Dr. Mahbubur Rahman, a Commonwealth Scholar and McNamara Fellow who has taught architecture at various universities in 6 different countries since 1985, runs an educational consultancy in Canada. He has published over 100 papers in international journals and conferences, and either authored or edited five books, including Dhaka: an Urban reader (The University Press Ltd, 2016), Society, Architects & Emerging Issues (CAA, 2006), Old but New :: New but Old (UNESCO, 2009) and City of an Architect (DelVista, 2011). He was also involved with the preparations of National Building Code (1993), Dhaka Structure Plan (1995), National Housing Policy (2004), Imarat Nirman Bidhimala (2006 & 2007), Urban Poverty Reduction Program (1996), etc. Dr. Rahman was elected General Secretary of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh (2005-06). He is at the moment serving as the Dean of Engineering & Design at the Kingdom University of Bahrain. CONTEXT met him on January 30 during his last visit to Dhaka, and had an informative and fruitful discussion regarding a range of issues.
CONTEXT: You have been active in teaching in different parts of the world for several years and worked, as we know, in seven universities at home and abroad. Should we assume that you like to take new challenges, or it’s just a restless approach? Please let us know how it started.
MMR: When we graduated 33 years ago, though our batch had few outstanding graduates, the then head of only architecture school in Bangladesh was not happy because we didn’t submit the thesis before the final exam. We had to wait 18 months during when I learned many things that we didn’t learn during 5 years at BUET. I never had an intention to come to teaching, and I almost missed the advertisement when BUET was hiring. Three of my friends called me and convinced me to apply and there were 17 other candidates. But when I got the job, I decided to remain committed.
When I was finishing my PhD, I had a job offer from University of York, but decided to return. I never thought of leaving BUET. I used to make jokes that Azimpore [graveyard] was near, and one day I shall go straight there after done with BUET. But God thought otherwise. Things happened in 1998 on the issue of admission test and life for me was ‘made’ unbearable. I quit BUET, even withdrew all gratuity. Went to King Faisal University, but couldn’t like it much. Thus began the so called ‘challenge’.
In fact I had this same question asked whenever I was facing a job interview, and my answer would be the same— love new challenges. I went to Oman with the challenge of preparing and setting their first ever architecture program. Mission accomplished, I returned to Dhaka after 4 years to help State University of Bangladesh, followed by the North South University, to establish architecture schools.
During then, convinced by friends on last day of nomination submission, I ran for the post of Secretary of IAB in one of the most volatile period of its existence, and after being absent from Bangladesh for 5 years; and we accomplished quite a lot. For example, Imarot Nirman Bidhimala. There were two other important achievements that many people even among my colleagues are not much aware of. I thwarted an attempt by the government to recognise diploma architects as architects after 3 years of job, for which I had to with my President or often alone meet several key government policy makers and convince them that the decision would be counter-productive. Another one was taking away the system of enlistment (of architects) by Rajuk since 1997, and establishing that only IAB should ensure the honesty and quality of (architectural) practice in the country that has strengthen IAB hugely. I was almost alone in this fight for nearly 2 years.
When I went to Malaysia that was also to prepare a graduate program and revise and prepare their undergrad program for RIBA part I accreditation. Now in Bahrain, I again have some specific responsibilities— prepare Self Evaluation Reports for its architecture and interior design programs, face the site visit by the Quality Assurance Authority, and prepare and obtain Institutional Accreditation.
On hindsight I find that certain fighting attitude has played behind these shifts, not restlessness or aimlessness. But the flipside is I have gained enormous experience and certain expertise that probably no other from Bangladesh has. I wanted to give back some of these and that is the reason I am here and may be we will have a chance to talk about that.
CONTEXT: A part of this what you called the ‘flipside’ has been that you have been involved in preparing and reviewing about 20 architecture curricula and preparing some programs for accreditation. What are your observations comparing curricula we follow in Bangladesh with the same at foreign universities?
MMR: Before understanding the difference I think knowing how the first program evolved will help putting it into the right context. BUET program was prepared by academics from the Texas A&M University based on the American concept of broad-based education. If you compare this with two other contemporary programs at Beirut and Baghdad that too were prepared under the same scheme supported by the Ford Foundation, you will find many similarities. However, by the 1970s we were having indigenous instructors specialising on various areas and introducing new courses upon their return. Thus when in 1992 we started to covert the existing program at BUET, it became a 192 credit program, which was huge.
The other first generation programs had to take approval of University Grants Commission (UGC) which would send the proposed curriculum invariably to the Head of BUET School for review. Thus to avoid unnecessary delay all programs in the 1990s would keep the ‘BUET-model’ intact and add few contemporary courses only. Thus you will see that those indeed had 200-205 credit programs. Only few programs in the 2000s had tried to break away the stereotype. I can cite examples of both.
Moreover no existing or proposed program ever did any benchmarking or followed any accreditation criteria; we followed that in revising the program at NSU which originally was an exact copy of the program offered at Virginia Polytechnic State University. The issue of accreditation was discussed at least twice in early 1990s and mid-1990s at BUET; but the senior academics were against any [foreign] accreditation. We didn’t have our own accreditation system until 2011, and UGC was complacent with the status quo.
All these times, curricula preparation has been course oriented, that is a number of courses jumbled together which the one who was preparing the curricula singlehandedly thought necessary. Many of these were cut and paste at best from several sources though some wanted to give certain orientation. However course curricula preparation has moved to be more learner-oriented now, where we question what the students are learning rather than what we are teaching. In that sense in a way our curricula have been more paternalistic, never being challenged. In this new millennium, we must challenge and ask ourselves “what a graduate can do with the things [s]he learns”. I think none of the curricula until recently has thought of it in this way really, and I think I shall have a chance to explain this more when we talk about why I am in Dhaka.
CONTEXT: Yes you can do it now if you like. We know that you just conducted a workshop last week on “Graduate Attributes and Developing Learning Outcomes” for teachers of architecture in Bangladesh. In light of the workshop would you explain the importance of these topics for preparing a curriculum?
MMR: In line with what I was saying— in addition to asking what the learners are learning, yes I am consciously avoiding the word ‘student’ which encourages content-based curricula and emphasises on memorizing more than understanding, how are you sure they are learning what you want them to learn? So they must demonstrate whatever they are learning. This is the proof of outcome: that is the learner should be able to do something with what he learnt that he was unable to do before. And you have to measure how much he or she has learnt, meaning you have to think about and/or design the right assessment tool. In a nutshell learning should be oriented to intended outcome which is demonstrable and measurable. This is the concept of ‘learning outcome’.
Now think for a moment what you gain by going to university. It is ‘graduateness’ that ensures that you will be equipped with certain knowledge, understanding, skill and attributes that make you either employable or enterprising. Recall who were the people sponsoring the first generation of universities like Oxbridge, St. Andrews, Durham, Sorbonne, Coimbra, Bologna, Lund, etc. It was the guilds and clergy, and the subjects taught were the demand of the time— theology, law, surgery and crafts. And the target was imparting specific knowledge and skills. Then came the age of renaissance when people could argue using logic, where a ‘renaissance man’ was an all-rounder with ability to appreciate what is good and artistic. So the target was producing graduates full of virtues in addition to knowledge. This is the concept of ‘graduate attribute’.
In fact there are ways to determine what should be the contents for a diploma program and what should be in a degree program, and even what we should we teach in first year level and for that matter in every other level. There are also ways to link the courses and integrate theory with studio.
Its expression is seen in the way job interviews are now conducted where less than a quarter is focussed on technical contents as by scrutinising applications the employers make sure you have the right degree (required for the job); they are only interested to find out your attitude and capability of handling certain situation, and the way you are likely to behave in a situation. For example, you see your boss is doing something unethical; what will you do in such a circumstance; can you cite any real-life incident? Or give an example when you were pressed with tight deadlines, and how did you cope?
Moreover, there are many attributes we expect a graduate to have grown which are transferable in other situations or areas too— for example, presentation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, teamwork, etc. So how to ensure that a learner at the end of a program or courses or even a single lecture has attained the ability to demonstrate the intended outcome relevant to the program, course or the lecture as the case may be.
Thus curricula don’t come with a bunch of courses but a set of intended learning outcomes aligned with graduate attributes and also with vision, mission and objectives of the program and institute. And these outcomes are not to be achieved only through courses, but should also consider informal and independent learning. For example, how do you teach teamwork to the students? Thus curricula are no more a bundle of courses, but a total experience of teaching-learning-assessment and co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, and there are some easy ways of preparing curricula from this point of view.
CONTEXT: So it looks like education is not only teaching, though conducted by teachers. Do you think there is a need for training the teachers in Bangladesh? And if so, where do we begin?
MMR: You are right. As mentioned above it has to be a whole experience consisting of teaching, learning and assessment. We also have to assess the assessment. Also advise the students, not only on academic matters, but also on personal issues often which may have been hampering his learning abilities, and create inquisitiveness into him or her for seeking new knowledge and skills. We have to prepare learning resources, assessment tools and matrices, and continuously upgrade our knowledge, awareness of contemporary issues, and accordingly revise learning resources and techniques tie to time, and so on. One way of doing that is to seek original knowledge through research and publication and disseminate that. There has been a serious lax in that. It is also important what you are contributing to the society, or how you are engaging the community.
So somebody doesn’t just become capable of teaching right after graduation. Teachers are not made in a day. It also requires lots of hard work and dedication. Feedback (from students) is important. We made attempts at BUET in the 1990s to introduce students and peer evaluation. It was not possible due to reluctance by seniors and faculty members in other departments. Few private universities have this, but I doubt how many takes it seriously and constructively. Also there should be a system of taking and integrating stakeholders’ feedbacks.
IAB has a great role to play. After my return for the second time to Bangladesh in 2003, I was asked by IAB if I could develop an accreditation system of architecture programs in Bangladesh, which I gladly complied with. The current system is to an extent based on that effort, but I feel has less stringent criteria. It looks like it was set in a way to let some pass. I was very critical of certain things in it, but unfortunately had left the country when it was actually instituted.
There is a good demand for qualified teachers in architecture, and graduates can now consider teaching as a career. In 2004, Dr. Sayeed prepared a report for IAB which showed a need of more than 100 qualified teachers; I am sure the number is higher now. One candidate we rejected t NSU for the position of Lecturer, became a Professor at another university within two weeks. I cannot think how this could happen!
The CPD program could be a media to impart relevant trainings though I am not sure if we have the right trainers. But I think reputed teachers can sit together and produce some training materials.
A mentorship program and teaching assistantship could also bear fruit. NSU has one of the richest libraries in Bangladesh. I forwarded an idea that several such private universities if join resources can really develop a world class library. In fact on Kemal Ataturk Avenue, we had 9 universities at that time! However, you need to open up [your thought process] in order to accept such ideas. In fact I also tried to introduce joint urban design-housing studios between NSU and BRAC universities at fourth year level to work on real-life problems of the city. But people high-up thought it was not possible.
The workshop I offered was my own initiative and free, hosted by NSU. One day from Qatar I called Dr. Sayeed (IAB President), who is my friend, and proposed that I want to impart such a training, and he readily agreed. But I am not sure how much the IAB-team was committed as the way it was facilitated left a lot to desire. UGC could also be involved as such training has a generic mode, that is these are beneficial to teachers of any subject, not only from architecture discipline.
I have received myself trainings [on curricula preparation and classroom teaching] in Malaysia and Canada, In addition to practical experience in several countries. In fact after migrating to Canada, I have set up a company in Calgary that provides such consultancy. I shall be happy to offer more such training, free, and I have already proposed to (Dr.) Sayeed to see if a follow-up session could be held in 3 months time. This time we could focus on setting course level outcomes and assessment tools, and thi was also a demand from those who attended the first workshop. And I am just 5 hours away! In fact this time, I was almost coming to the workshop venue directly from the airport and IAB was late by more than an hour!!
CONTEXT: Now let’s move from education to something else. We know that a second reason for you to be in Dhaka this time was attending a discussion program on your latest book. Tell us about it.
MMR: Well it was 7 years in making. This was a book that I edited and I am the author or co-author of half of 10 chapters it has. More importantly I initiated the project [when I was in Malaysia], encouraged and helped others to contribute, have it reviewed several times, find a publisher, and for that matter the best one from Bangladesh, and so on. You should see this in the context of architects not interested in writing, lack of data and research, and almost no publisher available who will not give preference to profit making. In 2009, IAB requested for manuscript that it may scrutinise for publication. I think Dhaka Urban Reader was one of two it received. I don’t know what happened to the other one, mine was accepted but I couldn’t accept certain attitude of some people at IAB. Then NSU agreed to publish the book and sent for third cycle of review. But that also failed to progress as I left NSU and Bangladesh. But fortunately before leaving the country in June 2011 I left a copy with UPL, and things progressed from that point on though it took a long me. But they have done a good job. And I am grateful for that.
Contributors to the book are urban experts from home and abroad, who focussed on contemporary issues, some novel, including the historical evolution of the built environment, cultural spaces, adaptation, urbanism, liveability, and urban design and planning. It also provides several examples of little-known, marginalized areas that will be of interest to more than just the architectural field. The book emphasises that planning and development decisions must be taken in the context of cultural dynamics of the builtscape, with an understanding of the spread and interaction of local values and greater participation of residents. However, architects have seldom sought to aesthetically, symbolically, and ideologically interpret these relationships into socially relevant landscapes. It is satisfying to see that they have opened up their eyes now. There is competition with so many architects in the market, and I see some really world class architecture.
Wish a wide patronage for this book which was my fifth.
CONTEXT: Of course, all the best with your book and we hope all our followers will be interested in it. Going back to the topics of this or other books of yours. You specialise in housing and urban development. In case of Dhaka, we seem to be failing. We know a larger discussion would be befitting to the problems we have, but where is the flaw?
The flaw is in our thinking process. Everybody seems to be knowing where the solution is from their own perspective, but people in charge are not interested in a comprehensive one. The Dhaka North Mayor was in the discussion program on the book. And I shall briefly mention here what I told him, or rather in the discussion.
I come from a city that has consistently been among the top 5 most liveable cities in the world for a decade now and the cleanest city too. We have a former professor as the Mayor who has presented a vision and certain pledges that he has lived up to. The day he was elected first time in 2011, I saw peoples hope and expectations. Mayor is the city father. My father had a vision, thats why he managed to send me to the best school, college and university the country had, even if it was beyond his affordability. For that matter most parents have the same vision for their children.
Same way we have to have a vision. Where we want to see our city in 5 years time, 20 years time or 50 years time, and a plan for how to reach there, and mechanisms of implementing that plan. It could be a water-based city, it could be a green city, it could be a non-motorised city, whatever. But we have to set that vision which will be based on the strength and resources that we have, and aspire towards that. Resources do not need to be all materialistic; it could be intangibles like people’s resilience or community bonding.
You will often see TV-wallahs (Talk Show participants), who can talk without knowing much, repent that we have no plan. But the fact is we have many plans and no implementation. For example, many TV-wallahs take pride by suggesting that cantonment should be taken out of the city! Do you know that this idea is just 100 years old. Starting with Patrick Geddes in 1917, every Plan the city had, have suggested this. But nobody implemented this. Just if you didn’t know, Geddes is the father of modern town planning. We were so fortunate to have him, like having Louis Kahn for designing the Capitol! Let me become critical about the planners. They should be taking the front seat in environmental activism! Where are they?
I had the misfortune of attending the first public workshop in September 2007 where the contents of DAP (Detail Area Plan) were unveiled for public discussion. Though IAB sent me there representing architects, but I was there as a citizen and therefore a stakeholder too. I expected to see a vision; all I witnessed were mundane issues, such as a proposal to convert Dhanmondi Road 3, incidentally where I used to live, to commercial use as such uses have already encroached into there. Rajuk had absolutely no idea of who the stakeholders are and what participation means.
That brings the issue of governance. Rajuk, instead of remaining as an enforcer, has become a developer itself, which is a conflict of interest, and absolutely unacceptable. It should go back to its previous form of a public trust from currently being a government department and concentrate on planning management. That brings the City Corporation into discussion. DCC, being run by elected representatives, should have the mandate and jurisdiction over some of the major agencies running the affairs of this city. In both the two great cities that I have lived in last 8 years— Kuala Lumpur and Calgary, the City Hall has a larger jurisdiction, including control over police, transport and planning. Our municipality is only entrusted with garbage removal and street lighting!!
And everybody has to be accountable, including the peoples reps. Look what happened with DAP. The public was made convinced that DAP is the ‘only panacea’ for all illness Dhaka has, which of course is not true. Anyway it should have been in place by 1997. I am not elaborating the whole history here. But eventually DAP was approved by the parliament about 12 years late; but the very next day a review committee was formed with MPs from the constituencies it covered. Many of these MPs were land grabbers which was opposed in the DAP that was available for public hearing for a long time. What a farce, what a farce!!
You are right, it needs bigger discussions beyond the scope of this interview; perhaps we can dwell upon that at some other time.
CONTEXT: Usually we ask this last question to experts living abroad; and you may not answer if you wish. We want you back to Bangladesh; will you consider that?
MMR: This is a cliché— to ask people like us, why don’t you come back. If Bangladesh needed us, it wouldn’t force us out.
Consider this— Bangladesh has enough experts in different fields. Only utilise them. Of course they will provide alternate technical solutions. It is up to the people’s representatives to make the political decision. We only need honest and dedicated politicians who care more about people then themselves.
OK, talking about myself. I am often asked what your next plan is. This is similar to your first question. And my answer is always the same— I never plan. My only desire was to finish at BUET. But everything that happened since after that didn’t happen by following any plan. So take it as it comes, and make best of it. I have come back again and again. I have remained in touch. I love my country. I am ready to go extra miles to serve it.
CONTEXT: Thank you, and we will look forward to that.