Ar. Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury is currently serving as the Assistant General Secretary of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB). He had earlier served two terms in the IAB Executive Council as the Secretary Professional Affairs. Ar. Chowdhury is a Partner of the renowned and award winning architectural practice DWM4 Architects. Along the service period of twenty years, DWM4 Architects has produced numerous well appreciated projects such as Bishwo Shahittyo Kendro Bhobon in Bangla Motor, Bay’s Edgewater in Gulshan, Junior Laboratory School in Dhanmondi. Ar. Chowdhury is also a Visiting Faculty at the University of Asia Pacific, Dhaka. Context team met him last month at his workplace and had a vibrant, thought provoking discussion on professional and academic issues relevant to architecture in Bangladesh.

1. IAB has been widely overhauled in last few years and ever more active now considering how it used to operate in earlier days. What is your look at the progress situation?

Actually the change was inevitable. There was no option left as the number of architecture graduates and members had increased a fair count in past few years. IAB had to improve it’s efficiency. Unlike organisations where government appoints the operational body, IAB is run by an Executive Council which is elected by its members. Therefore, it has accountability as the performance is evaluated by the general members. Therefore, we got to be responsive. There had been significant changes in leadership as well; we had visionary people on board. Additionally, in last ten years, members of similar vision got elected in due intervals. There is criticism regarding this phenomenon though; some members would say the opposite might be better. From my personal point this was positive – this trend allowed enough time for the subsequent elected committees to initiate a positive change as they shared mostly similar agenda. We definitely needed continuity. But as I said before, the modification did not entirely occur due to visionary leadership; rather it happened eventually as per need of the architecture community.

On a separate note, I think our progress lies in establishing our position with respect to related government organizations. We have been able to convey the importance of the profession and place ourselves in a position where they don’t think of taking a major decision without consulting IAB. Credit must be given to the figure heads. I must acknowledge efforts of architects like our Immediate Past President Ar. Mubasshar Hussain. As President he had a powerful presence in the community and made our presence inevitable as well. He raised the impression of architects among the social and government bodies. As a result, in spite of being a very small community compared to other professionals like engineers, lawyers or doctors, architects’ opinion is given considerable weight at the policy making levels. Architects who are activists in the area of environment, conservation etc. fields have also helped to raise the image of the profession. Now we have been able to get into a point where mayors of major cities consider our opinion before taking important decisions.

2. What, you think, could be key factors for further development/improvement?

Well, for a positive change, at first you need vision, to realize vision you need leadership and to execute leadership, one requires efficient management and administration. A lot depend on leadership. Leaders need to spare time and lead from the front, not like those online cartoons where you see people being pushed by their leaders from behind. Leadership by example is what we need. If you see sector wise graphs of performance in IAB Executive Council, you might get a Manhattan skyline. This is because of the difference in level of time and effort given by different members to their respective areas . Sectors, where individual EC members are allocating more time and effort, are doing well and good. But sectors that lack the necessary time input are lagging behind relatively.

But you have to realize that this is a volunteering position. All EC members survive on full time jobs or practice. They have limitations in terms of how much time and effort they can actually afford. So expectations need to be realistic also.

Ar. Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury in conversation with CONTEXT. © CONTEXT
Ar. Chowdhury in conversation with CONTEXT. © CONTEXT

 

3. Referring to your previous answer, how can we bring consistency and coherence in development of all sectors covered by IAB?

That’s obviously difficult an issue to fix. A way to solve the problem might be to have an efficient workforce employed. There has been much talk about it. For example the administrative head of Malaysian institute of architects is ranked as CEO who is paid a salary and works for the institute full time. He has supporting administrative and technical staff for standard operation. But you need money for that type of framework. We get a certain amount from the government and raise some from membership fees. Yet that’s not sufficient. Therefore, we have to look for sponsors; and that’s not only for smooth operation but for arranging CPDs, lectures, seminars etc. as well. But then there is criticism questioning why some events arranged by IAB are labelled as powered by certain sponsors or why sponsors are given opportunity to talk in the seminars in between lectures. We have got to realize that in the era of globalized capitalist economy, you have to look at corporate sponsors to execute an event. Allowing a slot in between lectures in a seminar is like having an advertisement in a page of a printed publication within articles.

Anyway, my personal point of view is that we have miles to go to achieve optimum management efficiency. We are not up to the mark yet in terms of service to IAB members. We have to increase number of professionally trained staff along with many other necessaries like automation, logistics etc.

4. One of the significant changes in past few years has been to introduce membership exam. There have been opposing comments on this. Let us know the vision behind such initiative.

I do agree that membership examination created large debate. We have overcome the first hurdle which is to establish the necessity of such exam among the architects and it finally started.

However, the format and content of the exam might require further thought. Throughout the world it is established that there should not be a qualitative judgement through this exam. The main objective is to test if an architect is aware of the basic points of practice mainly focused on health and safety issues and building regulations. Areas that involve interface between related professionals and architects are also featured. One has to realize, it is not an exam of design excellence. It is assumed that you have learnt your design basics and architectural capacity in the academy, the credentials of which is again evaluated by IAB through the accreditation process.

The issue that comes next is the test of basic qualitative knowledge like history, culture, trend etc. I have seen architecture graduates who are not aware of simple things related to our architecture or history. At some point we might have to think whether we will put another archway on the path to become a practicing architect by incorporating general cultural, historical or even design capacity issues. To be specific, right now we conduct exam on ‘code of ethics’ and ‘Bidhimala’ only. In future, it may become imperative to broaden the area.

Saying that, I must agree we don’t have the logistics and administrative manpower to take the standard of the exam at an optimum level. Say for example, we don’t even have a situation to enforce proper exam conditions in practice; we are unable to provide enough spaces for the examinees. We have to work a lot on exam matters as a whole; no doubt, only then we will overcome all criticism.

5. Taking the point of criticism, there is a circulated commentary regarding how IAB should operate- as a professional body or as a social entity. Many probably look at IAB like a social body for regular communal activities. Seeking your opinion in this regard.

We have discussed about the growth of activity areas of IAB. It is my observation that the generation of architects who graduated around 80’s had guided IAB to more institutional format. They could manage to have an office for IAB, recruited couple of full time staffs. I should say they took the first step towards professionalism. We are working in continuation to that effort. However, many architects still think we should operate like early days when there were few architects and social programs like picnic, cultural events etc. should feature among the primary agenda of IAB. To them it might still be an entity promoting social communication.

Then there is also a differing opinion to which I subscribe to. We emphasize on IAB being a professional body with a fast increase in membership volume. It cannot host activities carried out by a club or an alumni association. The difference between a club environment and a professional one has to be accepted. I don’t see there is a reason for IAB to act as a social organization. It is essentially a learned body. There are alumni associations that can act as social organizations instead.

Having said that, there may be limited social activities, but we have to prioritize. If you have limited budget, time and energy to allocate, then 90% of it should be spent on professional development.

Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury (5th from the left)taking oath as the AGS of 21 EC of IAB. Photo Courtesy: IAB (Used from the photo archive of CONTEXT)
Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury (5th from the left, standing)taking oath as the AGS of 21 EC of IAB. Photo Courtesy: IAB (Used from the photo archive of CONTEXT)

 

6. What is the possibility of an ‘Architect Registration Board’ as exists in some other countries?

I hardly see the possibility in near future. The examination system IAB is trying to develop is being done with a similar vision, the licensing process will be further strengthened if and when the new version of Bangladesh National Building Code is published, where IAB has strived hard to establish the rights and scopes of architect as a professional. I would like to mention another thing in this regard – our predecessors worked hard to establish an ‘Architects Council’. I think at times this was the first and foremost agenda of IAB. But when we looked at the formation, we found, it had an ineffective charter. Within the proposed charter, the Council would be a politicized institution as the head will be appointed by the government and some other posts would have government officials as well. That might create a scope for political control and domination. Till now IAB is the only professional body that is not yet politically divided and we must keep it like that. There are however very positive aspects of the Council. But if the rights of professionals that the Council could ensure, is achieved in various other means, then it is better to avoid the risk of becoming a politically motivated organization.

7. Can IAB provide professional service?

I think an article in the IAB constitution can be loosely interpreted as allowing such service. But we are against it. Let’s leave the professional services to the professionals. IAB should concentrate on the well being of the professionals as clearly specified in the constitution and should not look for work.

8. There are a number of practicing firms in Dhaka, many of them are doing really well. Yet there is a commentary circulated among us that construction industry is in a downturn. Especially developers, one of our major development partners, are complaining about the downfall in recent years. Therefore, where are we standing at the moment?

It’s very true that there is a stagnant situation in the construction industry. As indicators, price of apartments could be one to pinpoint the downturn. Price of both land and apartment have been standstill for a long time and there is a visible recession in this sector.

The situation in practice is not bright at all – work load is definitely reducing. A large number of our clients are the real estate entrepreneurs. They are not taking up new projects for last couple of years. My practice is affected first hand by that. Architects are probably moving into new avenues, for example turn-key interiors, landscape, material import, graphic design etc. I don’t think it’s a good indication for the profession.

Further, you can see we have not been able to increase architects’ salary for a while. Our salary is way less than the business graduates and things are not improving at all. To my information, few firms have closed down and few are being downsized. To tell the truth, in last 30 months our firm is in a break even situation. We have separated interior design section from the building section just to reorganize overhead. Couple of experienced architects from the office moved out. But we could only replace them with junior architects. We had to think financially, not in terms of work efficiency.

9. Is there any possibility that some architects/firms are not providing full service( yet partial) and sort of sneaking through the gate with a low fees ?

I will tend to differ. There are two groups doing well. One is who are doing good work and getting new jobs by reference. Other is working more on the business side and probably taking more turn key projects, and thus getting some profit as contractors. Now a day it’s difficult to succeed by delivering less. One may sneak in due to low fee, but only to realize that professional services cannot be afforded with that fee – so a compromise has to be made. In long run, that is hardly a strategy for success.

NC Residence at Gulshan (left), a book store at Shantinagar (right) designed by DWM4 Architects. Photo Courtesy: DWM4 Architects
NC Residence at Gulshan (left), a book store at Shantinagar (right) designed by DWM4 Architects. Photo Courtesy: MMC

 

10. Let’s talk about the bridging of architecture education with profession in the country. You have been at the top of a well known and busy practice for number of years. To your opinion, are we up to mark with curriculum etc. and capable to produce quality graduate to serve different stages of the profession?

I think learning of an architect happens in two stages. First within the precincts of formal education and then in the professional arena, which is a lifelong one. I can’t expect someone to come into practice with every skill and knowledge necessary. It will not be very good if schools start to produce architects entirely to meet industry demand. I think schools at some point, probably nearing the end of the Bachelor program, may open up avenues for students. They should be given opportunity to choose a direction like research, practice, or even project/construction management etc. Otherwise I have seen efforts are often in vain. Why someone interested in construction management would put tremendous effort in final year design thesis? On the other hand I have seen good designers becoming ‘history and theory’ specialists later on. Students should be guided and mentored to decide, at least in the final years of studies, what they really want to do as an architect.

It is very important that universities put in their own quality control measures. Because many students are enrolling without knowing what they want, why they should study architecture! Many might not stay in the profession after graduation. Often you will sense architecture graduates not having the pulse of an architect. I think universities should look to address the existentialist questions like what it means to be an architect firmly and clearly with foremost importance. The essence of architecture has to be imprinted in a graduate’s mind in school. The rest could be done by the practices.

11. In the curriculum do you think some courses should be given priority over other? We mean courses which might be beneficial for practice. There is a general commentary circulated by the structural engineers that architects struggle with their structural knowledge.

I have also heard structural engineers complaining about lack of basic structural knowledge of some architects. But I don’t pay much heed to that. Give me names of five engineers who are qualified to comment and see if they are the actual persons passing these comments. I think it’s mostly the mediocre engineers who make such accusations. Some engineers become stressed when approached with out of the box concepts. Many structural engineers can’t deal with experimental works. It’s a globalized world and our architects are also coping with the present advanced trend. But engineers are not advancing that much to keep up and support creative thinking. They should put more effort to solve challenging structures rather than to just make generalized comments. A solution to changing their mindset lies in modifying the engineering education curriculum – that is, to insert more creative design and architecture appreciation courses so they understand the thought process of the architect and the inspiration that generates creativity.

12. In which sectors universities or graduates should focus in terms of job prospect?

In future decades there will be tremendous economic development in Asian region and Bangladesh is also working to become a part of it. There are investors in the world market who are interested in Bangladesh. We have a consistent GDP growth rate. So effectively there will be construction activities like industries, power plants, real estate etc. You have to improve your own skill to cope with the emerging demand. Otherwise foreign companies will start to snatch jobs eventually.

I am bit disappointed on the fact that so many of us go abroad to do Masters in Urban Design but none for a professional certificate in LEED, yet that might be considered more applicable in terms of regulatory demand. This is just one example. For many large and specialized projects like hospital, stadiums, terminals we don’t have qualified persons. These jobs will go to foreigners. I personally think ‘architect project managers’ are far more efficient than their engineer counterparts, but do we have a lot of them? We should look for more applicable qualifications.

Mr. Mamnoon at Kimbell Art Museum. Photo Courtesy: DWM4 Architects
Ar. Chowdhury at Kimbell Art Museum. Photo Courtesy: MMC

 

13. Competitions are very popular platform to flourish for young practices. In recent years young talents got their hold on the profession through competition and the trend is rising. Do you think the process is enough competent, systematic and productive?

Competitions have been more frequent in last decade. Young architects are coming through it. Especially open design competitions are like anybodies call, in most cases regardless previous experience or office size. Projects like Shadhinota Stombho, Liberation War Museum, Anjuman-e-Mufidul Islam headquarters buildings are being implemented while some others did not come to surface at all. We certainly have few jurors and same persons are doing the job repeatedly. Therefore, there is also a trend of typicality in selection.

For a young architect winning a competition, things actually become tough from the stage of deciding on fees and tougher when service delivery starts. In my view in the construction phase it gets even more complicated. You have to deal with contractors and other professionals and there lies possible corruption issues as well. None the less, in the end design excellence will also be evaluated by the community and users. Talented designers having management skills can overcome these problems if they are focused. There are examples like Liberation War Museum where the architects had to go apply patience and tenacity to see the design come to life in its original essence.

14. Your comment on the future of architecture as a profession/how would you like to see progress of this profession in the country?

Within few years we will be getting around 500 architects every year. I think image of architects in our society will be of great importance in near future. IAB has a major part to play here. IAB has to be firm in ensuring that Architecture as a profession operates ethically and contributes to society, while in schools students must learn the essence and core values of architecture.

As a professional entity we are yet to become socially inevitable. We are still unable to touch life of mass people. We need to increase our participation in the development of public life. Only when our service will able to reach mass people, we will be paid a better return for our effort. Architects have to come to a position when society will know the importance of nurturing architecture as a profession. I must agree as a nation we have been facing a social degradation in course of time. There is an influx of corruption in every sector. Apart from government sectors, private sectors are also affected now. This, I interpret as the crisis of capitalism without having gone through the phase of enlightenment. At this tough time, it is tougher to establish ethical standards among the architects. We must remember that architecture will always reflect the society; it is not a profession that can be practiced in isolation. If society does not nurture good practice, does not show cultural enlightenment, you cannot expect architects to be the last persons standing where possibly everyone may become corrupt. With the current social trend, we might find 4-5 boutique – practices every year, the rest would be mediocre or even less than mediocre. Architects need to carefully observe such phenomenon.

Speaking at TEDxDhaka. Photo courtesy: DWM4 Architects
Delivering speech at TEDxDhaka, 2013. Photo courtesy: MMC

 

In future, projects will require more specialized service. Consolidation of skills is very important. Architects have to establish their expertise among certain sub-specialties like industrial design, healthcare facilities etc. utilizing emerging technologies. Urban and environmental issues are becoming more important. Architects needs to work on the issues where planners have shortcomings. We have qualified people but they are not getting scope. IAB needs to work on issues that create such scopes. With financial development of Bangladesh, improvement in infrastructure and services is also inevitable, and we have to address that phenomenon straightaway.

Future of this profession i.e. growth, survival, whatever you calculate, depends a lot on participation of private architects in public sector projects. There is huge development potential in public sector and funding is there as well. Government has to be convinced to play a part. Good public projects create way for more good architecture in other domains. City centers, museums, art galleries, government offices, public housing – these are projects that create scope for excellence in architecture, and eventually they make an excellent city. IAB needs to prioritize the participation of private practices in important public projects. If it is successful in doing that, I think the future will look good for us.

Narrator_ Azizul Mohith

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