This is Training of the next generation of architects in the Middle East, Part I as proposed by DesignMENA.

Talent by Design

by Nick Ames

The training of the next generation of architects and how the profession can aid their development came under the spotlight at a roundtable held in Dubai.

Participants from business and academia all agreed that greater co-operation between the design and build industry, faculty deans, professors and lecturers and the students themselves are hugely important in developing talent.

Architecture firm Lacasa was instrumental in making the event happen and the company has been at the forefront of inspiring young people and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills.

Most recently, the business launched a competition to find the best design for a school in Palestine submitted by a student architect in the UAE – with the prize of the chance to oversee the project and watch their design achieve reality.

The debate also emphasised the need for architects to continue their education throughout their careers.

Jessica Mondo of New York Institute of Technology said: “Architecture is an apprenticeship which stretches out through a lifetime. It’s a commitment – like being a monk. We have to keep learning – we are like doctors, working for the good of the public. If we cannot build right we just shouldn’t be doing it.”

The group first considered how well prepared students in the GCC are for the reality of the workplace.

Mondo said: “It depends on what school and what sort of student, but the quality can vary – sometimes there is a huge gap.”

Heriot-Watt University associate head Waella Mualla said his class was the first the faculty had put through an architecture course: “It remains to be seen if they are adequate for the market – but we have done all we can with methods such as work placement, summer training and professional workshops from companies.”

Recent graduate Imad Haddad, who is now at Lacasa, said a glaring lack in his education had been an awareness of the regulations which govern the business and that he was now having to learn them while on the job.

Marco Sosa of Zayed University was the first to state the lack of co-operation between many practices and the students they were hoping will be their designers of the future.

He said: “We haven’t had an architect company come to us – everyone says time is money and out hereLacasa has taken on architects from several universities across the region, according to the company’s managing partner, Emad Jaber.

“We want new blood, new talent and new creativity,” he said. “But we are not a small, boutique practice. We do not have the time to teach new people. We are working on real projects in a tight programme.

“A civil engineer – after three months you can depend on them. But an architect? No. They do not understand what is practical in terms of a building’s efficiency. How do columns work, how does electricity function? What is the floor-to-floor height and how will fire-fighting and draining be incorporated?

“When you give them a job they start sketching and this is not what is required.”

Mualla asked Jaber: “So what is needed is very much different from what we teach?” and he replied: “No – what you teach is what they need but they need more on the practical side.”

Continuing on his point, Jaber said if a design is not buildable, it is a waste of time for the company, architect and client.

“This is a constant conversation through education and practice,” said Mondo. “I like to teach my students more of the practical side, such as how big the stairwell should be but whether they get that….

“From an undergraduate’s point of view, it is probably the first time they have ever become aware that someone counts the toilets in a project. Maybe at the internship level, they should be given more practical knowledge. If I could, I would drag them through a codes office or something.”

Haddad said he wished the course he had been on had been “more integrated” and included all aspects of a project. Salem Abdalla, professor at Sharjah University, agreed this was important.

“We had one semester when we looked at everything conceptually, but we didn’t really research building codes,” said Haddad.

But the panel said sometimes it was up to the individual themselves to take action to redeem gaps in their knowledge.

Sosa said: “I remember my first job – I earned just 500 pounds a month and that was after five years of university. But what I learnt at that practice was worth more than 500 pounds.”

All present agreed that education was good at keeping pace with design technology such as BIM.  in the Middle East that is multiplied by five.”

Jaber said: “This is something our experienced architects get from new talent as they are up to date on technology.”

But the discussion group all agreed that the GCC was behind in establishing partnerships between industry and academia. Mualla said: “You see this at our main campus in Edinburgh, but here not so much.”

Mondo agreed: “We have grants for research from New York and they want to work with us because this is an exciting place.  But if you are going to conduct a study in, say, stress cracks in concrete, you need to be here for a while.  I mean Lacasa, for example, is established, but other firms are not so.  It’s a transient place and the economy is like this [she made a wobbling motion with her hands].”

Referring back to the Lacasa competition, Jaber said: “We are committed to the community, in architecture and design, but also in electrical and mechanical engineering.  We are proud to be a pioneer in the field of co-operation and other companies will surely follow.  Students entering our competition can have brainstorming sessions with our architects to develop ideas and we will create a time for them to work alongside universities.”

He said the company took on between 10 and 12 interns a year and most then ended up getting full time jobs.

Abdalla reinforced the need for an academia-industry partnership and Mualla and Mondo said this was always beneficial.  “The exposure of students to the professional world always generates a great deal of enthusiasm,” said Mualla.

“You are bridging the gap – but there will always be a gap, it will never be zero,” said Jaber, who added he would be glad to make himself available as a guest lecturer to the UAE’s universities.

The group agreed that the ability of young people with computers was an asset and Jaber said newcomers translate one of his senior architect’s sketches into digital images, as his computer skills are limited.

“But the sketches are important, too,” he said.  “Sometimes, clients want to see something immediately and they love the idea of a sketch.”

The panel was asked if members could ever see a time when the ability to sketch was lost among the profession – and views differed greatly.

“Yes” said Jaber, as Mondo just as quickly replied: “No – sketching is an innate part of the work of an architect.”

She said: “I’m teaching my students some of the most advanced software but I’m also making them hand-draw in the studio.”

Asked what they would like to see in the future for young architects, Mualla agreed closer collaboration with industry was vital, while Abdalla emphasised investment from companies would help to improve standards of training.

Mondo bought up the issue of providing greater opportunities.

“Some sort of scholarship could be set up to allow those who cannot afford to study or are not eligible for free schools to learn – and that could be in collaboration with industry,” she said.

“But also there are not enough events like this where issues are addressed.”