It’s hard not to notice the rotting old 18th and 19th century fronts of Dhaka’s old town. Ghosts of a bygone era, the neoclassical facades provide a reminder of the city that Dhaka once was. Now the palatial buildings — victims of political strife and poverty — stand in stately disrepair.
In my initial wanderings of Old Dhaka I wanted more than anything to gain admittance. Thankfully, since that time I’ve discovered the Urban Study Group, a group run by an architect that is advocating to save the crumbling buildings and offers tours which explore the structures.
Some of these buildings are now owned by the government after their owners fled during times of political unrest.
Many have been converted into living spaces: in the larger buildings, some 50 to 60 families live in small apartments carved precariously out of the halls and ballrooms. These apartments spill out into dilapidated courtyards that are now areas of continuous domestic activity: families do laundry, men bathe, and children play.
But these buildings are rotting away before your eyes: bricks are exposed in the columns and facades, stairways are rickety, entire sections of roof have collapsed.
Restoration work seems haphazard and even destructive — at times restoration crews will simply destroy columns and capitals as this negates the need to restore these intricate features. Our guide explains the destructive actions with an old adage: if you cut off the head, you don’t have to worry about the headache.
And for some these buildings may truly be a headache. Knocking them down would mean the option to replace them with soulless blocks of concrete bunker-like buildings that seem to make up large portions of Dhaka. New structures could probably house more people and require less upkeep.
And in this sense the Urban Study Group faces what seems to be an difficult battle, confronted with the continued ravages of time and weather and those who are pushing to dismantle the buildings.
But you can’t miss the sense of immense pride that residents have in their homes. As I was wandering around a courtyard, a man stepped from his apartment and patted a rotting column. Turning to me, he said “my home must have been beautiful”.
And, if these places are preserved and cared for, there is a chance they may be beautiful once again. They could be safe homes, sources of pride in a dusty city, and tourist attractions. And that seems a battle worth fighting.
A gallery of pictures from the buildings and courtyards is here.