TRAINING ARCHITECTS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

The case of the countries with Portuguese as official language

My experience in the task of teaching architecture is very limited. Having always been a practicing architect, I have an acute sense that I need much more to learn than to teach.

My interest in the problems of training architects and physical planners started and became pressing by the circumstances in which I live and practice. Those circumstances can not be fully understood unless they are lived and their dimensions can not be fully translated by statistics, percentages and ratios.

My considerations here refer to the sub-saharan ex-portuguese colonies and, in certain respects, can be generalized to most African or even developing countries. However, great care should be taken in any form of generalization as the social, economic, political and natural conditions vary widely even within the same region.

Social, political and economic situations in these countries are, by now, reasonably well-known to the rest of the world, and it would be a loss of time to try to redefine them or even to do fine up-to-date adjustments.

What does not seem to be sufficiently understood is the cultural environment and the circumstances influencing the cultural changes without which no development can take place.

Assuming, as it seems reasonable to assume, that no deep social or economic change can take place without a deep cultural change; assuming that the countries within the region we are considering, and in some ways in all developing countries, perhaps in different ways, to achieve the material standards, the social facilities and the political-administrative sophistication of the “first world” systems - be it East or West - it seems essential to me to know the adjustments to the traditions and alterations to the cultural characteristics of the developing countries necessary to them to acquire the intellectual and educational infrastructure without which those standards and systems can not be established, operated and maintained.

We also assume that there is a generalized concept of what development is and that in the concepts of developing and developed there is an understood and desired direction pushing the developing to want the standards and values of the developed. Those values and standards are basically longer life, legal and administrative systems applicable equally to national groups; generalized means of information and communication; generalized rights and means of political participation; state-assured social securities and welfare, like education, health assistance, protection in the early and late stages of life; the possibility of assuring sovereign national rights; the possibility of participation in the international community life and free interchange of cultural, technical, scientific or religious ideas and acquisition of the basic human rights, such as the right to live where one wants to live, to do what one wants to do, to ravel where one wants to go - within one’s own material limitations and respect for the rights of other people.

These are the values and goals that people from developing countries are seeking, more or less conscious of it and within politico-ideological systems which may consider some of the goals either revolutionary or reactionary. We have to recognize that our part of the world is indeed underdeveloped to a pitiable degree, for most, if not all of our countries, are far from having fully reached any of those targets.

The causes of the underdevelopment are both material and intellectual and can not be solved until the material and cultural conditions change. The unsynchronized development of the two major aspects, the material and the cultural, will inevitably conduct to an unbalanced and dependent society.

Development can be achieved, at least theoretically, in many different ways, none of which strictly to be programmed or planned. It can be an objective or a consequence. It is an objective to the newly independent countries, like it is an objective to keep or to acquire a national identity - which in fact ought to be a consequence; it was a consequence of the colonization, even if it was not a common process for the colonizer and the colonized. Both processes and systems have their prices, but colonialism is no longer acceptable and it is interesting only as an explanation of present conditions, even if the issue is still too sensible to be objectively discussed. However, by now, most African nations recognize their social and economic problems are not exclusively a consequence of the European domination and exploitation.

Without the above considerations, it seems useless to me to try to speak about training. Before any other questions, we must ask ourselves, who we are training and what for. Then it will be easier to establish how the training should be given.

To say we are training third world youths to became architects must be complemented with a better insight into what the cultural background of a third world youth is and what the society expects from him as a professional.

Young people, coming into the university or any other training institution in our countries, generally come from families recently urbanized, or even directly from rural environments. Their cultural background is profoundly marked by -the fact that normally their educational language is not their mother tongue, their cultural environment is not literary or visual world does not contain a great variety of testimonials of past or other cultures, their traveling has been as limited as their contacts with people from other cultures; that there are few and very poor libraries or any other sources of information; the radio and TV where they exist do not broadcast first rate or mind-broadening programs; the few newspapers and magazines are poorly written and printed, unattractive and expensive, more interested in social and political gossip and football than in serving as instructive and cultural media.

The formal training of these youths is very limited. The need of mass education erodes the quality of teaching to a level where even an exceptionally gifted individual is handicapped. Even when teaching is done with dedication and creativity the media is normally missing and the mechanical memorizing of facts, figures and principles becomes a rule: numbers prevent teachers to pay individual attention to the students. The survivors of this destructive machine have no possibilities for compensation in their society or the home environment. - Of course, there are exceptions and fortunately some filter through the process and arrive at university level.

Our task starts there: to provide a new ground for free expression and germination of ideas by opening a new world of information and stimulating a reflexive and creative attitude.

It is a difficult task. On one hand we are, as architects and professionals, ourselves searching for an architectural identity, for a possible architecture to solve some of our own problems within a very stringent set of economic and technical limitations; on the other hand our students arrive at university level without any intellectual preparation and without a set of cultural and visual references; the teaching means and logistic support are extremely poor, especially regarding bibliography and imagery. Finally the need for planners and architects - as for any other technical capacity - is so pressing as to determine, in general, very short training periods within which a proper maturation of theoretical and practical abilities can not take place.

These are the constraints that training architects in sub-saharan Africa must consider.

In face of such constraints several alternatives or complementary solutions can be worked out. The main alternatives are to send students out of the country, to train them in the country, to recruit permanent staff or to have short periodical visits to complement undergraduate studies in the country with graduate study abroad.

But a strategy must be defined by its objectives, and so we should be looking deeper into what is expected from our future architects.

Leaving aside considerations on moral responsibility or political conscientiousness, which may or may not be the major determinants of professional behaviour, we believe that some, if not most of our future architects will be requested to perform their tasks under very special circumstances very different from those of the industrialized countries.

Our architects will find themselves in a very isolated situation, where there will, most probably, be no land surveyor, structural, mechanical or electrical engineer, or quantity surveyor to help them. They will have to resolve most of the technical problems and to produce by themselves most of the basic data they need to be able to design buildings and to supervise the construction process.

It is quite possible that they will have to do the topographical survey, the soil tests, the program, the structural design and the electrical lay-out; they will have to assume full responsibility for the supervision of the work, in our case meaning to teach the builder his own art besides controlling his performance in terms of dimensional faithfulness, quantity and quality of materials, skill in their use and application, safety for the workers and timing of the operations. Not very different from the master mason of the XIIth century.
Our architect will, in his very isolated position, have to perform as an urban planner, advising local authorities - whom he will have to conquer slowly by making them conscient of the problems of the use and control of land - sensitive to regional planning; he will be called upon to participate in physical planning exercises; being able to draw and having the artistic capacity stimulated, he will probably be asked to do graphic and decoration work for public or private clients; being a man of the building world and capacitated to design houses, he will feel the duty - and be pushed to participate in the solving of the housing problem which, as we know, starts by the definition of policies and strategies in the fields of land tenure, financing, production, building material, building technology research and development, energy management and social and administrative organization.

Last but not least, as his profession and art make him an operator in the environment, and his training has provided him with an insight into the delicate and crucial issues of this fast degrading ecosystems environment, he will be actively articulating policies that have to do with the environmental impact of man’s role - his role in the community - in changing the face of the earth.

This may seem a megalomaniac or demented view of the responsibilities of the poor architect, technician, social worker, administrator ... and politician. We may avoid or try to elude it, but the reality is strictly the one described above. The problems are there and his participation in their solution is but a matter of greater or smaller personal capacity and responsibilisation.

Are we going to prepare him, to give him the full picture, the broad spectrum of his duties? Are we going to condemn him to a high degree of awareness and to provide him with the tools to perform a couple of miracles a day necessary to make any significant impact in our environment?

Or are we going to introduce to him the Olympic peacefulness of the classic orders, the transcendental and symbolic value of the ornament, the rarefied world of architectural rendering, the muscular masculinity of hightech, the esthetics of and ambiguity?

And are we going to be able to prepare him for a world full of immediate, urgent and impossible questions where speed of decision is a quality in itself, where tradition does not help much in a society ashamed of itself and anxious for change; a world of great loneliness, doubt and frustration, but also of usefulness and realization?

If the situation is real and true, as I think it is, in most of our countries, we have to recognize that most, if not all schools of planning and architecture in the industrialized countries do not follow programs offering our future architects the necessary skills and the properly focused approach. Those schools are, naturally and correctly, tunned, to produce a different professional and intellectual figure for a very different economic, political, social and technical environment.

Our students will probably perform well in any of those schools, even if they feel culturally handicapped, and they will put forth a tremendous effort to cope with alien concepts, values and purposes. But will they be better prepared, even psychologically, for the tasks of their home environment? In other words, is it a good idea to study tropical architecture in London? Or the social dynamics of the African clan or urban sub-group in Copenhagen?

Is development a science? Is housing a technology?

Are our students to understand their own reality through authors and theories, to see their daylight and sun paths through laboratory heliodons (which they will never see again), to interpret their own world through UN reports, handbooks and manipulations without the daily experience of the living conditions in which they are to operate?

To take them out of their environment is a not cultural violence. Acculturation is no longer a danger or a menace - permeability of cultures is not only unavoidable but desirable. What makes a difference to education is the way of focusing on reality, the non-measurable dimensions of everyday living problems, the personal and circumstancial weight of everyday decisions.

Education at home can have other positive arguments like the peripheral spread and influence of a faculty in the local cultural environment, the opportunity for indigenous research on locally felt subjects of greater interest and relevance; the build-up of a library and documentation center and of an institutional memory, the early selection of future teaching staff.

Against this are all the real and objective problems that any initiative has to face in our circumstances - the lack of trained and capable teaching and administrative staff, the lack of a rich architectural environment, the difficulty in, the exchange of ideas and the lack of opportunities for debate, the “shortage of space, equipment and housing. But, again, the problem can be better focused on if we concentrate on the role of the architect in the development process.

Development, as we saw, is a change in the living conditions to prolong life, reduce physical effort and pain, create wider fields and spheres of communication between people and profit from the universal pool of human experience.

It is measured in terms of economic and social indexes of material wealth, physical well-being and educational performance, and it is normally assumed that positive cultural evolution will follow or correspond.

Without falling to the academic discussion of what comes first-material development or cultural change - which can lead to highly abstract and labyrinthic speculation, we can easily maintain that our architect has an important role to play in the task of creating the material structures and infrastructures necessary for the transformation, and that he has to be conscious of the cultural, technical, economic and environmental limitations of his own environment.

Furthermore, lie must be conscious that in so doing, he is profoundly changing those cultural conditions and proposing (if not imposing) new forms and spaces for social life, where new personal values and ambitions will define and materialize themselves. It is, then, important to consider some of the more relevant characteristics of our sub-saharan countries and social groups.

The most important elements to analyze are the material, social and cultural patterns of our society - a large mass of peasants living within traditional values and virtually outside of a monetary economy, a growing number of urbanized, unemployed people, and a thin stratum of fully westernized citizens whose values, ambitions and social habits are perfectly identical after the mould of the corresponding stratum of any developed country.

All shades in between are there to be taken into account, but those three groups are the characteristic ones and the ones establishing the limits of the spectrum of an architect’s a activities.

Development strategies will define the role of the architect in terms of those groups and there is no way out of the political process in which he is going to influence the allocation of resources to benefit one or the other group preferentially.

The social and political meaning of the architect’s work is to be found in his capacity to solve economically and correctly the functional and constructional problems of the buildings he designs, within a range of socially relevant comissions, which are, in ultimate terms, up to him to accept or reject.

In other words, there are no neutral technical choices. The architect is a servant of society, not a leading force - within the limits of his work. The fallacy that can we substantially and meaningfully influence through architecture or planning the development process is an illusion, which may have serious consequences or, at least, lead to serious delusions.

Working for the three main groups defined above raises different sort of problems and requires a wide range, of technical capacities, in many senses different from the ones architects from developed countries must acquire. Those different capacities anabilities are called for because of two basic factors: the nature of the indigenous and traditional building technology, skills and materials, and the nature of the problems and building programs he has to solve and, also, because of the technical environment he operates in - what has been called a world of “uneven technology”.

The relative weight of each of those factors on he difficulties of his work varies across the range of problems each of the social groups present to the architect.

The first group, still the largest but changing fast in number and in cultural profile, is the peasant population. Here the architect’s tasks are still quite limited. His presence is necessarily remote and the architectural or design work tends to be connected with “development projects” with very specific local conditions. However, there is more and more awareness of the need, and an intention to answer to the fact that the village must be equipped with the physical infrastructure and social and economic structures that may contribute to the trend to a higher diversification of tasks and roles in rural environment.

The health center, the school, the agricultural service center, the consumers cooperative and the administration, religious and political structures are examples of the new needs at village level, and they must be designed and built within a range of new technologies requiring inventiveness and creativity to assure the necessary improvements in the traditional ways of building - which, in our region, do not normally respond to the required building standards in terms of environmental quality and durability.

Those technologies and the dynamics of change of the social groups that use them are the field of research that can not be done apart from their own reality. Their potential is often the only real possibility left for the improvement of construction in the rural areas of sub-saharan Africa.

Our students must be made aware of and interested in those technologies and provided with the scientific tools to study them, improve them and make full use of them. Similarly they must be provided with the capacity to study the cultural patterns and to understand the forces changing the social fabric in the rural world, in order to be able to work with and not against the living forces of the village.

The next group - much more immediately a client of our architects - are the large and rapidly growing urban masses living in what is in fact a fast decaying physical environment. The problems of the African city, particularly in our region, are probably new in their magnitude and nature. They are not to be solved by planning or architecture but, if a new attitude and ingenuity is not stimulated and developed in our future architects, not even an adequate policy within a committed and courageous political strategy will result in significant improvements.

More than in any other situation, it is at this level that our architect-planners will be tested in what regards their capacity for new visions and to find innovative and, above all, possible, viable and acceptable solutions. A major difficulty of this aspect of his work is the lack of proven methods, solutions and techniques; another is the need to integrate his work with the work of the other members of a team always and necessarily made up of representatives and participants of the community.

The need to integrate neighborhood improvements in overall planning strategies and master city plans demands from him a simultaneous capacity to work within a range of scales of intervention, technical versatility and cultural flexibility. At this level his responsibilities range from the conceptualization and design of infrastructural systems to the establishment of land use principles and strategies, to the design of social equipment and finally, to the design, construction process and maintenance systems of the housing stock.

The very specific and locally determined order of the urban problems in our region, the rapidly shifting opportunities and the unsecure availability of the most elementary resources make it almost impossible to establish a doctrine to guide our professionals in the art of making possible solutions. Direct presence and constantly updated information on the nature and magnitude of the problems of the city and on the local political forces is the only basis on which to build any viable proposal. Unfortunately it is not generally possible, and it makes it even more important for our urban planners to develop a “feeling” to those dimensions that can only be achieved with a developed sensitivity and constant presence.

Finally, there is the need to answer to the problems of the modern sector of our population, a small but significant, indispensable and useful stratum of people who have reached the developed stage - to which all the other citizens dream to rise. Their needs are in every respect identical with those of the people of developed nations. To answer to them is, in a way, to accentuate the contradictions within our society, and will systematically bring our architects into critical situations and decisions.
It is naturally at urban level that our architects are called for to produce the designs for all the conventional social and economic structures and where the similarity to the problems of the societies and countries is highest.

Having established the fields and the limits of operation of our future architects and their cultural background, we should be able to derive their training system with more assurance. In Mozambique we chose an integrated course where the components of planning and building design complete each other to form a professional capable of solving most of the immediate problems he is to face. We know he will many times feel inadequate and unsure, but we think that, having been exposed to all levels of operation or, at least, of the problems in those fields, he can decide with a greater degree of conscientiousness the validity of his intervention.

Our students will follow - I am using the future tense because we just started the faculty - a balanced distribution of courses in a five-year program on urban and regional planning and on building design and construction.

The methodology adopted is to integrate, as much as possible, theory and practice in the studio work which, besides design exercises will require thematic research.

We are now finishing the first year of teaching and feel already some problems and have some doubts. Some of our difficulties are of a material order and could be resolved with more support and with a higher level of organization; others, however, are of theorical nature and we feel that a greater proportion of our time and capacity should be directed to research.

The need for research is felt because of

- the inadequacies of the architect—planner trained within the disciplines and methods evolved to answer the needs of industrialized countries, to resolve the problems of developing countries particularly in the sub-saharan region, and - the necessity to elaborate a truly “universal theory of architecture which can embrace the whole of man-built environment” (Labelle Prussin) in order to avoid the blind and ineffective transposition of forms and cultural patterns corresponding to different contexts and circumstances, which has characterized the impact of western architecture and planning in Africa and most parts of the third world.

We feel that to answer to those issues our research should be directed to the following broad objectives:

- the analysis of the current production and trends of development of the urban habitat in sub-saharan Africa to establish the levels and forms by which the architect and planner have participated and should participate in the process, in order to discuss the validity of their professional profiles and to prognosticate the demands for their services in the future

- the analysis of the training of architects and planners in the region in order to discuss the relevance of their training as intellectuals capable of contributing to the establishment of a theoretical basis for new forms of human habitat and as professionals capable of solving the new order of problems their society proposes to them.

Those research lines should form an open matrix of abstract categories and specific characteristics to serve as an instrument for continuous multidisciplinary analysis of the human habitat and to isolate systematically the differences and similarities in the forms and patterns of habitat in different cultures and degrees of development, and to allow for the elaboration of operational methods and critical analysis in the educational, professional and research fields.

 

JOSÉ FORJAZ

© JOSÉ FORJAZ ARQUITECTOS 2004