Expanding Horizons with Architecture, Through Thick and Thin
by Ahmad Adi Zharif • University Teknologi MARA, Malaysia - BSc (Hons) Arch Alumni
Oftentimes, the topic of architecture and its students is quite an enigma in general. It is also notoriously associated with the clichés such as losing a lot of sleep, dealing with a lot of stress, becoming physically and mentally taxed and so on. While most of these can be true, fortunately, it doesn’t always have to be that frightful. As a graduate of a Bachelor’s in Architecture, I can say with confidence that my 4 years of enduring it at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Puncak Alam, Malaysia, were easily the most valuable and rewarding experience I’ve ever had so far and I definitely wouldn’t have it any other way.
To begin with, my passion for architecture started from an early age. Albeit coming from a family whom are not architects nor designers, I do have an allure for the arts and design drawing, mostly concentrated on the subject of buildings and houses, so with that, my parents had given the encouragement and liberty for me to explore my interests further in architecture. With progression, by the time I was about 8 years old, I decided that I wanted to become an Architect. Fast forward to a decade later, after graduating high school, I had enrolled myself into the 4-year BSc. Architecture degree program in UiTM, Puncak Alam. Although it meant that I will skip any diploma programs, I’ve had enough support from friends and family for me to motivate myself to take the leap and not waste this opportunity to strive for excellence. Thus, marks the beginning of my journey in Architecture on September of 2016.
I had enrolled into the BSc. (Honours) Architecture degree program in UiTM that is given exemption from the RIBA part 1 by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), UK and is also accredited LAM part 1 by Lembaga Arkitek Malaysia (LAM). It comprises of 8 semesters in the span of 4 years. Therefore, it was 2 semesters per year for us.
In as much as my own experience, architecture teaches you so much more than just how to build picturesque buildings. The experience you get in the learning process really stimulates all your five senses. You learn about arts and the act of appreciating art. A little bit of history lessons here and there. And sometimes you need to delve into the psychology of human behaviour and how it influences the built environment while simultaneously work out the logic of your design with mathematical and scientific reasoning. The first year of architecture school had already changed my perception and how I think about my surroundings. I began focusing on details that most people brush over and spend a lot of time reflecting on the built tectonics of the objects around me. In doing so, I find that architecture had improved my judgement on the finer things in art and design.
Normally in our school, each semester you’ll be given a design brief that concentrates on an issue or a subject along with the assigned tasks. For the core subject which is Design, students will be allocated into smaller groups with their respective tutors for tutorial sessions that will guide them throughout the semester. Adding on to that, critique sessions and presentations are also part of the program to train the students to visually and verbally communicate their creative ideas professionally. The result is unique every semester. Some semesters you’ll be cracking your head to figure out how to make a 1:1 scale food stall out of recycled materials and making sure they are structurally sound. Some will require you to create model replicas of roman columns all the way from Doric to the Composite columns. And sometimes you may even need to create toys for children in the paediatric ward of a local hospital to comfort them in certain medical procedures. In essence, these activities drive you to become more creative to find your own solutions to everyday problems. It instigates you to escape the security of your own comfort zone which builds character and stature. It is especially most exciting to witness this growth and development during the Design Review that is held at the end of each semester. Not only will you appreciate the physical outcome of your own hard graft, but at the same time, you get inspired looking at what your peers have produced as well.
Nevertheless, we also need to agree on a reality check - being a student in an architecture school is definitely not cheap. From start to finish, you invest in a lot of the equipment from drawing tools to reference books, and then as you go into the upper semesters, you’ll need an adequate working laptop or PC that will support high performance applications you’ll need to develop your work. Besides that, it’s the same situation with printing too. Especially when there is this mind-set in the studio that goes - the more you print out, the more impressive your work will appear to be. Thus, making architecture to be one of the most paper hungry practices to exist. To top it off, models and form-making will be needed to guide you throughout the semester as well. Although it has cheaper alternatives, models mean they cost money too. Though having said that, it only means you can only get better at managing your expenses after a few trips to the hardware store.
Apart from the wholesome process of peer learning and creative exchanges, there’s something about going through the tough obstacles together as a studio, that really keeps us doing what we’re doing. Essentially, this competitive environment can alleviate your struggles whenever you feel like your mind or your heart is not a 100 percent invested into a certain project, you can just glance at the person on the other side of the room and immediately kick in some enthusiasm to keep hustling.
Besides our typical classroom activities, travelling is also a common leisure pursuit amongst the people in Architecture. We constantly look for new experiences in different places to really widen our prospect in knowledge. Therefore, as a consequence, I began developing new interests with travelling. In February of 2018, I was given the opportunity to visit Iran during a semester break with a former studio mate and a lecturer from my school whom does globe-trotting as a hobby. My 13 days spent across 5 cities in Iran was really exceptional to me because, I was only in my 2nd year in architecture school, but with the little knowledge I’ve had with me then, I was able to accept the foreign environment with an open mind and assimilate the new cultures and surroundings as much as possible. In the midst of the winter breeze in the desert land, I was able to appreciate the warmth and hospitality of the locals while indulging in the exquisite historical marvels all the way from the Caravanserais by the highways, to the Iconic Shah Mosque of the Imam Khomeini square in Esfahan that had me reconnect myself with my surroundings on a spiritual level.
Appropriately, the studio activities can also take you to places outside your country. For instance, in our 7th semester, we were given the latitude to visit Indonesia and Singapore as an academic trip that is supplemental to the syllabus. I was in the Indonesia group for the studio trip. We went on a 4D3N trip in Jakarta while the other group spent the same amount of time in Singapore. Although it was a short period of time, we managed to grasp a lot of input and become more exposed to the milieu that is beyond our own usual bubble. Similar to my previous experience in a foreign land, your engagement with the locals and the surroundings is heightened, thus it really opens your eyes and mind to new cultures, backgrounds and even social issues that are apparent in the society. For instance, housing solutions for the public and how their architecture responds to the geographical conditions, and many more. Besides that, travelling to Jakarta also gave us an opportunity to make international connections when we visited their local university, Universitas Indonesia, (UI). Our visit to Fakultas Teknik UI, was considered to be one of the highlights of our trip as we get to experience students’ lifestyle and work ethics in an extrinsic setting. Apart from that, we managed to exchange our architectural views and design projects with their community and made new friends along the way. To boot, we were also lucky to be able to experience their modern art museum, Museum MACAN in West Jakarta that just further enriches our knowledge in arts and could soon be applied in architecture.
Be that as it may, while the rush of the studio life and the endless site visits resonates throughout most of the 8 semesters, most of these had to be compromised during my final semester in architecture. On the spur of the moment, a pandemic had struck just as we were wrapping up our first critique session of the final semester. And so, we were compelled to continue the rest of our semester virtually, online – for most cases, as long as you’ve got your devices and a stable internet connection, you’re good to go, but for a course that involves a lot of face to face intervention, a lot of processes are overwhelmed by this unprecedented occurrence. – in a familiar setting, the scene is sitting down in the studio with your tutor with your ‘maquette’ design as they evaluate by readjusting your sketches or models first hand for you to progress. Instead, this time around, all of that was done virtually behind computer screens – in which the method required some readapting.
Aside from that, personally from what I’ve endured, doing your design alone without the usual element of a studio or the accompaniment of your peers can be quite daunting. You tend to lose focus easily and be stuck on problems more often than you usually do. Initially, when we were transitioning into open distance learning a.k.a. ODL, I faced the problem of not having my mind and heart fully invested into my project – The final year project which basically was my do-or-die. I became concerned that I was going to slack off and not do well at all and have my 4 years tainted by this snag. For that reason, with some conscience left in me, I decided to reach out to one of my studio mates to discuss my project with, which fortunately he did by the same token.
In essence, a little does go a long way. I gained my confidence back to bring myself up again and I was ready to take on my final year project with full determination. I began developing my designs that were out of my comfort zone as I was using organic forms – something that was beyond my expertise, but I managed to catch up with the studio schedule like submitting for the online moderations as instructed by our Studio Leader, attended tutorials and getting feedback from my tutors and fellow friends all while juggling 3 other subjects that became fully assignment based since all examinations were cancelled. I am also grateful to have had a SL that made sure our studio experience was optimized albeit in a virtual circumstance. Our once-in-a-fortnight, online moderations or we refer to as ‘OMods’ were proven helpful to keep us busy and maintain consistency with production – Especially when you are alone at home, you tend to get stalled in your task and have none of your friends to turn to. I’m also blessed to have a group of friends that I can have video calls with where we would share our projects and progresses that we’ve made while also discussing the outcomes we’ve gathered from our respective tutors. In a way, it compensates the lack of creative exchange we used to enjoy in the studio.
Ultimately, after 7 semesters and 1 somewhat perplexing experience of a semester, I was able to heave a sigh of relief for being able to complete my BSc. Architecture with first class honours! In retrospect, I share the same sentiment as some of my close friends in the studio which is having experienced all the highs and lows of our time here in university, but it all comes down to eventually something very meaningful and unique to each and every one of us as memories were made and history is written. The saying goes, it’s always darkest before dawn. As I am writing this, I’m putting my knowledge to good use in this pandemic by running my own business in design and build while being on full alert for my job applications to come through. Looking forward to explore more on what Architecture has to offer and pursuing my Masters soon. Fingers crossed!
With that aside, the architectural community is also a place where you’ll meet all kinds of people from all walks of life, be it students or lecturers, it is a great pleasure learning from the talents and capabilities that are present in the community. In this particular community, studio culture is assuredly a norm for architecture students. It is our bread and butter and a place that you can potentially call your second home.
Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan, Iran
Saraye Ameriha, Kashan, Iran
Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran
Yayoi Kusama Installation, Museum MACAN, Jakarta
Omar Khayyam Square, Neyshabur, Iran
Kota Tua, Jakarta
Wedding Ceremony at Gereja Katedral, Jakarta
Final Year Project Submission on campus, August 2020, Malaysia
TLDR: Like many other practices, architecture has its own hurdles and drawbacks, but it also opens up a plethora possibilities and enlightenment that are very rewarding. It’s definitely not the primrose path, but that is simply the nature of the beast, and if you’re able to stomach it, the victory is sweet.
Meeting Architecture Students of Universitas Indonesia, Depok, Jakarta
Taman Mini, Jakarta
Gereja Katedral, Jakarta
Shah Mosque Entrance Courtyard, Isfahan, Iran