Nubras Samayeen is an architect, who has excelled both in teaching and professional practice. She has worked at internationally acclaimed US based architecture firms like Eisenman Architects and HOK, and has also received numerous accolades including the United States Green Building’s Natural Talent Award (USGBC) for three consecutive years. As an academic, she served as an assistant professor at the School of Design in Howard University in Washington DC, and at the University of Asia Pacific in Dhaka. She is currently doing her PhD research in the joint program of Landscape Architecture and Architecture with a minor in Heritage at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Through her doctoral research, she is exploring the relationship between architecture and landscape, and investigates the construction of national identity through various cultural products. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, and dual degrees in M.Arch and M.U.D from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Context BD reached out to Nubras Samayeen to discuss her journey of moving to the US for her studies, her struggles and experience of being an international student and the kind of opportunities which can be found by Bangladeshi architects hoping to study or work in the US.
You mentioned that going abroad had been a long term goal of yours. You even got admission for a bachelor’s program in the US but couldn’t attend due to family reasons. What made you decide to pursue higher studies in the US from such a young age?
I was a bit of a rebel. I always wanted to have an independent life, and that made me want to go abroad and stay away from family. However, immigration was never an option in my mind, and my wish was to study abroad and then return to Bangladesh.
I personally think you cannot come up with new ideas if you don’t have knowledge in multidisciplinary fields and contain a sense of curiosity. My intention was that I will work on sustainable edifices or architecture. So I wished to study multidisciplinary fields like environmental science or architectural engineering along with architecture, which BUET did not offer.
I used to visit the construction sites with my father, who was a prominent civil engineer, and had his own construction company. But some of the projects built by him seemed too traditional for me. Even though I was inspired by him, I wanted to combine engineering and architecture and come up with innovative structures that could become architectural aesthetics. Notable designers like today’s Frank Gehry or our very own Fazlur Rahman Khan have done so. All these reasons helped build my interest to study architectural engineering, and design buildings that are innovative in structure.
I wanted to explore new world venues by myself and also wanted to immerse myself into the cultural exposure America offered. America was a mythical land for me, where you can exercise your freedom, drive on the empty highways and experience a new culture. Being from the Michael Jackson era meant the American pop culture helped build that image for me.
Thus, for my undergraduate degree, I applied and got admission at UT Austin in dual programs on architectural engineering and architecture. However, I wasn’t permitted by my family to pursue higher studies abroad at that point. So I ended up studying in BUET.
What kind of opportunities can Bangladeshi graduates seek in the US, in terms of higher studies and professional practice? How does a student decide which program to choose?
First, it is important to understand that one should not feel compelled to pursue studying architecture only. However, it is also true that there aren’t many creative academic fields in Bangladesh, which is why a lot of creative people often end up studying architecture. But I’ll say that when it comes to graduate studies, the opportunities are endless. Graduates with architecture degrees can shift to literature, history or allied fields like landscape architecture, urban design, urban planning or even art history.
Secondly, it’s necessary to follow one’s passion. By the time a person is in their mid twenties, they generally have a good idea about where their passion lies. That’s why I think it would be a smart move to look into degree programs beforehand that can match with one’s interests and goals. Those who are interested in getting into teaching can consider non-studio based degrees such as the Master of Science (MSc) in Architecture degree, or the Master of Science in Architecture Studies (SMArchS) degree offered at MIT specifically.
It is necessary to have a multidisciplinary approach to graduate studies. Architecture graduates from Bangladesh can choose to pursue studies in fine arts, urban planning or even business programs, based on how an individual wants to progress with their career. From my experience, I’ve seen most people going for the Master of Architecture (M.Arch) I or II program, the professional and post-professional degrees, respectively. Those who want to pursue professional work in the US can pursue M.Arch I or M. Arch II. There is also M. Des, MLA, MUP, MFA and a myriad of other degrees in allied fields.
How does the H1B visa procedure work for a Bangladeshi applicant who wishes to continue staying/working in the US after post-graduation?
H1B visas often guide what one wants to study, so it’s important to choose a program based on that. Earlier, visa applications were sponsored by an employer for non-American applicants. Now, that process has become lottery based, so it is a hit or miss situation for applicants. After studentship, the graduate can stay and work for a year during the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period. Once that period ends, the H1B process can begin on a lottery basis.
Another challenging issue is that during an economic depression, companies often do not want to sponsor the H1B process, as it becomes cumbersome with extra regulations from the government. I faced the same situation in 2009, when many of my international friends had to go back home.
Unfortunately, a few days ago the US government stopped the H1B visa process. Hopefully, once the pandemic is over it will be reopened since it’s not feasible for the economy.
How different is the professional environment of an architectural firm in the US from one in Dhaka?
Although my professional experience in Dhaka is very limited, I did find some similarities by working in both Dhaka and the US. Firstly, it’s a relatively low paid field for employees in both countries. Random working hours and having to stay late in the office during a project submission are common scenarios in both places.
Since Dhaka has a small community of architects, I believe it’s less challenging there to make connections and find a job. In the US, it’s possible to get a job with less skills but landing the first job may be challenging for Bangladeshis, as they may not have proper channels or reference. It was a struggle for me to get my first job in New York, a city where I neither lived nor knew anyone, yet I always wanted to be in. So getting an interview and even the process of hiring is very formal and different.
My professional experience in the US started with being an intern at Eisenman Architects. It was a stimulating environment with a diverse group of people who were passionate about architecture. One thing that stood out for me was there were plenty of model-making activities. I worked on a project called City of Culture of Galicia, where I ended up making 25 models alongside three others who worked on it. The office was working on Holocaust Memorial in Berlin at that time, which also required a lot of physical models. That was a stark difference for me since I have not seen this model making culture much in Dhaka.
I worked at 3 large firms – HOK, BBB and ZGF, where they maintain corporate culture. They allocate a lot of budget for the professional enhancements of employees. All professional exams, continuing education programs and LEED registrations are paid for. In fact, large firms also organise in-house lecture series on various architectural issues and provide research opportunities, the latter of which is very rare in Bangladesh.
Across the US, a lot of focus is put on the smallest details, which we may not consider as a design approach. The construction drawings are very accurate, up to the door knob details.
On the downside, they lay off employees very easily and without prior warning. It happened to me between 2008-09. I worked at Shalom Baranes Associates in collaboration with Norman Fosters & Partners in DC and working on a project called Civic Center DC. As soon as the project ended, the office let go of the whole team of 31 people. This might be a part of the culture in the US.
Can you explain about the AIA and LEED certification process and how it helps in the professional career?
Regarding AIA certification, I have seen professionals who resist such institutionalisation and they do just fine, because they have enough skills. However, registration really helps to get promoted at workplaces, and also to ensure independence in setting up one’s own architecture practice.
Also, AIA is very active and involved with movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. They have local chapters, they give out awards for unbuilt projects and organise annual large scale conferences that help younger people get exposed to other firms’ works, which helps in networking. AIA also provides classes for continuing education programs such as fire hazard management, material study etc. This is how they ensure that architects always stay updated on multiple issues.
LEED is also similar to some extent. I got the LEED certification because I thought it would benefit me professionally, plus I was also interested in learning about sustainable architecture from a young age. However, after studying for it, I’d say this certification should not be applied to buildings in Bangladesh. I don’t think it performs as an effective medium in our culture.
You worked in the professional field for quite some time, in various parts of the US. What made you decide to leave it and pursue a PhD degree?
I always had a plan to pursue a PhD degree, even before I moved to the US. My teachers at BUET and even the director of my masters program at Michigan advised me that I should pursue a PhD degree.
But I was overwhelmed with the cultural shocks and financial pressure. My life as a single woman in the US was not easy. I worked hard to live my life, on a foreign visa. I was also adamant about not taking help from my family. So after completing double masters degrees, I felt like I needed a break.
During that period, I got into teaching at Howard University. Teaching was kind of a portal for me to take a break, following which I started my family life. Then I could think clearly about getting a PhD, and use my teaching experience to plan my journey towards the degree.
When I came from Bangladesh, I had no idea what to expect from the environment I’d be studying in. So this time, since I was already in the US, I decided to visit the schools I was interested in applying to and spoke to the teachers. By then, I also had a 9-month-old daughter at home. So picking the right location that was suitable for me to live with her was also a concern. Getting the funding for my studies was also an issue. So I took some time to choose a program that was right for me in every possible way, since a PhD is something that needs serious commitment.
Your PhD research focuses on Louis Kahn, as well as the construction of national identity through built-forms. Can you discuss your research journey up until selecting this topic for your degree and how you ended up choosing it?
Initially, I had two topics in mind. When I went to pursue my masters degree, I was inspired by this book called The City of Bits, written by the director of MIT Media Lab, Professor William J. Mitchell. That book gave me an idea of how wireless technology can influence a city’s plan. From there, it occurred to me how can this be applied in the Bangladeshi context? Additionally, one of my teachers, Professor Rahul Mehrotra worked on urban informality. So combining the two, I came up with my topic ‘Cellular Technology and Dhaka’s Urban Form’. Every time I visited Dhaka, I worked on my research by paying out of my own pocket. I visited the Korail slums and even got involved with projects with the slum committee. Luckily, on Carlo Ratti’s invite, I got a scope for an informal lecture at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. That lecture was well received and I was offered an admission for a masters at MIT with an RA-ship at the lab which I did not pursue.
The other topic I came up with concerns the National Assembly Building in Dhaka. My interest in it first started when I attended a lecture by Professor Michael Benedikt at the University of Michigan, who described the National Assembly as one of Louis Kahn’s post-modern buildings. I listened to the lecture attentively and came to realise that this building contains esoteric aesthetics, and is not meant to be understood by the mass people. After that, I participated and received the first prize at a competition Designing Conflicts in Switzerland in 2010. While working on that, I thoroughly read about Kahn’s theory of phenomenology, which was the second step to Kahn’s introduction for me.
Parallelly, I taught a survey course called South Asian Art and Architecture at Howard University. That course had five divisions, starting from Indus Valley Civilisation to South Asian Modernity. There, I questioned why architects from the West came to South Asia and dictated their idea in the construction of identity. I wanted to dig in further, and thus I came up with my second topic for doctoral studies on why and how Kahn’s National Assembly Building became a part of our national identity.
I was already reading the books written by my current advisor Dr. Fairchild Ruggles, in order to understand the symbolic connections in Islamic landscape, if there were any. Fortunately, after an exhaustive interview, she asked me to apply to study under her supervision. Here, I must say that my advisor was very generous of my situation. It was also brave of me to go forward with it following my first pregnancy, and I ended up applying a week after my first child was born. I got the opportunity to pursue a PhD on both topics in 2014, one at MIT and the other at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I chose the latter, because it had full funding for 5 years. I also found the history-theory track and its research process more intellectually stimulating for myself than the other, which was seemingly more policy oriented.
Do you think the influence of American architects on built forms and architecture education in Bangladesh had a lasting impact on how we perceive our national identity? How would you say this influence affected our architecture education and practice in Bangladesh?
Absolutely! However I would take some time to answer the question more elaborately after the conclusion of my research work. It is very evident in our cultural architectural spirit, that we bring Kahn into all kinds of discourse, almost like a living example. We cannot deny the influences of American architects like him who worked here and lectured young architects at BUET. In fact, the architecture faculty at BUET was also developed with the help of USAID and faculty members of Texas A&M University. That influence provided a guided route to the course of Bangladeshi architecture. I think now we have about 27 architecture schools and all of them follow the same course curriculum. Even in contemporary times, we consider these structures by American architects as the beacon for modern architecture. I find a lot of similarity between Marina Tabassum and Kahn’s works in terms of the use of light and superimposition of forms. I’d say our architecture landscape following independence has been shaped by the works of these American architects. It was not only in Bangladesh, but South Asia as a whole experienced the same wave. I feel like I’ve seen a rupture; in a way it changed our cultural and professional path.
What advice would you give to young graduates or future architects who are interested in pursuing a career related to the architecture field in the US?
Life never goes according to one’s plans and there’s also no one-size-fits-all model. I had a number of failures and yet bounced back to reach what I wanted. Having said that, I’d say one should follow their passion. Creativity doesn’t end with architecture, there are multiple fields beyond bricks and concrete; hence it doesn’t have to be an architectural design degree path.
One has to keep in mind that in the US, getting a visa is always a challenge. So one must decide if they want to come for immigration, or to experience the culture and return to their homeland.
When applying for masters programs, one should make a list of ten schools based on their passion, the school’s location, financial aid opportunities etc. So that they can have a variety of options to choose from. School choice based on location makes a big difference since the landscape and culture differs throughout America.
In case of PhD, I’d say make a list of at least five schools, since it’s a more focused field. I’d also suggest that prospective students should get in touch with faculty before applying. One can often understand the scope for possibilities based on their communication with a faculty member. While there is no hard and fast format for masters application but a degree of information such as why one wants to study, what one wants to study and why one aspires to study in that particular school is important. As for PhD application, it is essential to mention the research topic, what led to this topic, whom one would like to study with and the reasons for the school selection.
I am hoping that the challenging situation for the students caused by the pandemic will end soon. Coming to the US should not be a destination, I would rather encourage students to see it as a path to develop and challenge themselves. It can also be a good way to actively experience the resources available here and learning methods that might be very different from what we traditionally see.
CONTEXT Contributor: Farhat Afzal is an Academic Associate in Bengal Institute of Architecture, Landscape and Settlement, Dhaka, Bangladesh.