A View of Architectural Education

In 1979, Professor Javaid Haider of the Department of Architecture at the Dawood College in Karachi, asked me to teach as a visiting faculty member. As a teacher I tried to address many of the issues I have raised earlier in the text. I also discovered that certain faculty members had concerns similar to mine and that the Dean of the Faculty, Professor Kausar Bashir Ahmad, wanted to develop a curriculum and a teaching methodology that would help in producing, what he called, “socially responsive architects”. Since then I have taught at the Dawood College in an environment where there is a continuous search for developing a teaching methodology that relates architectural education to social and economic reality.

Since 1982 I have also worked for the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and so have other part-time teachers at the Dawood College. As a result, and with the support and blessings of the Dean, a working relationship has been established between an educational institution and a grass root community development project which addresses the major issues faced by low income communities. These communities form the majority of the population of Karachi. Again, after 1984, I have been an evaluator of various architectural projects, city master plans and rural development related housing and infrastructure inputs. I noticed that in these projects the architects and planners had no understanding of the society for which they were planning or of the actors and factors that will eventually modify, shape or make redundant their inputs. My views on architectural education, given below, are derived from the experiences and associations that have been explained above.

To relate architectural education to the realities of Third World urban and rural built environment, it is necessary that the student architect understands this environment. This understanding cannot be created by lectures and theories alone. This is because this environment is still a relatively unexplored area and is in a process of constant change. Theorising about it, as many First World academic institutions do, is to create fallacies and to promote assumptions that have little or no basis. It is because of assumptions and theories such as these, that First World technical assistance and financial aid, and reform attempts by Third World governments, have made little or no impact on the built environment. What is required is to expose the student architect to the larger environment and help him in observing and analysing it.

In the first semester students must be explained the structure of government, along with its potentials and constraints, at all levels; the role of line departments and utility agencies in urban and rural development; and the relationship between the entire development process and the political structure. The relationship between the formal sector in the built environment and the government must be explained along with the problems that the formal sector faces in dealing with low income groups.

This understanding will prepare the student for the next phase. In this phase he should be exposed to a settlement or area in the city which aces major environmental problems. He should be asked to observe the physical aspects of these problems, identify the causes for them (these causes can be social, economic, political, administrative), and establish the relationships between the various actors in the development drama. Along with the causes he should also identify the immediate and long term repercussions of these problems. This exercise will give the student an understanding of the factors that create the built environment, their inter-linkages, and the role of various interest groups. In addition, he will get a feel for local materials of construction, problems related to technology and artisanal skills, and climatic and energy related issues.

The teaching of history or architecture should follow this exposure. The factors which have been identified as determining the built environment should be used to analyse every period of architectural history. Thus, the student will use the knowledge he has gained through exposure to his environment continuously for a period of two to three years. This will consolidate a process of thinking of which observation and analysis is an integral part. This in turn will have an effect on the design solutions that he seeks and on critically analysing and sifting the various “isms” that are hurled at him by the architectural establishments of both the First and the Third World.

In the third year design programmes must concentrate on social issues. In developing solutions, the student must hold discussions with local government officials and understand their plans, thought processes and manner of operation; identify interest groups (formal and informal) and seek guidance from them; talk to the victims and beneficiaries of his solutions; and synthesise his findings. The school must help in arranging this interaction.

There is also a big gap between local construction details and processes and what a student is taught in his building construction and structure classes. To overcome this a building site should be allocated to each student in the third year. He should pay a weekly visit to it and report on its development, attitudes and concerns of the skilled and unskilled labour at site, the local terminology used, and an appreciation of the building tools and machinery which are being used for construction purposes. The link between the drawing board and the building site will lead to more realistic plans, and in the case of a minority, more imaginative ones at the same time.

In my teaching experience, I have observed that it is difficult to convey concepts and ideas through lectures and even through slides and videos. This is because most students have a poor power of observation and are not able to pick out, what is known as, the “central idea” in our language. In short, they cannot make a precise of what they have seen, read or heard. Maybe the fault lies with the process of basic education in Pakistan. However, if students are made to visit, document and analyse the design, function and details of items such as existing kitchens, cinema lobbies, exhibition spaces, informally constructed homes, etc, they get a better grasp of architectural theory than any book or lecture can give them. But of course, you need a teacher that can guide them in this.

Before a student does his final thesis design he must be exposed again to a problem area of the city or the rural areas. This time the area that he is exposed to should have multi-faceted problems and a large number of divergent actors in it. For one class two or three areas should be taken which are different from each other and students should be divided into groups to study and analyse them. The areas should collectively contain problems related to environmental degradation, conservation, relocation, low income housing, tenure security, upgrading etc. The end result of this process should be collective reports on the areas containing a description of the processes, causes of the problems, repercussions and detailed analysis. Interaction between the groups should be arranged so that they can benefit from each others work. An essential part of the exercise should be the study of government plans and their analysis. In addition, the student must develop an independent design or policy decision.

The above agenda can be greatly enriched with a long term association of the school with an NGO or grass root programmes. This association gives the student architect an access to problem areas of the city and its residents and a first-hand understanding of processes involved in the creation of the built environment and the repercussions of those processes. The agenda can be further enriched if lectures from representatives of various interest groups and stake holders in the development drama could be arranged for the students. For instance, in a transportation project the representative of the bus owner’s association or the mini-bus driver’s association could give a lecture. In a wholesale market project, the representative of the labour union or of contractors who manage the operation and maintenance of the market, could give some inputs.

The proposals given above will not produce an architect who has ready-made solutions to the problems of the environment. However, it will produce an architect who has a sympathetic understanding of processes and people. He will also have respect for nature, history and the dynamics of culture (as opposed to simply “culture”). In addition, in this age of populism, he will have the possibility of developing a populist vision instead of simply being saddled with an elitist one and or of supporting populist concerns and movements without understanding them. And above all, he will not fear or be hostile to low income communities, the informal sector and or, various “middlemen” who shape our environment, even if he does not work for them.

The Dawood College in Karachi has been doing parts of what I have described above. An initial exposure to environmental conditions in the city is provided in the first year. A more detailed exposure is provided in the fifth year through what is known as the Comprehensive Environmental Design Project. Many theses deal with social issues. However, lectures on political and social economy, the teaching of history as suggested above, monitoring a building site and the development of an understanding of architectural theory through observation is not done. In spite of this, the College is the only institution in Pakistan which is producing architects that understand the factors that create the built environment, related to informal processes, look at the larger issues related to conservation and housing, and are willing to make design subservient to sociological and economic reality. It is not surprising that architects produced by the College are manning most of the important projects related to the built environment and are the pioneers of architect’s involvement in community programmes in Pakistan.

The major problem in promoting the above teaching agenda is that teachers invariably teach as they have been taught and the architectural establishment for the most part is not only conventional, but down-night reactionary, except in rhetoric. Thus, the agenda can only take off, if there are a few pioneers and if a sufficiently large number of graduates produced by the school eventually come back to teach.

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