Jenny January 14, 2013

Dhaka. So many things have been said about this city. It is, we learn, one of the fastest growing mega-cities on the planet, receiving more than half a million rural in-migrants each year (this in a country that’s the 8th most populous in the world, and the most densely populated of them all). Since 2000, the population of the city has doubled! Needless to say, since space, facilities and services have not, Dhakaites are finding themselves more and more surrounded by the inescapable urban experience each day.

Typical descriptions of the city include words like “chaotic”, “crowded” and “disordered”, and nearly all linger on its congested roads and polluted air. It is even suggested that Dhaka is “unliveable”. The 2012 Global Liveability Report, put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranks Dhaka at the very bottom, along with cities like Karachi, Lagos, Harare and Algiers.

While all this might be correct, it nonetheless ends us up with a quite narrow image of Dhaka. One that may describe reality, but not every aspect of reality. I’ve been reading a lot lately by the Bangladeshi writer, architect and scholar Adnan Morshed. There’s a compilation that just came out with all his published works (which seems to be available on Amazon as well). Great, insightful commentary – especially when he writes about Dhaka and the idea that the city is an uninhabitable jungle.

Modernization, says Morshed, is by essence a chaotic phenomena. Contradiction is its alter ego. No modernizing project exists that is not partly disordered and disruptive. Therefore, Dhaka – a city that is undergoing rapid such change – cannot be not chaotic.

Morshed asks us to consider Allen Ginsberg’s account of New York in the 1950s, which, when you read it today, sounds like a poem about Dhaka or any other of today’s mega-cities.

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum hacked open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? … Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasures! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses!”

Then, Morshed turns to Frantz Fanon (who still today provides some of the most solid insights into how the human psyche works). Fanon, he says, tells us that chaos and contradiction are not necessarily negative forces. Instead, they are vital components in society, even necessary for making progress. Chaos spawns creativity and entrepreneurship, he says, while rigid and excessive order blunts it.

So maybe we should be less quick to judge and label places. And less inclined to use that part of the brain which likes to place everything in neat categories (because those will never correspond to reality anyway). Maybe then we’ll may find a way of appreciating both chaos and order. Future cities will need that to be people-friendly.

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