Dr. Zakiul Islam has been teaching at the Department of Architecture in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology for more than fifteen years. He started his career at Vastukalabid under the supervision of Late Architect Muzharul Islam. He is the recipient of the Berger Best Young Architect Award in 2005 and Landscape Architecture Research Award 2008 at NCSU, USA. His research experience includes working at the Natural Learning Initiatives, USA.

An active researcher and academic, Dr. Zaki has presented at international conferences and published in international journals with his focus on ‘Built Environment and Children’. He also served as the secretary -Education in the Institute of Architects Bangladesh.

Contextbd team visited him in his place last week to discuss his observation on present scenario of Architecture education in Bangladesh. Progress, competence, debate, adaptable curriculum and his thought for future prospect were surfaced among the topics with focus on probable indication for resolution.

1.  ‘Architecture’ has been taught in formal university system for nearly 60 years now in our country, how would you assess our progress as a whole ( I mean in terms of building industry, social responsibility, contribution to knowledge and so on)

I must say, in terms of practice, the profession of architecture has advanced a lot. In 1962 when the first architecture department was established in Dhaka headed by Professor Vrooman, we probably had a small number of architects practicing in the capital. Just look at the sheer number of architects we have now! Even look at the rate at which the skylines of Dhaka or Chittagong are changing! Our architects are playing a major role in this change behind the scene.

Having saying that, I must also admit that the contributions of architects are actually limited within the boundaries of the big cities in Bangladesh. Therefore, in terms of social responsibility, I think we are lagging significantly. There are architects who are working on it and contributing really well but the number is scarce. We want to see more architects such as Santiago Cirugeda of Spain, who is portrayed as the “Guerrilla architect” or Nigerian Architect Kunle Adeyemi who is tackling the flood issue. We lack architect whose main concern for practice would be social responsibility.

In terms of contribution to knowledge in the field of architecture, I would say that we are also lagging behind. To me, the small number of completed post-graduate thesis (less than 70) in more than 50 years is an indication of our limited research activities and therefore, lack in contribution to knowledge in this field. There has been only one PhD completed so far. This is disappointing and shows our failure to promote research and development activities.

However, I am optimistic. It took us more than 50 years to start and complete one Doctoral thesis, but I am sure the next one will follow sooner. I am glad to see that three universities other than BUET have started postgraduate degrees- BRAC University, Khulna University, and Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology. This is progress and an indication that we are catching up.

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2. We have a number of accredited architecture schools operating in the country with some other in accreditation process. The number, however, has increased in recent past quite rapidly. How do you define this fast expansion phenomenon?

To my knowledge, currently, there are 5 accredited schools (BUET, NSU, BRAC, AIUB, AUST) operating right now and two (Stamford University and University of Asia Pacific) are in the process. But we have almost 25 architecture schools operating. On an average around 17/18 people are graduating from each school every semester. If you multiply 18 with the number of schools that we have then you get an idea of how many fresh graduates we are getting almost in every 6 months. Personally, I think the number is too much for the current scenario of Bangladesh.

As far as I know, the fresh graduates are receiving a monthly salary of between 15 to 25 thousand Taka. The amount of salary shows that the employers have the upper hand. My personal intake in this, is that if the demand of architects were so much then the salary would be higher, at least around 50 to 60 thousand Taka. The demand is less than the number of graduates in Bangladesh.

A person closely associated with the practice is more likely to comment correctly on the quality of graduates. To me graduates from few established schools are doing well and I think their standards are quite up to the mark. I know five to seven schools who are continuously trying to improve. Yet there are schools which have been established just few months back, it’s very difficult to predict there conditions.

IAB has been trying to establish a minimum benchmark to uphold the standard of quality of education. This work has been going on for nearly 10- 15 years and we have to wait to see the ultimate outcome.

3. What about the curriculum ? Don’t you think we have stuck in an ‘old school curriculum’ for too long, with even new schools following the same of BUET typicality?

This is related with having varieties in curriculum of different schools and I think it will happen over time. The increase in number of schools has happened only in last 10 years. We need to wait a while for such diversity.

But I would like to add a point here. According to the existing system of IAB’s standard each school has 100 % flexibility in setting ¼ of the curriculum. Out of 170-190 credit 40 % is in the hand of every school to choose what they want to offer. I think 40 credit hours to set your own approach is more than enough. So the mechanism is already there, but we have to make better use of it.

To add more, previously we had teachers mostly graduating from BUET. Now we have teachers graduating from different schools. Many of our teachers are going abroad for post graduation in different countries. They are studying at the post-graduate level but I’m sure they’re watching over what is happening in the undergraduate level as well. With them coming back to Bangladesh, change at the academic arena is bound to happen.

4. Say for example we have versatility in curriculum and varieties in approach through different schools, how would you think a syncing process might take place?

I was actually getting into it. IAB and UGC have a major role to play. They have to make sure that the benchmark standard is achieved. They should confirm whoever is practicing architecture must have that certain knowledge and technical know-how.

5. Unlike western schools we don’t have a system where students can get specialized knowledge on a particular topic, for example Sustainability, Digital Architecture, Architectural Theories and Techniques etc. What is your opinion?

I was exposed to some of the B.Arch programs abroad. Frankly, in the bachelor programs abroad, ‘specialization’ is not up to that level. A bachelor program prepares a graduate with the basic of being an architect in the field. But at the Masters level, they do get specialized.

A lot depends on which school you are going to. Say for example, if you are going to a school where faculties have expertise in parametric architecture then students are bound to get that exposure; similarly a school more inclined to sustainable issues will focus on particular learning outcome akin to their interest. But, in true sense, specialization happens in post graduation. Therefore, I don’t think we are lagging behind in that sense.

However, our faculties are not offering varied types of courses at the undergraduate level. We don’t have that many optional courses. Even the optional courses that we have in the curriculum are not always offered. That’s a matter of concern.

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Photo Credit: Department of Architecture BUET

6. How can we offer courses with versatile interest points?

It is a very important issue. I think this issue is related to do with the system of appointing teachers. If you look at the good or reputed architecture schools around the world, you will find at least 3-4 teachers out of 15, who do not hold a bachelor degree in Architecture. You should have teachers with diversified background like computer programs, philosophy or geography. We don’t have it here. You see? There is a contradiction! We say architecture is a multidisciplinary field but while appointing teachers we want all teachers to be architecture graduates. We should come up with a solution.

7. What do you think should be given priority in respect of style and rationality in architecture studies in Bangladesh?

Look, I don’t really buy the idea of a ‘style’. You have to think rationally and design rationally. If eventually a style evolves, that’s fine. Otherwise it will be just a superficial aspect. If you proceed rationally and stick on that in practice and education, we are bound to have a characteristic of our own. If it resembles with architecture of similar context, I don’t really mind. If people share common culture and value, architecture may have similarities as well. Each country does not have to have a particular style.

8. Now the inclination in practice is for sustainable architecture, systems like LEED and BREAM are getting momentum. But whether these western systems fit in with our context is questionable, yet we can’t deny the need of environment friendly structures. How should we proceed then?

We have to do the technical work for it. Following an imported system blindly will not do. Customization according to our need could be a solution.

I would like to go back to rationality again. Look at the buildings designed by western architects in our country in 1960s; these are tremendously well fit in our context and still serving as examples for our architects. Therefore, it’s not about a rating system or benchmark point, it’s about thinking rationally and contextually.

But again, we need to excel in research activities. We do not have a research platform to establish our own way to achieve a norm for environmental friendly architecture. The sooner we establish this research platform the better.

Dr. Zakiul Islam at the Workshop entitled 'The role of School building and outdoor environment on children's learning' in March 2015.  Image Courtesy: Matluba Khan
Dr. Zakiul Islam at the Workshop entitled ‘The role of School building and outdoor environment on children’s learning’ in March 2015. Image Courtesy: Matluba Khan

9. Don’t you think a surge in number of architecture schools is consuming our front-line graduates as teachers and we are getting less contribution in practice?

That is very true. I am seeing top rank of our BUET graduates going for teaching in different universities. I am sure this is also true for other universities. Obviously, this phenomenon is creating a vacuum in good practice. As a result of this, you will see under-qualified people even with unrecognized diplomas securing jobs way out of the range of their knowledge. This is something of utmost concern.

10. To your view what could be a probable reason for this trend?

I think it’s the lack of security in practice. Most of our students when they get enrolled in B.Arch. dream of becoming a successful practicing architect. Because we have not been able to establish a seamless clean practice environment, they are losing interest. We have to ensure an environment where you get job as per your capability, grow through a healthy competition and get credit (paid) for your excellence. Many of our young faculties are facing the ‘indecision’ of where to concentrate: practice or teaching, and this dualism is actually hindering both sectors.

11. Do you propose a model for faculties who would like to practice actively?

Teaching and practicing at the same time is difficult. It is a “doing two jobs at the same time” situation. But I still believe a studio teacher should be related with practice in some format as it will benefit students with up to date professional knowledge.

In some foreign schools, academics are given priority in socially or economically important projects. We don’t see that in Bangladesh. If an academic starts to practice like any other practicing architect, then I don’t really appreciate that. If you are an expert and say, for example, a government organization involves you for a critical project, I do encourage that. But that will only happen if we can develop expertise in particular fields through research. Research, which is industry related, outcome oriented.

In some countries like China, university professors are involved in multimillion dollar projects, they have their expertise and they are not competing with other architectural firms. Many Professors in North-America are also involved in practice when they are not teaching, for example, in summer.

Sir, with that we are to end our discussion. Some of the topics have not been discussed due to lack of time. Looking forward to meet you again in near future. Thanks for your time today.

Narrator: Azizul Mohith

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