arch-peace editorials

25 May 2008

development architecture, Mongolian style

The May editorial is comprised of some of my reflections on development work which may be of interest to - and prompt discussion among - AfP readers. I am now in the ninth month of a placement in a Mongolian Construction College in a poor peri-urban area. I have extended this piece based on a response from Ceridwen Owen, below, and welcome further discussion.

My role as 'architect teacher trainer' in
Ulaanbaatar is broad; to develop the architecture staff, students, curriculum and profession. The work is part of a VSO project to develop secure livelihoods, and aims to develop construction jobs, which would help more Mongolians to live above the poverty line. (see UNESCO report). Mongolia’s economy, in transition since 1992 from socialism, has been developing, but environmental problems, unemployment, poor literacy, alcohol abuse, and often inadequate sanitation and infrastructure all remain as large problems for the construction sector. Construction professionals and teachers however, seem ill-prepared - or disinclined - to tackle these medium and long-term issues. One of the 'developmental' attractions of the project is that I am also able to work flexibly with stakeholders - without a full load of formal teaching hours, which would potentially only do a Mongolian construction teacher out of their job. Instead I try to work side-by side with teachers, despite the considerable language and resource challenges.

There are very few printed or institutional resources for architectural education available in the Mongolian language, while literacy problems and poor teaching facilities also provide barriers to teaching and learning. The Russian materials and teaching methods commonly used between 1924 and 1989 are now particularly outdated, and English and German language materials (Chinese language materials seem to be culturally taboo) are often even more inaccessible, both financially and linguistically. A quotation from 1989 I read today was a sobering reminder of the after-effects of the Soviet 20th century.

"'They told us we lived in a socialist paradise', the worker said bitterly. 'But the soviets dumped their obsolete equipment on us, and every one of them lorded it over us as experts. Even the Russian truck drivers were experts - who got paid three times more.'" ('Ulan Bator May 1989' (sic) in Jasper Becker 1992 The Lost Country; Mongolia Revealed )

Becker's report of conditions of gaols in 1989 was horrifying. But also the demotivation and aid dependency of organisation still in transition, remains worrying. As a 'foreign expert' and volunteer, I constantly feel I need to draw attention to developing the capacity of local people; teachers, architects, students. Not just "telling about my experience" but trying to develop with people in collaboration.

Yesterday, with a translator, I asked a second year group what they had learned in first year. "The column, the corinthian column." Was it relevant in Mongolia? Students need to learn about art and design, they said. Later, some students expressed concern about the calculations necessary in building technology lessons, and the lack of 'artistic freedom'. They also wanted to know about the pathways to qualification in foreign countries. I assured them that some concerns about the ability of their teachers to "deliver" were also percieved by students in other countries. We discussed some projects, drawn, surrounded by lush vegetation in empty landscapes, but actually meant to be in cities.

The architectural community of this country, which has been in transition from communism since 1992, seems somewhat disconnected from world standards and communication. The elusive Arkitektorjdiin Kholboo (Mongolian Association of Architects) seems to be “dormant”. Gradually the Mongolian Architecture page on Wikipedia is being improved. It is in English, inaccessible to those students mentioned above.

Yet I believe some of the work I have undertaken (what VSO calls skill sharing) has developed the confidence and literacy of architecture teaching staff. Since I have been training here, two teachers have moved on to better-paid jobs. The curriculum is rarely referred to consciously; although it remains on file “at the Ministry”, teachers apparently measure student progress largely by perseverance. I try to demystify the odea of curriculum development.

Soon, the first cohort of diploma students will complete their fourth year. Of these, none to whom I have spoken seems to have been remotely aware of 'the' one Mongolian architecture textbook (Bat-Od, 2005, 2007), let alone basic texts used internationally, like FDK Ching’s ‘Form, Space and Order’, the US Architectural Graphic Standards, or Neufert’s ‘Architects’ Data’ (in 18 languages). Building and planning codes may exist, but are only vaguely known, and seem to be poorly controlled. Physical accessibility to buildings and streets for people without disabilities is difficult enough, but independent living for people with disabilities is almost unheard-of. I have worked with the Mongolian Wheelchairs Citizens, but the teachers have no time or interest. Small steps.

On the other hand, potential exists for future development in the secondary and tertiary Ger districts, (informal settlements beyond those scheduled for replacement by apartments), as well as in the much anticipated new social housing, and in commercial development, so often 'outsourced' to foreign experts and cheap Chinese labour.

On the positive side, there is life in Mongolia beyond work. The apparently barren and dirty environment is not yet as badly polluted as many places, and there are some freedoms in the nomadic tradition. Many people seem to enjoy more time with their families and better access to locally grown food than in the UK. Teachers work long hours, but do not seem stressed. They are concerned about air quality - comparable with London's before the Clean Air Act of 1956 - and about transport congestion, in the oversubscribed capital. Many people I meet would like to contribute to Mongolia’s development without having to go abroad, as so many young people and absent fathers have done in order to earn more money. Mongolians love their culture and customs, and many are rediscovering indigenous music, history, arts, medicine and even calligraphy.

As I prepare for the final few months of the placement and set objectives for the remaining work, I am increasingly comparing this place with others. My young Australian niece, on seeing my photo of a Ger on a verge, asked, "What happens if you put your house on the footpath? No-one can get past.."

As I walk to work I see people collecting their water and I think of her comment upon seeing the Ger district with its urbanscape of felt rooves. "What is that, a circus or something?"

Greg Cowan
Architects for Peace, May 2008

Hi Greg,

Thanks for your editorial - what an incredible experience!

As someone also working in tertiary education in architecture it is particularly interesting for me. I'd love to know more about the architecture school - how long has it been in existence? How many students? Is the course still modeled on the Russian system? What does the curriculum consist of - any similarities to the Australian model? What are your key objectives for your last few months there and will anyone be continuing in your position after you leave? At the University of Tasmania we work on a project with fourth year students every year based in some remote and unfamiliar context to them (not necessarily a developing nation, but that is frequently the case). Might be interesting to do something as a collaborative student project in the future?!

I had a look at the Wikipedia page for Mongolian architecture and it seemed to relate primarily to the traditional yurt. Do you have any references/names for contemporary Mongolian architecture/architects? What does 'the' one Mongolian architecture textbook contain? How many of the teachers at the school are actively practicing architecture as well? It is encouraging that you say that many students are interested in continuing to work in Mongolia on graduation rather than move to more lucrative jobs overseas. Nevertheless, I can appreciate how difficult it is to develop a local architectural culture without access to good resources (both global and local) that are accessible both physically and in language. Obviously not a problem that can be 'solved' overnight, but with a long term vision towards this end it seems that at least first positive steps are being taken.

Is there much work that focusses on understanding and documenting the traditional buildings and spatial practices of the Mongolian people? As an aside, there is an excellent organisation in India called the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation built around Balkrishna Doshi's architecture practice in India. They have done an incredible amount of research into local vernacular buildings such as the pols in Ahmedebad as well as investigating in detail the use of space in urban slums through a series of beautifully illustrated books.

I hope we will be able to see more of your work over there when you return through the Words forum at Architects for Peace.

Regards, Ceridwen

Dear Ceridwen

Thanks for your response to the editorial - I will respond here briefly and update the blog. This college started operating in 2004 as a vocational college and skills training centre with help from GTZ (German Agency for Technical Cooperation) and with about six hundred students and forty staff is now working towards producing its first architecture graduates, with four year diplomas. The college is a privately funded one, established with the aim of addressing the undersupply of skilled Mongolian workers in the construction sector. In the case of this partnership, VSO is specifically addressing the vulnerable occupants of Ulaanbaatar’s peri-urban areas (informal settlements), where many people have relocated in the last few years to find urban work after the demise of their rural / herding businesses, due to climate and other factors. Although it will move to emphasise rural centres in future, the work is part the Secure Livehoods programme in Mongolia, which is training and capacity building as part of the ongoing transition from socialism to market capitalism.

There are few similarities to Australian curricula. I was familiar with the latter as a lecturer and examiner with the Architects Accreditation Council in Australia (and their National Programme of Assessment – NprA). Here at CTC, there is a ‘foundation studies area’ and theory and practice streams running through the degree; these ostensibly cover areas such as history and culture, building technology and design. As you suggested, the basis is ‘Russian’ insofar as the curriculum model has been adopted apparently unchanged based on what senior teachers studied under the Russian and state system – building engineering - and then filed away out of sight and out of mind at the Ministry of Education. My interest is to encourage ownership of the curriculum among staff in order that they may initiate ongoing processes of curriculum review.

The international links are very limited, even with Russian colleges and universities, although the University of Science and Technology architecture degree has some forms of cooperation with Japan, Korea and Austria. Vienna University of Technology’s faculty for the study of ‘Non-European architectures’ has established some basic cooperation and there have been some staff exchanges in Europe. There appears to be little encouragement from the profession however, beyond the participation of dedicated semi-volunteer architect-academics.

Wikipedia and Research
As mentioned, the English language Wikipedia page is in draft form, but focuses primarily on history and the traditional Ger (Russian – Yurt). Research such as that I saw at B V Doshi’s Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in Ahmedabad on vernacular and informal architecture forms is aspired to by someone like Purev-Erdene Ershuu. Ershuu is chair of the Centre for Architecture and Design Research at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, and sits on the Mongolian Architects Association steering committee, however despite the support of international NGOs JAICA and KOICA and Professor Erich Lehner’s above mentioned Viennese Institute, he appears to be almost alone in his work. One hopes that the resources can be developed, and that even recent local literature like A. Bat Od’s 2007 “Architecture..”
(Mongolian) will be noticed. The latter book comprises four sections – the first section, drawing, scale, measurement and technical information systems; second section, practice, sources of planning, building elements, and dimensioning standards; thirdly, classifying housing building types, analysed in detail (from Le Corbusier to SOM, Hejduk, Niemeyer, and Bart Prince); and fourthly, energy efficiency and technical details of materials.

Although it cannot be comprehensive, this book in Mongolian is more transparent to me than any of the curriculum notes or hand-written private teaching outlines I have seen here. In my remaining time at the college, it is one of my aims to pursue a process of developing teaching outlines and techniques. Importantly I will aim to inspire interest in the content and delivery of lessons, by our undervalued and underpaid teachers, who often spread their time thinly between teaching and construction.

Regards, Greg


. said...

Hi Greg! What an important "real" experience. I am very interested in the topic, in architectural education in particular as a tool to address important urban/social questions. I wonder whether you see any possibilities for exchange or support between universities--I mean genuine exchange, not tainted by commercial interests. Is there a way do you think? What form should it take?
My friend Inés Claux produced a book addressing similar issues for architectural education in Nicaragua--wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to share those resources?..
A big hug,

Vadim said...

Thank you for this post. As you said the infrastructure in Mongolia is very underdeveloped, so much so that rural villages are almost in isolation from any major cities and transport is very difficult.

I'm actually trying to promote a campaign that address this. If you or anyone reading this is interested, we're trying to raise $200 to get a GPS system in rural Mongolia in order to make transportation easier for teachers and school supplies.

The campaign is here:

We only need $180 to make this happen. Please pledge a few dollars if you have it and help spread the word!

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