A Respectful Refuge

PROJECT Canadian Chancery and Official Residence, Dhaka, Bangladesh 
ARCHITECT MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited in collaboration with Rounthwaite Dick & Hadley Architects
TEXT John Leroux
PHOTOS Steven Evans

National symbols come easily to Canadians. Without question, the maple leaf is ours, but to those outside our borders, are we more than scarlet-clad Mounties and rugged hockey players? Are we fully encapsulated by the soaring grandeur of a Haida totem pole, the bold starkness of a prairie grain elevator, or the snug efficiency of an Inuit igloo from a nostalgic 1950s travelogue? From sea to sea, our myriad regions (and certainly our cultural mosaic of late) raise a thorny question: what is the most appropriate path to architecturally express our country’s contemporary character in the 21st century?

The question may very well have been answered by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects (MLSA) who, as design architects in association with prime consultants Rounthwaite Dick & Hadley Architects (RDH), were given the challenging task of designing a new purpose-built Chancery and Official Residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 

Rather than approaching the project with the ephemeral flash and bravado of a World’s Fair pavilion, or deferring to a restrained expression of our (usually) diplomatic and measured national character, the design team chose a more inspired path built on Canada’s varied stew of humanity, compassion, landscape, and economic and political stability. The result of their arduous eight-year-long task has resulted in a building that avoids the predictable and the clichéd. This alone is no small success, as in this city of 15 million people at the epicentre of one of the poorest and most densely populated countries on earth, nothing is straightforward and simple.

While Dhaka is a metropolis of relentless bedlam, pollution, crowds, noise, urban sprawl and countless dusty construction sites, it is also a fascinating, friendly, vibrant, ancient and relatively safe city in a region that has been a cultural and spiritual hub for millennia. Walking through Dhaka is akin to visiting a city from the distant past, while simultaneously experiencing a planet that is very much in the present. Here, thousands of recent concrete high-rises blandly dot the city, while noteworthy postwar and contemporary structures are the exception rather than the rule.

In contrast to this state of affairs, Canada’s new Chancery is widely admired as one of the most notable new works of architecture in the city. Our Chancery joins a limited club, as Bangladesh possesses only a dozen specialized embassies at present, so the stakes were high. Consistent with Canada’s domestic policy of multiculturalism, the architects were driven by an understanding of the project’s dual cultural responsibility, “to represent the ‘guest’ country and to show respect for the culture of the ‘host’ country.”

Located on a prominent corner site along a major thoroughfare in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone, the High Commission and Official Residence is a multifaceted and complex building that is also the first international built public work by MLSA. Sandwiched–in an almost perfectly Canadian way–right between the American and Vatican embassies, it is far from a physical duplication of its neighbours.

The first feature that strikes the visitor is that unlike its adjacent counterparts, the Canadian embassy has made a very conscious design decision to be a part of the city and the public realm. In an understandably no-nonsense way, the flanking American and South Korean embassies are essentially fortified bastions sited far back from the street behind giant walls of concrete, brick and steel. The message is clear: you can’t get to us, nor should you try–unless, of course, you have an appointment.

While the Canadian Chancery is unquestionably secure, it has achieved this by taking great pains to fuse clever and sturdy security measures that are more shrewd than conspicuous. As an architectural metaphor for us as a nation, many would agree that Canada shouldn’t occupy a fortress embassy. By giving our international relationship a physical presence in their capital, the “bunker ethos” was trumped by what is at the core of us as a caring and sincere country: a desire to show openness and trust to the citizens of Bangladesh. The public is encouraged to engage with the edifice, walk unhindered along its sidewalk, and touch its beautifully crafted brick skin; imparting the message that a nation on the other side of the world cares very much for this place.

The venerable Canadian trait of reaching out and embracing cultures is pervasive in the architect team’s approach to the structure. Bangladesh is very much a country of rivers, and as Brian MacKay-Lyons has stated, “the Ganges Delta has only two principal resources: alluvial silt and people, which translates into bricks and bricklayers.” Hence, the core of the scheme is a startlingly simple two-storey horseshoe form built of reinforced concrete and clad in local red brick. Typical of MLSA’s best work, it is a clear and uncomplicated volume with no pretense: it is effectively an elongated brick wall wrapping around a central courtyard.

By deferring to local building traditions and the Islamic cultural principle of outward modesty, it speaks volumes of our social image as Canadians. It also embodies the disciplined philosophy the architects have keenly developed over the past quarter-century. According to MacKay-Lyons, “a contextualist approach is not a style, but rather a discipline, a method, a way of seeing, which is culturally transferable. Building within the material culture of a place not only communicates a respect for regional context but also ensures the maximum economic value to the client.” 

The smooth red brick and its coursing are of a very high quality, made all the more distinctive by periodic highlights of pink sandstone above the windows and as coping stones at the crest of walls and parapets. Acting as a counterpoint to the reddish brick/stone shell, a pair of punctuated metal covers wrap the middle sections of the building, above the mechanical and third-floor office spaces. Evoking both the corrugated metal huts of outlying rural areas as well as the sheltering metal volume of the architect’s 1998 Kutcher House on the Nova Scotia coast, the half-panelized and half-louvered silver forms offer solar protection and textural variety, although MacKay-Lyons wasn’t completely satisfied with the metal-clad portions. He stated that in hindsight, more of the brick should have been used throughout for both practical and cultural/tectonic reasons, and he has a point. The local builders were somewhat less comfortable with architectural metalwork, and constant cleaning because of the omnipresent dust makes it a challenge for building staff.

The High Commission possesses two separate entries: an immigration entrance along the main road, and a more modest consular gate and staff/service entrance through the curved wall. As the more “public” entry along the main street, the immigration section is generously glazed and features a prominent ramped entry, all underneath a protective steel canopy that acts as an effective shelter during the severe monsoon rains that occur from June to October. The rest of the building’s outward exterior is largely unbroken by visible fenestration, save for a rhythmic procession of thin vertical windows along the upper floor. At the other corner of the building, the staff/service entrance passes through a secure gate followed by a short walk to a large porte-cochère that leads to both the embassy and ambassador’s residence.

Like the immense brick cylindrical forms of Louis Kahn’s nearby Bangladesh Parliament complex, the Canadian High Commission features a curved brick mass facing west, which is certainly the building’s most memorable attribute. While the curved volume
imparts an air of solidity and heft, it is fundamentally a slender ribbon enclosing a simple landscaped courtyard. Bangladesh has a strong tradition of courtyard buildings with a connection to defined exterior space, so the intent was both time-honoured and resourceful. Unlike the grassed areas of the adjacent American embassy which are completely closed off, the staff and visitors here are able to enjoy and inhabit the pleasant garden as a quiet transitional breathing space before going inside.

While the building is a protected structure with a hierarchy of privileged and controlled access, it also boasts a number of more public spaces including the immigration hall with its comfortable built-in seating and interview rooms, the great room of the official residence, and the foyer atrium. A refined three-storey-high space, this atrium is cut thin and tall behind full curtain-wall glazing on the southern face, with a blanket of horizontal metal louvers to shade it from the blazing sun. The interior walls are clad throughout in lightly stained maple panels imported from Canada, contrasting with polished black granite floors. Adjacent to the foyer is a glazed semi-public multipurpose room that is often used for seminars, large group meetings and media sessions.

The embassy interior layout is straightforward and linear along its horseshoe spine, with much of the building’s first- and second-floor office zones organized around a naturally lit hallway path. The single-loaded corridor along the curved sections features staff offices on one side and a partially glazed wall on the other. Passing by the intermittent window/wall sequence is a magnificent walking experience–a zoetrope of constantly alternating light/dark and shifting vistas outwards toward the garden.

The ambassador’s official residence occupies the southeasternmost corner of the complex. Separated from the rest of the site by an eight-foot-high brick wall and covered walkway that encloses a private yard/garden, the residence spaces are simple and efficient. The most distinctive areas are the ground floor’s public reception and dining rooms, separated by a stained wood dividing wall that floats between them. These spaces feature a similar material palette to the office wing, with a sloping ceiling of stained wood panels, polished black granite floors, interior walls of stained maple and rose stucco, and a north-facing fully glazed wall that overlooks the private garden.

As an oasis of calm in the bustling chaos of Dhaka, the overall character of the project is courageous and admirable. While it is not perfect, one quickly realizes that it is virtually impossible for any public building in Bangladesh to be blemish-free due to local construction practices, budgets, and demanding schedules. The very fact the building was even able to get completed was due to the unusual level of commitment by team members such as Bangladeshi-Canadian architect Momin Hoq of associate firm RDH. Living in Dhaka, Hoq oversaw the lengthy contract administration and “nearly gave his life to the project,” according to Talbot Sweetapple. Small technical challenges of the building notwithstanding (eg., a lack in some critical areas of covered walkways and sun-shading protection), the building certainly fulfills its many difficult roles. 

Whether as effective designers or as diplomats in a foreign land, we are always encouraged to listen before we speak. In the Canadian Chancery’s case, the architects listened carefully, acted wisely, and the resulting building speaks volumes. CA

John Leroux is an architect, teacher and art historian living in Fredericton.

Client Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
Architect Team Brian MacKay-Lyons, Rob Boyko, Talbot Sweetaple, Momin Hoq, Melanie Hayne, Sanjoy Pal, Dan Herljevic, Martin Patriquin, Justin Bennett, Sawa Rostkowska
Structural Yolles Partnership Inc., Development Design Consultants Limited 
Mechanical Hidi Rae Consulting Engineers Inc., Development Design Consultants Limited
Electrical Development Design Consultants Limited
Interiors MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited
Contractor SPCL-GBBL Joint Venture, SPCL, Charuta Private  
Area 42,000 ft2 
Budget withheld
Completion October 2009