arch-peace editorials

22 June 2009

Learning from Ulaanbaatar

In May in Vienna, I presented at a symposium on architecture studies in China and Mongolia. Adelaide University’s Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern architecture held such a cross cultural symposium when I was an architecture research masters degree student there, but with my recent year of Mongolian architectural teaching development experience (see arch-peace previously), this year’s Vienna symposium provided an exciting opportunity to meet with central European, Mongolian and Chinese researchers, scholars and architects, in a truly cross cultural and cross-disciplinary meeting with anthropologists, ethnographers, conservationists and architectural historians. The conference was hosted by Vienna University of Technology’s ‘Comparative Architectural Research’ unit, together with Vienna University’s Confucius Institute, and with UNESCO backing. I have previously lived worked and taught in Vienna, and I thought that contributing a story about this conference presentation would make an interesting editorial on cross cultural architectural education for Architects for Peace.

I prepared a report on the architecture teacher training project I had pursued in the peri-urban fringe of Ulaanbaatar in 2007-8, and extended this by reflecting on the work with architecture students at Sheffield University and London Metropolitan University. Sheffield architecture school’s doctoral research group, Lines of Flight,had invited me previously, and I worked with a doctoral planning researcher there to develop the second part of the paper. Supreeya Wungpatcharapon, who is researching participatory processes in urban planning, provided another perspective on the processes developed with Mongolian students, and the resulting conference paper was one which seemed to effectively address the frontier of architectural education in central Asia.

Delegates had come from China, Germany and Austria, and there was a small group from Mongolia. The papers ranged from ethnographical studies of vernacular agricultural building types to analyses of conservation of ancient cities. There was also a very wide range of presenters, from postgraduate students and young professors from Tsinghua University in Beijing to experienced Orient specialists from Pennsylvania, Munich, Würzburg and Hannover.

The session to which I was allocated, ‘Settlement Policy and Cultural Identity in Modern Mongolia’ comprised a paper on the Ethnic Identity of a Mongolian minority group by a Mongolian scholar in Austria, an exhibition of excursion work carried out in Ulaanbaatar tent districts by Austrian students, and my reflections on working with Mongolian architecture students, developing site analysis and brief writing methods.

I briefly presented two live projects – ‘Sanzai Eco-houses’ and ‘Yarmag Children’s Camp’- through which newly trained architects and architecture students aimed to incorporate participatory processes in their design projects, consulting with clients, and exploring options for site analysis.

The first live project, in Sanzai, on the northern periphery of the capital, is a private developer’s proposal to build four houses in an outer suburb, and to market these using an (otherwise dubious and unusual) ecological standard of accommodation, which would be habitable and energy efficient year round, from –30C in winter to 30C in summer. The second live project - another local Mongolian entrepreneur’s proposal - is to develop a nature reserve by introducing a children’s park, hotel and conference centre, in the foothills at the city’s southern edge.

The presentation and the conference session explored possible lessons to be learned from the issues of peri-urban settlement in Mongolia and future work on architecture in development being undertaken in Mongolia and other parts of Asia. A forthcoming research project by Sarah M Bassett on the Ger (the tent Russians called ‘Yurt’) Districts, planned for 2009-10, was also introduced to the conference in the context of sustainability and continuity.

Figure 1 Staff Participation levels in 6 development projects in 2008 – (white = none, grey = moderate, black = full)

First meeting

Figure 2 Staff meeting by G. Cowan

Figure 3 Graduates by G. Cowan. Sanzai - Site Analysis

Figure 4 Sanzai Site Analysis by students photo G Cowan. Learning from Las Vegas

Figure 5 Learning from Las Vegas (Venturi et al 1969).

Combining the Mongolia project review with recent work undertaken with students at London Metropolitan University in the area of participatory design and research, Wungpatcharapon and I discussed some lessons we considered might be learned from Ulaanbaatar. Despite the very different environments and resources, the processes of understanding sites and developing design briefs are not altogether different to those in other places.

Formal study of vernacular architecture in the Mongolian college is minimal. ‘Ger’ and ‘Khiid’ (home and monastery) seem to be regarded as cultural artefacts - rather than science or business which would associate them with ‘architecture’. Most students and teachers at the Mongolian college themselves live in peri-urban informal settlements of Ulaanbaatar, and are intimately familiar with the vernacular architecture of the Ger (Tent) and the self-build cottage tradition. These traditions are not formally taught at the college and they are not used as models for teaching, apparently because they are not aspirational to architecture as a modern and international form of building. The modern rituals of going to the ‘Delguur’ and ‘Tsakh’ (Shop and Market) are not studied as architecture subjects. International cultures of architecture (and to a degree Russian songs, Latin dancing etc) are regarded as ‘models’ but the mode of teaching these is didactic rather than exploratory or discursive.

The style of teaching architecture, particularly in vocational training institutions, and from my experience of tertiary colleges and universities in Mongolia, has traditionally been very didactic, rather than discursive or participatory. Therefore, the idea of collaboration in design studio, of participative site analysis and brainstorming design ideas are all unfamiliar to the Mongolian students I worked with. The experiments – with what in other settings might be fairly conventional participatory architectural studio methods - remind us that these are a developmental aspect of architectural practice which help to overcome cultural and language barriers and enable a more rigorous needs assessment for the development of an architectural design brief.

In peri-urban Ulaanbaatar, the notion of rapid deployment does not seem to be raised in architecture, despite the available model presented by the Ger (tent), which is commonplace, and apparently of little interest to Mongolian architecture students. Permanent buildings seemed to be the aspiration of architectural development, and these often take a long time in construction, spanning the seasons, and necessitating suspension of the building site during the bitterly cold winter.
In reference to the childrens’ camp scheme for Yarmag, and also for the live project for Eco-Houses in Sanzai, the notion of sustainability was used as a mere buzz-word. The need for energy efficient construction was recognised, although the amortisation cost of investing in more expensive design and materials worked against it in the view of students who did not have an understanding of life-cycle costing of buildings.

Participatory practice in architecture is a well-established concept in western, late capitalist architecture, and essential to traditional Mongolian Ger (Tent) building and possibly in monasteries. However, it was not an idea familiar to contemporary Mongolian architecture students I met, who are accustomed to more didactic and expert-led models of creating architecture – effectively, as a foreign European practice. Professors with whom I worked, and who had themselves been schooled in the west, in the European soviet capital Moscow or East Germany for example – tended towards didactic teaching styles and modes of design generation – and instructed students to copy patterns provided by them or from textbooks such as the 1965 Russian edition of Neufert’s Bauentwurfslehre. There was no sense of engagement in the translation and adaptation of foreign architectural ideas in the MCTC college, although Bat-Od’s locally written and produced architecture text book (Arkhitektur, Ulaanbaatar, 2005, 2007) suggests some ways to do this.

In the two live projects in Sanzai and Yarmag, the Mongolian students took similar approaches to developing analyses and briefs, with the advantage of real clients, real budgets and real potential outcomes. What may have been lacking in ‘academic discourse’ was replaced with actual live project experience; visiting the project sites in the north and south peripheries of the city respectively, and undertaking (apparently for the first time) site analysis, compiling design briefs and generating multiple-option original schematics.

The participatory processes employed in the live design projects here cannot be considered as an advanced level of participative practice that allows the end-users of the projects to make decision towards final design proposals. These live projects, however, allowed the Mongolian architecture students to explore alternative ways of developing architectural schemes as well as creating an open learning system in the academic environment. By opening a more dialogical space of learning together amongst teachers, students and clients (the users), the experience may encourage the students to develop alternative architecture processes and schemes that are appropriate to the Mongolian context, rather than those inspired by foreign or western styles of architectural design.

During the development of the Mongolia teaching work since 2007, there have been many supporters and correspondents who have taken part in critique and encouragement of the work. Colleagues undertook work in many diverse disciplines. For example, my partner Clare Hill undertook work in the textile development sector in Ulaanbaatar and Erdenet, and many other VSO colleagues and local non-government organisations collaborated on various development initiatives. Of many local and international scholars and development workers with whom I discussed developing various initiatives, an art curator and an anthropologist I met in Ulaanbaatar are keen to collaborate on a book, and the previously mentioned Chicago architect-researcher Sarah M Bassett will conduct a project on ‘Transitional Architecture’ in 2009-2010, and invites contact, at, in regard to ongoing architecture development work in peri-urban Ulaanbaatar.

The work ‘Nomadologist in Ulaanbaatar’ 2007-2008, of an ‘architect teacher trainer’ at a Construction College, was reported in a previous article for Architects for Peace. The conference paper showed what Supreeya Wungpatcharapon and I and students reflected upon as ways of ‘Learning from Ulaanbaatar’, not only in terms of observing the resource limitations and shortcomings relative to our preconceptions, but also the potential of using the studio to develop constructive and open design processes. By reflecting on the training and live projects, and subsequent discussions about the outcomes at architecture schools in the UK, some of the insights on processes and methods can be taken from working in the rapidly changing, resource-poor environment of peri-urban Ulaanbaatar.

Under Construction - New Architecture School

Figure 6 Photo G. Cowan May 2008.

Note 1
- Refer to Blog Entry - Site Analysis; initial discussion( dated Sunday, June 29, 2008) photos

Note 2 - Refer to Blog Entry - Essential Design Skills( dated Wednesday, June 25, 2008)

General Photo Pool:
- higher resolution images available on request from mailto:

- More about the symposium “Along the Great Wall”:
- Participatory Techniques:
- Nomadologist blog -
- Sheffield University - Lines of Flight - PhD researchers group
- London Met MA Architecture of Rapid Change Scarce Resources
- Nomad Research
- Sarah Bassett
- Homepage - (comments welcome)


Beatriz said...

Gregory, you have raised some very important issues about architectural education. I am perhaps dealing with the opposite end of what you have described, common only by the lack of a participatory approach. Most projects I see here in the studios are detached from any materiality--from an actual site, a budget, a client and more importantly a "real" need. By real need I mean a need of relevance to society. There must be a balance somewhere I hope. In this regard I found that Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman, suggest some alternative ways to understand education, I was particularly interested in his notion of “operational intelligence”. By the way, our colleague Dr Ashraf Salama is doing some very important work on architectural education and has published widely, you can find more at: We should have a forum on this topic one of these days, what do you think?
All the best and please keep us posted.

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