16/11/2016
Education in African Architecture

In a profession that is increasingly expected to operate in multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder environments, where technology and easy travel have made it possible for architects to practice simultaneously in multi-contextual realities, teaching architecture is rapidly evolving beyond the realm of the design studio.

Taking a holistic view of education that extends beyond teaching and even beyond physical context is a particular interest of Dr Mark Olweny, Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of the Built Environment: Uganda Martyrs University.

Dr Olweny, who has taught at Uganda Martyrs University since 2003, holds professional degrees in Architecture from the University of Adelaide, in City and Regional Planning from the University of South Australia, and a PhD in Design Education from Cardiff University. His doctoral thesis examined how socialisation, or the influence of the behaviour of a surrounding culture, forms a critical part of the education of architects; and he argues that it is through this process that students acquire undocumented but important aspects of the profession, thus building both values and a cultural ethos.

mark01Olweny’s research was undertaken as an ethnographic study that investigated elements of socialisation within five established architecture schools across East Africa.

He says, “The challenges in education in Africa today are closely related to the challenges in practice. The traditional approach, which assumes that people know what they want, and that most people know what architects do, has failed. In reality, there are often no prescribed answers – rather, a set of conditions unique to a particular context that require critical thinking around social and environmental issues.

“We should be rethinking how students deal with these conditions. In order to develop an architecture ‘of this place’, we need to enable students to research the problem by looking at first principles based on an understanding of what the problem is, and then offering solutions that might not be a building. If we look at how we teach – taking up a social role in design – then the public might start to perceive architects as problem solvers.”

mark02During his research, Olweny explored what he refers to as the ‘hidden curriculum’, that is, the values and perceptions that students imbibe from their instructors during conversations and apprenticeships in the design studio. “What I found is that there is a strong link between what instructors learnt in their own education, and what their students then learn from them. Most people are not taught how to teach, what to teach or why; or how to separate the curriculum from their opinions. As a result, students are often given opinions rather than knowledge.”

At the core of this issues is acceptance of the norm versus an acknowledgement of what actually needs to be done – instructors are often not interested in something different, either because it is perceived as a threat or as not being up to scratch.

Two important examples are the generally-held approaches to computers and environmental design. Olweny observes that, in East Africa, there has been very limited engagement with either of these subjects in the past which has led to an underlying resistance to change. “In these instances, socialisation becomes a negative force in the context of architectural education rather than a positive one, with the result that architectural programmes fall further and further behind their international counterparts.”

In attempting to address this issue, the Uganda Martyrs University reviewed its architecture programme in 2008 and moved to an integrated project-based learning system. Instead of course units being separate from studios, courses are conducted as part of the studio, so that subjects like environmental design, construction and history are all linked to the design studio. Simulation and computing are also being plugged in, to bring design studios in line with contemporary practice.

The success of this approach was proven when the department received its validation from the Commonwealth Association of Architecture (CAA), which cited this method as a plus for the programme in attempting to deal with pertinent contextual issues. Olweny says, “In this way, we hope that the faculty can contribute to architectural discourse in the region, thus breaking away from the stereotypical notion of architecture as tall buildings with blue glass.”

One of the challenges faced in effecting this programme is the availability of specialist staff in middle Africa. Accordingly, the faculty is now borrowing time from practices and universities around the world and running online courses to offer supplementary teaching resources for its students. This approach was piloted in the course ‘Sustainable Built Environment’ – held in collaboration with colleagues based in the Innovative Design Laboratory at the University of Sydney and a UK-based practice – which brings together ideas around holistic design in the built environment.

mark03

Perceptions are another challenge being faced by educators in Africa – specifically the perceptions of the students themselves. “We are finding that it’s a system-wide problem that starts in primary and high school, where students are forced to think certain way,” Olweny says. “It’s related to the phenomenon of how the first thing you learn is the thing that stays with you for life.

“The courses offered in high school, Geometric and Technical Drawing for example, instil the perception in children that architecture is about the drawing of plans. This is exacerbated by the fact that the direct translation of the word ‘architect’ in some local languages is ‘someone who draws plans’.

“An even bigger challenge is the scarcity of architects outside the main urban area of Kampala. We have around 160 registered architects in a population of 36 million. Virtually nobody outside Kampala has access to the services of a professional architect, so very often potential students don’t know what an architect is.

“Understandably then, when students come to university, they expect to spend five years learning how to draw plans. Because of this, a lot of students fail to take in what else is out there and don’t adapt to sharing their own opinions and solving problems.”

To address this problem, the faculty is currently looking at running a series of architectural workshops for school leavers over the 8-month period between the end of the school academic year in November and the start of the university academic year in September – to get potential students engaged with what architecture really is.

By acknowledging the very real contextual challenges facing architectural education and taking proactive, collaborative steps to address these, Olweny hopes that the architects of the future – the students of today – will be adequately prepared for the rapidly shifting, multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder environments in which they will enact their professional lives.

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