Tomorrow's Designers of the Built Environment

Urban Crossroads #99



A graduation project for the design of an interpretation park in Amman's 'Ayn Ghazal District by University of Jordan architecture students Rasem Kamal, Heba Al Najada, and Yousef Sayyed Ahmed.


There is nothing new in stating that the condition of our world tomorrow will greatly depend on the quality of education our students receive today. This applies to primary, secondary, and higher education, and also to all disciplines, including those of the built environment, whether architecture, landscaping, or urbanism.

What makes a high-quality educational system? At a most basic level, it needs to instill among students the will to give the task at hand the time, effort, and dedication it requires, and also to produce the best possible outcome. It needs to provide students with up-to-date information, and to develop their analytical and critical skills so as to make the best use of that information as well as to expand upon it. A high-quality educational system also needs to enable students to think creatively and imaginatively, and to conceptualize inventive solutions for existing as well as new challenges.

In most cases, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. A good educational system will build on existing accomplishments. In the case of the built environment, there is tremendous continuity in how people have built over the years. In spite of a number of efforts to develop new building forms and technologies, as with the geodesic dome structure, buildings continue to be constructed of wood, masonry, steel, and glass, and continue to consist of columns and walls supporting roofs, with window and door openings articulating their surfaces. Also, cities since earliest recorded times have included areas devoted to the various activities of urban life, such as living, working, shopping, or recreation, and physically have been defined by street networks of differing widths and lengths that link their various sections and accommodate the movement of pedestrians and wheeled carriages.

Each generation also needs to address and master new developments. New building types are emerging, and existing ones are becoming far larger and more complex. The shopping mall and the airport are two relatively-new examples that come to mind. They need to accommodate thousands of users at any given time, and involve very complex logistics relating to the movement of people, goods, cargo, and vehicles. Airports need to address the additional challenge of accommodating the take off, landing, maintenance, and parking of airplanes. In addition, issues of energy efficiency are becoming increasingly crucial from both the economic and environmental perspectives, and designers need to be far more informed about the energy-related characteristics of a building’s masses, surfaces, and openings.

On the urban scale, there are the daunting challenges posed by the overwhelming population growth rates of cities throughout the developing world. These cities need to maintain, develop, and expand their infrastructure networks, whether streets, electricity grids, or water and sewage lines, at incredibly fast rates. Cities also need lungs for breathing, basically well-maintained open, green, public spaces. How to provide all this for quickly-growing cities while struggling with limited human and financial resources is a tremendous challenge that needs to be addressed by today’s educational programs in order to adequately prepare tomorrow’s designers.

On a yet different level, the most powerful transformation affecting how students are learning today comes out of the revolutionary developments that have been affecting information technologies over the past generation or so. The amount of data and information available to students with access to the internet is overwhelming and is no longer defined by what their instructors have to offer or by the content of their university libraries. Through their computer screens, students now are connected - virtually at least - to people, places, and ideas they otherwise would not encounter. Moreover, the continuously and exponentially-increasing processing power of computers enables us to study and analyze various phenomena, whether the structural strength of a roof system, the thermal properties of a building skin, or the carrying capacity of a road network or a public transportation system with tremendous detail and accuracy not possible before.

To many, however, designers of the built environment still are merely supposed to create “beautiful” buildings and urban spaces, and both the media as well as a good number of celebrated designers unfortunately propagate such a simplistic role. Definitions of “beauty” are too subjective and often are continuously redefined according to passing trends. What may be considered in vogue today may very well become regressive and out-of-fashion tomorrow.

While the quality of an educational system greatly depends on the nature of the interaction taking place inside academia, it also is influenced by the direct interaction between an educational system and the society to which it belongs, or what many people interestingly refer to as the “real” world, which in some ways is a backhanded criticism that academia is often out of touch with the needs and requirements of the world around it. In general, the more interaction takes place between the university and the world around it, whether through instructors carrying out consulting or outreach activities; working professionals giving lectures and classes at universities; or students obtaining work experience while studying, the more enriched are the educational system and the experiences of its students.

There are many ways through which connections between the two worlds may be strengthened. One well-established manner is for the outside world to acknowledge and even celebrate excellence in teaching and research in universities. In the case of the built environment, this has often been carried out through student design awards or research grants. There is no shortage of such student grants and awards, which are provided by national architectural, planning, and landscape associations (such as the Royal Institute of British Architects, the American Institute of Architects, or the American Society of Landscape Architects) or by architectural and engineering firms (such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Ellerbe Becket; and Rafael Vinoly Architects in the United States).

It is encouraging that student design awards recently have made it to Jordan. One such award is the Abdali Innovation Award, given by the Abdali PSC, the developer of Amman’s Abdali district. The second is the Omrania | CSBE Student Award for Excellence in Architectural Design, given by the Center for the Study of the Built Environment and the regional (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain) architecture / engineering office Omrania and Associates, with additional support provided by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The Abdali Award, which completed its first year, started with student graduation projects at the University of Jordan and the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and is expanding its scope to cover other Jordanian universities. The Omrania | CSBE Award, which has completed its second year, started with student graduation projects from Jordanian universities in its first year, and opened up to universities from all over the Arab world in its second year. Such awards give an incentive to students as well as to their instructors and departments to showcase their accomplishments and to engage with the outside world, and even to show the relevance of their work to that world.

I have been involved with the Omrania | CSBE Award since its inception and therefore have had an opportunity to closely observe it. As it now addresses students from the Arab world as a whole, it opens a unique opportunity for an exchange of ideas not only within Jordan, but also between different countries of the Arab world, about the challenges facing the built environment and suggested solutions. The projects submitted to the Award show that students of architecture and urbanism in the Arab world are tackling a remarkably diverse set of challenges in terms of scale, type, and location. The winning projects for this year’s award, for example, have included an interpretation center of an archaeological site in Amman’s ‘Ain Ghazal district that also aims at encouraging a process of urban renewal; a healing center for abused women in Kuwait City; an urban redevelopment scheme for a sea-front district in the Lebanese city of Tripoli; and a flexible structural system for an exhibition complex in Dubai. (Click here to view the results of the Award.)

Also of interest are the jury reports on these projects. The Omrania | CSBE Award has been judged by independent juries, who have been encouraged to approach the Award not only as an opportunity for selecting high-quality projects, but also for commenting on these projects collectively and reflecting on the state of architectural education in Jordan and the Arab world. While the juries did not find any difficulty identifying projects deemed worthy of selection for the Award, they also have made valid criticisms of certain widespread design approaches they came across. For example, while we look at advances in Information Technology as providing some of the greatest opportunities for developing new design solutions for the built environment, the jury members also identified a negative side to their ubiquitous use among students. They noted how many students have come to concentrate on using the powerful abilities of three-dimensional computer graphics programs to develop highly-realistic and attractive images, while neglecting to develop their actual design skills, whether on the level of functional planning arrangements or buildable construction details. In this, the jury members pointed out how a return to some “old-fashioned” techniques such as drawing with a pen and ruler, and constructing models out of cardboard and wood - along with a mastery of computer-aided design tools – is crucial for understanding the intricacies and complexities as well as the materiality of the design process.

It is very common for members of every generation as they grow older to complain how younger generations are not as hard-working and do not share many of the positive values they were raised on. While that sometimes may be true, one cannot but be impressed by the talents, energy, and creativity that so many young people in Jordan are exhibiting. The challenge is ensuring that they are provided with the skills and the environment that allow them to develop their abilities to the fullest extent and in the best way possible. Whether this is realized or not greatly depends on the nature of the education being offered to them.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 03, 2009


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