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The Academic Culture        |        Department of Architecture


“The University brings out all abilities, including incapability.”

Anton Chekov


The underlying focus of the following article is to share our not-very-short experience of maintaining a quiet yet uncompromising attitude of non-conformity with the dominant historic-political and cultural trends and conventions and simultaneous and sustained self-questioning.





[ Our built environment defines our way of looking at things, our style of living and our vision of society and ourselves. The architect defines the living environment and shares that vision. The architect intervenes into the environment, he builds, and he creates a new reality. An architect is needed not only for building a house but also for building the surroundings, the city and in short, the environment. The environment must be planned, visioned, organized and sustained for us as well as for generations to come.

At UAP we define Architecture broadly, addressing it both as a process and as product. Our aims are toward the envisioning of specific environments that are rich, comprehensible, and humanly supportive. Inquiries into the foundations of the discipline, the practice and the teaching of architecture, forms some of the underlying tones of architectural education at UAP. Faculty and students in Design address the foundations of thought, of process, and of technique. They question the role of design and designers in society, and the legitimacy of design action within and across cultural boundaries. Investigation of new ways- to describe and manipulate shapes, opening new means to explore complex design artifacts, reflecting on the implications for form and process of emerging institutions in society, in particular the future workplace and studying the learning of design with the hope to inform the processes of learning and teaching- all form part of the architectural education and experience at UAP. ]


The department of architecture at UAP is the second oldest school of architecture among the private universities started in 1997 and has firmly entered into the third decade. And this maturity is seen on how the discourse of architecture and education is percieved in its overall academic culture. After going through the established pedagogical methods with ample adventures and misadventures in the realm of experimentation with an overtly inclination towards critical thinking, the teachers’ room has now far more questions than answers, partly because the solutions to the problems which are discussed about the status-quo remain outside the scope of Architecture as Art. The vast South Plaza of the Parliament Complex of Louis I. Kahn is appreciated in the design studio but at the same time the student is made keenly aware of the fact that two policemen standing with a “No-Entry” sign can make the wonderful public space off limits to thousands of citizens for an indefinite period of time. The school keeps a suspicious eye over so called rules, norms and the young architects here learn to ask “Why?”. Yet at this age of early 20s of the department, the institution is rather still young to loudly demand an answer, or possibly already too old and naively realistic about getting an answer. This Post-Modern stance has its own equation which is not totally un-problematic by itself, it must be admitted; but it also makes sure that no question is left unasked.


Character of the Learning Ambience:


Asia Pacific Architecture School has one of the most close-knit and communal culture of learning and experimenting with architecture among other such departments in Dhaka. Much transmission of knowledge and experience is lateral and not self-conscious. Some physical features of the campus are integral part of the environment.


Physical spaces: the Catalysts


The past open studio and the present common space:

It is very interesting how a spatial condition, designed or often a result of limitations, can curve the identifying profile of an institution. This has been the case for the department of Architecture at UAP. Due to the problem of lack of space in our previous campus in a rented, later renovated old building, and also the need for creating an amicable culture of friendship and sharing among the students of a newly formed institute, a unique solution was offered in the form of the concept of Open Studio. The senior five design studio classes (the core sessional course in the study of architecture) among the ten shared a very large hall room where classes were open without boundary, creating opportunity for a student to share ideas with seniors or juniors, sneak to any discussion sessions with teachers or students. This unique culture became pivotal to create the collective identity of a student of architecture at UAP. Multiplicity of space became obviously a natural outcome in physical space, as wel as a conceptual choice while designing. This is what students cherished and also sought most when the department sifted to the permanent campus where the privous limitation of space was no longer an issue. The prevalent studio culture demanded openness in common spaces, indifferent enough to be morphed to different situations like jury, exhibition, cultural programs, workshops or regual formal- informal consultations with teachers. This has been since the backbone of the school's philosophy of going off-track when necessary. 



The past Courtyard and the present plaza:

Like the open studio of the previous campus, the culture of interaction within and beyond the premise of the department is heavily formed by the physical space of the previous campus, which continued in the current permanent campus as well. In the previous campus the Department had an optimally scaled open to sky front court which had old trees, landscaped green and paved area and sitting arrangements exclusively for students. The unconventional friendliness (and absence of unnecessary hierarchy) among teachers and students and between senior and junior students become apparent there when they engage in theoretical discussions under trees over cups of tea. Now being in a permanent campus shared with all other departments, has taken away the exclusiveness of the department identity, but in return has given the inclusiveness of a larger communal identity. The nature of the physical courtyard has changed to a central volumetric atrium, but the culture of connectedness hasn't. Instead it has become a new playground to test theories, showcase ideas, observe people and in general get engaged. If architecture is service based on the sensitive understanding of the society, such physical catalist is what can shape the culture of education.



Muzharul Islam Archive and Library: the Catalyst


The school has the honor to be the host of the archive of all original drawings of architect Muzharul Islam, who is the most influential pioneering modern architect of the country and who single handedly guided the architectural scenario of Bangladesh during almost the entire second half of the twentieth century. The archive is housed in the department, which is by itself a major asset for us. But it is not only the pride of being custodian of the original drawings of the Master, but the presence of the Master as an overwhelming guideline of what architecture should be in Bangladesh, that creates a difference in forming any academic culture. The department took that advantage, but didn't get stuck there. And to counter that possibility of geting dogmatic with the presence of such dominant design philosophy, the department has made an agenda to invest heavily (probably more than any other school) in procuring new books each semester. The number alone is not main issue here, but the quality and the diversity is an important issue.The selection of titles includes everything from regular (A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander) to radical (The History of Sexuality by Michel Focoult).


The BAUHAUS model in Workshop and the tidal wave of digital media: a throbbing catalyst


Beside the school's previous focus on carpentry, metal and model-making workshop, the new trend of architecture in upcoming days encouraged the department to create full fledged digital fabrication lab situated by the side of the common multipurpose space. Students are encouraged to experiment with different materials and construction methods inside the workshop, or in case of larger projects, outside in the back yard. The university also has a Civil Engineering Department with fully equipped laboratories,  And EEE department with a working 3d printing lab, which also are made available to the architecture students when needed.


We have learned and tacitly allowed the fact that when students become obsessed with one material, for example metal, they deviate from the syllabus and do injustice to other issues, for example carpentry. There are other lateral learning options which include a weekly cinema show. The school has a large collection of different significant films and documentaries. In the junior years, we had to force the audience out of the popular culture and into more critical art films but at later years they become appreciative/critical viewers. There is also a culture of collaboration with other local and foreign universities and other institutions. 


  • The Teachers’ Room:


Generally the teachers have this chronic problem of considering themselves as students of architecture and think that something can be taught best by persons who needs to know more about the subject. The authorities have difficulties convincing them (and the students) to stop discussion and to get out of the design studios hours after the closing time, or to make the teachers understand that they have already enough experience and involve them in regular and routine publications and get serious about their promotions. This reflects the quote by Chekov used in the title: “The University brings out all abilities, including incapability.” This is not to say that the teachers’ room does not publish regularly, but that is another group in the faculty who prefers to talk less and pay attention to the task at hand, more in line, probably with the Albert Camus quote “The greatest saving one can make in the order of thought is to accept the unintelligibility of the world -- and to pay attention to man.”



The Transparency of Space, the Freedom of Speech and Attitude:

It has somehow become common here teachers of divergent philosophical standpoints frankly agree or disagree with each other or each group in discussions, which results in frequent synthesis of ideas. This can be partly because the teachers’ chambers are physically partly open and transparent with no doors. The nature of the openness in the students' zone is replicated in teachers' zone too with more focus on common spaces and in the large outdoor veranda. These have become the breading ground of long passionate discussions about many things within and beyond architecture. This captivating culture has leaked to other departments too as many come to our veranda to have a chat when they got stuck or simply get bored. The long discussions regarding architecture, art, politics and society in the teachers’ lounge is a main attraction for junior and senior faculty alike. The following are some trends among the teaching staff:


From Modernistic Rationalism to Phenomenology:

Professor Shamsul Wares, who was our dean for around a decade, (has almost four decades of teaching experience and considered by many as one of the major architectural pedagogues of the country) created the backbone of our architectural education, which is more inclined towards modernistic ideology and more interested in finding ideal and solid answers to architectural issues. While this is not to say that this position is completely dismissive of the more contemporary trends, but it can be safely declared that he was and still is our last modernist protagonist for being here for so many years. The next batch of faculty members (who have now become seniors themselves with around two decades of teaching experiences) share common thought  with professor Wares, but also diverge when they argue that modernism itself has become an establishment. It has created an interesting mix more in line with contemporary architectural theories applied in design studios. The lounge conversations are still going on about the compatibility of these two currents and their effect, negative or positive, on the students.


The ‘Pessimistic’ Realists:

Here the word pessimistic has a positive note: in that a few members of the faculty are not affected by the optimism-bias (or for that matter, on the other hand, defeatist-bias) of some of the philosopher teachers. Their view of the reality is thus supposedly more realistic and while they agree that all is not all right in the field there is an attempt to make corrections in the existent world with applications rules and codes; be it in the case of campus discipline or professional ethics. The teachers are actively engaged with professional and other academic bodies to develop and revise building and professional codes and instructions. There is this keen sense of understanding about what is possible and what is not in a studio environment which results in a concerted effort towards gaining what is possible and there are subsequent successes. Their balanced approach, ironically, is a constant inspiration for the philosophically oriented teachers.




The Environmentalists and The Conservationists:

A group of the young teachers can be labeled roughly as such. Currently they are more interested in the technicalities of environmental documentations and as such can be said to belong to the ‘Light-Green’ group for now. It can be expected that gradually this migrate into a deeper shade of green through their growing age and maturity and with enrichment from the overall philosophical and self-questioning culture of the teachers’ room. On the other hand, our Head of the Department, Dr. Professor Abu Sayeed M. Ahmed is becoming a major figure in the area of architectural conservation in Bangladesh through his tireless work for more than a decade in this field. He has significant publications regarding this and has ample number of completed or on-going actual conservation projects under his name. Many other faculty members and students have ventured to work as his teammate in these works.



The Guests:

Asia Pacific architectural school first introduced the culture of making extensive use of the expertise of renowned practicing architects in the design studios. Due to some (valid) arguments from the central authority which control all universities of the country, the school has over the years has learned to be more dependent of experienced full time in-house teachers. However the department has not forgotten the wealth it offered once through these expert professionals. Within the given structured policy of the university, the department still invites practitioners in the fields of Art or engineering, or in some cases for architectural design itself. The department recognizes the importance of seeing things from different (often contradictory) perspectives, therefore the department involves professional from other fields such as Art and Anthropology and also by involving foreign teachers.


The Students:

In an average the ten studios have at around twenty-five students each, making the total number between two hundred and two hundred fifty. Even though the studios are designed to accomodate more than thirty students each, the rigorous admission test ensures only who are capable enough, rejecting the rather skeptical notion that private universities are business ventures at core. It helps us to maintain a healthy ratio of student vs teacher and ensures one to one sessions for longer period of time.

There is an additional advantage to that which strengthens our academic philosophy too. We belief that the possibility of lateral learning is what makes a student true professional and makes a critical thinker. About the quality of intake we have a very wide range of abilities to handle. At one hand there are students who can talk about contemporary Art or difficult philosophy at length, on the other hand we have one or two who would find it difficult to locate the references mentioned in the discussions. Then again some come from urban city life background and others from small towns or villages. To handle all these diversities, the studio teachers are forced to invent new techniques to engage students on and off the studio rooms. Due to the rapid changes in technology and popular culture and market and societal forces, our students’ life and daily life culture was observed to be changing during the last fourteen years. They appear now to be more target oriented, technology dependent and at times more apolitical and self-centered. More intra-studio and inter-studio teamwork, collective participation in events (like film show) and many other methods are being applied to bring changes.

The Interaction, Knowledge of Past Decade and the Future:

During the last decade or more, we have been attempting various methods and trying to learn from them and make adjustments. Individual master-apprentice system was tried in the thesis class and some form of that is still used; different variations of the comparative balance of digitally and hand-produced production have been applied; and at various times selective emphasis was given on concept, history, urban issues or structure among many other issues. Ten years ago we discouraged large scale planning oriented projects as we thought our main focus was at the end architecture. During the last two years, in the thesis class those were allowed in. Earlier it was thought that high-rise buildings should be of sculptural form and now the trend in Asia Pacific is tall buildings should be green. At one point attention was given in the early semesters about the grammar of beauty and composition and currently it is more about seeing, understanding and synthesizing. Grand scale public sector housing was replaced by plot based commercially based apartments and large public institutions projects with site are of hundreds of acres were discouraged for the sake of saving valuable agricultural land. Some things, however, have remained unchanged; for example, human dimensions in the ergonomics or the turning radius of vehicles or the comfortable walk-up height; which are to be studies in the middle years; for sure, but much of the knowledge is in a flux. The Department of architecture of the University of Asia Pacific is less than satisfied with its shortcomings in rooting its education more in the local reality and not being comprehensibly able to make a more publicly accessible general statement. We have much room for development in our gross amount of output in systematic research and significant publications and we could better enrich our oral and dialogue performances in juries. It is understandable that our post modern yet quiet non-conformist attitude has resulted in producing some unique abilities and at the same time some incapability. Addressing these and other issues would shape our future directions.  But before and during taking every next step we would, as usual, be always asking the question: ‘Why?’.