In June, Marina Tabassum was announced as the first architect to win the prestigious Jameel Prize. She was also the first joint winner of the award, which is given to artists and designers whose practices are inspired and rooted in Islamic tradition. Tabassum shared the £25,000 prize with Mehdi Moutashar, who was born and raised in Iraq but has lived and worked in France since the 1960s and all the shortlisted entries are currently displayed in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.
Tabassum won the award for her Bait Ur Rouf mosque in Dhaka, which was completed in 2012 and for which she was also awarded an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2016. She says that winning the Jameel Prize was a great honour, especially as the award usually goes to artists or designers. “I did not expect to win as the representation of the mosque is only through images. The credit goes to the judges who could look beyond that,” she says.
Born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tabassum has been working as an architect since 1995. For the first 10 years she was in partnership with fellow architect Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, with whom (among many other notable projects) she won a national competition to design Dhaka’s Museum of Independence and its accompanying monument in 1997. But, for the past 12 years, Tabassum has run her own solo boutique practice in conjunction with teaching at the BRAC University. Since the start of her career she has shunned the idea that architecture is a commodity. “I have always been against the commodification and profitability of architecture and for me, I prefer to work with public projects because, in many ways, I see myself as an artist as well as an architect.”
Indeed, in the short film that is playing in the exhibition hall at the V&A, she describes her desire to ensure that every building she makes is “rooted to its place”. As such, she prefers to take on projects that are relevant to the context and community where they are located. “I always bear the community and environment in mind. That is important for everything I do,” she says.
"[The mosque] also offers a refuge in a dense neighbourhood that lacks community facilities...," says Tabassum.
The mosque is one of her best-known works and perfectly encompasses this goal. It is highly personal project that was commissioned by her grandmother, who donated the site in Uttara, Dhaka and it was built slowly as Tabassum raised funding from the local community. It is a beautiful structure made from exposed brick work perforated to allow the natural light to create a dappled pattern along the expansive prayer hall and clearly captures the imaginations of those who use it and indeed, those who just witness it through images – such audiences of the Jameel Prize exhibition. So, what makes the building so compelling?
“The mosque questions some complex issues of current time and tries to find answers,” she says. “It goes back to the beginning of mosque and questions 'what is a mosque'. It addresses its location of informal settlements going through fast transformation. It also offers a refuge in a dense neighbourhood that lacks community facilities as well as being an example of community effort to fund an architecture project for construction. For me as an architect, it was a challenge to create a space with very modest means which has the power of spirituality,” she says.
The mosque was also on show in a Swiss Architecture Museum exhibition titled Bengal Stream: The Vibrant Architecture Scene of Bangladesh, which was curated by Niklaus Graber and closed in June as well as making a brief public appearance in Dubai during Art Week in March. In an Aga Khan sponsored show, the work was shown alongside a project by X Architects, a Dubai-based architecture practice and work by third-year architecture students from the American University of Sharjah.
Perhaps Tabassum’s most notable project at the moment is the Panigram Resort, which is an eco-resort currently under construction on the Ganges delta. Built in the local vernacular of thatched bamboo huts on mud floors around traditional Bengali courtyards, the idea of integration with the surrounding villages is key. “We want it to be a kind of co-existence,” explains Tabassum. “We want the guests to visit the villagers and for them to also benefit from the existence of the resort.”
The resort project and an installation featuring a model of the architecture as well as utilitarian objects to represent culture of the delta dwellers is currently part of an exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale, where Tabassum is one of 71 invited architects from all over the world responding to this year’s theme of “freespace” as laid out by curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Titled the Wisdom of the Land, the exhibition shows how Tabassum and her tam have worked with the delta landscape and its community, to embrace them into their designs, something that has always exemplified her practice embracing informality.
“I chose a path of resistance at a time when architecture became commodity. It has been a challenging journey of twenty years. So, for me these awards and recognition are an encouragement to remain true to my pursuit,” she says.
“It also sets example to the younger generation of architects and artists who learns to appreciate my projects which go beyond the visual spectacle and address the elemental beauty of material and nature.”