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Prospects of Hatirjheel as a desiring-machine

by Shayer Ghafur

A bird’s eye view of Hatirjheel a day before its inauguration on January 2. — New Age/Sony RamanyA bird’s eye view of Hatirjheel a day before its inauguration on January 2. — New Age/Sony Ramany

THE inauguration of the Hatirjheel project, almost a year ago, promised enriching urban living in a densely-built, traffic-congested, and green-starved Dhaka city. Promise, however, has its political entanglement. The ruling government claims Hatirjheel as its present to the Dhaka city. The nation’s investment of Tk 1,900 crore ($235 million dollar in current rate) around a 300-acre lake bespeaks Dhaka’s keeping pace with an evolving modernity. Here urbanity unfolds by modern translation of our primordial relation with water. Newly planted trees will mature while deepening Hatirjheel’s presence in our collective urban memory. Hatirjheel is already a stage set for celebration — fireworks illuminating its night sky and reflecting upon its water is indeed a spectacle unmatched in Dhaka’s living memory. Hatirjheel, however, is neither a space of spectacle nor a space of utility—a ‘lake’  linked to a drainage system and ‘roads’—despite their visual primacy. Hatirjheel appears full of possibilities as it captures collective imagination by pushing our desire of how we might live. Our rethinking its essence beyond the stated functional objectives is a public necessity as Dhaka’s desire and quest for liveable environment hardly stops at Hatirjheel.
The Hatirjheel project, at its base level, portrays Dhaka’s ongoing transformation of the built environment. Its comparable interventions are Dhanmondi Lake and Sonargaon Road; both have effectively transformed a neglected backyard into an active recreational open space and busy commercial strip respectively. Amidst ongoing expansion of lands, legal or illegal, Hatirjheel opens up possibilities of re-configuring land within an existing urban fabric. It contributes to land’s conservation by value addition; lakes and roads are mere intervening means of land development. However, transformation of paddy fields into residential areas and a neglected swamp into a revitalised lake are altogether different. For Hatirjheel, few would argue its transformation for the public interest despite the hegemonic state or market led transformations’ not benefitting all equally. Existing low-income renters in the multi-storey shacks—presumably the previous squatters in the swamp—will have to move to the new cheaper options outside Hatirjheel once the developers moved in. The rehabilitation of the affected families in Hatirjheel that the prime minister promised during its inauguration seems to have gone into oblivion.
To minimise this kind of predicted misfortune, public authority scrutinises the extent of value addition urban design makes in transforming urban landscape while ensuring the best returns of scarce public investments. Arguably the most important contribution urban design makes is its alternative spatial schemes for making choices through public scrutiny. Urban design can act as a democratic tool for envisioning, laying out a shared public realm.
The government conceived the Hatirjheel project as a discrete infrastructure project during the mid-1990s. However, no infrastructure development of this scale can remain detached from affecting the environmental dimensions, land value and rent, and social interaction within and surrounding the project site. Implementing this project within a city like Dhaka would also trigger involuntary displacement through squatter eviction and land acquisition. Hatirjheel proved as not an exception. A visionary imagination addressing these issues was first advanced by a BArch thesis, ‘Urban Interscape: Developing Begunbari Canal Area’, in the Department of Architecture, BUET back in 2003. It aimed at turning a backyard swamp, an urban void into an urban asset by recovering an area from under-utilisations and illegal encroachments. Alternative master plans offered flexibility for including lake adjacent areas for greater spatial and visual integrations. Precursor to this 5th year thesis was a 4th year urban design project focusing on improving the public realm surrounding water bodies in Dhaka including Hatirjheel. Expert supervisions and guidance in the Deptartment of Architecture, BUET ensured innovative outcomes of these academic endeavours.
 This visionary thesis was exhibited, among others, during an international conference organised by the Department of Architecture, BUET on June 12, 2003. The then housing and public works minister and the Dhaka city mayor spotted the potential of this thesis during their inaugurating the exhibition. The architecture department head’s further briefing in a meeting next day at the ministry later led to the BRTC-BUET’s becoming consultant of the Hatirjheel project in 2004. The state appropriated a public university’s visionary imagination that later became a quarter of a billion dollar project. The BRTC-BUET consultancy, however, continued without in-house urban design inputs.
The inaugurated project has two major components: infrastructure and drainage, and beautification. Nowhere incorporated within their respective utilitarian and superficial engagements are urban design concerns. Two documents are essential for an urban design projects like Hatirjheel: first, a master plan shows the types, extent, and relation of different land use with different modes of circulation; city authority, Rajuk, would implement it by safeguarding from all possible abuses and violations. Second, an urban design brief guides the present and future building developments in relation to all public and green spaces for ensuring the uniqueness of the project. We note a conspicuous absence of these documents, not to mention the 3D modelling of the site, for guiding formation and integration of the adjoining land mass of a 300 acre project area with the surrounding urban fabric. To the surprise of this author, not a single authorised plan exists for public inspection even almost one year after its inauguration. 
Urban design in its making of places for people emphasises, among others, ‘accessibility’ and ‘permeability’. The former ensures people’s unobtrusive and universal access to the designed places in relation to different land uses and modes of transportation. The latter brings transparency of places by allowing people’s visual and physical access. Master plan and urban design brief are essential tools for ensuring accessibility and permeability: They bring integration and inclusion. Without their due consideration, any given project is vulnerable to become a ‘gated enclave’ — an absurdity at the expense of taxpayers’ money in any functional democracy.
Infrastructure development of Hatirjheel is most likely to create value added land for three groups: present (vacant) landowners adjacent to the new roads, future beneficiaries of Rajuk land developments for commercial uses; and lastly, pre-existing landowners in the adjacent neighbourhoods. Given the value addition of at least four times the present public investment, Hatirjheel becomes a billion dollar site. From property development perspective, Hatirjheel is Dhaka’s next best thing. Hedonic pricing of property in this prime location is likely to replace the primacy of Gulshan and Baridhara. Amidst acute scarcity of central city land, for example, the present market price of Tk 25,000-30,000 per square feet for apartments in Gulshan would fetch at least Tk 50,000/sft in five years time in Hatirjheel. So, where would we locate the rationale of the Hatirjheel project, mass outdoor recreation, utilitarian consideration, or property development? We can avoid fathoming the inevitable realisation by consoling ourselves that public wellbeing (of mass recreation) comes at a high price. Not much though, only quarter of a billion dollar taxpayers’ money. We can, however, expect to know where the trade-off is, whether in development tax or land contribution towards green belts to justify the private land’s benefiting from public investment.
In the absence of a master plan, making a lake edge with encircling roads does not legitimise visible illegal construction like the BGEMA building. All developed and acquired lands’ intended future use are not also justified through suppression of a master plan. Our experience has shown that even presence of a master plan could not stop encroachment as observed in the shifting edge of Gulshan Lake. The absence of a master plan makes Hatirjheel vulnerable by not recording what exists and what is yet to come. In the public imagination, master plan manifests transparency of present and future uses. Its suppression is a denial of peoples’ right as they ought to know what shapes and would shape the setting of their urban living. A master plan, therefore, remains a key to restoring just use of Hatirjheel. In that pursuit, Rajuk’s recent focus on the management of space has to be an aftermath of the production and consumption of space, and it makes no sense without a master plan.
All rhetoric and euphoria of the Hatirjheel project seem premature due to its recent portrayal as a ‘Yak-jheel’. Illegal sewage connections to the Hatirjheel drainage system makes it Dhaka’s celebrated new cesspool. Given prevailing tendency for bending rules with impunity one wonders how could this happen. What has happened to our wisdom of predicting the future for system design? Besides, Hatirjheel appears a threat to public safety due to the surrounding high-speed roads, especially, for pedestrians. Do these incidents suggest the inevitable outcomes when an urban project like Hatirjheel is just an ‘infrastructure’, in the civil engineering sense, de-linked from its wider context? As we take into account Hatirjheel’s technical glitches, its narrow functional frame appears addressing only a state of lack that we desire to have. The metaphor of ‘organism’ underpins this way of understanding Hatirjheel project as an ensemble of discrete parts — lake, roads, landscape, and drainage system. An organism is a collection of different parts, each working and supporting each other, and the harmony among the parts manifest within the whole. The organismic view takes Hatirjheel as a definitive design overcoming (a set of) lacks intending to produce tangible affects that an area and its populace desire but forced to repress under a socio-political reality. Subsequently, it suggests what Hatirjheel environment and people should have by overcoming their repressed desires through the provisioning interventions.
In our alternative metaphoric conceptualisation, Hatirjheel is a machine; it differs from an organism that exists as a self-regulating whole. A machine, on the one hand, consists of different parts acting as discrete machines; there is no privileged unit. On the other hand, a machine makes connection with other machines; relations among these connections emerge as one machine creates the flow that another machine disrupts. Let us take an example of a man riding a bicycle where a lifeless bicycle-machine connects to a lived man-machine. Bicycle works through coordinated connections among paddle machine, handle machine, sit machines, etc. Bicycle also connects with a man whose feet move its paddles. In other cases, a bicycle connects as an art object with a museum machine, as a commodity with a shop machine, as a vehicle to arrive at a university machine.
From the view of psychoanalysis, desire refers to the notion of lack. Desire, however, loses its character if we think it machinically. Here ‘Desire is a creator of connections, not a lack that must be filled’. To desire is to connect with others, in our case environmentally and socially, to create new ways of living. Desire is repressed if its energy is not channelled through and turned back upon itself: the prospect of creating new possibilities gets lost.  
Hatirjheel is a desiring-machine creating connections among disparate parts. Not only a discrete part makes connections within itself, like a drainage system collecting storm water from afar discharging into a lake; or a bridge, physically connecting two sides of a lake; or a lakeside bench, providing a setting for viewing the lake. Discrete parts of Hatirjheel rise above them, by making more connections at different levels. For example, a drainage system sustains a lake by pouring water into it. People mark their presence by sitting the benches for enjoying the lake view or chatting with their friends. People driving cars through the bridges move from one part to another part of the city. At subsequent levels, Hatirjheel connects different parts of Dhaka as much as their activities and populace. Similarly, trees in the vicinity make connections with birds; mobile vendors make connections with strolling pedestrians. There are machines, and their connections, everywhere channelling money, matter, motions, and motives.
The desiring-machine of Hatirjheel embodies an ever-present occasion of creating possibilities of connections what people might have, an environment might become, or an environment-people relation might emerge. This desiring-machine pulsates for going beyond conformity of known solutions by embracing uncertainties and charting unknown territories: immanence not transcendence underpins it. The state-machine—the subject instrumental behind Hatirjheel’s emergence—had stepped outside its usual position of ignoring grabbing of public lands, rivers and water bodies. Even the army-machine had effectively plugged to the state-machine far beyond its usual role during project implementation. Amidst the state’s compliance with passivity, the Hatirjheel project is an enigma of a machine kind, distinct from the rest of all disconnection phenomena of grabbing and encroachments. Three different regimes blessed Hatirjheel. Not only had the project implementation continued without interference, its budget had in fact increased.
The question we need to ask now is what role does a master plan have in it? A master plan, on the one hand, becomes restrictive by acting as a template of pre-given requirements limiting Hatirjheel’s open-ended possibilities. On the other hand, absence of a master plan would jeopardise the whole machine by external encroachment and internal incompatible land uses outlined in the relevant DAP report. The overall outcome of not having a master plan would threaten the necessary flows and its disruptions among all the discrete part-machines, and thereby, eroding the potential of their creating connections. In overall consideration, a master plan is an unavoidable necessity providing a datum for Hatirjheel project to act as a desiring-machine. Understanding the Hatirjheel project as a desiring-machine allows us to put other mega ‘infrastructure’ projects under scrutiny. What connections all these new flyovers or metro rail would make to act as a machine in their respective wider urban context.  
Shayer Ghafur is a professor at the Department of Architecture, BUET.

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