Interview By Suneela Ahmed | Photo Courtesy: Architect
Carlos Marquez, a senior lecturer at the College of art, University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, conducted a workshop at the Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University of Engineering and Technology, and gave public lectures. The objective of the workshop entitled ‘Design as Learning’ was to share a learning journey for individual proposal of the thesis students, set within the tradition of the studio curriculum outlined in ‘The reflective practitioner’ by Schon, 1985. Carlos has a Masters of Research from the University of Lincoln, a MA in Architecture Management and over thirty years’ of experience of working as a professional architect and teaching studio design at various universities around the world. Having vast professional and academic experiences, he talks to Archi Times about his personal professional journey and the pedagogy of architecture.
Archi Times: Tell us about your education and why did you choose the vocation of architecture?
Carlos Marquez (CM): Initially Iwas doubting between going to psychology and engineering. I come from Chile and had my higher education there. My courses had been very scientific, so my mathematics was very strong but I didn’t know much about architecture. I chose architecture because of the city; I very much liked the city where I went to college. This is the city of Concepcion.
When I was at high school I also studied music. There is a program at high school and I did music for five years. But then because of the political situation and coup I couldn’t carry on with that. So I did architecture and I married a year before graduation. After graduation I started my own office and found a small flat for my wife and myself.
AT: Was your school of architecture design or engineering oriented?
CM: My school was very art oriented. It was influenced by the modern movement. It was a very interesting school because looking back now I can understand the importance of doing subjects like Latin American literature, painting and Jazz music which were part of the curriculum. Other subjects were also part of the architecture training. Mathematics was also a part of the curriculum in the form of structures. The causalities were very high, as it was a tough school, and although it was very art oriented one had to do core subjects like physics and mathematics. And only 50% of the students who initially enrolled eventually graduated.
AT: So after you graduated you started your own practice?
CM: Well in Chile you have to work for somebody first to get your license. I worked at the University’s State Manager and Planning Office as a practitioner and designed the medicine building, which is still there. Then I started my own office and it started to grow. Eight years after initiating my practice I moved it from the house into a rented office space. I hired a couple of people and another architect to help. And then I got an invitation from the UK through the British council to come for teaching a course. It was through a link between the University I graduated from,where I continued teaching part timeafter graduation, and the Nottingham University. They needed someone who could speak English, and as the teaching in my university was English based, thus the British Council approached the university.
AT: So you continued teaching even after graduation?
CM: Yes, I forgot to tell you, but right after graduation my Head of the Department asked me to teach drawing to first year students as my sketching was very good. Initially I was not interested, but when they offered me money, which was quite handsome for a fresh graduate who was newly married and had to pay bills, so I accepted the offer and continued teaching. Although I moved from teaching drawing to undertaking studio in the later years. I have been teaching for 35 years now.
AT: As a practicing architect what did you specialize in?
CM: I had a portfolio for design of timber houses. I was working for a big firm that made us a consultant for their timber products. We designed housing for the secretariat, for the workers etc. Timber had been the main construction material previously in Chile.
There is a big forest industry related to Radiata Pine and by default a lot construction started happening in Timber. It is light wood that is damaged easily. It has very specialized carpentry. But when concrete arrived rich people started using it as their preferred material and abandoned timber. But ours was an attempt to revive the use of timber, although the aesthetic language and the details were revised from being traditional to modern. My houses always had foundations of stone and rest of the construction was done in timber.
We did not intend to re-invent the wheel, and learnt from what the craftsmen were already doing. Many of the old craftsmen had already retired and there was a new wave of carpenters who were able to produce different details. The timber technology experienced years and years of improvement and perfection. The university I studied from did a lot of research on the Radiata pine, and they were the pioneers on highlighting what one can and cannot do with this material, in terms of structures and large spaces.
AT: So what did you teach at University of Nottingham?
CM: Initially I had planned to go for four months on an exchange program. The program revolved between different universities but the University of Nottingham was my base. They organized a group of 20 students of architecture and we did a very intensive training program in computers.
At the end of the four months I was offered to stay longer. They offered me a temporary job. So the four months turned into 2.5 years. I leant that one can study for free if he/ she is teaching at the university, so I enrolled myself in a Masters program. This first Masters was a management degree. I discovered a new world. The terms used were very new and it took a while for me to get a grasp of it. There were things to understand like production management, accounts, finance, marketing, team work, self management. I had been running an office for 7-8 years like every architect in the world, like a poor circus, where you are the guy who sells the ticket, you are the lion, you are the clown, you do everything. Through this degree I learnt that that is not the way to run an office.
They were running the course on simulation and case management. So if you study management theory, you have to read it because there was an exercise, and not because there was a lecture on that. Or production management, exploring the design from the point of view of product value, team work, production value management. These terms I had never known before. This completely switched my brain. I started to learn computers for production management, and I started to question the way we teach architecture.
We were meaning to stay in England but the weather kills my spirit. So at the end of 2.5 years we went back to Chile.
AT: So how does the story continue in Chile?
CM: After completing this degree I went back to Chile and started my office again. This time round I was more experienced and knew more about managing the business. I ran the office from 1982 to 1998 and we got many large scale projects like court houses, private houses, some social housing, condos, factories and many projects of the fishing industry. Private housing commission was the main interest. Factories pay well and there is not much hassle.
Eventually the office became very large and complicated. During this practice I was also teaching at the school of architecture. I was actually teaching at two universities now. Chile’s economy was growing very fast. There were many private universities opening up and one such private university hired me on a contract. I had to fly to this university every week as it was in another city. Two days of the week I was teaching and the rest of the week I was at office. I continued with this for five years. From 1987 to 1998 I was running all over the place, teaching and practicing at the same time, handling 20 projects at a time and managing 5 people at office. The office grew many folds to my own amazement. I had never expected it to grow so much, but because of the thriving economy we had many projects coming in. I tried a partnership with a friend which did not work. Later I entered into another partnership and eventually I passed on the office to my partner and left to give myself to teaching full time, in the middle of 1998.
AT: So what made you decide to take up full time teaching?
CM: I discovered that education was something close to my heart. But also I began to see the flaws in the system of education of architecture. Because by then I was educating in different with different cultures. I could see the difference. I could see the good and bad aspects of both the types of universities. But the problem was in the common aspects. It was about how education in architecture gravitates around tradition and myths. This was supposed to be the new pedagogy. But in reality it needed major changes. In particular the studio culture.
AT: Can you explain this further, what do you mean by the studio culture being designed around tradition and myths?
CM: Firstly, what is outlined in the curriculum is never really followed up in the studio practice. Secondly there is confusion between the notion of talented students. How does one really define ‘talented’ students? Thirdly, the learnings are generally superficial. The expectations don’t match the outcomes.
Currently the education of architecture is structured around myths and traditions. Myth of integration, when you say that in studio you integrate all types of theories taught elsewhere. That is rubbish. The different disciplines have become more complex. Architects perform in different kinds of jobs, they specialize in different things. You have got one architect who is doing a lot of construction; another one is doing a lot of artistic work. The student will have their own set of agendas, within the objective of whatever year they are in.
The notion of talented students is also dubious. Good craftsmanship is somehow associated with good architects. I have learnt that some of the best architects in the world never draw anyway, or never do any models anyway. So the confusion between what is now called awareness, ability and skills has always been between students and tutors of architecture. The tutors never really know when the student has leant and when he hasn’t. In fact if you were to go around in the studio and ask the students what the main learning objective of the design studio exercise is, you will find that no one would have read it. But the news is, even the teachers wouldn’t have read it. So you have got two people linked by a contract that they have never read. So the expectations don’t match. The learning becomes shallow and doesn’t go deep enough. The learning only allows the student to save their skin and is very superficial. The tutor only manages to save the reputation of the university.
The system of ranking universities and the method of judging them on the basis of performance are even more damaging. Tutors who are able to produce fancy things for their students are hired, irrespective of their understanding of the context they are working in.
AT: What was the last straw that made you decide to give up the practice of architecture completely?
CM: In 2000-2001 I did my last project. I participated in a competition for penal court of justice. I won two buildings. It was a five years project. The overall system of Chile is corrupt and the government said that all the competitions are nullified and I lost about two years of work. That was the last straw for me in the profession. By that time I was a well paid teacher because I knew my job. In the private sector if you are efficient the system rewards you, unlike the case in the public sector. So I decided to quit the profession of architecture and take up teaching fulltime.
AT: How was your experience of quitting the practice of architecture and taking up teaching full time?
CM: I went to work in a private university full time. Later on when I discovered that the University of Lincoln in UK was looking for people on a full time basis I decided to take up the opportunity. The aim was to study more as a number of things were puzzling me.
On one hand there is the pedagogy and development of curriculum discourse, which is on its own stride, far ahead from other disciplines like sociology, psychology, not to mention art and architecture. Policy is another game altogether. Policy makers are in a different world altogether. So when I started to study who teaches what and why they teach in a certain way I discovered that the problem was much deeper. There were layers and layers of aspects that needed to be unfolded. So I decided that I need to learn to study.
I took the job at Lincoln and enrolled myself in the Masters of Research program.In this course I initially studied theories. I studied courses like Discourse analysis and advanced survey techniques. I studied questions of subjectivity and objectivism. I started challenging the perception of truth, objectivism and problem identification.
Post structuralism brings new tools of analysis for subjectivism, first about meaning and semantics and secondly through discourse theory. My final thesis was flaw and myth in studio teaching. This was a recollection of a piece of work that was by then discovered. This piece of work had been there since 1975 but had never been published. As the dominant discourse in architecture is about the flashy competition and designer projects thus the theoretical discussion takes a back seat. I discovered a lot of theoretical work around the pedagogy of architecture and works of scholars like Bourdieu, psychological analysis by James steel or the Favored Circle written by Garry Stevens.
Favored Circle written by Garry Stevens argue that an architect is successful because he or she has a good social connection. So you need to invest in cultural capital and have good connections to be a good architect. This book examines, I think about five countries, using the cultural capital and sociological tools of analysis of Bourdieu.
Another good book, written by an American named Thomas Duton, is The Hidden curriculum in Architecture. This comes in more from the side of urban design where urban designers are fed up with the work the architects and they start to look at the quality of spaces and people using them. So they begin to argue about what to teach to the students of architecture, composition of space or quality of place or the sustainability of the social trends. There are many other good authors, like, Helena Webster, Donald Schon, Anthony Vidler. Anthony Vidler has written clearly about this area and makes much sense.
Donald Schon states very clearly in Chapter eight of his book why the architecture education fails, one is the attitude in communication; secondly is the studio environment and thirdly is the lack of clarity of theory. When I came across this text by Donald Schon it was a revealing moment. I was by now teaching, researching and writing. I had started studying in my own practice and started to write about what I felt about studio teaching.
AT: So what are your thoughts about studio teaching?
CM: For one I think it is a non democratic process. A lot of people say you have to be free to be creative but I think the relation between the tutor and students is more like father-son relationship where the students are not in the position to argue. Jeremy Till wrote a book saying that the studio is like a prison yard. The students can do their little things in the confine of the studio space defined by the tutors.
I discovered that there were papers dating back to 1975, published in United States, which were dealing with problems of studio teaching. They were using at that times psychological tools of analysis but by 2003 the theory induced emerged. There were many discourses that surfaced in the post modern tradition. It was like a pressure cooker after modernism, theories like rationalism, empiricism blah blah blah and all of it just busted. Post modernism has some good examples and there is a lot of crap work. Europeans took on from here and followed a branding led direction, where works of certain architects were supposed to set a certain direction and everyone followed. There was a lot of building discourse in events, attitude and text. But were they useful? Dominant discourses kept changes. There were environmental led discourses, computer applications led discourses, social impacts led discourses, making of architecture discourses. The list is endless.
Back to the point where I started. Communication is a complex thing. It is not just about text. It is about discourses. A tutor is telling you what he wants you to do. But he has a hidden agenda about what he actually wants. And don’t forget, no body read the studio objectives.
Secondly, the environment. Most studio teachers are pressured by performance indicators. So I am under pressure as a tutor to make the students get there. The message is complex- a studio is about communication, which is being conducted in a stressed environment, which is performance based, and everything is under pressure and then the theory is unclear. And at the end of the day you question if it is an exercise in drawing or educational experience?
From there on I moved into the study of curriculum. Last few studies have been on Deluse, Vatari and the new modern curriculum about learning, environment, diversity and inclusion. My pursue is changing environment, making the agenda transparent, and to create a platform for students to project what they want and not what I suppose architecture should be. So you don’t run curriculum as a track, but rather the flexibility, where the student chooses the track, is provided. And the freedom for unexpected outcomes is created. And if you think about it many architects end up doing completely different things. And for some reason we teach, preach and emphasize on architects as being good designers. If you are an intelligent human being who understands space, place, history and identity and you want to work in urban places you may not do even one design. This is the construction I am fighting. We are hurting generation after generation of future architects condemned to become somebody look alike and we are not taking advantage of the uniqueness of the individuals, in terms of history, socio political and religion. It is important to give respect and empower students.
Secondly, we don’t understand the future of the students either, yet we go on to predict it. It just doesn’t make sense. My battle since the beginning has been to tell the students that this is not true, it is an idiotic thing, it is a myth. I have had workshops with students in India, Chile, Egypt, Central America and now here in Karachi.
What I say is a myth is the fact that you are doing an objective exercise for learning a specific thing that has nothing to do with the way you are being marked in the project. For example a student working on a small school for autistic children needs to show an understanding for autism, necessary skills, phenomenological experience and something about structure. So if you show an understanding and learning for these aspects and your main concerns address these issues and have a creative response, it is half learnt. But the teacher forces the student to do a bubble diagram and if he/she cannot make one then they fail the project. But what about the greater understanding that the student has developed? So in the language there are many myths. Functional architecture was interesting because it addressed the need of the user, but what is a myth is when the need is confused with the most relevant character of it.
I asked my students, what is the main function of a kitchen? And they all replied it was cooking. It is not. The kitchen is a ritual for sharing food, preparing food, storing food, cleaning, Full of life. But because we think it is cooking, it is more important to understand it in terms of ergonometric and anthropomorphically.
It is designed as a small fashion capsule. And you now cook in a kitchen where you hardly have space. Where did that come from? If you go into the rural areas of Pakistan, the kitchen is the space for social gathering, where people spend time with children and families socialize. This space is being destroyed in pursuit of the function. Some people would sell it by saying it’s about the spatial quality and the experience. I would ask, ok so what is the experience then? Do we all experience the same thing about color, space etc. in the world, or do these experiences vary with nations. Why create spaces which look the same every where? So we need to teach the students to think, prioritize, learn to communicate to oneself and then to communicate to others. For instance, when students do site analysis, they tell the tutor about the sun, the wind etc. But we all know that. We need to teach the students to communicate their views about the site. What do they think about the site, how do they feel about it? What have they learnt about the site and what do they make of it?
The hidden tragedy is that the universities are not looking after the tutors either. They are not training them, not protecting them. We ask for results. Normally the teacher has a practice to run, teach and a house to look after. That is too much to manage. It is not human. It is a lie, it is a myth and impossible to do justice to either of the tasks.
It is important to enforce educational aspect, not training aspect. The training aspect cannot be neglected. A student needs to know about material and structures, but that doesn’t make you an architect.
AT: So what are your thoughts about this Department of Architecture and Planning?
CM: I am impressed by this school and I am not saying it because I have been invited to this school but because of a number of reasons. First, it is not a rich school. It is a public sector university and is performing within limited resources. Dr. Noman Ahmed is doing a fantastic job. I have spoken to many students and teachers here about what they think and feel, and they are generally happy, and I am really impressed.
Secondly, it is a rundown neighborhood, full of life and beautiful Colonial buildings and some vernacular. Even someone living in Clifton needs to come down to this neighborhood to be part of the Department. To me this is the paramount school. The need for reform in Pakistan is urgent. This is what it is all about. You need to prepare students for Pakistan. The research of the thesis students impressed me. There were discussions of cross gender, minority, abandoned women. The kids are fun to teach; they come from nice families and are really aware of the context. This is the true learning experience. This is what I reinforce, which is a combination between awareness and consciousness. Good architects should have the training of knowing what they are doing and have the skills to manipulate it. Good architects consolidate after 15 years in practice. We can’t expect students to do it in 5 years of college.
Designer is a term that covers professionals from engineering to architecture. Architects are supposed to do architecture. We must understand that. Architecture is many disciplines put together, and that is the beauty of it and we must allow the students to choose the discipline they want to take up within the larger pictures.