Rafiq Azam, the principal architect at Shatotto.

Alif Breeze apartments in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

South Water Caress in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

At SP Setia headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Khazedewan Apartments

Daylight, air, and greenery incorporated into the space.

Khazedewan Apartments in Noor Fatah Lane.

Detail of the exterior at Khazedewan Apartments.

The courtyard around the central pond at SA Residence.

A painting by Rafiq Azam.

A sketch of Bangladesh by Rafiq Azam.

Showcase 30 Nov 2014

The soul and the shell

An in depth conversation on context, culture, and colour with Rafiq Azam, principal architect of Dhaka-based architecture firm, Shatotto. Since its inception in 1995, Shatotto’s focus has been on creating architecture for green living, guided by the underlying philosophy of using Bangladesh’s rich heritage and environment to create responsible architecture for people, communities, and societies.

Rafiq Azam, the principal architect at Shatotto.

What does Shatotto mean, and why did you choose the name to represent your design practice?

The 19th century poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta wrote a poem ‘Kapotaksho Nod’ (River Kapotaksho). While staying in Versailles, France far from his home in Bangladesh, Madhusudan Dutta pondered over the river from his childhood. The first word he mentions in the poem is ‘Shatotto’ which means continuous. It is my belief that creativity is a continuous journey of innovation, hence the name.

How do your roots in Bangladesh and its culture inspire your work and philosophy? 

My childhood and experience of growing up in the Lalbagh area of Old Dhaka (where I was born) influence my work a lot. In Old Dhaka, where people laughed and cried, lived and loved together, one always found help without asking. A friendly atmosphere lingered even on the roads as people freely exchanged greetings and smiled as they crossed each other. Walking through the narrow alleys, the touch of the silent sun, giggling of the children on the street, loud hawkers passing by, ringing bells of rickshaws, sudden rains and music on the tin roof, father nagging us about trivial issues—these are the memories that have made me who I am today. My family was big and I was the sixth of nine siblings. Amid other things, we shared our growing up years and learnt from each other in the wonderful house we lived in. A big courtyard and a garden in the south was the centre of most of our activities. My mother and father tended to the flowering plants and they blossomed in a myriad of colours. I still harbour in my heart the pleasures of relishing freshly plucked fruit while sitting on the branch of the tree it grew on!

A painting by Rafiq Azam.

Why do you think it is important to retain the connection with culture and traditional wisdom in the practice of modern architecture? 

The beauty of civilisation is in its transformations. We cannot forget and ignore the Stone Age; we also cannot live in the Stone Age. The reason is due to transformation, whether you want it or not. In fact, it is a linear and critical journey. When we lose  the connections with time and space, there is more of the possibility to ‘nowhere.’ In the realm of urban society with its own complex dynamics, it is a challenge to see how we intertwine the essence of the simplicity of our village in terms of time and space. 

Bangladesh is the largest delta on Earth with 52 rivers carrying water from the Himalayas in an intricate pattern to the Bay of Bengal. During the monsoon, these rivers inundate two-thirds of the country’s land, making water the major element of our landscape. When the water recedes, it leaves a fine layer of fertile alluvial soil and the entire landscape is transformed into large patches of paddy fields. 

The yellow harvest field and dense green bouncing paddy, vast sky and moving clouds, breeze flowing over the water and swampy land, mid-day sun setting and stretching its last light to twilight, thousands of years old ruins and history, coming back as mystery, sweet memory, and melody—all these are my sources of inspiration.

How do you define ‘green living?’ 

Certification of a green building as per green building standards is important to attain certain physical aspects of the building. But the most important thing is to understand the essence of green, psychologically. For example, in Bangladesh, the important thing is to understand the essence of water and its transforming relation with green. Water is the protagonist in our landscape, human life here exists in a fine balance with water, light, and greenery, which is lost when there is separation from these fundamental elements. That separation—not necessarily in urban living—is the cause of our alienation and waning imagination. So it’s important that our architecture restores this equilibrium.

What propelled you to incorporate green living as a guiding element in your works? 

In any situation, I don’t want to be a pessimist. Civilisation is a continuous process of struggle and attainment. Perhaps we are in the phase of struggle. Unfortunately, it’s true that despite having resources, the lack of political will and policy have failed to produce any proper physical planning for Dhaka. And gradually Dhaka has become one of the most densely populated cities in the world, characterised as urban mayhem, fermented by unregulated development, unreliable infrastructure, and lack of green space. Within this framework, by working on individual buildings, an architect can play a key role in society. I see architecture as a responsibility with its own dialects of conviction and comprehension. It has its own body and poetry, and has the power to transform the society into a healthy, thriving community. 

Green is the essence of my work. ‘Shattoto—Architecture for Green Living’ is the name of my office and as the name suggests, for me architecture is the amalgamation of the natural and the built environment which cannot survive in isolation and as humans we form the third point in the triangle. In the contemporary world, ‘green’ means being sustainable and energy efficient but my understanding of ‘green’, as a painter came from my natural environment, my Bangladesh, where the land turns to water and the water turns to green pastures and the green pastures then form the land and the cycle keeps turning. Yes, in my designs I cater to the idea of being energy efficient as well, where all considerations are given to reducing the buildings’ overall carbon footprint. When one ignores environment and history, then there is no sense of belonging. How can one exist in such a world?

Alif Breeze apartments in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Do the indigenous colours from the heritage of Bangladesh come into play in your work with spaces? 

Since Bangladesh is a country of six seasons, it produces a variety of colours in the natural environment. During summer trees bloom in a range of colours, from yellow to red to orange to purple, which then changes with the growth of fruit that takes over. In the monsoon the environment is almost monochromatic grey. In autumn the sky transforms into a dramatic array of blue and white. Late autumn brings with it the time for cultivation where the fields shine bright gold. Winter brings with it the growth of green shrubs and vegetables, and finally, in spring, the colourful flowers, perennials, vines, creepers, and hedges make Bangladesh a country of colour. 

As architects, it becomes our duty to create buildings which inherit natural materials and only complement their surroundings.

What is the role of colour in your work with spaces and materials?

Considering the climate of Bangladesh, it is important to let the building breathe like  a living entity. As it is a tropical country, the high levels of moisture and temperatures that range between 28°C to 40°C, create a haven for bacteria and fungi. It is important to create a healthy environment with healthy buildings. All of this is done by bringing in ventilation and open spaces. 

In this manner, when one caters to all these important features of designing in Bangladesh, the materiality also presents itself as an entity. The rawness of the brick, terracotta, and concrete is an essential part of retaining the honesty of elements coinciding with that of nature. Hence one is able to create buildings that breathe in the colourful environment of Bangladesh.

In your time away from professional practice, you also paint. Tell us a bit about how it keeps you inspired. 

I wanted to be a painter, just a painter and nothing else. Since the age of seven, I have indulged myself, especially, by pouring green and light into my watercolour paintings. Eventually, green, light, and water became inseparable in my life. But my parents’ desire of seeing me become an engineer  put me into the Department of Architecture, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). Even then I was happy realising that architecture had the scope to continue my painting journey. Even today,  I consider myself an architect by chance and  a painter by conviction.

A painting by Rafiq Azam.

Any advice for student and young architects?

I believe architects are creators; creation is not magic but magical. Becoming a creator needs a long journey, a journey with honesty, generosity, and perseverance to attain the goal of well-being of the society. Success is not something to wait for; it is something to work for. As Jalaluddin Rumi says, “When light returns to its source, it takes back nothing from what it illuminated.” Before we leave this world, let us become light.

Rafiq Azam elaborates on the philosophy, intent, and architecture of Khazedewan Apartments and SA Residence—two projects he feels best represent his architectural practice.


Old Dhaka is being mercilessly transformed into a ramshackle state with an increasing population, lack of adequate building construction policy, and vision. Existing plots are constructed increasingly in smaller units to cater to the livelihood of more nuclear families and also for revenue. The wonderful, historical Old Dhaka, the costliest land in the region, is getting crammed, disarrayed, and fast losing its cultural ambiance, traditional morphology, and human quality. Moreover, most built houses these days lack the sensitivities for providing space for greenery, daylight, and wind—all basic requirements for healthy living. 

With this backdrop, this small, multifamily apartment building, located at the dense Noor Fatah Lane, Khazedewan was developed for low-income families to live in a healthy environment at affordable rents. This also provided livelihood to the landowner. Though the current trend of apartment living induces isolation, the effort here was to revive the warmth of collective living and sharing of the Old Dhaka lifestyle. 

An architectural element of Old Dhaka—mer (a friendly threshold space between building and street) has been used in a transformed manner with a patch of green. The traditional courtyard has been transformed into its extreme dimension with the alliance of air, rain, sunlight, and greenery. Peeping through the window, a traditional in-house custom, particularly by women and children growing up and living in Old Dhaka, has been articulated by designing the fuchkee khilkee for communicating with the world beyond. 

The special care in incorporating the elements of nature such as adequate air, daylight, and presence of greenery, into the design, has not only improved the overall health and well-being of tenants, particularly children, but has also been successful in reducing electricity consumption, thus leading to a decrease  in the cost of living. 

With a garden towards the roadside, the Khazedewan Apartments have expressed a keen interest in creating spaces where friendships can grow between humans and nature and within the community, where desires may come to life, thus proposing a new paradigm for building in an otherwise architecturally improvised locale. 

The building is located in a 2.75 metre by 122 metre alley where even a single rickshaw cannot pass through, let alone ambulances, in the case of emergencies. This persistent traffic problem was addressed by creating a setback of 2.13 metre, making the street 4.9 metre wide, enabling at least two vehicles to pass through from opposite directions, a solace indeed to the neighbourhood. 

The entire team worked on this project as social workers, rather than professionals, with the challenge of an extremely tight budget, and a target to accommodate fourteen families in 37.16 square metre, 55.74 square metre, and 65 square metre apartments, on a 260 square metre plot, creating spaces with a sense of abundance.



Water, the most precious and abundant resource in Bangladesh, with life subtly woven in it, is making the country one of toil and poetry. As Lalon, a mystic minstrel, Sufi, and philosopher of this land, said in the 18th century, “If there is not one thing inside the body then it is not outside the body either.” Just like the human body, there is a body of architecture. The human being has two parts, its shell and thinking as its soul. Architecture has a similar shell and Mother Nature as its soul. Shell and soul are interdependent yet independent. They belong to each other and they belong to themselves. A good soul needs a good shell.

The courtyard around the central pond at SA Residence.


In this three-storied, single family residence, the shell is a pure square made of a single material, concrete and the soul is Mother Nature conversing with the shell. The site is surrounded by multi-storied buildings as onlookers. Considering the socioeconomic condition of Dhaka, a very simple architectural vocabulary was adopted through a subtle intervention with form, material, and vegetation. Also, in the current trend of real estate development, this residence has been a challenge, particularly placing a water court as a swimming pond in the middle of the house, a surely difficult task to ensure privacy. As a result, an introverted design has been adopted. 

In the SA Residence, traditional space qualities, from both urban and rural typologies are merged. The courtyard connected to the adjacent pond in traditional typology was transformed into the urban context and created a quad of water symbolising nothingness, yet containing, capturing, reflecting, and refracting the sky, flying birds, smiling sun, shying moon, and the composed cosmos as a whole. The south and the south east have been designed to bring in a cool breeze during the hot, humid summer and the warmth of the sun during winter. The central water court acts as natural exhaust system and getaway for hot air and makes the middle court a solace.


A small dinghy boat waiting by the ghat, a patch of green and light with its silence, the space becomes a natural habitat within a man-made dwelling, with layers of insight to unfold into nothingness.  



All images courtesy Rafiq Azam, including:

• Caress.jpg

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