Architectural education at BUET

--Professor Meer Mobashsher Ali

4. Meer Mobashsher Ali

More than half a century ago in 1962 Department of Architecture was started. The beginning was simultaneous with the conversion of Ahsanullah Engineering College into East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology. As customarily a University consists of more than one faculty, Department of Architecture was designated to be the Department of Architecture of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning. Town Planning Department did not yet get started. The name was automatically changed to Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology or BUET in 1971.

The University started under the leadership of a great personality Dr. M. A. Rashid. His sincere efforts and generous approach helped this department to grow and flourish. An icon of technical education and legendary figure, the first vice chancellor could really understand and appreciate the uniqueness of this new discipline which many failed to do. His versatile talent was important for guiding in proper stride the growth and development of this new discipline.

Before the sixties most of development works specially building and infrastructure projects used to be financed by foreign aid through international agencies and they always insisted on the use of foreign consultants competent to design built environment. For example Steel Mills at Chittagong was designed by Foster Wheeler and Agricultural University in Mymansing by Paul Rudolf. One such foreign architect involved in an aided project was Daniel C. Dunhum. He developed a liking for this region. He tried to convince the aid agencies specially U.S. Aid that it would be better for the country to start a school for producing architects rather than employing expatriate consultants. Ford Foundation was persuaded to send an expert. James T. Landrum was given the responsibility of reviewing the situation. He was very much in favour of establishing an architectural educational institution. Dr. Rashid took interest at the initiative of U.S. AID. The process of starting the department at the Engineering University took off and consequently the new department was established.

A very modest hard working optimistic professor of Texas A & M University, Professor Richard C. Vrooman took charge of the department with lot of courage and enthusiasm. James Walden a young promising american architect was also appointed. Two U.S. architects stationed in Dhaka; Daniel C. Dunhum and R. Volmer joined in. After the beginning came the problem of input and output. By input it is meant who will be taken in and will be considered suitable for studying architecture. By output is meant that what the graduating architects will learn and master, i.e. what will be the curriculum or course content (Syllabus). It was decided that H.S.C. passed students with mathematics would be eligible. But aptitude test with viva-voci exam will decide who will be taken in. As the students did not have any familiarity with the discipline; aptitude test had to be interesting, innovative and challenging. The method went on smoothly and efficiently for a long time until it was interfered with by the dominating engineering faculty and the university administration.

The syllabus was another challenge. An all American syllabus i.e. the curriculum of the Texas A & M University was adopted without change. Though there was some criticism by some quarters for not thoroughly modifying the syllabus. But the curriculum seemed to work fine. Architecture-education is very different from other University education. Because architecture used to be learnt mostly through apprenticeship of the master builder. In fact architects were real master builders. In the university special course type of class called studio classes were introduced along with normal practical classes. In architectural education pedagogy hence examination marks always played a secondary role.

Immediately after the start of the department of architecture few scholars mainly with civil engineering degrees were sent to study architecture in the U.S.A. I happen to be one of them. They were intended to take over the department from the expatriate teachers, which they did. By 1968 all the American teachers left the country. The department was in the hands of a handful of very young fresh graduates. They were solely responsible for giving shape to the rather new discipline as well as establishing the profession of architecture in its proper perspective. Architectural education could have flopped. But it did not. This young group did an excellent job. They manuvoured both education and profession of architecture to unprecedented success.

At this point it may be mentioned that BUET is the best educational institute of the country. No part of it can fail. Architecture department is proud to be an integral part of this esteemed institution. It is probably the most prestigious part of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.  BUET was at its best when it was kept away from the influence of national party politics. Its detoriation started when the appointment of top executive i.e. Vice Chancellor was politicized and right now reputation of the university is at its lowest ebb because of politicization. It may not be out of place to mention that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself did not want this famous centre of excellence to be politicized. This is clearly evident from the fact that he excluded this organization from 1973 Public University Ordinance. While singing the ordinance he said, “Let this university be free from politics, let them be busy with technical education and their career.” We are optimistic that BUET will soon be free of the influence of party politics and follow the right track of attaining excellence in pursuit of technical education as was hoped by the father of the nation.

Architecture at BUET is a five year programme for the Bachelor of Architecture degree; where as all other undergraduate programmes are of four years’ duration. Architecture is a comprehensive education. Architects create built environment to improve quality of life. The architect utilizes the influence of time and place along with history and culture. In architecture myriad subjects like music appreciation, literature, sociology, psychology, world history, building construction, building services, structure and aesthetics etc. are taught. An architecture graduate can be called an educated person in true sense of the term. This department has always tried to make its graduate useful citizen and true professional with creative abilities.

The growth and progress of the department has not always been smooth. The teachers of the department have always fought for quality education and creativity in design. This often needs liberal attitude and interactive discourse. But that has been continuously suppressed by conservative onetrack elements. They always advocate a monolithic reactionary environment rather than a liberal diversified progressive, experimental one. In one row over the nature of admission test (weightage of aptitude test) few very significant teachers quit their job and left the department.  They are Prof. Shamsul Wares, Dr. Fuad Hasan Mollic, Dr. Jainab F. Ali, Ar. Khalid Mustafa Polash, Ar. Faizullah, Dr. Mahboob Rahman, etc. From the success of these people in their own arena, one can easily measure the damage that was done to the department because of their exit. But the university was rather oblivious of the consequences.

Influence of architecture on the society in Bangladesh is unparallel. No where architecture plays such a significant part. All the buildings in Dhaka have to be designed by an architect before it can be put up for planning permission. Dhaka with all its shortcoming is quite attractive visually. All the facades of road side structures have the impression of being carefully designed. While passing by a shabby alley one might came across a very pleasant elevation of a building. Rich growth of plants add to the beauty of the scenario. The architectural awareness has also reached the remote areas. Though not designed by architects buildings often display interesting motifs influenced by urban architecture.

Today, architectural education has spread out. More than a dozen universities, including Southeast University where I am working as chairman of the department, are offering B. Arch degree. Architects have the opportunity of being self employed. As such there is hardly any unemployed architect in Bangladesh. This is a very courageous claim. BUET have produced thousands of graduates in last fifty years. A good percentage of them work outside the country, mostly in developed countries. This has only been possible because of the quality of education and training.

The story of the Department Architecture in BUET is a success story. A shaky start of a totally new profession by a handful of newly graduate teacher has reached heights of unparallel achievements by imparting proper education and professionalism.

The past and new teachers and students of the department deserve to be acknowledged, congratulated and rewarded. We are proud to be a part of the BUET Department of Architecture, which has always been a great big family.