When she finishes her degree at Illinois, Nubras Samayeen may be the first woman in Bangladesh to hold a PhD in Landscape Architecture. This is the realization of a goal she's had since she was a child and is, in no small part, something she's doing for her own two young daughters and for other Bangladeshi women who, like her, have unconventional dreams. Here’s her story.
Nubras' research investigates the work of famed modern architect Louis Kahn and asks how modern and traditional architecture merge to create spaces that are embraced by local communities. Kahn, a Jewish American architect, was hired to design the Bangladesh National Assembly Complex in 1963. His appointment was politically charged and is situated in the Cold War politics of the time. The construction of the site was interrupted by the Civil War that resulted in Bangladesh separating from Pakistan in 1971. It wasn’t until 1983 that the National Assembly finally opened and almost immediately became a symbol of national pride for the people of the newly independent Bangladesh.
“(The research question) is really critical to me because this is a hugely important and successful public place in Bangladesh - the kind of a place that you would visit at a very early age and enjoy. I used to visit while in elementary school with my family and friends. Now the city is so dense it’s become one of the city’s lone recreational spaces,” she said. But the space doesn’t look like traditional architecture of the Indian subcontinent. “Many of these modernist spaces have merged perfectly well with the overall landscape and this is one of them. There are many other modernist pieces that haven’t yielded to the overall social and cultural context but this one did - why?”
At the heart of her question is a desire to understand how we make something our own and how something that is often lambasted as erasing vernacular architecture styles can instead work to create a place that people claim as home. “By looking at the landscape and the whole site, not just the building, I’m looking at home - holistically how the pieces work together to make meaning for the people. On the whole, this study probes into Western colonialism and modernism’s instrumentality in homogenizing history, tradition, and culture across the globe,” she said.
Though her main focus is the National Assembly Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, her work this summer will take her Kahn architectural sites around the world. Funded by the Graduate College Spring 2018 Dissertation Travel Grant and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and also the Kennedy Travel Fellowship and Field Travel Fellowship from the Department of Landscape Architecture, Nubras will visit sites in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and New Hampshire as well as sites in Bangladesh and India.
In addition to her passion for her research, Nubras also works to serve as a positive role model for
Bangladeshi women, starting with her own young daughters, aged 2 and 4. “I’m doing this PhD in a lot of ways to set an example for my two daughters,” she said. When she completes her PhD, Nubras plans to return to Bangladesh to help a professor set up a degree program in Landscape Architecture there which she hopes will help more Bangladeshi women have access to an education in architecture.
Funding from the AAUW helps make this dream possible. Nubras’ passion for helping other women made her a perfect fit for the AAUW mission of “advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research" (AAUW.org).
“Architecture has always been dominated by men,” Nubras said. “It’s a construction and design field and people think that men can do better in construction and design. It’s a global issue.” Yet even as a child, Nubras was interested in making her mark in the architecture and design field despite the challenges. “I decided to be an architect very early, and I consider landscape architecture to be a way to look at the urban landscape. Flowers and horticulture don’t really catch me, but I’m looking at how the built environment affects people. I’m looking at a larger meaning of urban landscape.”
Nubras credits her successful fellowship application process to her adviser, Dr. D. Fairchild Ruggles, as well as help from the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships.
“I think it was the 29th version of my application that I finally submitted - the Graduate College was tremendously helpful and Ken Vickery looked at my proposal and clarified things that weren’t clear from the outside,” she said.
Working on your own fellowship application? Don’t miss our Proposal Writing Workshops or schedule a time to review a draft of your proposal with one of our specialists.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD student in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in liminal leisure spaces and her dissertation explores marriage practices at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.