Vol 2 Issue 1 
EDUCATING FUTURE ARCHITECTS
by Assoc. Prof. Dr Zalina Shari
Dear D-Zine Readers,
The issue of how we educate our architects of the future is a divisive one. There is much debate within the discipline about the standards and competencies expected of the outcomes of architectural design education.
With the capabilities of our technology advancing rapidly, new mediums of virtual reality, robotics, and artificial intelligence are all changing the architectural profession and the building industry at a fundamental level. This phenomenon creates the question of whether our architectural pedagogy is keeping up with the times and whether it is educating students to be ready for professional practice and an uncertain future.
As a practitioner, I have been involved in architecture education in various local universities over the years. Hence, I thought I could offer my thoughts and perspective on the current state of architecture education. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, it takes more than just an academy and practice to educate an architect.
Indeed, architecture education in Malaysia has come a long way since the country’s independence, from a technical college of sorts to numerous universities offering the programme. Thirty years ago, I remember when I visited the Department of Architecture at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) to review the students’ work. I found most of the work was hand-drawn. Today, it would be rare to see manual drawings in a student’s presentation. Impressive digitally produced graphics and animation are the order of the day. Undoubtedly, we have progressed technologically, as this advance has facilitated most of the research currently done by students.
Even though there is greater access to specialised data relating to architecture, there seems to be a lack of general knowledge – or maybe interest – in history, philosophy, and culture. Names like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr are alien to them, let alone local historical figures. It is a matter of concern because architecture is categorised under the humanities as a discipline for a good reason. Architecture was founded due to human needs – be it physical, mental, or spiritual. Culture, history, and philosophy reflect the evolution of the ever-changing human condition.
An anecdotal example would be a student’s thesis on the use of timber in Malaysia. It would be hasty to commit to a new technological method of utilising timber for construction without first understanding the history and culture of timber and its relationship to its traditional usage. The commercial use of timber in a corporation like Ikea would optimise a piece of wood to maximise its potential market value. In contrast, the traditional Malay craftsman would use Chengal (raja kayu) as the main structure and Resak (rakyat kayu) as secondary support. The former example is about profit, while the latter is a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the material.
Therefore, an architect with the knowledge of timber culture would utilise the material based on its usage appropriateness rather than its production efficiency. A book titled “Heidegger on Technology”, published in 2020 also highlights the same concern. The point is that students’ exposure to other areas of the humanities is essential in shaping a more responsible view of architecture.
There have always been regular complaints about the students lacking in construction and technical knowledge in the industry. However, most practitioners today are so preoccupied with practical production and design that creativity and innovation are of secondary concern. The design-oriented or principle-based practices are the exceptions rather than the rule. There are progressive practising architects who look to universities for new ideas. As architecture evolves with the changing human condition, inspiring architecture is usually an outcome of discerning new ways of looking at life. In short, the priority of educating an architect should be to nurture their critical thinking.
However, although nurturing critical thinking may be accepted as the main focus of architecture education, there is an inherent systemic obstacle for the lecturers to flourish. Firstly, whilst architecture is categorised as a study in the humanities, few subjects related to the humanities and liberal arts would foster the desired development in thinking.
Secondly, assessing a student’s work is subject to a rubric that emphasises measuring their work in parts and not as a whole. This reductionist approach has its place in providing a clearer guide to the students in terms of deliverables. But it has its limitation in measuring architecture that is typically experienced holistically. One wonders how to assess architecture like the Pantheon, Sydney Opera House, or Masjid Kampung Laut, even from a sensory or phenomenological standpoint. In short, there is a need to discuss architecture from the viewpoint of art, which tends to be a more holistic way of looking at things.
Thirdly, there is also the tendency to measure a lecturer’s performance in architecture using a more suited rubric for engineering, science, technology, and mathematics. A rubric such as the Key Performance Index (KPI) can serve as a benchmark, but it should at least be a yardstick that is relevant to architecture and is derived by architects. “1 plus 1 equals 2” is an adequate evaluation for an engineer, but for an architect, good architecture as a whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The issue above is somewhat prevalent because most architecture schools are still parked within engineering and other comparable faculties. Indeed, architects within the architecture department at JKR are usually under the charge of an engineer. I propose that it is time to examine this issue objectively, as it does not reflect architecture in practice. When it comes to buildings, the architect is the first to enter the project by nature of their discipline. They are engaged in the design concept, followed by various other disciplines such as structural engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, etc. Furthermore, the architect would also be the last to leave the project. As such, architecture should justify a faculty of its own so each school can set its agenda and be allowed to flourish without the incompatible limitations put on lecturers.
In conclusion, we have moved forward significantly over the years, but now is the time for another great leap. Persisting in what we are doing currently will probably create a rut with little differentiation among the schools, and we feel too comfortable moving forward. As the saying goes, what got you here won’t get you there. I believe we can take the necessary steps to liberalise architecture. This can be done by emphasising its place in the humanities and taking a more holistic approach to evaluating architecture students and lecturers.