A small brick hospital in rural Bangladesh with its own zigzagging canal has been named the best new building in the world, winning the RIBA international prize 2021. A model of climate-conscious design built with the bare minimum of resources, the Friendship hospital beat off competition from a gallery in Berlin by David Chipperfield, and a cycle and footbridge in Denmark by Wilkinson Eyre.
Located in Satkhira, in the waterlogged landscape of the Bengal in south-western Bangladesh, the winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ award used water as its chief starting point. The canal zigzags its way through the site, collecting valuable rainwater and helping to cool the surrounding courtyards during the sweltering summer months. It also serves as a barrier between the inpatient and outpatient departments, separating the two sides of the site across shared courtyards, without the need for a dividing wall.
“There is water everywhere here,” says architect Kashef Chowdhury, director of Urbana, the Dhaka-based practice behind the project. “But it’s not always the useful kind.” Rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis have meant that the surrounding landscape of grain fields has been transformed into shrimp fisheries, while the groundwater has become too saline to use for most purposes.
In the rainy season, locals do everything they can to collect and store every last drop of fresh water. Chowdhury has therefore designed the building to be a machine for rainwater harvesting, with every roof and courtyard surface draining into the central canal, which runs into two storage tanks at either end of the site.
It is the first “land hospital” for the NGO Friendship, for which Chowdhury has helped to convert several boats into floating hospitals in the past, designed to serve remote communities in the delta region. Built for a tight budget of just under $2m, their first permanent building provides a medical lifeline for thousands of people in an area that was heavily affected by a major cyclone in 2007.
Using locally made bricks, Chowdhury has developed a campus that has the feeling of a village, with buildings set at angles around courtyards, framed with colonnades that help to shade the wards within. These deep outdoor corridors also provide shelter from driving rain and encourage cross ventilation through the buildings, while bouncing daylight back inside, so no artificial light is needed during the day.
The blocks are angled to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction, meaning that most areas don’t need air conditioning either, except the operating theatres and delivery rooms. A brick water tower stands as a kind of campanile, providing a civic focal point at the centre of the complex, while every ward overlooks a courtyard, and a long service corridor has been cleverly tucked along one side of the site, freeing the central route for patients and medical staff, and allowing clear views out from patients’ beds.
“When somebody is ill or needs care,” says Chowdhury, “one of the most important things is the mental aspect of it, not just the physical care. I think the kind of spaces you inhabit during treatment – with a view of water and trees, the sounds of birds, the feel of a breeze – goes a long way towards healing.”
Odile Decq, chair of the RIBA jury, said the project “embodies an architecture of humanity and protection,” adding that it is “relevant to critical global challenges, such as unequal access to healthcare and the crushing impact of climate breakdown on vulnerable communities.”
The biennial prize – delayed a year by the Covid-19 pandemic – celebrates projects from around the world that demonstrate design excellence and social impact. It has previously been awarded to a remote Brazilian school made of wood and a concrete cliff-like university building in Lima, Peru.
The prize marks an important moment for architecture in Bangladesh, following the recent award of the Soane medal to Marina Tabassum, Chowdhury’s former partner, who has been developing low-cost homes for landless communities in the country’s flood-prone coastal regions. Both architects’ work offers important lessons for the global north in how to do more with less.
On receipt of the prize, Chowdhury said: “I am encouraged that this may inspire more of us to commit to an architecture of care both for humanity and for nature, to rise collectively to the urgencies that we face today on a planetary scale.”