bigger circular wall which is two metres or one metre high, which adapts to the river. In the villages we build houses on higher ground. We build terraces and raise it to a height of two metres to three metres. That’s enough to adapt to the river. The most important thing is that we never fight the river. There is a thousand years of agricultural practice where villages, by opting for minimum intervention, use adaptive landscapes, and demonstrate adaptive skills that include cut and fill to create dykes and ponds, and higher ground for settlements. So, Kazi, we had villages that worked with the river, and lived with the river, but now we have cities that change the river. But we will ultimately fail because of the power of the river. The river is a force of nature—it is the most forceful of natural entities because of the monsoon climate.
I think it is important to understand why rivers in this region are different from rivers in European countries, where they are often predictable, stable and controllable. When you think of the Thames, the Rhine, or the Seine, which run through big cities such as London and Paris —those rivers were fine until European countries also began experiencing dramatic changes due to climate change. Now, the people living there experience monsoon-like climate as well. That’s why European countries will come back to Asian civilisations to learn how we adapt to monsoon-type climates. So that’s my response to what you mentioned about constructing the village. Instead of constructing the village, we are constructing rivers. That’s the total opposite of civilisation. Today, because we have powerful concrete and steel industries, as in China, all rivers have been channelised—all the way from the Himalayas to the Yangtze River to the ocean. The whole river is being constructed because of the power of industrial civilisation. I believe this kind of civilisation will fail. That’s why in my letter to the mayors about the big river, I said we are going to have another civilisation, revolving around how to free the river. Instead of trying to control rivers, we should adapt and make our cities spongy, and have them adapt to the rivers they originated around.
KKA: That’s beautiful. That brings us to the next topic. I see two viewpoints here. I am very glad you mentioned the monsoon sphere. That is what distinguishes this part of Asia from other parts. This region is a child of the monsoon. The monsoon is really a water phenomenon and the river is a part of it. When you said the river is a force of nature, and monsoon is part of that, we have a dynamic, volatile, changing phenomenon, and everything that follows. For centuries, we have adapted to that change, to that dynamic condition. But as you said, our engagement with western and European cultures have made us adapt to many things, both good and bad. One of the things we have adapted is a belief in technology; the belief that technology can solve everything. A technological utopia, some people may call it. I would say technological arrogance. Of course, we rely heavily on technology – I am talking to you courtesy of technology at this very moment – but if we assume that it will solve, control and manage everything, including the dynamic landscape and the dynamic atmosphere of the monsoon, then we are quite wrong!
So that’s the first viewpoint I get from here. Then, I think about how 14th century China had a strong navy. That ceased suddenly for numerous reasons. At that time, Chinese ambassadors and admirals would come all the way to Bengal, and Bengali emissaries and merchants would travel all the way to China and other coastal places. There was a coastal travel route, which is why we have cities along the coast. In that context, I discovered a Chinese drawing of a giraffe. I mention this because of the monsoon culture, where there is a continuity – there was a network, connection and relationship among monsoon cultures from China to Bengal. I found it fascinating that a Chinese ambassador was in Bengal at the time when an African ruler had gifted a giraffe to the Bengali ruler. He was so fascinated by that animal that he requested the Bengali ruler to allow him to take it to his emperor. The ruler agreed, and the giraffe was gifted to the Chinese. That giraffe was very popular among Chinese elites – artists drew the giraffe because they had never seen one before, and they imagined it to be a dragon.
I see it as an amazing circulation of the giraffe image, but I also see a relationship between China and Bengal via coasts because of the monsoonal climate, which facilitates sailing, and enables oceanic ships to sail across the rivers in Bengal.
You mentioned dykes, Kongjian. Dykes could be small in scale. In Bengal, farmers build them to control and manage the flow of water and its containment on a small scale. But that’s very different to technologically scaled-up embankments. There, you want to manage nature. Farmers didn’t want to manage nature; they only wanted to manage the flow of water in some areas. Regarding the word Bengal or Bangla or Bangala, as in Bangladesh, the 16th century chronicler Abu’l Fazl mentioned that the ‘al’ in Bang-al is derived from the small dykes the farmers made. So, perhaps the name of the nation, and all that goes with it, is derived from the practice of agriculture. And lastly, I want to say that you mentioned how rivers and water systems are more or less stable in European contexts. But things are changing now. The monsoon is arriving in Europe also. I took my students to the Netherlands last year, and I noted a change. The Bangladesh government has invited the Dutch government to produce the Delta Plan for Bangladesh. Of course, the Dutch are experts on the delta – that’s something to discuss. The Dutch have produced a Delta Plan based mostly on their notion of the delta, which is different than our delta. When you go to the Netherlands now, they are adopting what we have already been doing. They now have a slogan: “Let the water flow, let the rivers flow”. They contained the river before, now it’s about flow, overflow and the dynamics of water. So, they are changing their policies while we are mostly beholden to their policies in our context.
KY: Yes, I think that’s the tragedy of human society. We keep on making mistakes. We forget our heritage. I remember in your old Bengal Foundation office you had some ponds and dykes. I was really amazed because Chinese downtown areas are also made up of this pond-dyke system. The difference with other regions is in the scale of the technology – it’s much smaller, localised, and sponge-like. It’s not a big dyke, it’s not a dam. That makes a big difference. Now it is linked to industrialisation. Industrialisation creates massive things. That’s the difference from this agricultural system. The old practice is family based, individual based, and village based. That creates a very resilient system. So, from what I saw in Dhaka you have big potential for urbanisation. But what is going to be the form of the city? That’s very challenging. It is possible to create a new type of water adaptive resilient city, and that will be a new revolution. The tragedy is that policy makers don’t have this kind of knowledge, and that’s why I think it’s important to have a new decision-making system , through which it will be possible to comprehend this need. That is why for the past 25 years I kept talking, and letting decisionmakers know that they will fail, and that a crisis will develop. Look what happened in 2012 in China. In Beijing, the capital was flooded and so many people drowned. They realise now that we need a spongy city, and different nature-based solutions, and not an industrial solution. But the so-called advanced industrial civilisation is still in control. We have to revise so many things, including university textbooks in the ways we educate our people. We still have a long way to go. In the entrenched system, engineers have little trust in new thinking. They don’t believe that a spongy city will work. I think that’s the future. We need a new school.
KKA: I think that’s the bottom line. What’s the form of the city with the understanding that we have in China and Bangladesh? I have experience of the West. I am a Bengali, I have soaked in the wisdom of the land, but I am open to what’s going on in the rest of the world. But I have to really think, working as an architect, working in the larger context of the city and understanding its conditions, meaning the change and transformation of the natural process, and adapting to the technological and cultural differences we mentioned between civilisations. What should be the form of the city? How can we create our own urbanism that will include the ecology of rivers – I think that’s the bottom line. We have now worked with a few cities in Bangladesh at the Bengal Institute. We have travelled across the country and I have gone to many small towns. You have worked with 300 cities; we have gone to 20 or so. In Bangladesh, every town has a river. I haven’t come across any town without a river. Either the river is in the south, or the west, or is in the middle; the river may be active, may be a little stagnant, but there is a river. Original settlements started with rivers, with which there is a deep, historical relationship. But we are increasingly forgetting this because of the utopia of technology, and perhaps the lure of capitalism. So what will be the form of the city in the future? Our quest needs to be about adapting, and not transforming – that is the point.
What do you think? Every year things change and I have to ask you the same question every year, every time we meet. What should we do now?
KY: This book (Everything Needs to Change: Architecture and the Climate Emergency, RIBA Publishing 2021) is published by the British Architectural Society. Sadly, it’s not available in China but it’s there on Amazon. What shall we do now? We talked about it. You were going to build a new city, right? You should experiment around the river and test this new idea. We should not just follow whatever the western world is doing. We should invent a new type of urbanism. That’s the only way we can transform a dystopian situation. You mentioned the utopia of technology. I think it should actually be termed the dystopia of technology. From dystopia to our local native utopia to build a new city based on adaptation to agricultural landscape. I think you need to do it: Build a new city that has a completely different form. It is only then that we can show the whole world what the next century’s new urbanism will be like, which can adapt to climate change, and many more things.
KKA: At the Bengal Institute we have tried these things in small ways. Stakeholders in Bangladesh are much more complicated. I, personally, and through the Institute, have been observing Dhaka for a long time. Dhaka is surrounded by a combination of flood plains, agricultural land and river basins. It is a fantastic landscape increasingly being changed simply by landfilling – as if people don’t know any methods other than landfills. The argument has been that we need to build houses, fuel the economy, and so forth. I personally feel that ecology and economy need not be enemies. There are strong laws in Bangladesh, about conservation and retention of such critical landscape, but the laws are not enforced because of the forces driving the economy. I think there can be a third form – what you have referred to as a new urban form. Conventional urban forms, the conventional patterns of building, of construction will always lead to crises because they are based on a dry ideology. As if land is always there, site is always there – waters will never rise or recede – we even force this idea on to the liquid landscape. That’s why things are complicated. So, we need a third form. I totally agree with you, Kongjian, and of course inspired by you, we were working on that third form around this critical landscape, in the hope that a third form can create a cordon or a boundary around this critical landscape so that they could become very distinctive and put a stop to practices of encroachment. Encroachment often happens because we don’t have a language and we don’t know how to work with that landscape. But if I can create a cordon of a new language that celebrates, and recognises that landscape, we could stop building here. You mentioned boundary in our last interview – we need a boundary and the boundary is a new urban cordon. We are working on that also. Perhaps, Kongjian, I can suggest that if you have the time, we could work on an area in Dhaka. There will be no funding but we will work on it for a few months and then produce something, and maybe that will interest policy-makers.
KY: I did have an image in mind once – a potential image of what the future Dhaka could look like. But the city has changed so much since. The land and water relationship; the way the land is the infrastructure, your transportation system – I love the local transportation, the three-wheeler rickshaws, they are so green. It’s the future of Bangladesh maybe. We can totally abandon the cars. We can develop this very individualised, very nature-based human-based system. That’s very amazing. For this kind of utopia, you need decision makers who will say: “Let’s do it, let’s do one test.”
Luva Nahid Choudhury (LNC): What happens now? What happens in the post-Covid situation? Will anything change?
KY: First of all, a lot has changed. I would say it is a trigger to change lifestyle or change the form of urbanisation. I tried an experiment. When you interviewed me in 2020, I was living in the countryside, in the village. I think this kind of lifestyle has become possible—now more than ever. So, it will be a new type of urbanisation—not the western model of life. High speed trains and internet make it possible for us to develop cities where we can have a much better quality of life, a greener life compared to what we have today. I am very confident about that. I did two experiments in the village. With high speed trains, you can easily get to the villages. We have campuses, and schools, where people are working and teaching. This new type of urbanism can generate many kinds of jobs. My friend, Charles Waldheim, says it’s a kind of agrarian urbanism. Like Dhaka, like some cities in Bangladesh – your urbanisation will be different. We don’t have to depend on cars, that’s number one. If we develop a system where we can get rid of the car, because that’s a huge business. They consume 50% of the energy, create carbon emission and demand infrastructure. So that will change. Post-Covid life allows us to imagine a different lifestyle.
LNC: What are your views on this Professor Kazi?
KKA: Will there ever be a post-Covid? – that’s my question. Who knows whether there will be another pandemic after Covid? That’s the first lesson we should learn – that such pandemics may continue to happen and we have to accept them because we are humans. Humans have a good side and a terrible side. The terrible side often gets reflected in how we manipulate nature. You speak about boundaries and we have discussed them – one of the main reasons is about crossing that boundary. Strange things can happen, and then they impact us as humans. We are human and so this kind of thing will keep on happening; we will continue to suffer, we will learn, and then we will reinvent. I think the question is – what do we reinvent? I feel Covid has brought about a positive change in public life, in how it has been reorganised. In Philadelphia, I have seen how street life has become very animated. There was once really no active street life in Philadelphia because of regulations, such as how many restaurants could extend to sidewalks, and so on. But now, whether in good weather or bad, people sit outside. Enjoying the outside, experiencing the outside as part of public life, translates into public spaces. So, we need more and more public spaces – defined, small, big, medium – all kinds of public spaces. They can be plazas, gardens, courtyards, sidewalks, etc. Sidewalks are not just for walking; they are also for assembling. Restaurants in Philadelphia and New York survive by utilising sidewalks. Other interesting things have happened in Philadelphia. A lot of parking spaces were taken away and became public spaces – they are called ‘parklets’. People sit there, have coffee, and all that. So, what we realize now is the importance of public spaces and the transformation of public spaces. This was perhaps always there in Europe and parts of China. In Bangladesh, we have not cultivated that – the importance of public spaces. The other thing is, what Kongjian has been saying, about an overall transformation of urbanism taking place – whether we should all concentrate in large cities or we disperse in to smaller cities. Now that’s a big question. Covid or not, that’s a question we have to face. In Bangladesh we have spoken about such things as a dispersed urbanism rather than all being concentrated in one place. Of course, other things are involved here – infrastructure and transport. I really like this idea of relying on two things – high speed transport and high speed wifi – then you can actually congregate anywhere. So yes, revising urbanism is essential. We talked about urbanism based on rivers, and about urbanism based on adapting to such pandemic conditions. Those are two things we have to take up again and again in revising our understanding of urbanism.
LNC: How then do you see the future for rivers?
KKA: I think Kongjian should have the last say on that. But I’ll just refer to what he has already mentioned – rivers as forces of nature and the river as life. We need to accept that the future of rivers is the same as the future of human civilisation.
KY: Yes, I will say free the river – that’s the future. The river is a vital living organism of the whole world, particularly in monsoon regions. We depend on it as a fertiliser, and for irrigation, navigation, or productivity. The river is key to the planet’s ecosystem. Now we have destroyed it. When I was in Bangladesh, I was amazed at the productivity of your water system, with fishing and agriculture. It used to be the same in China. When fish die in China in the Yangtze River, it speaks of the destruction of an entire ecosystem. The tragedy is that it is available to us for free! We try to build grey infrastructure to replace the ecosystem and that becomes so expensive. That causes all the problems. So, we have to think in terms of services – production, provision, how much does the river produce, etc. Biomass is everything. Kazi even mentioned silt. Silt is the base for productivity. Without silt, there is no production. Imagine how much fertiliser we use today, how much chemicals we produce, and in the process how much we risk. 60% of chemicals end up in the river. China consumes 30% of global fertilisers; India, Bangladesh, and America, another third. 60% of all those chemicals end up in water. Water itself loses the capacity to cleanse and produce nutrients that farmers need. So that’s one – loss of productivity. The second is certainly what Kazi mentioned at the beginning – the cultural aspect. Rivers are responsible for so much of the picturesque, poetic, and cultural spirit of humankind, whether in India or USA or China. But when I travel today, I see a loss of poetic content. I don’t see any trees around rivers, no villages along them, no communal life along rivers, no fishermen on them – that’s a huge loss. The spiritual connection is lost.
The third thing is the power of regulation. The surface of the river is regulated, that’s why we end up with climate change. In the dry or wet seasons, you have the river basin system that regulates the river. Note that the Amazon River is still very primitive. So, you can imagine what it used to be like in the past. There was an abundance of forests with water flowing underneath the canopy. You couldn’t see the water; all you saw was the canopy. Green and blue and everything together, sponge-like, that is what rivers should be. That’s the global future. I say all rivers should be covered with forests so that there’s no hard boundary. We see the river as a productive ecosystem, as a bio-diverse system – the most bio-diverse areas are in the river, around the river, including the wildlife. This is nature regulating itself, with the meanderings, the tributaries – it acts as a great regulator – it’s a home for the soul. No river, no dreams! Children today don’t even know how to draw the river, as the river is now concrete. Freeing the river doesn’t mean reverting to primitive agricultural civilisation. We now understand the science of the river. We now know how to adapt it, not because of survival needs alone, but because we are sensitised. The move from an unconscious to a conscious understanding of the river is the future of the planet, the future of humankind. So, the future of the river is the future of human civilisation.
KKA: That’s the title of the new book – No river, no dream. I would like to extend what Kongjian has just said and try to make it more relevant to our context. I suggest we write a river manifesto for Bangladesh with Kongjian, adapted for Bangladesh.
Architect, urbanist and architectural historian Kazi Khaleed Ashraf writes from the intersection of architecture, landscape and the city. He has authored books and essays on architecture in India and Bangladesh, and on the work of Louis Kahn, and the city of Dhaka.
Landscape architect and urbanist, writer and educator Kongjian Yu is commonly credited with innovation of the Sponge City concept. Based in Beijing, he is won the International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award in 2020.
Luva Nahid Choudhury, architect and Editor, Jamini
Leading Image : The Padma River, Rajshahi. Photo: Nusrat Sumaiya
A conversation between architects, urbanists and writers, as they reflect on rivers and how they have influenced and inspired our imagination and have impacted on the global architectural landscape over the centuries. Kazi Khaleed Ashraf (KKA): Kongjian, you and I have had many occasions to meet since the conference on water (University of Pennsylvania, 2012),…