bangladeshi architect marina tabassum awarded the 2021 soane medal




while growing up in dhaka, bangladesh, marina tabassum watched her father—a doctor—attend to a line of patients every morning before he went to work. the same compassion informs the work of tabassum, an award-winning architect and founder of marina tabassum architects MTA, whose projects include modular mobile homes for victims of flooding and rohingya refugee camp housing.


while expected to become a doctor or engineer, tabassum broke from family convention to study architecture in the late 1980s. she describes the ‘immediate connection’ she felt to the subject and her ‘first lesson in daylight’ from louis kahn’s national assembly building in dhaka. it was these early years as an architecture graduate in the 1990s that also shaped her work today with MTA. tabassum saw the rise of the ‘starchitect’ and profit-driven architecture but decided to reject it entirely for a more rooted approach that attends to the human condition as well as environmental responsibilities. an approach which she describes as ‘the architecture of relevance’.


‘I chose to resist, to deny temptation and to search within; within the land I grew up in, the place and country I call home,’ said tabassum.

marina tabassum: architecture that attends to the human condition
bait ur rouf mosque, image by sandro di carlo darsa (also main image)



Bait ur Rouf Jame Mosque


tabassum’s early lessons on light came full circle with bait ur rouf mosque in dhaka, MTA’s first commission that opened in 2012. the project was also a personal one for the architect as it came a few years after her mother’s death in 2002 and it was her grandmother that donated the plot of land for the mosque. the architect explained, ‘it was a moment in time when grandmother and granddaughter both sought healing and designing the mosque became our process. my grandmother passed away within a few months of the ground breaking at bait ur rouf mosque in december 2006.’


the design concept for bait ur rouf mosque was to find the essence of islam. built from humble brick, light itself becomes the decoration as rooflights create dappled patterns on the floor. ‘clarity of space, devoid of hierarchy, is tantamount. instead of glorifying symbolic features such as domes or a minaret, it felt right to focus on the spirituality of the space that would heighten one’s sense of being in communion with god,’ added tabassum.

marina tabassum: architecture that attends to the human condition
bait ur rouf mosque, image by hasan saifuddin chandan



Rohingya Refugee Camps


as a child of second-generation immigrants, it’s no surprise that tabassum quickly turned her attention to the rohingya refugee crisis. since myanmar’s violent military crackdown in august 2017, nearly one million rohingya have fled to cox’s bazar–teknaf peninsula in bangladesh, which is now the largest refugee camp in the world. the influx of refugees has raised both humanitarian and environmental issues. 


tabassum said her current work ‘is focused on the twin crises of bangladesh: the plight of refugees, and the heightened threat to our population of flooding, exacerbated by global warming. both factors have led me to focus on prototyping low impact, mobile housing which can be delivered at the lowest cost possible for those in need. our goal is to make it an open source knowledge that can help people build their own houses, with the help of a manual with detailed instructions.’

marina tabassum: architecture that attends to the human condition
rohingya refugee camps in ukhiya, image by F. M. faruque abdullah shawon





these crises and the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed down work in the MTA office, led to the development of ‘khudi bari’, a self-build bamboo structure that costs just £300 and accommodates a family of four. by june 2023, the dhaka-based studio aims to house 100 families in khudi bari structures. the lightweight mobile homes exemplify tabassum’s core belief that architecture can empower communities and safeguard the environment without compromising on spatial experience. 


‘architecture can reinstall pride in the age-old wisdom of living symbiotically with nature. architecture can empower communities to secure better lives and living conditions. and I firmly believe all this can be achieved without sacrificing the innate objective of space and place-making. every site has a story,’ said the architect.


she added, ‘architecture adds to the narrative by building upon the ingredients sought out from these stories. therefore, before we ask the brick what it wants to be, the conversation must begin with the question: ‘who are you, brick? what is your story?’’

marina tabassum: architecture that attends to the human condition
khudi bari: modular mobile house for the climate victims of bangladesh, image by asif salman



marina tabassum awarded the 2021 soane medal


tabassum has been recognized for her work with the 2021 soane medal, awarded on tuesday 16 november. previous recipients of the accolade are rafael moneo, denise scott brown, and kenneth frampton.‘I am honoured to have been chosen to receive this recognition from such a distinguished institution as the soane museum,’ said tabassum about the award. ‘winning the soane medal means a great deal to me’


you can watch marina tabassum’s soane medal lecture in full here below.




marina tabassum: architecture that attends to the human condition
marina tabassum, image by sounak das


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